From Cabin Crazy: In Search of Norwegian Happiness
(Knytta til hytta: på sporet av den norske lykken)
by Magnus Helgerud
Published by Aschehoug, 2020
Translated from the Norwegian by Alison McCullough (see chapter overview at the bottom of the text)
‘When I lie down to sleep, my thoughts always wander off to a little cabin.’
My grandmother was an outdoorsy sort of person. She was a cabin person. But right now she’s here, in her bedroom in the city, gazing longingly at a painting of a notched log cabin that’s hanging on the wall. Rustadstuen, with its stained-brown timber and red shutters, its green turf roof. Far off the beaten path, deep in the forests just south of Trondheim. This is where her thoughts take her when she gets into bed at night.
‘Do you miss spending time at the cabin, Mommo?’ I ask her.
‘What was that, Magnus?’
She’s already taken out her hearing aids and so squints at me.
‘The cabin – do you miss it?’ I say, making my voice loud and clear.
The question hangs there in the air between us. Mommo glances up at the painting on the wall again and folds her hands in front of her, before she slowly takes a breath and sighs:
Then, in her thick Trondheim accent, she begins to recite a poem she once wrote in her cabin guest book, many years ago – there’s nothing wrong with her memory when it comes to the time she spent at her cabin.
Here I can wander, alone all around
And marvel at all the small things to be found
The plants and flowers that blossom and grow
Countless tracks that reveal where the animals go
All the wonders that have been bestowed
In my paradise on earth
Mommo was seven years old when her parents took possession of Rustadstuen in 1942, and over the next seventy years she would spend weeks at a time up there whenever the opportunity presented itself – whether in spring, summer, autumn or winter. She’s never been shopping in London, nor been on a cruise, and there are no photographs of her standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. Mommo has been on a beach holiday in the Mediterranean just once in her life – she much preferred to spend her holidays at the cabin in Norway. It had no plumbed-in water, no electricity and no neighbours, but it had everything she needed. Then Mommo began to need nursing care. My grandmother is now eighty-five years old, and requires the support of both a walking frame and a home nurse in order to manage her daily activities.
Mommo is no longer able to wander alone through the nature that surrounds Rustadstuen. The very inaccessibility that made the spartan log cabin her paradise on earth is now the thing that makes it practically impossible for her to go there. But this poem that she continually recites to herself is like a secret magic spell – an abracadabra that transports her back in time and enables her to relive seven decades of sparkling, icy-cold winter days spent skiing, long hikes taken on warm summer evenings and the countless hours she spent playing solitaire in the pale light of a paraffin lamp.
Just a month before she suffered a stroke, Mommo was sitting on the stone steps outside the cabin. As she breathed in the clear, autumn air, she wrote one of her many poems. Its first line would sadly prove to be a self-fulfilling prophesy: ‘Maybe I’ll return / maybe only when I close my eyes / but that’s certain as the sunrise.’ It was as if she knew that she and Rustadstuen would soon be parted.
But Mommo continues to visit the cabin often, in a way. Every evening she ushers an entire pack of Labradors into her car – a big Mitsubishi Space Wagon with faded red paint. She backs out of the yard and sets off south down the E6. After passing Heimdal, she drives alongside the Trondheim Fjord towards Orkanger. The dogs in the back seat become restless – they know they’ll spend the next few weeks running free through the forest and swimming after sticks. They’re excited; eager to arrive. After an hour, Mommo turns off down a logging road. She drives past the old shooting range and the marshes where cloudberries grow, on towards a small forest lake dotted with waterlilies and past the red rowing boat. She parks her car at the side of the gravel trail, and, accompanied by the dogs, starts down the path that leads to the cabin. She unpacks her supplies, feeds the dogs, goes to collect water from the well and carries in logs from the woodshed to make a fire in the wood burner. Come on you mutts, let’s wash away the stink of the city, she says, and pads back down to the lake to enjoy an evening swim.
Mommo calls out into the living room, wanting the company of the last of the Labradors to remain in the house.
She’s ready to head off to the cabin for the evening, and wants her golden-coated friend by her side.
‘Mommo, is it okay if I quote your poems in the book I’m writing?’ I ask her.
‘Yes, and… I’m so looking forward to reading your book, Magnus. But you mustn’t let yourself get distracted. No messing around. Not when you’re about to set out on a hike in the wilderness.’
‘Of course not, Mommo – I’ll be careful. And I’ll be sure to act responsibly.’
My grandmother is far from alone in having such a close connection to a cabin. Statistics show that the average Norwegian cabin owner spends almost fifty days a year in their little hideout in the mountains or by the sea. Around 5,000 new cabins are built in Norway each year – there’ll soon be half a million of them in total. Norway is a nation of cabin lovers. Norwegians are cabin crazy.
