The Norwegian word friluftsliv, pronounced “free-loofts-liv,” does not convert readily to English. The direct translation is “free air life,” and it has a lot to do with being outside, but there’s more to it than that. Deeply ingrained in Scandinavian culture, frilufstliv is about reconnecting with nature on an emotional level.
Maybe it’s easier to talk about what it is not. It is not about equipment and activities. It’s not for sale at any outdoor goods mega-store, or obtained (necessarily) by climbing a peak, rafting a river, rappelling down a cliff, or even going on a hike. It’s not about endorphins or adrenaline. It’s not about pushing or going far. You don’t have to do anything at all, except maybe sit in a forest, or by a lake.
It’s a limbic system thing. Have you ever been out in nature, somewhere you’ve never been before, yet felt a deeply pleasurable emotion of being at home? This is more what the Norwegian word is getting at.
Re-connecting is a key element. Human beings haven’t changed much if at all, biologically, in the past 10,000 years. For sure, our biology hasn’t evolved in the smidgen of time since moving to cities, living with light bulbs, and creating all kinds of artificial structures and rhythms to replace the natural ones. Biologically, we are adapted to a natural world. Our brains developed in nature’s setting of complex fractal structures – patterns that never repeat themselves exactly such as pine cones, lightning, ice crystals, ocean waves, and tree branches disseminating out to their ends. And we spent thousands of years in-synch with the rhythms of days, moons, and the seasons.
At least dogs know enough to stick their heads out of car windows. Why do they do that? You’d have to be a dog to know for sure, but it’s probably more about smells than sights, fun, or cooling. Dogs have incredible olfactory capabilities, and the more air flowing over their nasal membranes the better. To them, the Free Air Life is far more interesting than the “civilized” interior of your car. Children know it too: they prefer to play outside. Just watch a child playing on a beach, and then watch one sitting on sofa playing a video game, and see who looks to be more in their element.
I had a rough time this past autumn when the clocks changed. I had spent a tad more time outdoors than usual, researching Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes Along Colorado’s Front Range. It caught me by surprise, how synched-up I had become with nature’s rhythms. When the clocks switched suddenly, it was incredibly jarring.
Breaking these rhythms takes energy, but that’s exactly what we do in our everyday lives of clock time, cubicles, and car-to-house. It’s a weird world of straight lines, flat surfaces, unnatural light, and smooth areas. More than ever, for many it’s a life spent staring into a 2.5 by 5 inch phone screen, pressing buttons! Some may find the techno-life over-stimulating, but in truth it might be just the opposite: uninspiring, short-changing to our brains and limbic systems, something that doesn’t nearly stimulate all of our age-old senses, intelligence, and physical abilities.
Not everyone lives in a place where it is easy to enjoy the Free Air Life. But many do, and hardly ever take advantage of it. Colorado’s Front Range is a place where it is incredibly easy. It’s all right there, waiting for us every day of the year.
Maybe 30,000 years from now our biology will no longer need for us to be outside in nature. But that’s not the case right now.