AT EVERY POINT OF THE COMPASS, NORWAY’S LANDSCAPE IS ARRESTING; A LUSH, UNDULATING CONDUIT FOR FRILUFTSLIV THAT CRAVES NO LESS THAN PURE ABANDONMENT TO ITS MYSTERIES.
When Scottish-American naturalist, John Muir wrote: "Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, nature's peace will flow into you as the sunshine into the trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves", he tendered an idyll of escapism that only a few years earlier Norwegian poet and playwright, Henrik Ibsen, had immortalised as ' frilufstliv'. Describing a man holed up in the mountains, wrestling with an existential crisis, Ibsen's poem, På Vidderne, was noted as the first piece of literature in Norwegian history to introduce the word friluftsliv. He penned:
"In the lonely seter cottage
My abundant catch I gather;
There is a hearth, a stool, a table,
friluftsliv for my thoughts."
Both sojourners of the 1800s, Muir and Ibsen, strangers separated by the barrelling Atlantic, had inadvertently found commonality in nature. But it was Ibsen's fellow countrymen and women who took the concept of tethering one's own soul to the outdoors from a few solitary endeavours to a cultural legacy. Bordering Sweden, Finland and Russia, with a ragged flank that disappears into the pitted bed of the Norwegian sea, Norway is a slender, arcing spool of craggy peaks, vaulting waterfalls, mirrored lakes and fjords, and woolly forests. To the west, the landscape is carved out by glaciers, with the abrupt slopes of the Scandinavian mountains towards the North Sea. Numerous corridors of valley connect this raw, imposing topography to the pine and spruce-carpeted hills of the east. And while the north is characterised by fjords, mountains, vast snowfields and some of Europe's largest glaciers, the south is a gradation of urban living, agricultural lowlands, fells and docile coastal living.
At every point of the compass, Norway's landscape is arresting; a lush, undulating conduit for friluftsliv that craves no less than pure abandonment to its mysteries. Literally (and inadequately) translated as 'free air life', friluftsliv is, at its most fundamental, a deep appreciation for and interaction with nature. A backpack, sturdy shoes and 80 per cent wool socks are often involved, as is a measure of physical exertion. But once immersed in the musty interior of a forest, or dwarfed against the girth of a gnarly hillside, or folded up in a canoe whilst breaking the fragile stillness of a fjord with an oar, something invisible beckons, tugging at your core like a barbed hook. Nature reels you in and compels you to commune with it a while – a bone-deep encounter known to transcend anything tangible. According to several texts on the practice, friluftsliv offers important emotional and spiritual gains. It's even said that Ibsen, a chronic valley dweller, felt his heart unshackle whenever he escaped to the mountains.
Bordering Sweden, Finland and Russia, with a ragged flank that disappears into the pitted bed of the Norwegian sea, Norway is a slender, arcing spool of craggy peaks, vaulting waterfalls, mirrored lakes and fjords, and woolly forests. To the west, the landscape is carved out by glaciers, with the abrupt slopes of the Scandinavian mountains towards the North Sea. Numerous corridors of valley connect this raw, imposing topography to the pine and spruce-carpeted hills of the east. And while the north is characterised by fjords, mountains, vast snowfields and some of Europe’s largest glaciers, the south is a gradation of urban living, agricultural lowlands, fells and docile coastal living.
As Norway's most celebrated national and universal pastime, friluftsliv finds individuality in how people choose to experience it – that intensely personal way one elects to 'leave it all behind' and find peace in their surroundings, without feeling pressured to Facebook or Instagram the moment. At the fully integrated end, some Norwegians adopt the simplicity of well-equipped cabins, living off the earth and waterways to daily abide in friluftsliv. Others, in pursuit of its snarling edge, scale the jagged glaciers and witch-hatted peaks. Most, though, use evenings and weekends to walk, camp, gather berries, fish or recline beside the hearth of a waterside hytte, as once their ancestors did. For generations gone by, friluftsliv has always been part of Norwegian culture, though never in quite the recognised way it is today.
Apparently it was the British who first gave Norwegians insight into recreationally exploring the wild and its ability to exhilarate and restore. When in 1872 a young Yorkshireman, W.C. Slingsby, author of The Northern Playground, visited this unspoilt territory, he discovered Norway's expansive beauty from the summit of Slogen, in Hjørundfjorden. It was a view he later heralded as "one of the proudest in Europe". Serendipitously, the industrial revolution was taking hold in England. Factories and commercial enterprise had made tilling the soil and land husbandry largely redundant. Cities boomed, as did their populations. By the end of the 18th century, Victorians, desperate to escape the crowds and pollution of their prisons of progress, sought to experience Slingsby's unchallenged panorama. They visited Norway in droves, marvelling at the scenery and giving the country's native inhabitants a renewed appreciation for their homeland. Norway's farmers became tour guides, leading the Brits up into the mountains to fill their blackened lungs with clean air.
Yet, up until the late 1960s, when oil deposits were first discovered in Norway, the country remained relatively poor despite an eruption in tourism. Most families lived off the land by rearing animals and growing produce. The then-unwritten Nordic decree of Allemannsretten, 'All Man's Right' (traceable as far back as Viking times and only made into judicial law in 1957), allowed all Norwegians the right to travel throughout the land (public or private), sleep anywhere beneath the stars, and pick berries, mushrooms and flowers. Though primarily driven by survival, history's friluftsliv still had, at its heart, an appreciation for nature. When in the early 1970s, oil production made Norway one of the richest countries in the world, friluftsliv as a lifestyle was replaced by indoor distractions of advancement: TV, video games, music, dance. 'Free air life' took a brief hiatus, as did the instinctive ability of most Norwegians to interact with nature. It wasn't long though before the masses began longing for the fjords and forests again, but once there, backpacks on and wool socks pulled high, they had little idea what to do. The government thus saw a need for re-education. Today, even kindergarten-aged children learn how to cook outdoors, dress for the weather and navigate. Norway also offers undergraduate courses in friluftsliv with the hope that graduates will then go on to teach it.
It's a Scandinavia-wide phenomenon – so elemental it unsurprisingly influences dating practices (most guys seek girls who won't think twice about peeing in a bush). The government's reinforcement of Allemannsretten has cemented friluftsliv as a grassroots movement and given freedom to the nation to hike, picnic, forage for food and camp where they choose (even on another man's land) providing they leave the area clean and sleep 150 metres or more from established properties.
Wandering naturalists like John Muir (though a foreigner) understood friluftsliv and believed in it so wholly, he devoted his entire life to experiencing and recording it – a rich life through simplistic means that fosters a pervasive contentment and requires little more than a walk beyond your threshold. Norway could have let friluftsliv go and succumbed to the monetary trappings of their gas and oil fields instead. But it seems they understand what the rest of the world know but fear to accept: that money can't buy everything and indeed, the secrets to a good life are in the things that are free and, ultimately, priceless. •