The book you’re now holding in your hands is an attempt to understand why Mommo – and so many other Norwegians like her – see their cabin as their true home in the world. What might our relationship to these places, to the nature around them and the things we do there, tell us about where we come from, who we are – and our dreams?
In this book, we’ll set out on two parallel journeys: one that will take us through the landscapes of popular science and the history of cabin culture, and a real journey from the mountains to the fjords of the Norwegian Cabintopia.
First, we’ll celebrate Easter at my parents’ cabin in the mountains in Vinje in Telemark. Here, we’ll learn how to ‘cabin-ize’ a house, and struggle up ski slopes with the father of Norway’s famous Kvikk Lunsj chocolate bars (in the process ignoring a couple of the safety tips offered by the Norwegian Mountain Code, which is printed on the inside of the wrapper). We’ll play Monopoly against brothers who always win, talk about the exploitation of nature and find out how many Norwegians of Somalian heritage we need to chat to in order to find the country’s two Norwegian-Somali cabin owners.
But the Norwegian cabin dream isn’t just lived out in the mountains. Beside the sea in the summer, strenuous skiing trips are exchanged for motorheads, southerly winds and rest and relaxation along the shoreline. In the second part of the book, we’ll therefore set out on a road trip. During the hottest summer in living memory we’ll take a drive through the Norwegian Riviera. Along the way, we’ll drink champagne with rich cabin owners from Oslo, be invited to party with the caravaners of Telemark, and make our way to Sørlandet to read Southern Norway propaganda and meet men who – without fail – spend every long-awaited holiday busily painting some part of their cabin. But there’s more to our trip than simply enjoying the pleasant atmosphere of the archipelago. We’ll also go on building scandal safari to investigate the billionaires blowing up beaches to make way for the cabins of their dreams – and find out what happens to a summer idyll by the sea when fifty members of a family are forced to share a cabin with a floor plan of just fifty square metres.
We’ll meet county governors who hate cabins with flat roofs, doctors who advocated the use of stinging jellyfish as a medicinal treatment, famous Norwegian poets like Rudolf Nilsen and Inger Hagerup, the first woman to cross the Hardangervidda plateau on skis, a mother who in the year 1892 was afraid to let her daughters take skiing trips in male company, a nature conservationist who believed that a cabin painted in ugly colours was more of a pollutant than rubbish, a Norwegian girl of Somali descent who quotes Hamsun and dreams of a bolthole beside the sea, teenagers who don’t want to go on family cabin trips, philosophers like avid hiker Friedrich Nietzsche and ‘deep ecologist’ Arne Næss, and a philosophically inclined furniture dealer who believed that comfortable armchairs beside the fireplace posed a serious threat to the real cabin life. Because how have technology and comfort changed the Norwegian cabin lifestyle?
This journey through history and popular science and the people I meet along my way will help me answer a question I’ve long pondered: why are we Norwegians so crazy about cabins?
Chapter one: How to ‘cabin-ize’ a house
The Drivarbekkdalen valley in Vinje, Telemark
Easter morning with Norwegian footballers and radio quizzes
If a pig should bite off a traveller’s testicles
‘You can grow some beautiful roses with a regular bowel!’
Welcome to Haugtun. When my parents purchased this cabin in the Drivarbekkdalen valley in Vinje municipality in Telemark in the mid-1990s, it was not – strictly speaking – a mountain cabin at all. For one thing, the house had never been used as a holiday home, but perhaps even more importantly: it looked nothing like a mountain cabin. The building itself, a classic detached bungalow-style property with a floor plan of fifty square metres, was built in 1949, and was for several years occupied by the village postman. The postbag and wooden skis he had used to deliver letters and newspapers during the winter were still in the property’s little shed when we took it over. The cladding was painted white and the window frames were blue, as was the front door. It looked just like any other godforsaken house in Upper Telemark, where it stood next to a narrow gravel road beside a little stream, opposite a patch of marshland.
This ‘cabin’ was in fact painted in exactly the same colours as our house down in Porsgrunn. Back home – on the opposite side of the county and at the centre of Telemark’s industrial belt – it was of course perfectly fine to live in a blue and white house. But now that our family had bought a cabin in the mountains – in the most Telemark-ish region of Telemark, no less – it was important to my parents that the property look like a mountain cabin. And if this house was ever going to look anything like a mountain cabin, something would have to be done. As my father pointed out in the very first entry to be written in the cabin’s guestbook: ‘This is a cabin we can make our mark on.’
