Fjordside farms, foraged cuisine, and the Mountain Code: Norwegians claim to have a unique relationship with nature. Perhaps it’s something in their nature.
At the charmingly ramshackle farmhouse in northern Norway where Roddie and Lindis Sloan live with their three children and a dog named Stella Bente Svendsen, a burst of unexpectedly warm weather has given everything the slightly giddy feel of a holiday. It’s late May, and we can sit outside to drink our tea in the morning and dig into grilled meats in the evening. At certain hours of the day, the sun makes the mountains appear to glow, and the Arctic light lends everything a startling clarity. It is, in many ways, the archetypal Nordic summer scene. Which is exactly as I want it, since I’ve come here in hopes of figuring out whether all I’ve heard about one very Norwegian concept, friluftsliv, is true.
Scandinavians have a special relationship to nature. They’ve built an entire cuisine around foraging. They leave their babies in prams outdoors in winter because they think it toughens them up. They love telling you there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing. Norwegians in particular have laws that ensure the public’s right to walk through pretty much any uncultivated land they want. And they have that word, friluftsliv, which is meant to convey something profound and culturally specific about why they like to spend time outdoors and which, they insist, resists translation.
Scandinavians love to say that kind of thing. Long before every lifestyle magazine in the Western Hemisphere was urging readers to light candles and eat more cake, Danes and Swedes were insisting that hygge and fika could not be fully grasped by anyone who lacked a deep understanding of their culture. But five years of living in Denmark have taught me that, in fact, both those concepts are not so complicated. Hygge equals “cozy.” Fika equals “coffee break.” And friluftsliv, I suspect, equals “outdoor living.”
Norwegians are especially committed to it. They have organizations in every town dedicated to promoting friluftsliv and often a local government office as well. They have rules for it, called the Mountain Code, printed on the inside of the most popular candy bar’s wrappers. (Rule No. 4: Be prepared for bad weather and frost, even on short trips.) They even offer college degrees in it.
And so I decided to go to Norway on a quest for friluftsliv’s hidden meaning. My plan was to travel from above the Arctic Circle down to Oslo, moving not only from north to south but also from remote to urban. And for insight, I could think of no better person to start with than Roddie Sloan.
A rugged shellfish diver, Roddie supplies some of Scandinavia’s best-known restaurants with urchins and clams, which is how I became friends with him and his anthropologist wife, Lindis. He once took me fishing on a dark, frigid February day when the water’s edge was coated in the kind of slush that Norwegians call “porridge ice” and that I would have called “miserable” had Roddie not prohibited me from complaining. And although he has lived in Norway for 22 years, he remains staunchly proud of his Scottish heritage. He seemed to me the perfect entryway into friluftsliv, not only because his professional life depends entirely on nature but also because I suspected that he, as a nonnative, would confirm my hunch that Norwegians don’t have some mystical relationship with nature; they simply have more nature.
So Roddie, Lindis, and I sit outside in that glorious light and talk about why they chose to live where they do. Work determines a lot of it: The cold waters of the region hold some of the best sea urchins and other “shells,” as Roddie calls them, in the world. But it’s more than that. “It’s for days like this,” Roddie says, and I have to admit that, at the moment, with the silence and the blue skies and the sun warming our faces, I can’t think of a better place to be. But even now, winter is never far from their minds. “Have you seen Game of Thrones?” Lindis asks, while, as if in preparation, she knits the sleeve of a sturdy-looking sweater. “There’s a reason we joke that we live beyond the wall.” She enumerates the challenges: the endless dark nights, the ice that comes in October and doesn’t leave until April, the wind that can blow so hard it once spun Roddie—and the wheelbarrow full of wood he was carting—full around. “Yes, but,” Roddie interrupts. In deep winter, “there’s no light at all—the sky is completely black. And sometimes the northern lights just make you feel tiny.”
“Have you seen Game of Thrones?” Lindis asks, while, as if in preparation, she knits the sleeve of a sturdy-looking sweater. “There’s a reason we joke that we live beyond the wall.”
