Walks in the woods, fields and mountains are an important part of Norwegian culture, and the notion that outdoor activities are good for everyone is a kind of established truth.
In her doctoral studies at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, Tuva Beyer Broch has challenged established ideas about outdoor activities and examined how minority youth perceive their encounter with Norwegian outdoor life.
The dissertation comprises analysed accounts and descriptions of trips and activities Broch has had with young people. One example describes «Lea's» first outing in Nordmarka:
«Lea looks at the others; she is afraid the other skiers will laugh at her. On this ski track, everything and everyone is white... A more key observation may be that we see no one learning to ski; they whiz past, back and forth on all sides. Lea is enveloped in symbolic whiteness in a motionless, man-made landscape where whiteness glide by confidently and at high speed...»
Became well acquainted with young people
Broch has been with two groups of young people who participated in activities through an outdoor organization she calls Mimo. Mimo offers free outdoor activities to minority youth from the east side of Oslo.
The field work lasted for two years. The second year she participated daily in Mimo's activities and was also with the young people she had the best contact with at home.
– I spent time getting to know the young people, their thoughts and feelings and I have tried to depict their life world. I have concentrated primarily on emotions, what the young people feel, both through their words, body, and language, how emotions affect our perceptions of reality, Broch says.
In her thesis, she discusses a topic about which very little has been written in Norway and the Nordic countries, and she hopes the dissertation will contribute to a new knowledge about outdoor life and minority youth. Broch argues that it is important to dare to conduct research on emotions.
– To understand not only what is happening, but also why it is happening, the field worker must dare to explore her own feelings as well as take part in others' feelings. If one expects to say something reasonable about the importance of outdoor activities in young people's lives, or as an arena for integration, it is not enough to spend a weekend observing or interviewing a school class.
Lea attracts attention in white Normarka
One of the main findings is that the outdoor recreational areas in the Oslo environs are not neutral territory, despite the notion that nature is for everyone.
When Broch went up to Frognerseteren to ski with the Mimo young people, she learned, through them, what it's like to be different in a white world.
– We literally entered a white landscape – both the snow and the people were white at Frognerseteren. The young people felt alienated, and distanced themselves somewhat from the landscape. They would not have been there at all if it wasn't for Mimo.
They had their own perceptions of the landscape. We are normally accustomed to see sparkling white snow as beautiful whereas several of the young people seemed to perceive it as simply cold. At the same time they demonstrate that encounters between charged landscapes, different activities and skin colours can be fragile, fun and educational. One example is the Lea's ski trip.
– People smile at her and cheer her on in her attempt to go skiing. She wonders why they just smile at her. She didn't like it. But what would have happened if no one smiled? These are sensitive encounters. After the trip, Lea laughingly exclaimed that she was almost dead from fatigue, that this thad been the worst day of her life, but that she would not want to be anywhere else.
Oslo – A divided city
Skiing and long treks in the woods are activities that these young people perceived as being particularly Norwegian and linked with white skin colour. Activities like cycling, fishing, swimming and curling were more neutral.
– But it is not only minorities who experience this; it also includes children of ethnic Norwegian parents who have not been offered this in their childhood." Moreover, the feeling of alienation may be intensified by having a different skin colour than that of the majority, Broch says.
Through the experiences of the young people, her impression of Oslo as a divided city – roughly divided into east and west at the National Theatre underground station – was reinforced. Broch describes a subway ride from Oslo east to Frognerseteren, which illustrates the divided status.
– They didn't feel comfortable wearing ski boots on the subway. One activity organizer said, "Just wait until we get to the National Theatre; everyone wears ski boots there". And sure enough, at the National Theatre people poured in, wearing complete ski outfits. Lea shouted so everyone could hear it, «Is this national ski day or something, what are they all doing here?». We all had a good laugh then.
Think and feel differently about outdoor life
In Norway, outdoor activities are emphasized as an important way to achieve both better public health and environmental protection. In particular, the idea is firmly implanted that children benefit from spending time in a natural environment, in what Broch calls 'the green valley of childhood'.
– Didn't outdoor activity generally have a positive effect on the young people?
– I hesitate to draw any conclusion about the effect of outdoor life because the experience is so individual. We must take into account that not everyone thinks and feels alike when they are in the great outdoors. We carry with us different perceptions that affect our experiences. Not everyone finds the peace, some may even be stressed. It must be considered whether outdoor life can be used as an arena for integration.
However, the study shows that outdoor activities can be a great way for youngsters to get to know themselves better. Experiences of nature can be very intense and can trigger many emotions. A good illustration of this is an anecdote from a canoe trip at Lake Nøklevann.
-It was raining, but Nora refused to wear her raincoat and spouted a number of nasty words, but eventually she wound up on the lake. Nora was afraid the canoe would capsize and muttered: «Mother of God... Are you stupid? Are you trying to kill me?» But after a while, sitting calmly in the canoe, she said: "I could fall asleep here. It's just so calm." Her shoulders were relaxed; the tension in her body was relieved.
The feeling of belonging
Most of the people who have been along on Mimo outings remember it as an exciting learning experience. They've seen new sides of themselves. They found the outdoors to be a free zone where they could be themselves.
"I am still in touch with these young people, one is in Nature and Youth; another goes on mountain cabin trips with friends, and one has a girlfriend in the Guide and Scout Association." For many young people, becoming acquainted with outdoor life has made a lasting difference, while others go back to window shopping and TV series.
Tuva Beyer Broch thinks that the study reveals a lot about being a young person in general, irrespective of whether one belongs to a minority or not.
Broch, T.B.: Equilibrium poems. Doctoral dissertation at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. (2018)