Easter morning with Norwegian footballers and radio quizzes
One would think that owning a second home somewhere out in the wilderness would be reward enough in itself, but cabin aesthetics have long been an extremely important part of the Norwegian Cabintopia. A little pamphlet entitled Before You Build a Cabin, written in 1962, provided anyone harbouring dreams of owning a cabin with a kind of introductory course in the correct aesthetics: ‘Just as a cabin should not be a smaller version of the city home, nor should its interior decoration be in the city style – quite simply because we live an entirely different kind of life at a cabin than in the city.’1
Back when this pamphlet was written, there was much discussion about whether Norwegians had begun to make their hideaways in the mountains and by the sea far too fancy. A magazine for cabin owners clearly expressed the duality that surrounded what a cabin could or should look like on the inside: ‘What about soft floor coverings at your cabin? Wall-to-wall carpeting doesn’t have to be a reflection of self-indulgent extravagance and excessive spending. In fact, wall-to-wall carpeting also has some purely practical benefits.’2
Some individuals wagged their index fingers, warning that this ‘self-indulgent extravagance’ and hysteria for interior design would soon take root and spread throughout the Norwegian cabin world. The public relations manager at the National Federation of Furniture Dealers at this time was a man named Willy Vyrje, and in addition to being the bearer of a name worthy of a cartoon character and having a singular talent for selling furniture, he also appears to have been a gifted philosopher. And as we’ll see later on, I’m not being ironic when I say this. Because Vyrje was of the opinion that the way in which a cabin was fitted out could have an edifying effect:
By living simply at their cabin, people can learn to understand that it is also possible to live with simpler furniture at home. Cabin furniture should encourage activity. At a cabin, one should have a desire to go out and collect firewood. This won’t be the case if you furnish your cabin with deep armchairs into which you sink and disappear. […] It’s possible to have a perfectly comfortable, cosy time – even with pine furniture with visible knots.
There are undoubtedly plenty of deep armchairs in modern Norwegian cabins, but today it’s more likely to be the screens of our electronic devices that we disappear into, and which make the walk out to the woodshed feel like a long mountain hike. Comfort and technology seem to occupy the top spots on the list of priorities for cabin people of the twenty-first century, and today it is probably more appropriate to ask whether we’re all now suffering from a collective form of self-indulgence that simply didn’t exist during wall-to-wall carpeting’s heyday.
In any event, the white-painted and rather stalwart little house that my parents purchased in 1994 had to be turned into a cabin. And in a fairly short space of time – by taking a few small but significant steps in the spirit of Willy Vyrje – we managed to transform it into a mountain lodge.
But before I tell you about how this cabin-ization process unfolded here in Drivarbekkdalen, there’s a couple of things that I need to point out.
The front door is old, and therefore difficult to close. You have to give it a really good tug, and it’s important to close it properly because if you don’t the dogs escape and run off into the forest, and Mamma will start to go on about how we don’t need to heat the entire valley. It’s been suggested that we ought to consider replacing the door more than once, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon – as any self-respecting Norwegian cabin owner knows, a family cabin is much like a museum, where time is supposed to stand still. When Gunnar, our local snowplough driver, has to come along with his tractor to shove it shut with the vehicle’s shovel, then maybe we’ll consider it.
Mamma and Pappa each have their set place in one of the two chairs that stand on either side of the hearth. For some reason or other these are as far as possible from the TV, which is at the other end of the living room – a fact that invariably leads to generational conflict in the battle for control of the remote’s volume button when watching the Beat for Beat variety show on Friday nights.
The bedrooms are accessed from the living room, on the other side of the fireplace. In our room my brother Anders, who is five years my junior, sleeps in the lower bunk, while I sleep in the top. When I wake up there in the top bunk, I come face to face with Norwegian footballers Erik Thorstvedt and Jan Åge Fjørtoft. In 1994, I collected football stickers, and stuck some of the duplicates I had on the wall – that was my contribution to the decorating of the cabin. Erik and Jan Åge are now part of the inventory. Easter morning at the cabin wouldn’t have been the same without waking up with them.
Of course some things up here have been replaced over the years. Improvements have been made – although some might say that such changes actually amount to ‘de-cabin-ization’. We started with an antenna on the roof, a little 17-inch travel television in the corner, and one channel; after a time, we were allowed to take our old VHS player up there. Some of the tapes are still here – The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix, a tape with a few episodes of Friends, and a James Bond film. After much back and forth, towards the end of the century a PlayStation was also granted admittance. We now have a satellite dish on the wall, a flatscreen TV in the corner, and a full package of digital channels.
And we have the Internet – which was actually something my mother forced through. With the Internet, Pappa would be able to more easily access his email up here, which would mean that he would be able to spend more time here, too.
In 1994, we drank water from the stream in summer and melted snow in the winter. Now we turn on the tap and have an electric kettle.
The final addition is a kind of sauna cabinet that produces infrared heat. Mamma found it for free on a classifieds website, and it’s since been placed in the little box room just off the bathroom. It has a built-in CD player, which doesn’t work, and it never gets warmer than 41°C in there. It is, in other words, little more than a clammy, silent room with plastic walls and a very low ceiling. I’ve suggested that Mamma put it back on the website.
