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Norwegians and nature


Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Published in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' article series, summer 1996


Norwegian adoration of nature is a vital ingredient in the country's national identity. Over half of the population have ready access to a cabin, the schools arrange annual obligatory ski days, and most postcards produced by the tourist industry depict nature scenes rather than cultural attractions.

A visit to Oslo on a winter weekend will provide abundant proof that the widespread love Norwegians have of their country's rugged landscape is not merely a myth spun by the government or the tourist industry. Cities like Paris and London are full of natives and tourists on Sundays, people who have come to enjoy their many attractions and activities, from restaurants and galleries to theatres and cinemas. In Oslo, on the other hand, the suburban lines pointing towards the forest-covered hills surrounding the city have the most passengers on the weekends. Take the tram on a winter Sunday to Holmenkollen or Frognerseteren, recreational areas lying several hundred metres above the capital, and you will see hordes of people, an otherwise rare sight in this thinly populated country. Swarms of cars looking for a parking spot, people on skis dressed in characteristic knee breeches and red or blue anoraks, and a complicated system of publicly maintained ski trails of varying lengths and levels of difficulty, should remove any doubt that skiing in Norway is a popular and widely practised activity. Although the winter pastime of skiing is in a class by itself, it is only one of many examples of the close affinity between Norwegian identity and nature. Let us look at a few more examples.

Cabin life

"House and cabin, but no castle", reads a well-known national poem. With these words the poet suggests that Norway is a country without snobbery and major class divisions, a land of simple, hardworking people intimately tied to their ecological surroundings.


It has been many years since the majority of Norwegians lived in log cabins and huts. Norway is an extremely rich country with a housing standard that is among the highest in the world. Most Norwegians live in single-family homes and large apartments, equipped with every thinkable electric appliance. Nevertheless, great value is attached to closeness to nature and a simple lifestyle. One curious fact is that Norway's best known philosopher, Arne Næss, the founder of the deep ecology movement, spends the greater part of his time in a rustic, geographically isolated cabin in the mountains between Oslo and Bergen. And he is far from the only one. Thousands of Norwegians spend weekends and holidays at the family cabin, which ideally speaking should be should be tucked away in the wilderness surrounded by the pristine landscape of the Norwegian mountains. As a rule, you can't drive your car all the way to the door, but have to walk - in the winter ski - a couple of kilometres or more. Cabins like this do not have indoor plumbing, so you have to fetch water from a pond or haul water containers from town. Mountain cabins never have a shower. Ideally, a cabin is not supposed to have electricity either, although over half are hooked up today. The typical Norwegian cabin is built of logs and consists of a living room, one or more bedrooms, an outdoor lavatory, woodshed and small kitchen. Heating is preferably by wood, although kerosene is permissible, just barely. Oil lamps and candlelight provide light on dark winter nights.

This simplicity is not due to a desire to save money. In fact a mountain cabin in an attractive location is a costly investment, no matter how simply they are furnished. The absence of modern comforts is founded on ideological and moral, rather than economic, reasons. (It must be added here that many Norwegians have a cabin by the coast, usually in an area with a mild climate. Here, completely different rules apply: these cabins can be comfortable second homes.)

The cabin is the starting point for private expeditions into the great outdoors, on skis in the winter, on foot in the summer. Spending a whole day in the cabin is viewed as immoral and meaningless. Not before evening is it legitimate to relax in front of the fire with a game of cards and perhaps a drink, and you should be physically tired from the day's nature experiences. Simplicity is a virtue in all areas of cabin life, although it is now generally acceptable to have a small portable radio. On the other hand, it is still controversial to have a television in the cabin, not to mention a VCR.

Easter in the mountains

A special season in regard to cabin life is Easter. At Easter time winter is on the retreat, even in Norway, and you often have to go quite high up in the mountains to find enough snow to go skiing. Nevertheless, thousands of Norwegians head for the slopes and trails at this time of year, and mountain hotels are packed with families who don't have cabins. The sun at Easter time can be powerful, both because of the thin mountain air and because sunlight is reflected by the snow. Consequently, newspapers in recent years have warned against excessive sunbathing in the mountains at Easter, now that we know that too much sun can cause cancer. However, on the first day of work after Easter, it is still easy to see from the tanned faces which of your co-workers have been to the mountains. Skiing in the intense Easter sun, with a backpack containing oranges, chocolate bars and cocoa, is viewed by many Norwegians as one of the strongest, most positive experiences they can imagine.

Actually, a minority of Norwegians spend Easter in the mountains, and the number is sinking according to the latest statistics. In 1996 only 13 per cent of the population did. Nevertheless, the mountains at Easter time occupy a special place in the Norwegian self-image, as a symbol of the good life in Norway.

It surprises many to learn that Norwegians, after a long and cold winter, when spring has finally arrived in the lowlands, actively pursue and seek out the winter where it maintains its grip. The humorist Odd Børretzen claims that this is due to some sort of deep cultural infrastructure: Norway was first inhabited at the end of the last Ice Age. The immigrants followed the fringes of the ice as it retracted northwards, particularly because wildlife flourished along the periphery. Børretzen's claim is that Norwegians, like their ancestors, are still following the disappearing ice. His view is unlikely ever to receive the support of scientists.

