Most Norwegians don't really like nature: they are just as conflicted about it as the rest of the world.
It was my fault the moose was dead. True, I hadn't shot it, but I'd flushed it out of the forest and into the line of the hunter's gun. He'd felled it with a single shot.
Flushing out the moose was almost a mistake. My friends had sent me up a ridge, on my own, irritated and slightly nervous. Halfway up I'd got lost. The moose had taken exception to me and headed down the hillside to his death.
He had stumbled slightly when the bullet hit, walked a few paces, and fallen. It had all been very quick. By the time I reached the hunting party he was laid out on the ground, his eyes still open, swarms of flies gathering opportunistically around his corpse.
A perfect image
There's an image imprinted on my mind of our friend Freya lying on the cold October ground, her arm sunk deep in the body cavity of that vast animal. Beside her the heart, the lungs, the entrails steamed in the frigid air. There was very little blood. Freya was skilled and efficient.
Someone made a fire, and we ate a late lunch and drank coffee. We said no to the offer of raw heart and liver, still warm, still quivering. Freya's children played around the carcass, looking into its eye, caressing its fur.
It's a too-perfect image of a Norwegian dream: a land where you kill and process your own food; where nature is a resource to be harvested; where everyone is in touch with the soil; and where killing is done cleanly, quickly and humanely. Later the moose would be hung and quartered, processed by the local butcher and divided amongst Freya's family and friends.
The impossibility of Norway
Norway as a country shouldn't be possible: it's too far north, with too little light and too many cold months: it doesn't make any sense. And yet Norwegian resourcefulness has made it work.
Norwegians survive the elements better than anyone else: that idea is welded into the national soul. It's there in the Sagas, and in modern folk legends: Amundsen versus Scott; the heroes of Telemark versus the Nazis.
So Norwegians love nature. They will tell you this at every opportunity. You are morally obliged to love the great outdoors in this country: dedicating yourself to city life is seen as a character deficiency.
Amundsen and the heroes of Telemark won their battles through better clothes, better equipment, and, crucially, better
Close-up of the dead moose
©2012 Ben McPherson/The Foreignerfieldcraft. And their spirit is there in people like Freya. But not everyone has the fieldcraft. I once spent an excruciating winter afternoon with a man – let's call him Torleif – and a vast ice drill. The ice drill was new, as were Torleif's clothes. We set off heroically into the winter half-light.
“Now to catch some fish,” said Torleif, when we came to the frozen lake. He produced the ice drill with a flourish. It was almost a metre long, like an oversized children's toy, the bit ten cm across.
“You sure this is safe?” I asked.
Torleif smiled and placed the bit on the frozen surface of the lake. He began to drill. A perfectly-round plug of ice rose slowly above the bit.
We smiled at each other. Torleif continued drilling.
“That's odd,” he said after a time. There was brown slush now, and suddenly earth. We moved to another part of the lake and started again. Again we hit brown slush, and again we hit earth. Four more times we tried. Each time we hit the bottom of the lake.
Finally we found a place where there was a little peaty water under the ice. We dropped our lines through the hole and jiggled uselessly until our fingers got cold. We caught nothing. The lake was no more than a metre deep. Torleif was mortified.
In the blood?
To be a good Norwegian is to be good at catching and killing your own food, and being good at it isn't easy. It's tempting to laugh at this, but that would be unfair: the cultural pressures are enormous. These things are supposed to be in the blood.
Two generations ago, most people worked on on the land, or on the sea. Those people depended on hunting skills – you, or someone you knew, needed to be able to catch fish through the ice, or draw the guts out of a moose.
These days it's astonishing that anyone can do these things at all. 78 per cent of Norwegians live in cities or urban areas (UN, 2005). Friends of mine tell me they feel quietly guilty that they don't have the fieldcraft their grandparents had, but who can blame them? I'm willing to be that for every Freya there are five Torleifs, people guilt-tripped by their culture into playing farmers-and-fishers when really they'd be happier drinking coffee in town.
An island near Kragerø, southern Norway
©2012 Ben McPherson/The ForeignerMost Norwegians are not out trekking the beautiful wastes of the Hardangar plateau, or sailing small boats through the Northwest passage. In a country where you can be completely alone in nature, most people choose not to be. Instead, the countryside has become a place where Norwegians from cities go to meet their city friends and pretend that the wilderness is still in their soul.
You see this best in hyttefelter, the strange modern cities of cabins that you find up in the mountains. They are placed in wilderness areas which then, of course, cease to be wilderness areas and become a strange kind of mountain suburb. The worst of these are vast, high-density holiday camps with scorchingly expensive prices and identical off-the-shelf cabins: caravan parks for people who wouldn't be seen dead in a caravan.
The cabins are a pastiche of simple hunting cabins – if hunting cabins had double-glazing and flushing toilets. Outside they exude homely false modesty, with their tiny windows and their grass on the roof; inside they're all heated floors and multi-channel television.
People travel to the hyttefelt to experience the magnificence of the Norwegian outdoors and to ski under the stars, but increasingly they sit on their overstuffed sofas eating Cheez Doodles and drinking diet soda with their friends from the next-door cabin.
Mountain cabins sell a dream of a simpler life, one in which you can live as your grandparents did. But what modern person wants to live the life their grandparents lived? How many people are willing to put in the hours scrubbing mouse droppings off the floor and fetching their water from the lake? Half of all Norwegians own or have access to a cabin [link]. Most of them don't really want nature: they want a version of nature with the difficult bits removed.
In Britain, we slaughtered our last wolf in the 18th Century. Norwegian farmers will probably achieve this goal some time in the next 20 years. But it won't be officially sanctioned culling that achieves this but under-the-radar illegal hunting.
Last year there were only 23 adult wolves in Norway. This year, only eleven of those animals remained alive according to Rovdata, part of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. Ten of those wolves disappeared without a trace, and the whereabouts of two more are unknown. Illegal hunting was the only possible explanation for this, Rovdata told Aftenposten in June.
The last Norwegian to be killed by a wolf died in 1800. Wolves pose no danger to people, and an insignificant danger to livestock. It's hard to understand why there isn't an outcry about this wholesale destruction of an apex predator. You can only conclude that Norwegians' love of nature only extends so far. So far the only thing that has prevented the final collapse of the wolf population is immigration by Swedish wolves from over the border. Say what you like about whaling, but it doesn't threaten the eradication of an entire species.
Norway is lucky – it still has true wilderness, and it has people who have the skills and the fieldcraft to thrive in those areas. But as it mutates from a rural to a city-based economy, it's losing something utterly unique. It's in danger of turning nature into a kind of theme park for people who no longer really like nature.
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