It started with a green light. Andy Meyer noticed it as he looked out from the house where he was staying on Beacon Hill, as his own home underwent renovations to welcome a new baby. “We figured it was a traffic light peeking through the trees,” he said. “And we thought, ‘I wonder if we could walk there one night, if we have the time.’ ”

So Meyer, who is a lecturer of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington, set out with a friend, vowing to limit his use of Google Maps, and walked in the direction of the green light, hoping to find out what it was.

From left: Andy Meyer with friends Daren Salter and Scott Davis, Oct. 19, 2020, in Seattle. The three took part in a walking quest to a distant green traffic light, done in the spirit of friluftsliv, a Scandinavian concept that translates most directly to “free-air life.” (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
From left: Andy Meyer with friends Daren Salter and Scott Davis, Oct. 19, 2020, in Seattle. The three took part in a walking quest to a distant green traffic light, done in the spirit of friluftsliv, a Scandinavian concept that translates most directly to “free-air life.” (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Meyer’s quest is indicative of a new intimacy people are finding in their own homes and neighborhoods in the wake of massive closures and social-distancing practices adopted since the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19. But it’s also an example of the Scandinavian concept known as friluftsliv (pronounced “free-loofts-leev”), which translates most directly to “free-air life.” The term is attributed to Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, but the concept of spending time outdoors in all seasons long predates him as a deep-seated element of life in the Nordic countries.

More expansive than outdoor recreation and less self-serious than outdoor adventure, friluftsliv describes “whatever you go to REI for,” said Meyer. “But in Norway, it’s this deeper concept of having space from other people, which is kind of a Norwegian thing to do, and then it has that sense of being able to wander freely outside.”

As we approach the first COVID winter in Seattle, a city with deep Scandinavian roots, friluftsliv may also be a helpful model for continuing to spend time outdoors during the coldest, darkest time of the year — something Norwegians have practiced since long before the pandemic.

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“You also have the long dark winter, famously, in Scandinavia, and I think [Norway’s COVID-19 response and friluftsliv are] related in that way,” Meyer said. “You have already this sense of, there’s going to be a period every year where it’s going to be hard to be happy, where … the everyday life of doing the things you like to do is sort of interrupted for a time, under normal circumstances, by the changing of the season and the loss of daylight, and the cold that comes with it.”

In Norway, friluftsliv is so deeply ingrained into daily life that it starts in kindergarten. “Norwegian kindergartens are famous for being outdoors,” said Meyer. “In all weather, you will go outside for recess, if not for a good portion of the day.” (Outdoor preschools are Washington’s answer to Norwegian kindergartens; last year, the state became the first in the country to license them.)

A phrase you’ll find in Norwegian kindergartens, said Meyer, is one frequently associated with friluftsliv: “Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær!”

In English, it means “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” It’s a cute phrase — in the original Norwegian, it even rhymes — but it belies a larger legal and infrastructural framework for outdoors culture within the Nordic countries.

Many Scandinavian countries have some version of a law that in Norway is called the allemannsretten, which translates literally as “every man’s right.” “Individuals have the right to travel or to be on land, so private property is real in a sense, but you can never stop someone from walking across your land … there is a right, and a legal structure for people to take advantage of the land,” said Meyer.

(Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times)
(Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times)

This centrality of outdoor activity extends even to public transportation, which Meyer discovered when, living in Oslo, he realized that it was possible to take the subway to cross-country ski areas that were lit at night to allow for skiing after sunset.

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“In Oslo, you take any of those two subway lines out to the very end of the trail and you can put your skis on and go right out of the station, more or less,” he said. “And so you’ll find in the center of the city a bizarre number of people carrying around their cross-country skis to get on the subway and to head out to the trail.”

While that’s not an activity that’s replicable here, Meyer said he saw a similar spirit of access to the outdoors in Seattle’s Healthy Streets initiative, which starting in May closed off several local roads to traffic, allowing protected use for pedestrians and cyclists.

He noted, too, that in the wake of COVID-19, the Norwegian Trekking Association had adjusted its messaging to encourage people to seek out trails in their local areas rather than journeying farther afield — guidance that essentially matches what outdoor recreation authorities encouraged in Washington early in the pandemic.

We might not be able to take public transit to a cross-country ski trail, but the Northwest has long been home to Scandinavian communities and their athletic and cultural traditions, from the Swedish Club’s pancake breakfasts and Ballard’s Syttende Mai parade to the Kongsberger Ski Club, originally founded by Norwegian ski jumpers in 1954 (full disclosure: my dad is a member).

Another component of friluftsliv that feels right at home in Seattle is its emphasis on something akin to social distancing. In Ibsen’s original use of the term, he described “life of the free air for my thoughts” — meaning, said Meyer, “that being out there gave him space from other people’s thoughts … it’s an independence, or a sort of self-isolation that for him in that moment seemed to be very rewarding.”

There are echoes of the Romantic poets here, in the idea that being alone in nature allows for freedom and quiet reflection, and the emphasis on distance from other people resonates with certain stereotypes associated with both the Nordic countries (“How can you tell if a Finn likes you? He’s staring at your shoes instead of his own”) and the Northwest (the ever-controversial Seattle Freeze).