As for the big, portable silver radio – which informed us of the skiing conditions at Easter and brought word of the swimming temperatures during the summer – there was of course no use for it after the national broadcasting station abandoned the FM band. So we had to buy new cabin radio. Which we’re going to turn on right now.
In Trondheim city centre you meet a man with a sharp knife in his hand, a lathered bar of soap and a white bib. Under his arm he’s carrying a French newspaper, and suddenly he starts to sing. But it isn’t long before another man, in a red outfit and with a sword in his hand, takes over and points to a gypsy girl holding a cigarette, who’s also singing. Where’s our destination this time?!
During the Easter holidays, is there any better way to start the day than at 9 o’clock in the morning, accompanied by an enthusiastic voice on the radio that wants you to meet a knife-wielding singer and a smoking gypsy girl? For a Norwegian with quizzes in the blood, the Easter Labyrinth on NRK P1 is a cultural Easter-morning-at-the-cabin ritual that’s not to be missed. I’m one of the 900,000 Norwegians who at this very moment are trying to figure out ‘where’s our destination this time’.
Since as far back as 1987, Viggo Valle has hosted this geography quiz in which listeners are presented with a number of riddles with relatively intricate clues. Callers generally chat a little about where they are celebrating Easter, who their fellow quiz mates are – who can all usually be heard in the background – their jobs and their hobbies or interests, before they attempt to figure out the destination using the cryptic information they are given. If the participants don’t manage to figure out the right answer, another caller is given a chance. The final is held on Easter Eve, where those who have managed to identify the most destinations during the week battle it out for the winning spot.
Here at Haugtun we’ve tried to establish a few rules as to how we consume this radio programme. Nobody is allowed to speak while Viggo reads out the information, and we mustn’t use the Internet to look up the clues. But this regime isn’t exactly always adhered to – Mamma tends to blurt out the ideas that occur to her every time, while Pappa sits with his mobile under the table, trying to Google clues on the sly.
Quizzes, cabins and Easter are a kind of Norwegian holy trinity. For a great many Norwegians, there is no Easter without a trip to a cabin, and no real Easter cabin holiday without some form of quiz. A popular myth has it that the word ‘quiz’ came into use in the year 1791. A theatre manager in Dublin by the name of Richard Daly is said to have made a bet with some friends that over the course of a day or two he would be able to introduce an entirely new word into the daily speech of the city’s population. He then sent his colleagues out onto Dublin’s streets with pieces of white chalk in their hands, and asked them to write the word ‘Quiz’ on the walls. People began to talk about this strange word, and since nobody knew what it meant, it was presumed to be a form of puzzle or test. And so Daly won the bet.
Whether this story is true, however, is doubtful. A more plausible explanation for the word’s origin posits that those who taught Latin often used quizzes as part of their teaching. In Latin, for example, the question ‘who was Aristotle?’ is ‘Quis fuit Aristoteles?’, and so the word is thought to have arisen here. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first registered incidence of the word ‘Quiz’ is dated to 1781 – ten years before Daly allegedly won his bet – and at this time the word was used to refer to all kinds of things, from a strange and eccentric person to a pedantic stickler for the rules.
But our quiz activities at the cabin don’t stop when Viggo Valle thanks his audience for listening at 11 am. Here at Haugtun, we have an entire collection of Home magazine’s annual Easter quiz books lining the shelves; we play Quiz Battle on our mobiles against friends who are spending Easter at other cabins dotted around the mountains; the newspapers are full of quiz pages, and when evening comes it is of course time for the Easter quiz shows on TV. There’s also an ancient edition of the Gull-Geni board game up here, in which one of the question categories is ‘Events that happened in 1996/97’. If you can remember what the weather was like during the 50-kilometre ski race at the Nordic World Ski Championships in Trondheim, then this is the game for you. And in case you’re unsure of the answer: it rained.
After we’ve been out skiing at Easter to train our physical bodies, we sit down on the sofa, not to relax, but to train our brains – and to show off that we know that the capital of Burkina Faso is Ouagadougou.
The quiz activities at Haugtun continue even in the bathroom. There’s a decent pile of quiz books stacked beside the toilet, and right now I’m standing here with the bathroom door ajar so as not to miss out on solving the morning’s Easter Labyrinth riddle.
The woman who has just called in hesitates as she begins her reasoning.
‘Oh… Well…yes, there’s quite a few clues here. A sharp knife and a white bib. A newspaper. And a gypsy girl. And then France as well! I’m starting to wonder whether all this must have something to do with a famous chef…’
‘Maybe,’ answers Viggo, his voice doubtful. ‘So where in France is our destination?’
