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February 27, 2015

Though I love my job dearly, I am openly averse to putting roots down here in Saginaw, Michigan. And while many people can at least superficially understand said aversion, I have noticed a glaring deficiency in my vocabulary – and perhaps in the English lexicon – in communicating its essence and depth.

I have waited patiently for the word(s) to come into my life; I believe I have found it.

A word borrowed from my ancestral, Scandinavian roots.
A word that explains why I feel the pull to live in a place where my life is seamlessly integrated with being freed of walls and stale air.
A word married to my Wild Thing.
A word that speaks to those amazing contradictions experienced when my Wild Thing is fed regularly: feeling utterly fragile and entirely capable, totally bare yet totally alive.

The word: Friluftsliv

Punch it into your Google machine and it spits out this: “Friluftsliv is a Norwegian word loosely translated as “open air life” [I’ve also heard it translated as “free air life”], which characterizes Norwegian culture. Norwegians embrace nature and enjoy the outdoors as a way of life. Ultimately, friluftsliv offers the possibility of recreation, rejuvenation and restoring balance among living things.”

While the word is used throughout Scandinavia, purists say that the word is currently best utilized in Norway; elsewhere (i.e. Denmark and Sweden) the concept has been reimagined in the modern world of advertising to promote outdoor recreation, which does not encapsulate the entirety of the term. One can find a spec sheet about friluftsliv on the visitnorway.com website by clicking here.

This is a concept that I wrote about many moons ago when Facebook still had all of your “About Me” information posted at the top of your profile page and you could actually write in a little blurb about yourself that didn’t 1. Link you to other movies or artists that were ‘trending’ or 2. ‘Suggest’ other artists or books that you have read/should read based on your current selections. I had an ongoing schtick in which I would update my “About Me” section; I called it “Commentary from the desk of Callie Youngman” and wrote whatever was on my mind for the week. I remember some particularly scathing critiques of both iPods and our health insurance system. Whatever – I was in college.

On March 17, 2008, I wrote the following:

After hiking the Yellow Dog River today, I chatted with Mindy Otto, a person wise beyond her years. And, both being outdoorsy people and having spent a lot of time outside, we both remarked on how wonderful it is to be out and away from screens and noises and stuff. Mindy said, “When you spend an entire day inside, you get confused.” How true. Sometimes we forget how good we feel after just being outside. After a long hike, you’re tired but it’s a good tired. After a long TV session, you’re tired but it doesn’t feel good. So tell me, what kind of tired are you?

Bundle up, go outside, don’t be confused.

Friluftsliv, while having relatively young etymology, is an age-old concept that (*surprise*) getting outside regularly is good for not only our bodies but also our minds and spirits. The human experience has been for millennia one lived outdoors; our self-inflicted, home-bound lifestyle is only a very, very recent phenomena, and one that I find troubling not simply for myself but for our society and future generations who lack a skill set for and comfortability in being/living outdoors. To truly practice friluftsliv, one does not simply see ‘going outside’ as an activity – it is, rather, a way of living.

Sidebar, Your Honor: I say all of this without judgement or pretense. Though I spent the afternoon snowshoeing, I have been sitting in an overstuffed chair in my apartment for the last five hours, staring at a screen and playing with electronics. I haven’t slept outside in six months and I often spend my days in a building/office/gym where I can literally go 12 hours without seeing/basking in natural light. I concede my own shortcomings and promise, Your Honor, to get out of this town/lifestyle at the 2.5 year crossroads we discussed when I moved here.

When I talk with people about my experiences working with the Student Conservation Association, I often frame it as the ‘thing I do in order to keep me sane during a long school year spent in the gym.’ Those precious weeks of living, laughing, working, cooking in the dirt and woods gratify my entire being unlike anything else in my life. I grow hardened to the elements and daily drudge of non-showered living; yet I soften to other humans, demonstrating greater empathy and connecting with deeper attention and thoughtfulness. Stripped naked of modern creature comforts and vices, I feel a helluva lot better about who I am and what I am doing in this world. My mind clear, my body awakened, my spirit inspired, surrounded by a small group of people endeavoring to survive and thrive in the backcountry.

A handful of other delightfully unexpected consequences of this FREE AIR LIFE I love to live:
1. My latent imagination reanimates as I play out my favorite Swiss Family Robinson/Boxcar Children fantasies by working with my students to organize and set up our camp kitchen and communal spaces.
2. I feel empowered and competent with my skill sets to not only survive in the outdoors but do so safely, comfortably and having a boatload of fun/good food along the path.
3. Fits of spontaneous howling and sniffing (our bodies are capable of seriously amazing smells).
4. I don’t grind my teeth when I sleep.
5. Instead of the resource-heavy hot shower therapy, I practice yoga, mediation and self-care more often.

Though perhaps not on such an extreme, bare-bones level (because I am not advocating for everyone to go live in a tent forever), I think this is what the Norwegians mean by friluftsliv. “FREE AIR LIFE:” eating under a canopy of trees; sleeping on the earth; working in the dirt; breathing “deep of that yet sweet and lucid air.”

This is what I am missing in Saginaw. It is not that it does not dwell somewhere in the recesses of this city – I am becoming more intentional in seeking friluftsliv here in my community. But there is a painfully steep learning curve: until summer 2013, I had always lived in places where the woods were within walking distance and trips to bodies of water were a regular part of my day-to-day. Strip malls and conventional living abound; and I am not yet connected to those people who are living, both literally and figuratively, off the grid – I’m sure they’re around here somewhere.

But this all drives me to fundamentally consider where I do want to put down roots. ‘Typical twenty-something conversation’ jokes aside, I have learned, unequivocally, I need to be in a place where the opportunities to spend time outside are not so few, far between and arduous to find. No, more than that, I need to be in a community where this friluftsliv lifestyle is a given, not an anomaly. I want to give the best of myself to this life and the small slice of world I inhabit. In order for me to do this, I need to live close to the land.

I found a lovely article from the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education titled “Friluftsliv: The Scandinavian Philosophy of Outdoor Life.” I am going to leave you with two passages from this well-written piece by Hans Gelter of Sweden.

The essence of friluftsliv is difficult to define. It is a concept that can be found among outdoor people all over the world, but as a specific philosophy, and the use of a special word for it, is unique for Scandinavia, especially in Norway and Sweden. Here friluftsliv is deeply rooted in the soul of the people although far from everyone practices it. In Norway friluftsliv is an important part of most people’s lives and a way of living close to the beautiful landscapes of the country…

[It is] a spiritual, almost religious feeling I often experience in nature. This landscape absorbs me so completely, entering through all of my senses and directly touching my limbic system. This gives me a sensation of a total integration with this land; a strong feeling of being at home in a place I have never visited before. Sensing myself as part of the landscape I experience the processes and evolution of this place unfolding itself inside my consciousness. I get a strong feeling of knowing the ways of things around me.

And so, even though it’s almost midnight and in the single digits, I am taking the advice of my over-zealous twenty-year-old self and bundling up, going outside and feeling that ‘good kind of tired.’

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