Friluftsliv – the art of outdoor living

The Art of Outdoor Living is a key to wellbeing in the Time of Covid.

As I’m writing this the snow has started to fall again outside. Not the romantic fluffy stuff but the damp slushy wet cold stuff. The wind is biting. Its warm inside. I’m currently practicing hygge. The Danish art of…well for want of a better word…snugliness.

It’s not that hygge is a bad thing, but under the seemingly never ending lockdown / isolation / social distancing caused by the Pandemic AND that its winter / dark / miserable outside you can have only so much ‘snug up and stay indoors’ before it feels like house arrest…even if it is a fluffy rugged and roaring fire one. Sad is not just an emotion….it’s a Seasonally Affected Disorder brought on by short days and long, long nights. SAD makes you sad.

They say us Brits love talking about the weather. And we do. It’s in our DNA. But variable though our climate is, we too are fairly variable when it comes to ‘braving the elements’ and getting out into it. It always seems just too cold / too wet / too windy. But as a nation we are also a stoic bunch. Statistics have suggested that, when the weather turns ‘bad’, we hide indoors, but after three days of rain and wind we tend to venture forth regardless of the weather. It’s unclear if we are just driven by the need to get on with life or get a bit of fresh air. But it may also suggest a predisposition to embrace Friluftsliv.

Friluftsliv is the Norwegian art of outdoor living. It’s pronounced ‘free-loofts-liv’ by the way.  It’s about freely embracing the outdoors, even in winter, in all its cold and wet glory. It’s about taking time to connect with nature and wildness, to breathe in fresh air and to appreciate the simplicity of the outdoors.

The term was first coined in the 1850s by the Norwegian playwright and poet, Henrik Ibsen, who described, in his poem ‘On the Heights’ (1859), how spending time outdoors could improve spiritual and mental wellbeing. Henrik Ibsen’s meaning with “Friluftsliv” is literally translated as ‘Freedom-Air -Life’ and might best be interpreted as the total appreciation of the experience one has when communing with the natural environment. Not for sport or play, but just for its value in the development of one’s spiritual and physical being. At its heart is the identification and fulfilment of body and soul (Self) one experiences through immersion in nature. Ibsen used the word in the expression “friluftsliv for my thoughts” to explain the direct connection with this exposure to nature in freeing up one’s mind. It was the first time this word was ever used in Norwegian literature.

“Autumn’s near, below the ranges
Hark, the last few herd bells falter!
Upland freedom’s lost – life changes
Back to cattle stalls and halter!
Home? Is that my home then, truly,
Where my mind’s no longer turning?
He’s long chastened my unruly
Thoughts, I’ve steeled myself, my yearning
Dale life stifles emulation!
Drudgery for mere survival;
I found here my stimulation,
I need fells and moors to rival.
Here in this deserted dwelling
I have housed my wealth of treasure;
There’s a bench, a stove, sweet smelling
Air, and time to think at leisure.”

Unlike Ibsen’s main protagonist you don’t need to be a young farmer embarking on a year long mountain trek to find answers in life. The Norwegians have adopted the term more widely and to apply it to whole range of outdoor activities or ‘being’, whatever the weather: the only things you need to have is the appropriate mindset and appropriate clothing! This concept is big in its home country, Norsk Friluftsliv is an organisation that represents over 5,000 outdoors groups in Norway.

So, how do you practice it? Outdoor living does not focus on competition or timekeeping, but on physical activity at your own pace, as well as relaxation, calm and time for yourself, and with others. So it is more about the way that you do it.

Firstly, as my old physics teacher used to say, ‘any fool can be uncomfortable’ and this very much holds true with practising friluftsliv. Dress well, dress appropriately – so you are comfortable and safe going outside into the cold, wet, wind or dark. Secondly it is all about mindset: appreciate what the outdoors is giving you: freedom and fresh air to feed your body and your soul. Thirdly, experience nature through appreciation of your senses: feel the wind on your skin, the rain running down your face, the snowflake landing on your tongue. Watch the wind as it moves across the landscape, listen to it in the trees. Feel the energy of the elements. The sunlight, cloud, rain and wind streaking across the valley. Hear the rushing gush of the stream in spate, the drip-drop of water from high branch to the leafy forest floor. Feel the chill, just enough to appreciate returning home having had your cobwebs blown away. Finally, it’s not about time, it’s not about speed, it’s not about achievement (although getting outside some-days is an achievement in itself!), it’s not about survival or discomfort but it’s about just being and living well in the outdoors.

Even if it’s just standing, for five minutes, at an open window embracing the breeze, taking a couple of laps of the soggy garden or puddled yard. A slushy snowball fight, an inclement dog walk, a short meander through a quiet winter woodland or a ten mile trek across barren moorland – all can be used to appreciate and embrace elements of this form of outdoor living. And when things allow, sitting for moment to share an outdoor tea or picnic with others: come shine, or preferably rain, is just the ticket to wellbeing we are secretly seeking.

In the Time of Covid being able to appreciate the outdoors during winter is more important for your wellbeing than ever. It will even get you to appreciate being indoors with its warm, dry hygge as a delightful choice and not a miserable prison. You can’t truly appreciate one without the other.

Stay well. Venture forth.

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