Spend enough time in the north, he seemed to be saying, and the dark and cold come to seem less like things to be overcome than things to be appreciated. I think about that the next day when Lindis and I hike up a nearby ridge. Except for a few steep stretches above some newly planted spruce, the incline is mostly gentle, so it comes as a surprise to get to the top and realize just how far up we are. From our perch, the astonishing landscape stretches beneath us—the fjord spills into the sea, islands crowd the eddies, and snowy peaks compete with the waves for the distinction of sparkliest. Maybe, I think to myself, it’s not just that Norwegians have so much nature, but that the stuff they have is so surpassingly beautiful.
My time in the remote far north makes Ålesund, a small city famous for its art deco architecture and located 700 miles down the coast, seem like a sprawling tropical metropolis in comparison. Thanks to its proximity to several fjords, Ålesund is a gateway to all sorts of friluftsliv. I reach one of the region’s most iconic spots, Geiranger, via a three-hour cruise during which the cranes and tankers quickly give way to so much beauty that, once again, it’s hard for me to take it all in. Do I look to the placid gray-blue water that precisely matches the gray-blue sky? To the long streams of water that striate the cliffs? To the snowcapped behemoths in the distance, or to the neat, tiny farmhouses perched like precarious Monopoly pieces in the few spots where precipice flattens into clearing?
The sensory overload is intoxicating, but there’s another feeling as well—some uneasiness or foreboding that I can’t quite identify. I look around at my fellow passengers as they scramble from one side of the boat to the other, taking selfies and fighting winds strong enough to blow their phones out of their hands, and for the first time on this trip, the skies turn more typically Norwegian—which is to say, dark and brooding—so I attribute the sensation to that. In any case, it’s soon forgotten when we dock in Geiranger, a tiny town with just 230 residents, most of whom, as far as I can tell, live off souvenir shops and ice cream stands.
Energized by my friluftsliv quest, I don’t blink at the prospect of biking up the mountainside on a road that could be described as vertical. Or maybe I do blink a little because the helpful man at the tourist office shepherds me toward the electric bikes. And 100 yards up the road, I have never been so grateful to Benjamin Franklin in my life. I manage not to ramp the power all the way up—surely friluftsliv requires at least some outlay of effort—but even the medium range allows me to concentrate on the views rather than on my own pain. By the time I arrive at Westerås, I’m feeling quite exhilarated.
A family farm with cabins and a café open to the public from May to September, Westerås has its own set of spectacular vistas, enhanced in this case both by a small herd of grazing llamas and by a young visitor in pink pants inspired to belt out the theme song from Frozen as she takes it all in. Over coffee, I ask owner Iris Westerås what it’s like to live in such a place. She admits that although the winters are dark—“in November and December the sun doesn’t come up high enough to go over the mountains”—she, like everyone else in her family, thrives on the daily interaction with so much natural beauty and so few humans. Like, really thrives. When I ask what she does in her spare time, she laughs. “We have a small cabin where we go to get away. It’s farther up the mountain.”
There are more glorious views on the boat back to Ålesund and still more the next morning, when I take one of the ferries that serve as public transportation in these parts. I strike up a conversation with Hans Lennart Sævik on his way to work. As a pilot captain, his job is to take over the helm of freighters and cruise ships and guide them safely through fjords or into port. He’s proud of the fact that his work protects the environment. “Norway’s coast is a garden full of roses,” he says, “and our job is to show others where to go so they don’t step on the flowers.” But he’s just as proud of his position in a long chain of locals who have lived in the fjords.
He tells me about the ones who emigrated to America, and their relationship with nature: how they wrote letters to people back home that inquired longingly about whether the snows had come yet or asked how many storms had blown through that summer. “You could feel how much they missed it,” he says. “Not just their people, but their land.”
That same spirit radiates off of Ørnulf Opdahl. A jovial 75-year-old with permanently windswept hair, he is one of Norway’s most esteemed artists, and he and his wife, textile artist Sidsel Colbiørnsen, live and work on Godøy, a small island a few miles from Ålesund, where Ørnulf was born. The turpentine fumes in his seaside studio make me woozy, but the unfinished works lining the walls grab my attention. In thickly textured paint he renders abstract images that convey the hulk of a mountain, the glimmer of the sea at night, the weight of heavy snow. “It’s all based on something I have seen or experienced,” Ørnulf explains. “A special light, a fog coming in, the play between light and darkness.”