Hiking and walking

In the personal ads people place in newspapers and magazines in the hope of finding a companion, very many, perhaps a majority, include "hiking and going for walks" as one of their interests. This type of personal advertisement is in fact much more common than "My interests include classical music and literature."

Hiking and going for walks are a way of getting out of the house, as Norwegians put it; you leave civilization and all its comforts and depravity behind to get in touch with your inner self and feel like an authentic person. Hikes and walks can be taken on a weekday after work, but are usually a weekend activity. A normal yardstick for gauging the success of a walk is the number of people you meet along the way. The fewer the people, the more successful the walk was.

One value connected with hiking and walking is peace and quiet - freedom from the distracting noises and man-made racket in the city. The purpose of peace and quiet, as it is often construed, is contemplation and spiritual peace.

Adoration of nature in Norway has many facets. It is official and has a political aspect; unspoiled nature is a national symbol. It is private and is associated with family rituals, such as cabin life. But it is also personal and individual, and in this area veneration of nature has a clear sprinkling of religion. The state religion in Norway is the Lutheran faith, but reverence for nature is also very strongly ingrained. Instead of renouncing it as heathenish, Lutheranism has consciously embraced it - among other things, Christian books published in Norway often display Norwegian nature scenes on the cover. Moreover, the outdoors is often recommended by state church clergy as a great place for religious meditation and reflection. In this way, Christianity, which in principle places a sharp dividing line between culture and nature (nature is evil, people are by nature sinful), avoids a direct confrontation with the strong Norwegian ideology that culture and nature are two sides of the same coin. The comment has been made, a bit ironically of course, that the cross in the Norwegian flag does not represent the crucifixion of Jesus, but is a pair of skis laid crosswise.

Nature and nationhood

To understand the unique position nature has in the Norwegian self-image, it is not enough to look at geography and climatic conditions. We have to go back to the nation-building period in the 1800s, when the modern Norwegian state was created.

In the 19th century Norway was forced into a union with Sweden, which, true enough, permitted Norwegians to manage their own affairs in most cases. For hundreds of years prior to that, Norway was an integrated part of the Danish realm. The written language was Danish, and most intellectuals were oriented towards Copenhagen. At this time, particularly after the uprisings in 1848, a wave of nationalism rolled across Europe, and many small and independence-minded peoples became intent on defining themselves as nations with the right to full political sovereignty.

An important part of this process consisted of defining a national culture clearly separate from that of neighbouring countries, which was unique, and which fused the inhabitants into a united people with a common history, culture and spirit. For nationalistically-minded Norwegians it was especially important to prove that Norway was markedly different from Denmark and Sweden; both because they were colonial powers (previous and current respectively), and because they were the country's closest neighbours with a language and culture much like Norway's. In fact many believed that Danes, Swedes and Norwegians had so much in common that they made up one Scandinavian nation. This view was naturally disputed by the Norwegian nationalists.

However, Norway was an underpopulated and poor country on the fringes of Europe, and had no rich military, cultural and political history on which to draw. The only monumental building in Norway was the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, which could hardly be used as a national symbol after the Reformation. The boldest nation-builders invoked the heritage of the Viking Age, asserting that a direct line extended from the fearless Vikings to latter-day Norwegians. But this was not enough to create a nation.

This is where nature and veneration of nature come into the picture. What Norway lacked in cultural riches, it made up for in its diverse, rugged and majestic landscape. National poets took to writing poems celebrating the mountains and wide-open spaces, and painters portrayed wild and untamed Norwegian scenery. Norway's national identity gradually took the form of a lifestyle characterized by closeness to, respect for and love of nature, particularly the subarctic mountain landscape requiring great courage, strength and endurance from those who have to survive in it. Danes and Swedes were in this light refined and decadent city people, and the image of the thoroughly healthy, down-to-earth, nature-loving Norwegian was established as a national symbol.

Norway's unspoiled countryside thus became a bearing element in the building of the nation, and the national motto that was adopted, "United and true until Dovre falls," refers to a massif in central Norway, and not, for example, "United and true until the Storting (Parliament) falls."


The most recent biographer of the Norwegian Arctic explorer Fritdjof Nansen, Tor Bomann-Larsen, has remarked that the modern Norwegian nation was built by a single person, namely Fritdjof Nansen. This is naturally debatable, but there is no doubt that Nansen was the most important driving force behind the modern Norwegian national identity, which is intimately intertwined with outdoor life in rugged, inhospitable surroundings. Nansen's most famous feat was that his expedition was the first to cross Greenland on skis, although his other activities as an explorer were also associated with skiing and harsh weather conditions. Although much of the preliminary work was already done when Nansen became a famous explorer at the end of the 1800s, it was he who showed that skiing and adoration of nature could also be linked to political power. Nansen's ambition, which failed, was to establish Norwegian colonies in the Arctic areas he had been the first to explore.