‘No, no, no,’ I shout to the others who are sitting out in the living room as I stand there peeing. ‘She’s way off! The newspaper must be Le Figaro. So this has to be The Barber of Seville. Our destination is Se-vi-lla!’
When my parents purchased Haugtun in 1994, it wasn’t possible to participate in the Easter Labyrinth and use the loo simultaneously – a far more preferable situation, some might exclaim. Because back then, the bathroom facilities here were poor. In the outhouse, we set up an improvised toilet solution consisting of a low coffee table with a hole cut in it, which stood over a 20-litre plastic bucket. A smaller bucket containing bark, and an even smaller one containing lime, to sprinkle over one’s doings, were placed beside it. Behind the corner of the outhouse we set up a natural urinal in the form of a pissing stone for the male contingent of the household. But for Pappa, who grew up on a farm with a three-seater toilet out in the barn, it hardly seemed like a good idea to climb back down the social ladder by returning to doing his business more or less outdoors. The shame of it! An indoor composting toilet was therefore quickly installed. For a long time, we obtained our water for washing from the stream and by melting snow, but a couple of years ago my parents installed a septic tank with a separate water purifying system, along with a flushing toilet and an ordinary shower.
Even though we now have first-rate sanitary facilities here at the cabin, I often still take a walk out behind the outhouse to use the old pissing stone. There’s just something about relieving oneself out in God’s wild nature. Or at least there is for us men. In the early 1800s, the Romantics described everything from the plateau of the North Cape to Mediterranean volcanoes as arenas for great experiences of the soul, but as far as I’m aware passing water out in God’s wild nature was never paid the tribute it deserves by the great poets and painters. The Romantic era’s nature poets wandered lonely through beautiful natural surroundings, composing moving poems about birds, flowers and masculine melancholy. But a few well-chosen lines about the unrestrained smile and dreamy gaze that adorns a man’s face when he takes a leak to the sound of chirruping birdsong and the smell of spruce and earth – that was something they never saw fit to write.
But there are in fact people who have written poetically about peeing outdoors at cabins – Norwegian comedy duo the Ylvis Brothers (of ‘The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)’ fame). In 2013, the pair released a soul track with an accompanying music video – a wonderfully ironic look at the more curious sides of cabin life. They sang the following: ‘And if you like to piss outside, this is definitely the place for you. Cause I’ve been pissin’ over here, and pissin’ over there. One time I even pissed over here!’
Although it’s the case that practically all cabins built in Norway today are connected to the municipal water supply and sewerage network – often with bathroom facilities that are in no way subordinate to those back home in the city – the concepts of outdoor toilets, waste disposal sites and pissing stones are inextricably linked to the idea of Norwegian cabin life.
The Cabins without electricity Facebook group has a total of 35,000 members, and several dozen images of outdoor toilets are posted to the group’s feed each week. Here, you can ask questions like: ‘We have a two-seater loo at the cabin, and being completely honest now, people – is there really anyone who sits down to do their business in the outhouse in tandem, seeing as the opportunity is there?’ And where you can read answers like the following, from an honest soul somewhere up north: ‘Me and the missus drink our morning coffee at the same time, so it works at the same time, and therefore we have to have two holes.’
Today, should you happen to be the owner of a Norwegian cabin without electricity and with an outdoor toilet, you’ll find yourself at the very top of the cultural cabin hierarchy. Norway is a country in which sitting with your trousers round your ankles, outdoors in temperatures around 20°C below freezing, to do your business in a hole in the ground, affords you rather high status. Outmoded toilet facilities have become a kind of identity marker flaunted by urban cabin owners whenever they’re given the opportunity. A cabin with an outdoor toilet quickly transports you to the upper echelons of Norway’s richest – if only in terms of cultural capital.
But even if you do happen to be the proud owner of such a primitive cabin, it was hardly equipped with an outdoor toilet because your parents or grandparents felt the need to mark their territory – neither literally, nor in a figurative sense. For many of the mountain cabins constructed in the 1960s – and before that, for that matter – this was generally the only alternative. Even in Norwegian towns and cities at this time, the water closet was relatively new. So at this point, we have to take a detour into the history of the lavatory.
If a pig should bite off a traveller’s testicles
An early form of water closet, established in a separate room within the house and connected to sewerage systems in the form of running water beneath the building, was for example in use in Rome as far back as two thousand years ago. But the development of such systems eventually stopped, and in the end the entire concept appears to have been forgotten. The ‘rod in the wall’ was therefore a common technical solution to the lavatory problem in Norway up until a couple of centuries ago – this was generally just an iron rod affixed between two walls, or two trees.
