Journey to Arne Naess's Cabin

| 24th December 2009
Arne Naess, the father of the deep ecology movement, spent much time in his cabin on top of a mountain. Paying homage, Paul Miles recreates the trip
Environmentalists who 'succumb to a joyless life' undermine the ecological movement

Small cabins in big wildernesses have long been sources of inspiration. Poets, authors and philosophers have sought refuge from other people to spend time alone in simple shacks, communing with Nature.

Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa wrote 'I don't know what/ Nature is: I sing it/ I live on a hilltop/ In a solitary whitewashed cabin/And that's my definition.'

Nineteenth century American author Henry David Thoreau spent two years in a cabin on the shore of Walden Pond. 'I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,' he wrote.

One man who certainly lived was Norwegian eco-philosopher, activist and keen mountaineer, Arne Naess. He spent weeks on end at his simple hut, 1,500 metres up a mountain, the highest private cabin in Scandinavia. Naess died in his sleep in Oslo at the age of 96 in 2008. His simple wooden dwelling remains, just as he left it, on the slopes of Hallingskarvet, a 40km long, broad mountain that he considered 'the benevolent, protecting father [and] divine being.'

Back to nature

Naess's writings can be hard-going at times. His intellect was so great (he read Ethics written in Latin by the Dutch philosopher, Spinoza, as a schoolboy) that those of us without a background in philosophy may feel lost at times. But there are sentences that sparkle simply: 'Joy is related to the environment and to nature,' he writes.

'Should the world's misery and the approaching ecocatastrophe make one sad?' questions Naess. 'The remedy against sadness caused by the world's misery is to do something about it,' he answers.

Naess certainly did that. He was the father of the deep ecology movement, an ecological philosophy that values all of nature as much as humanity. In his writings, he encourages ecological activism and calls for communities to develop strategies to protect the Earth.

In 1970, with 300 others, he protested against plans for a dam that would stop the flow of one of Norway's most impressive waterfalls. They chained themselves to rocks and had to be forcibly removed by police. In 1988, when Greenpeace Norway was founded, Naess was a natural choice for its chairman.

A refuge with a view

In Naess's book The Ecology of Wisdom, I read descriptions of his cabin. He built it in his 20s, and chose the site on Hallingskarvet's flank so that it was 'not too high or difficult to reach for transporting materials over snow.' Unexpectedly, it took 62 trips with a horse to carry the timbers and roof shingles. The result was a simple refuge with a 'superb view of a large part of Norway through the window.'

Alone here, he studied Plato and Aristotle, Mahayana Buddhism and Gandhi. He pondered the ideal world and came up with an eight-point summary for his ecological philosophy or ‘ecosophy' of deep ecology. It was attacked by others as being ‘eco-la-la' and too ‘New Age'.

Environmentalists who 'succumb to a joyless life' undermine the ecological movement

Meanwhile, he campaigned for more rights for the ‘ecosphere', while still caring for humanity. 'The fight to preserve and extend areas of wilderness or near wilderness should continue,' he wrote. Hallingskarvet is now a National Park.

Lasting legacy

His thoughtfulness, wisdom and maybe even the apparent contradiction of his cabin, Tvergastein, built in an unspoiled wilderness, inspired me. I missed the chance to meet him during his life, but there was still the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the source of his inspiration.

Naess was all for enjoying our time on Earth and for retaining a childlike, playful inquisitiveness. Life should be a joyful adventure. Environmentalists who 'succumb to a joyless life' undermine the ecological movement, he wrote.

I journeyed by train for over thirty hours from London to Oslo and from there to Ustaoset, a small settlement, five hours' train ride west.

The snow was piled deep around the wooden houses, drifting up to their eaves. Our dog sled team was yelping: Alaskan huskies, with pale blue eyes, straining at their harnesses. Then we were off, following a cross-country ski trail, over an open landscape devoid of trees.

I was zipped in, wrapped up, sitting on a reindeer skin and toasty warm but for freezing wind and snow stinging my face. Standing behind me, the musher, Steinar Kvittingen, called to his dogs to turn left then right. They hunkered down, quiet now, pink tongues lolling from open mouths. We left the trail and headed towards the mountain.

The dog team strained through a blizzard of fine snow, pulling our sled towards the mountain. Then we stopped. "We will snowshoe from here," hollered my guide, Kenneth Trasti-Smedstad, above the wind. "It's too steep for the sled." Forcing spiked toes into the ice-packed flank, we climbed carefully upwards. Just as we were nearing the goal of our journey, the clouds cleared and all was calm. There, above us, was the philosopher's cabin, in crystalline sunshine.

The ascent

When we stopped for Kenneth and me to put on snowshoes, Steinar turned back with his dogs, disappearing into the blizzard. Kenneth plunged cross-country skis upright into the snow that we would retrieve later so we could ski back to the village. Then we began our ascent.

When the sun shone, it was as if Nature were laying on a warm welcome after a chilly first encounter. Far away below, rounded hills and frozen lakes were covered in whiteness. Behind the cabin, a cliff, its ancient rock softened with a liberal dusting of snow, led to the summit.

Next to a drystone wall Naess built to protect his wooden refuge from westerly winds, there were deep, dune-like drifts. A solar panel twinkled on the south-facing front. The cabin's black-painted wood was warm to the touch. Like Pessoa's 'whitewashed cabin', Naess's retreat seemed to become part of Nature.

I peered through a window - walls were lined with books on rough, homemade shelves. There was Berkeley's philosophy, From Hegel to Nietzsche and Plato's Republic. There were tomes by Indian philosophers and others in Chinese script. It was as if I had entered a scene from the work of another Norwegian, Jostein Gaarder, author of Sophie's World. Surrounded by sparkling sunshine and snow, I didn't know where to look - inwards or outwards.

But on a day like this, it was the view from the mountaintop that was pure Joy.

Further information:

The eight points of deep ecology:

1. The flourishing of human and nonhuman life on earth has inherent value. The value of nonhuman life-forms is independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

2. Richness and diversity of life-forms are also values in themselves and contribute to the flourishing of human and non-human life on earth.

3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease. [This, his most controversial point, attracted much criticism. He clarified that "the stabilization and reduction of the human population will take time." He acknowledged that "it may be validly objected that if the present billions of humans deeply changed their behaviour in the direction of ecological responsibility, nonhuman life could flourish."]

5. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive and the situation is rapidly worsening.

6. In view of the foregoing points, policies must be changed. The changes in policies affect basic economic, technological and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present and make possible a more joyful experience of the connectedness of all things.

7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.

8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

(Taken from the chapter, The basics of the deep ecology movement in The ecology of wisdom: writings by Arne Naess.)



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