Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

I want to talk about friluftsliv (Pronounce it like it’s spelled. Three syllables). It’s a Norwegian term that combines the words for ‘free’, ‘air’, and ‘life’, and refers to an ancient Nordic philosophy of outdoor living.

The first time the word appeared in print was 1859 in a poem by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. In this poem Ibsen tells the story of a young man who spends a year trekking through the mountains trying to find out what he was meant to do with his life. The term appears in the last line of the poem. Here is the translation of the last four lines:

In the deserted cottage

My abundant catch I gather

There is hearth, a stool, a table

Friluftsliv for my thoughts

In the one hundred fifty years since the word was first published, the philosophy of friluftsliv has become embedded in the Norwegian way of life, one that emphasizes a ‘free-air life’ of exploration and appreciation of nature. According to the friluftsliv philosophy, any piece of land, whether public or private, is open to anyone for walking, camping, fishing, riding bicycles, or for any other form of recreation that causes no harm to the environment.

By encouraging freedom to roam under the guidelines of good behavior, in its essence, friluftsliv becomes a pathway to spiritual connection and belonging. And with that comes the beginning of a sense of responsibility towards caring for one’s surroundings.

When I think about friluftsliv, however, I can’t help but think about our country and about the difference in our philosophy of outdoor management. Under our system of private enterprise, and in consideration of the strict separation we maintain between private and public lands, it would seem that the free-air lifestyle of friluftsliv is impossible.

Yet we have the same need to connect with and take care of nature. We have the same need to roam freely on the land. So how can we reconcile the rift created between our purely economic basis of land management and the need for human connection with nature?

In 1949 environmentalist Aldo Leopold proposed the establishment of an ethic related to the land. With economics as the only guideline for behavior, Leopold said, privilege comes, yet there are no obligations. With an ethic, however, behavior is constrained and grounded in principle and conviction.

Leopold considered the land ethic as the third step in the evolution of the human ethical experience as introduced in the Bible: the first was the Ten Commandments, which placed constraints on individuals in our struggle to relate morally to one another; the second, The Golden Rule, which set down a framework for the struggle for the moral relationship between the individual and society.

This third ethic Leopold envisioned as an ecologic one based on the premise that all members of nature, including humans, are interconnected and interdependent. As such, it would lay out the parameters for the moral relationship of man to all the land, including the soils, waters, plants, and animals.

A more current philosophy of a land ethic is ecospirituality, a global, sacred, nondenominational movement aimed at strengthening our spiritual connection to nature, at changing our very view of what nature is. Ecospirituality affirms the holiness and inherent value of all of nature. By pairing spirituality and religion with science, ecospirituality seeks to transform the human relationship to the land into a healing force for our degraded Earth.

And that brings me back to friluftsliv.

True. Friluftsliv is an ancient philosophy. But within the simple notion of freedom to roam lies the potential for connection and spiritual oneness, a cutting edge idea. Perhaps friluftsliv can be a model for an ecospiritual strategy for healing the earth and for bringing the environment back into balance.

Is it possible, then, that it is time for us, in this country, to rethink our priorities when it comes to managing the land? Trust us. Give us the space, and we shall take care of the land.