Winter sports

Among the breeches and anorak clad set invading the Nordmarka recreation area like grasshoppers on winter Sundays, you will also see the occasional man or woman in body-hugging tricot, with muscular thighs and narrow, expensive skis on their feet. They are top-flight athletes, who ski farther and faster than anyone else in their quest for gold medals and national renown.

A short distance away from these skiers high above downtown Oslo lies Holmenkollen Park Hotel. It is a popular conference hotel, and many Norwegians bring their foreign colleagues and business associates there for lunch and dinner. Holmenkollen Park is richly decorated with symbols of Norway. It is built in the national romantic dragon style and surrounded by spruce forests; employees are dressed in national costumes and inside you will find moose and mountain cranberries on the menu and rose-painted chests. The hotel's biggest attraction, however, is its many banquet rooms named after great Norwegian heroes, whose pictures adorn the walls. Here you will find the champion speed skater Oscar Mathiesen, figure skater Sonja Henie and ski jumper Thorleif Haug, to mention a few. "No generals?" a foreigner might ask. The answer is no. Skiing, and to some degree, speed skating are a central aspect of life in Norway, ranking perhaps even higher than the global sport of soccer. Skiing carries on Nansen's spirit, and although it cannot give Norway colonies and real political power, it is important for Norwegian self-respect and can turn the country into a symbolic superpower when Norwegian athletes win major competitions.

Had Nansen, for example, crossed Greenland on a bicycle instead of skis, winter sports might well have been relegated to a less prominent place in Norwegian society. Consequently, it's not certain that the familiar saying "Norwegians are born with skis on" would be as popular today. As the situation now stands, you can become a Norwegian, culturally speaking, by putting on a pair of skis and heading down the trail. Consequently, the ski days organized by the schools are important initiation rituals, on a par with the obligatory participation in the annual Constitution Day celebration in the middle of May.

Norway the clean

In the early 1970s when the government began to be concerned about the damage to lakes and spruce forests from acid rain, Norwegian authorities quickly blamed German and British industry of being the culprits (which for the most part was correct). The assumption that filth and pollution come from the outside, while Norway itself is clean, is widespread. This view was also clearly expressed during the EU debate before the referendum in the autumn of 1994, when Norwegian agricultural organizations claimed that Norwegian products were cleaner and more natural than products from the EU countries. In most cases this is not true, but as is known the "no" side won the referendum.

Norway has cities, which are not much different from cities in other countries. Norway also has forests, but so do the Swedes and Finns. Norway even has flat farming areas and an archipelago warm and inviting enough to attract throngs of swimmers for a couple of months each summer. But these things are also found other places.

On the other hand, Norway's mountains and fjords are matchless. The advance publicity distributed prior to Norway's hosting of the 1994 Winter Olympics, clearly showed which picture of Norway the country's tourist industry and authorities want to lure tourists here with. In the videos shown on television in other countries before the Olympics, Norway was presented as a country of endless white expanses, wild animals, solitary skiers and simple log cabins.

What about city life?

Norway's national identity is thus intimately tied to its dramatic scenery and especially to its wintry image. However, it is an indisputable fact that most Norwegians live in cities or urban areas; according to the World Bank the figure is as high as 75 per cent. Densely populated Greater Oslo is home to no less than one and a half million people, a high figure in a country with less than four and half million people. Statistics show that the daily lives of Norwegian are about the same as other Europeans. They drink coffee from Colombia and orange juice from Florida, ceylon tea and imported wines. They dress in suits and jeans, drive imported cars (with tanks filled with Norwegian petrol), and they are involved in basically the same activities as other Europeans. They have the same problems with racism and discrimination as the Germans, British, and French. The hunting population is not particularly large, and mountain farmers are a microscopic minority.

You could perhaps draw the conclusion that there is nothing special about Norway, compared to other countries. It's not that simple. National identity is not found so much in actual lifestyle as it is in the cultural values and ideas embraced by a population. And the dominating Norwegian ideology connects the nation's distinctiveness and identity to the clean countryside, egalitarianism, simplicity and the white mantle of winter. It is confirmed in practice through the rituals described above, through skiing, hiking and walking, cabin life, Easter in the mountains and so on. This ideology would have been useless in a national context if it had focused, for example, on city life in Bergen and Oslo, as then it would not have drawn clear dividing lines between Norwegians and foreigners. The purpose of national symbols is to convey distinctiveness. When oil sheikhs from Arabia dress like nomads, it just as much a symbolic expression of their identity as when Norwegian oil sheikhs dress up as farmers from the 1700s.

The official picture of pure, clean Norway does not match very well with the daily life of most Norwegians, who probably have much more in common with the everyday life of other modern Europeans. Norwegians drive cars and watch television, eat pizza and sit in front of computers, wear suits and drink coffee.

On the other hand, the official Norwegian visage of an unspoiled, clean subarctic landscape, fits well with the Norwegian self-image. That's why people from Oslo leave their comfortable homes and travel up to Nordmarka to surround themselves with winter temperatures and snow for a few hours. They do it to confirm that they are Norwegian, despite all.

©Thomas Hylland Eriksen 1996