In addition to the purely hygienic challenges of this device, it also posed other problems. If there were pigs in the area, they might become a little overeager to bite low hanging fruit. The following rules were therefore enforced at guesthouses and inns:
The guesthouse is responsible for ensuring travellers’ comfort and convenience by providing a ‘rod the wall’ a certain height above the ground. If the rod is not installed at the correct height, the innkeeper is liable should a pig bite off the travellers’ testicles. However, if the rod is installed at the correct height and the pig bites off the traveller’s testicles, this is entirely the traveller’s own affair.4
This law was actually illustrated in a version of Swedish King Magnus Eriksson’s national legislation from around the year 1440, with a drawing of a squatting naked man and a pig standing behind him. So we can assume that this was a fairly common problem.
Towards the end of the 1500s, Englishman John Harington invented what is said to be the first modern water closet to feature a flush system. Harington was the godson of Queen Elizabeth I, who was apparently so impressed with his invention that she had one made for herself. But it would still be some time before water closets began to appear in Europe once more, and even the magnificent Palace of Versailles just outside Paris was in the 1700s known for its stench. Members of the royal household had their own bathrooms with relatively hygienic toilet solutions, but the thousands of people working at the palace at any given time relieved themselves in the stairwells and all kinds of nooks and crannies. At one point, Louis XIV therefore deemed it necessary to inform his staff that excrement must be removed from the halls at least once a week.
In Norway, progress was especially slow in this area, and there were several reasons for this. Among other things, it was believed that the climate was too cold to permit the construction of a suitable sewerage system in the capital, but it was also feared that discharging human waste into rivers and fjords might damage the fish stocks. And human waste was also regarded as a valuable resource, in the sense that it could be turned into fertiliser.
The Christiania Night Soil Factory was founded in 1865 – night soil was a form of fertiliser made from human excrement. By pouring bog soil and lime into the outhouses of the capital’s apartment buildings a chemical reaction occurred, causing the fluid to disappear and the solids to dry out. The waste was then collected from the toilets – a task that had to be performed manually, of course – and loaded onto carts and transported to a warehouse, where it was spread out for further drying. Prohibitions were introduced against emptying rinse water into the outdoor toilets, since this meant that the night soil factories had to use far more lime in order to dry out the waste, and towards the end of the 1870s water closets were forbidden in practice, since excrement from toilets and livestock enclosures had to be kept out of the sewerage system by law. Modern treatment plants did not exist, and the sewerage system was not designed to receive human waste. The untreated sewage was a significant source of contamination and disease.
In true Norwegian cabin quiz spirit, I’d now like to ask readers the following question: In 1907, there were around 7,000 buildings in Norway’s capital. How many of these had a water closet installed? You can check your answer at the bottom of the page.
An increasing number of experts believed that from a purely hygienic point of view, it would be highly beneficial if rather than being left lying around the city, human excrement was instead immediately flushed away. The municipal water closet committee of Christiania, as Oslo was formerly known, had the following to say: ‘a system for the removal of waste, designed for the collection of the contents of water closets around the buildings, its transport around the city and its storage and further treatment by human hands, is principally lacking and unsatisfactory with respect to sanitation.’5
Slowly but surely, the number of buildings connected to the sewerage system in the capital increased over the coming years, but it was only in 1928, when the municipal council permitted sewage to be discharged into the fjord, that flushing when done became a truly widespread phenomenon. In 1940, Oslo suddenly had 75,000 water closets, and in the decades that followed the war newly erected Norwegian properties in densely built-up areas were also equipped with flush toilets. In Norwegian homes, it was finally possible to use the technology that had been invented hundreds – if not thousands – of years earlier.
But in other parts of the country, this growth didn’t occur with quite the same speed. Out in Norway’s rural communities things developed at a much slower pace, and in certain districts on the eastern fringes of Oslo only a quarter of apartments were equipped with their own bathroom as late as 1979 – and even fewer had their own water closet. Oslo municipality initiated the so-called ‘loo campaign’ that same year, expressing their wish to replace all the city’s outdoor toilets with indoor ones over the next few years. In 1991, the Aftenposten newspaper was able to report that there were still around 500 households in the capital that had an outdoor toilet. Ten years later, in January 2001, the same newspaper printed a brief article about the district of Grünerløkka, in which the journalist reported that there were still two men in the city whose job it was to empty toilets.7
‘You can grow some beautiful roses with a regular bowel!’
