By Elissa Brown
Often, people speak of nature and culture as a dichotomy: nature versus culture, environment versus people, sacrificing one to preserve the other. While they do often compete, it’s important to realize that they both intertwine, as well.
One thing I’ve noticed in Norway is that the two of them not only intertwine but also whole-heartedly overlap.
Imagine going on a trip somewhere and, upon return, being asked about your favorite cultural aspect of the experience. You might describe a visit to a historical site, museum, food venue, concert or open-air market.
If someone asked me to describe my favorite cultural aspects of Norway, nearly all of them would also relate closely to nature. Nature is culture, here.
Even though Oslo is the largest city in Norway, it is incredibly “green,” with its prime location between the fjord and the forest; in fact, 2/3 of the city is the Marka forest, protected by a “no development” ordinance. I can leave my room and ride the metro twelve minutes to downtown, or else walk five minutes in the opposite direction and be surrounded by trees. Local nature blends with extensive wilderness and the same trails lead to a short morning hike or a week-long excursion.
Maybe that’s one major difference. In most of my recent hometowns in the U.S., I could easily leave my house and go on a nice run in “nature.” But here, I can leave my house with a backpack and easily connect to an elaborate network of trails and cabins. After a few hours, I will most likely see nobody else for days.
Nature pervades culture in other ways, too, in the activities and preferences that shape a national identity. One of the largest organizations in Norway is Den Norske Turistforening (DNT), the group responsible for maintaining the webs of trails and huts all throughout the country, many linked to public transportation. If I want to find a great number of people on a given Sunday morning, a good bet is to head for one of the hiking or skiing trails on the outskirts of the city. This is also the time that Norwegians are at their friendliest and most outgoing, exchanging hearty “Hei!” greetings to strangers. Outdoor enthusiasm even extends to tastes: one of the most ubiquitous chocolate bars, Kvikk Lunsj, is well-known as an official “tour energy food,” and billboards in subway stations remind me not to forget to bring it with me on my next outdoor excursion.
Outdoor preschools are popular here, where the children spend the majority of their days outside, regardless of the weather. This Scandinavian concept has begun to gain popularity in other countries around the world. What strikes me in Norway, though, is that even the “normal” preschools are out romping about on a regular basis. Surely you’ve seen reflective-vested toddlers walking through Vigelandspark, Sognsvann, or about to board the t-bane.
It connects back to the Nordic concept of friluftsliv, “open-air life.” Friluftsliv is, perhaps, the union of culture and nature, since it describes a cultural value of appreciation for time in nature. Friluftsliv emphasizes a philosophy of closeness to nature and environmentally-friendly practices, rather than competitive or commercialized activities. It could be a hike, canoe excursion or berry-picking venture: just getting out and having a good time! Friluftsliv is popular throughout Scandinavia, but Norway tends to claim itself as an ultimate authority (the term was first coined by writer Henrik Ibsen, popularized by outdoor explorer Fritdjof Nansen, and officially defined by the Norwegian government before either of its neighbors). As a country with a small, widely dispersed population and easy access to rich and varied nature, friluftsliv opportunities abound.
Maybe it’s logical, then, that my top cultural experiences in Norway relate to outdoor life:
Sunday skiing in the Nordmarka forest up to a hut serving coffee and cinnamon buns. Sitting on a snowy hilltop around a campfire and cheering for the Norwegian competitors in the Holmenkollen Nordic World Cup. Backpacking to remote cabins and sitting around the wooden dining table with the impromptu community of the other cabin guests.
Outdoors enthusiast and philosopher Nils Faarlund writes that one of the goals of friluftsliv is “finding in modernity routes toward lifestyles where nature is the home of culture.”
Nature as the home of culture, what a great way to think about it. In the United States, there are all sorts of ‘back to nature’ movements to connect people to their environment. In fast-paced modern life of increased screen time and media influence, it is all the more important to be able to place ourselves in our ecological community—as a part of something bigger—and to experience the benefits of spending time outdoors. Nature is the home of our culture, but sometimes it takes some frilustsliv to remind us.