He’s been painting this way since settling in Godøy in 1971. His work is moving, but it’s not, I realize, pretty in the way that landscape painting often is. As I scan one after the next, I feel it again: that same sense of foreboding I experienced in the fjord. It’s fear, I think, or maybe just recognition of a destructive power held momentarily in reserve. “Yes!” Ørnulf exclaims, when I raise the comparison. “Today we say, ‘Oh, look at the beautiful mountain.’ But my forefathers would also say, ‘Look at that dangerous place.’ The sea is not a place for vacation; the sea is where my grandfather disappeared. There’s fear there, a sense of threat. I try to put that into my landscapes.”
I think back to other conversations I’ve had. That morning, during his soliloquy about his ancestors, Hans the pilot captain had mentioned how, like them, he had learned to read the landscape for coming danger. “If you see spray from a waterfall shooting up, you know that the wind is 10 to 15 minutes behind,” he had told me. “Nature gives you warnings.” The day before, up in Westerås, Iris had recounted the story of a 1907 avalanche that hit all the farms on the mountainside. And back at the Sloan farmhouse, when I had asked Roddie to describe his relationship with the ocean, he had replied, “She’s my mistress, and I love her. But you have to respect her. She’s tried twice to have me. She just hasn’t succeeded yet.”
I realize that for a Norwegian, nature is not just about pretty views and having fun outdoors. Friluftsliv encompasses more than an appreciation for nature. It also encompasses awe, in the original sense of the word.
By the time I get to Oslo, I’m feeling like I’ve learned something. As I wander around the city’s harbor, the weather changes dramatically in about as much time as it takes to order a cup of coffee, but the switch from bright sun to cold rain and back again doesn’t much seem to affect the locals, who emerge flushed and sweaty from a seaside sauna to launch themselves into icy water, or lounge in the park near the palace, or sit in the open air in their properly weatherproof attire, nonchalantly drinking beer. But there is one last piece of the puzzle for me, which is why this devotion to the outdoors was especially strong in Norway, compared with the other equally northern, equally beautiful, and equally harsh Nordic countries.
Friluftsliv encompasses more than an appreciation for nature. It also encompasses awe, in the original sense of the word.
Luckily, Lasse Heimdal has an answer. We meet for tea at the train station, but his normal habitat is the outdoors; he is secretary general of the national Friluftsliv Association. He warms to my question with a brief gloss on 1,000 years of Norwegian history, in which the glorious Viking reign gives way, in the Middle Ages, to the predations of the Black Death. The epidemic wiped out so much of the population that Norway had no choice but to hitch itself to bigger powers—first Denmark, then Sweden. It took until the 19th century for the dream of independence to take hold. “Then our painters and artists and writers were all looking for some kind of identity,” Lasse says. “They were asking, what does Norway have that makes it different?”
The answer, of course, was nature. “Denmark didn’t have it—that’s a pancake land,” he continues. “And even the Swedes couldn’t compete with our mountains and forests. Nature itself became a symbol of independence.” Today, in addition to its political lobbying and its work as an umbrella organization for the country’s many outdoors-oriented NGOs, the association also plays an important role in helping immigrants assimilate to Norwegian culture by organizing expeditions and offering classes in friluftsliv. “If you don’t understand that national pride is very connected to nature, you miss something important about being Norwegian,” he says. “Yes, we have challenges from nature here. But you can’t fight them or avoid them. If you try, you’ll get a very sad life.”