Many of the cabins built in Norway during the inter- and post-war periods were constructed in areas that were extremely sparsely populated, and ergo these were not connected to the municipal sewerage system. A large number of them – Haugtun included – are still not connected to this system today. In 1972, Statistics Norway estimated that there were around 200,000 cabins in Norway, and could report that over half of them featured an outdoor toilet, while around 40 per cent had a chemical one.8
Fear that septic tanks might leak and pollute the groundwater, the ugly practice of dumping toxic waste randomly out in nature and the discharging of sewage into fjords and the sea, gave rise to much opposition to the chemical toilets. As a part of national broadcaster NRK’s Reiseradioen programme, an ‘organisation’ to promote the old outdoor composting toilet, known as the ‘Friends of Old John’, was founded in 1970. Household celebrities were a central part of the campaign, which was naturally a combination of a comedy stunt and an attempt to promote environmental awareness. ‘The organisation, which doesn’t take itself all that seriously, does have a serious aim: to restore respect for a waste disposal system that for centuries has made a positive contribution to the nation’s gardens, and which doesn’t pollute our waterways and seas.’9
The ‘Friends of Old John’ printed special membership cards featuring drawings by famous Norwegian author and artist Kjell Aukrust, and which contained important details such as the member’s photograph, full name, and last but not least: the height of the drop of the cardholder’s outdoor toilet. The card featured a request to colleagues both at home and abroad ‘to provide the bearer with the necessary assistance’, and on the back of the card was the organisation’s motto: ‘A john in the field is worth ten in the house’. Members soon began to send in photographs of their outdoor toilets to the radio show. Just a few years later, the presenters were telling stories of composting toilets with 360-degree panoramic views and others with drop heights of up to 11 metres, and many cabin owners had taken steps to replace their chemical toilets with a good old-fashioned outdoor john.10
The stunt proved extremely popular, and continued to live its own life in political circles within the Norwegian Cabintopia over the subsequent years. An apparently irritated cabin owner from the north of Norway penned an article in which he described with horror the building application that had been submitted to renovate some cabins for rent in Tranøy municipality on the island of Senja. For him, the water closet represented an environmental hazard. We’ll let him explain:
This building application will not be approved without the construction of washbasins and WATER CLOSETS. The washbasin is a routine matter – but the water closet! The Friends of Old John should establish a branch at the Tranøy building planning office in order to provide information about this vital area. The water closet is one of the worst sources of pollution to be brought about by modern technology. The only natural course of action – and from an ecological point of view, the only right course of action – is that all human waste, whether produced in solid or fluid form, should be returned to the earth. In this context, the old outdoor composting toilet is unsurpassed – a reality that Tranøy planning office should take into consideration, and promptly approve the renovation of the cabins with the environmentally friendly old john. Furthermore, it is worth planting some lush vegetation behind the described establishments, which will in turn provide a biotope for earthworms – to the great pleasure and benefit of those who enjoy fishing.11
It should be said that these water closets at the cabins on the island of Senja would most likely have discharged their contents straight into the fjord – this was not a modern system in which the waste would be sent to a sewage treatment plant. On the contrary, it was possible to apply for so-called ‘individual discharge’ permits, which allowed the disposing of waste directly into the sea.
But others were getting fed up with what they believed was little more than Romantic snobbery on the part of urban cabin owners. One woman was ‘sick of all the talk about the Friends of Old John on the radio’. She complained about how Kjell Aukrust had been photographed on an outdoor toilet for the Dagbladet newspaper, and how he was quoted by the journalist as stating that the very definition of happiness was having such a facility. The woman pointed out that ‘most people who have been dependent on such outdoor toilets say that happiness arrived the day they got an indoor one’.12
The contamination of drinking water and the destruction of fishing spots in rivers was something that many truly feared, and the Norwegian Directorate of Health therefore also joined the great loo debate that same year. They published a pamphlet entitled Your Options, which consisted of forty pages of tips as to which toilet solution was best – from a purely environmental standpoint – for the individual cabin owner. The background for this was a survey that had been carried out in four areas featuring Norwegian cabins, which showed that of the 159 sources of drinking water that were tested, almost half were contaminated. The advantages and disadvantages of solutions such as the outdoor composting toilet, chemical toilet, vacuum toilet, electrical toilet and water closet were duly presented, as were the new regulations regarding ‘sanitary conditions in cabin areas’. The pamphlet was also richly illustrated with amusing drawings – provided by none other than the old john’s best friend, Kjell Aukrust. The image that accompanied the chapter about vacuum toilets naturally depicted a poor fellow being sucked down into the drain during a bathroom visit.
When Cabin People (Hyttefolk), the magazine of the Norwegian Association of Cabin Owners, was first published in 1972, its pages were filled with advertisements for various toilet solutions. On practically every other page, readers were presented with a variety of more and less appealing ways of disposing of their doings. One of the advertised technological innovations was a system that enabled cabin owners to freeze their poop. The slogan of freezer-toilet manufacturer Markt was: ‘It smells no more than a lump of ice!’ However they were also careful to point out that the seat of the device was heated. Perdisan, another toilet manufacturer, appealed to potential buyers with the fact that they ‘wouldn’t have to see the waste of previous toilet visits’, and pointed out that the smell was minimal ‘due to the perfumed X80 powder’.