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This pre-COVID social distance may even have contributed to both Norway’s relatively low COVID-19 caseload and the success of Seattle’s containment efforts compared to other major cities (especially considering the Puget Sound region’s status as an early hot spot for the coronavirus.)

But friluftsliv can also be social. Leslie Anderson, director of collections, exhibitions and programs at the National Nordic Museum, sees friluftsliv as a corollary to hygge. The Danish concept of “coziness and comfortable conviviality” was popularized in other countries through a number of books published over the past several years, and has shown up everywhere from marketing language for string lights to the Collins Dictionary’s words of the year for 2016.

While the two concepts are associated with different environments (hygge is internally focused) and different areas of Scandinavia, she said, “It’s about finding contentment … you can see a kind of shared fondness for both spaces and an approach to life where you have designated a space and a way of living with time to recharge.”

No bad weather?

Of course, “just go outside” isn’t advice that will work for everyone. According to Kira Mauseth, senior instructor of psychology at Seattle University, there are psychological and habit-rooted barriers to pursuing outdoor activities in poor weather. 

“People generally aren’t inclined to do things that they aren’t familiar with, and there is a comfort factor for many with enjoying the outdoors in all seasons,” she said. “Unless outdoor winter recreation has been a part of your family’s pattern before and is the norm, people might not realize how easy it is to go do things outside when the weather changes, and what those benefits are.”

Additionally, said Meyer, there’s a classist tinge to the axiom of no bad weather, only bad clothing. “These days a good rain jacket is a couple hundred dollars,” he said. “And so if I’ve got a bad rain jacket, I’ve got bad clothing, but I can’t afford the newest fancy Arc’teryx rain jacket or whatever you’re assuming that I’ll have access to and so there’s that complicated economic reality there.”

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Still, said Mauseth, there are accessible ways to experience the outdoors, and spending time outside safely is “a generally good recommendation.” “Fresh air, getting a change of scenery from the inside of the house, and developing an appreciation for things in nature all contribute to well-being,” she said. “Having a different perspective on things outside that you may see through your window, as well as being immersed in a physically different environment, even for a short time, can help to increase a sense of ‘connection to the moment’ that helps to reduce anxiety for people.”

As winter looms, there’s also potential for problematic intermixing between COVID-related restrictions and mental health challenges like depression and anxiety, that may be exacerbated by dwindling daylight and limited opportunities for interaction. Mauseth recommends that people who find themselves in the middle of this particularly claustrophobic Venn diagram spend even brief amounts of time outdoors “when it is safe to do so.” This could be something as simple as a walk to the mailbox, she said, or as involved as hiking or bicycling — all activities that fit under the generous umbrella of friluftsliv.

(Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times)
(Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times)

This approach might also be beneficial if you have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) related to winter darkness and what Mauseth describes as a “a perceived inability to get outside and be active or connect with others as much.” “Staying connected and staying active will help decrease symptoms of depression,” Mauseth said. Following public health directives doesn’t necessarily preclude all social interaction, either: In the spirit of friluftsliv, physically distanced social activities you engage in already can continue outdoors.

According to the Nordic Museum’s Anderson, this could mean something as simple as sharing a meal or moving a typically indoor activity, like watching a movie, outside. “You don’t have to monitor your Fitbit for your pulse and how many flights you’ve climbed in order to live the friluftsliv lifestyle,” she said.

Finding the light

After Meyer and his friend set out to find the green light across the water, they crossed the I-90 bridge and walked up into Mercer Island, making their way through the streets until they were pretty sure they were standing beside the light they’d seen through the trees.

“I called my partner from there and said, ‘OK, watch. We hit the [pedestrian] button. Watch when it turns green. Is it the same light?'” said Meyer. “And so she watched, and sure enough, it was the same light.”

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After their phone call, Meyer’s partner came to pick them up. “The sense of satisfaction felt bizarrely big,” he said. “We did it, and it was such a meaningless thing to do, but so fun.”

Making something out of nothing, finding even utterly random reasons to go outside — these are the things that may help us get through winter, whether or not we can pronounce the word “friluftsliv.”

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Meyer might have looked out at the green light across the water and wondered about it, but it’s unlikely he would have gone to the trouble of finding out where it was coming from. Now, because he was willing to go outside and treat a stretch of the city as something like a hiking trail (no Discover Pass needed), he knows for sure.

(Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times)
(Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times)

“That arbitrary feeling of having a destination in your own backyard can suddenly make it exotic. It adds this layer of interest to the every day,” said Meyer. “And I think that’s one of the weird things that the COVID time can do, when combined with an idea like friluftsliv — getting out into the open air and recognizing that that’s where we live, that’s where we came from … we’ve locked ourselves inside, but we shouldn’t forget that we sort of belong out there at a certain animal level.”

This story was updated to clarify Andy Meyer’s title at UW. He is a lecturer.

Some ideas for how to practice friluftsliv

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