I spend my last day in Norway in the dense forest at Oslo’s northern edge. It’s the sort of day that counts as good weather in Oslo—the kind in which sunshine and heat seem merely to have stepped out for a few minutes, rather than having loaded the car with beef jerky and Pringles and lit out for the coast. I see families hiking with young children; a bunch of buff, mud-spattered athletes running up rocks and down streams in something called the Ecotrail; and two suspiciously chefy-looking guys out foraging for ramsons, a type of wild garlic. But I’m here for the art. In a clearing just over a mile from the forest parking lot, I join a couple hundred other people at the annual handover ritual for the Future Library Forest, a project that each year selects an author to write a manuscript that will not be published until 2114, a century after the project began. Artist Katie Paterson devised the project as a reflection on literature and mortality, but it is also a meditation on nature: The century-long waiting period, starting in 2014, is the amount of time it will take to grow the trees that will be turned into the paper upon which the books will one day be printed.
Among the participants in the ceremony is Jon Karl Christiansen, the lanky head forester for the city of Oslo, who oversaw the planting of the Future Library saplings. Standing among them now, he confesses that he first thought the project was “a little strange.” But surveying the crowd of young trees under his care, he admits to a certain degree of subdued national pride. “It makes sense to do it here,” he says of Paterson’s project. “We Norwegians have a special relationship with nature. We grow up with it, we spend all our free time in it, we built our metro not so we could come into the city but so we could go out to nature.” He pauses to stop a foreign visitor from trampling a small sapling, then returns. “It’s hard to explain,” he says, “but we know how to care for nature.”
“Yes,” I say, before hiking off myself. “I know just what you mean.”
How to experience friluftsliv
In her search to understand Norway’s concept of outdoor living, Lisa Abend made three stops in the country. Each offers a unique landscape and many ways to connect with nature.
At Manshausen, a private-island resort off the shores of the far northern town of Nordskot, cabins with window walls provide uninterrupted views of the 55-acre islet and surrounding Grøtøya Strait. The white sand beaches look out at the mountains, and the resort organizes fishing, rock-climbing, and diving adventures. Back on the mainland, Nordskot Brygge Sea Sport Centre rents boats, kayaks, and paddleboards. Dozens of trails in various levels of difficulty provide show-stopping views of the Vestfjorden and Lofotveggen peaks.
Situated at the mouth of Storfjord, which leads to the iconic Geirangerfjord on Norway’s northwest coast, Ålesund offers stunning vistas, abundant outdoor activities, and locally sourced food. Geiranger Fjordservice offers sightseeing cruises in what UNESCO dubbed one of the world’s most scenic fjords, and Nord Helikopter features aerial tours of Ålesund and the surrounding region. Two waterfront restaurants, Sjøbua and Apotekergata No. 5, serve fresh seafood, including hake paired with asparagus from the nearby island village of Hvasser. The Kube art museum hosts temporary exhibitions featuring artists and works with connections to Norway, such as The Edge of the Sea, an exhibit showcasing sea-inspired artwork, through December 29.
The town of Geiranger, a three-hour boat ride from Ålesund, sits at the head of the fjord. Two and a half miles uphill lies Westerås, a farm and restaurant that rents cabins and provides an aerial view of Geirangerfjord. Nearby trailheads take you deep into the Norwegian forest. A 45-minute hike leads to the nearly 100-foot Storseterfossen waterfall.
A series of bridges and undersea tunnels connects the mainland to several islands, including Godøy, where the Alnes Lighthouse includes a café, a community center, and an exhibition space that displays the work of local artists Ørnulf Opdahl and Sidsel Colbiørnsen.
Even Norway’s biggest city offers an abundance of friluftsliv. The Future Library Forest in the Nordmarka forest is located about 30 minutes from the city center. In 2014, Scottish artist Katie Paterson planted 1,000 Norway spruce trees, which will eventually provide the paper for an anthology that will be published in the year 2114. Vippa, a food hall started by Norway’s first female Michelin-starred chef, Heidi Bjerkan, sits on the edge of Oslo fjord, with plenty of outdoor seating. Just inland, three-Michelin-star Maaemo serves dishes inspired by Norwegian nature and centered around local produce. Two outfits located near Oslo’s city center, KOK and Sørenga, feature floating saunas that make it easy to hop in the chilly Nordic waters. Walk-ins are welcome; one- or two-hour time slots can also be booked in advance online.