Friluftsliv: Norway’s search for true nature

There’s an interesting psychological quirk that makes us yearn for a benevolent, caring Mother Nature that can cure our ailments without any side effects. Academics call it the “naturalness preference” or “biophilia”, and the Norwegians call it “friluftsliv” (literally: free-air-life).

Friluftsliv began in 18th century Scandanavia as part of a romantic “back-to-nature” movement for the upper classes. Urbanisation and industrialisation in the 19th century disconnected Norwegians from a natural landscape to which they’d been so interconnected for over five thousand years.

Norway’s sparse population, vast landscapes and midnight sun (in the summer months, at least) make it an excellent place for hunting and exploration. These ideal conditoins produced some of the greatest trekkers and hikers the world has ever seen. I’ll show you two heart-warming examples.

The first is Norway’s infamous explorer Fritjof Nansen, who (very nearly) reached the north pole in 1896 as part of a three-year expedition by ship, dog-sled and foot. When world war one broke out, Nansen put his trekking knowledge into practice by helping European civilians escape the perils of war and move to safer places. He facilitated several logistical operations in the early 20th century that saw the movements of millions of civilians across Europe. When famine broke out in Russia in 1921, he arranged the transportation of enough food to save 22 million people from starvation in Russia’s remotest regions. Deservedly, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his efforts.

The second example is Norway’s Roald Amundsen, who was the first person to reach the south pole in 1911. Nansen lent his ship, Fram, to Amundsen for a north pole expedition in 1909. Before Amundsen set sail, however, he learned that two rival American explorers – each accompanied by groups of native Inuit men – had already reached the north pole and were disputing the title of “first discoverer” among themselves. When Amundsen finally did set sail, he took Nansen’s Fram vessel to Antarctica instead, where he and his team disembarked and trekked a successful round-trip to the south pole. While Amundsen admits he was inspired by Nansen’s successful polar expeditions, I’m sure that Norway’s vast landscapes, summer sun and long-standing tradition of “Allemansrätten” (the right to traverse other people’s private land) also contributed to Amundsen’s yearning for friluftsliv: the obsessive search for a truly untouched wilderness. (Amundsen 1927)

The world’s first tourist organisations were founded in Norway (1868), Sweden (1885) with the goal of helping Scandinavian elites in their search for true nature. When the Industrial Revolution brought many indoor, sedentary factory jobs to Scandinavia, workers craved the outdoors that their culture had been in harmony with for thousands of years. Elites in the late 19th century signed up to go on expeditions to escape encroaching urbanisation. Later, in 1892, a group of Swedish soldiers founded the non-profit organisation Friluftsfrämjandet, which provided outdoor recreational activities to the labouring classes with a particular emphasis on giving free skiing lessons to children. Thanks to Friluftsfrämjandet, and the working-time legislations that came into play in the early 20th century, the middle and lower classes were finally able to pursue their obsession with finding nature, or friluftsliv.

“…[W]e arrange activities to win great experiences, together. We hike, bike, walk, climb, paddle, ski and skate together. We train the best outdoor guides and instructors in Sweden. And we have fun together!” (Friluftsfrämjandet 2017)

Hans Gelter, Associate Professor at Luleå University of Technology, writes that even friluftsliv has become commodified in the age of consumerism. He claims that the high prices commanded for outdoor equipment and transportation to remote places act as a barrier between hikers and the nature they claim to be seeking. (Gelter 2000) In Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered (1985), Timothy Luke argues that outdoor pursuits are now more about testing fancy equipment than finding a deep connection with Mother Nature. Snowboarding is now more about testing the latest boards and wearing eye-catching outfits than it is about enjoying pristine mountain vistas. Golf is now as much about donning luxury clothing brands and using expensive golf clubs as it is about enjoying the outdoors. Even many shower gels and body washes now contain a drop of lemon essence or avocado oil – for which you pay an extra dollar – that adds nothing to the utility of the product. We do this because we crave nature in an industrialised world.

My book Fighting Chemophobia (coming at the end of 2017) is approaching 60,000 words in length. Copious reading and lively discussions with many colleagues and academics is helping to shape the stories in the book.

Follow me on twitter to stay up-to-date with the book’s progress.

5 thoughts on “Friluftsliv: Norway’s search for true nature

  1. I don’t entirely buy into the notion that enjoying the outdoors is always, or even often, about the expensive equipment. While this is a difficult stance to take riding my $5,000 road bike, it’s not on my $750 rain bike. Nor is it about fancy, expensive new golf clubs or luxury clothing on the golf course – I play a customized set of hand-me-down irons and hand-me-down Cobra woods. The only fancy club I own is my driver. Before I had kids I was a three handicap.

    For some it may be about trying out expensive equipment, but for most it’s about enjoying a sport AND the outdoors at the same time. My expensive bike is vastly more enjoyable to ride, while those irons work just fine – but only after I had frequency-matched steel shafts installed and an inch added to the length… and the loft and lie adjusted to match my stance at address.

    In the case of golf clubs, most ignorant golfers think it’s about the brand. Those of us in the know understand its less about the name on the club that it is matching one’s clubs to one’s swing and stature (unless you happen to be 5’9″, have a perfect posture at address and impact, and swing exactly the right speed for the shafts that came on your clubs).

    As is so often the case, it’s not a search for true nature, it’s a search for someone’s approximation of what they believe true nature is. True nature is a moving target based on the latest fashion. Exhibitionism and minimalism are just different ways of experiencing that nature. The only things separating those two poles are opinion and ego.

    I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fascinating arguments. Your point about the two bikes actually supports what I’m saying in this article: nature is uncomfortable, and by using fancy machines to experience nature, we remove ourselves from the ‘nature’ we claim we’re trying to seek.

      The books I cite in the article actually suggest that what we’re really craving is (1) a set of complex rhythms (such as waterfalls, meandering trails or the unpredictable flight paths of small insects) that stimulate our brains; and (2) simultaneous mental and physical stimulation.

      Genuine friluftsliv provides these two human needs, but so does golfing with expensive gear. The golf option, of course, is much more comfortable and would be the preferred option for most people. The author’s point, though, is that golf courses (and most other venues for outdoor pursuits) are highly unnatural places. They do, however, satisfy whatever it is we’re craving from “nature”.

      That’s why most people’s biophilia is really a search for (1) complex patterns/rhythms; and (2) simultaneous mental and physical stimulation; not friluftsliv (climbing a tree barefoot and watching a campfire).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting perspective indeed. I must confess, I enjoy the outdoors enthusiastically but I do require plenty of insulation when it comes to nature for everything except snorkeling. A mask, snorkel and speedo is all I need for that. Now there’s an interesting side point in there somewhere. An ocean would be an unnatural environment for a human, yet it’s an environment we will explore with the least insulation from it.

        Fascinating concept. Thanks for expanding my thinking.


  2. The countries that still have true nature but also can have a western life style like the USA are truly blessed, shame some people want to exploit that. My country the UK has no wild nature left even in the wilds of Scotland the scars of man go back a long way.


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