Throughout the 1970s, an increasing number of advertisements also appeared for environmentally friendly composting toilets. As one advertiser put it: ‘Our time demands new environmentally friendly systems if we are not to completely destroy the natural world for ourselves and others.’
AKO advertised its turning toilet with the slogan ‘No loo smell – just a nice, new smell!’ Mulltoa could assure their customers that ‘thorough experiments’ provided the foundation for their system, and tempted buyers with the fact that their waste would be ‘turned into clean, effective soil – great for growing flowers’. Manufacturer Bio-do were slightly more humorous in their marketing, claiming that ‘You can grow some beautiful roses with a regular bowel!’, while company Tropic tempted potential customers by demonstrating their biological toilet ‘every day between 09.00 and 16.00’ in central Oslo.
At the Institute of Microbiology at the College of Agriculture at Ås, serious research was undertaken into the effectiveness of such bio-toilets. Following a visit to the college, a journalist for Cabin People reported how twenty-one different toilet models were lined up in rows for testing: ‘All the toilets are kept under stable testing conditions, and the Department of Sanitation in Oslo supplies the researchers with buckets of so-called “closet mass”. These buckets contain the waste we produce on a daily basis – so it’s the real deal that’s being used in the trials.’ According to the researchers at Ås, the matter that eventually came out of the other end of the toilets could be safely used as soil in which to grow vegetables. We can therefore assume that the expression ‘shit hot potatoes’ took on a somewhat more literal meaning at certain Norwegian cabins.
But outdoor toilets could also be death traps. ‘Today, I spent several hours fearing for my life, imagining a slow, painful death from dehydration in the most idiotic situation I’ve ever managed to get myself into,’ began a message posted to Facebook by artist Tor-Arne Moen during his summer holiday in 2018. His story of an especially traumatic visit to the outdoor toilet at his cabin in Telemark was picked up by most Norwegian media channels over the following days.
Tor-Arne’s old outdoor toilet had needed replacing, and so he had spent the hottest of all the sweltering summer days that year putting the finishing touches to what would be a brand-new classic two-seater composting toilet. But while Tor-Arne was hammering together the box for the seat inside the new outhouse, the project took a dramatic turn. He caught sight of some building foam at the bottom of the drop, and decided to climb down to retrieve it – completely unaware that he had set his stepladder on a loose stone far below in the darkness. Under Tor-Arne’s weight, it gave way. He fell half a metre down the drop where he got stuck, his legs thrashing about in thin air.
Tor-Arne quickly realised that it would be impossible to climb out the same way, and in the enclosed space it started to get hard to breathe. Finally, a ‘sweaty and wild and fairly furious’ Tor-Arne managed to squeeze himself down into the space at the bottom of the drop. As he himself described it: ‘Thank God, I thought at first, all I have to do is move aside the stepladder and pull myself up again – but man, was I wrong – there wasn’t enough space to pull the ladder down, and it had wedged itself so tightly between the stone and the wall when I fell that it wouldn’t bloody budge no matter how hard I yanked on it.’
The walls of the space below the toilet were screwed together so tightly that it was no use trying to kick his way out. It was two kilometres to the nearest neighbour, so shouting for help would be no use, either. With temperatures reaching well above 30 degrees in the shade, Tor-Arne’s newly painted outhouse was quickly transformed into a sauna.
The tools that might have helped him, such as his hammer, saw and mobile phone, were just outside – as was his canister of water. But all of this was far beyond Tor-Arne’s reach.
After spending several hours at the bottom of the toilet drop, Tor-Arne suddenly realised that he had a folding, two-metre ruler in his back pocket. With this and a piece of the building foam, which he used to brace the ruler’s final joint, after much exertion – and in true MacGyver style, unable to see what he was doing – Tor-Arne managed to coax the saw that lay on the ground outside the outhouse to him. He then used this to saw himself free.
He gave himself the rest of the day off from his construction work, and instead drank a few well-deserved cold beers.
During the cabin-ization process here in Drivarbekkdalen in 1994, my brother Anders and I, aged five and ten respectively, were tasked with painting the cabin’s front door and window frames red. I remember that we contributed reluctantly. To us, it didn’t really matter what the cabin looked like – and anyway, I would have actually preferred a cabin by the sea. While Pappa got started on staining the white cladding a dark shade of brown, Mamma began to clad the walls inside with pine panelling. Pine panelling with visible knots, of course. A green and brown dinner service from the 1970s was installed in the kitchen cabinets – which were constructed from pale pine, with visible knots. Old wine and cognac glasses were set in a little bar cabinet – also made of pine, with visible knots – in the living room. Piles of old Agatha Christie novels, purchased second-hand in bulk from a sale at Porsgrunn public library, were set in the bookcase, along with a battered old edition of Monopoly. A bookcase of light pine wood – with visible knots.
Mamma then hung a few old copper pots and pans on the walls, and on the door into what would become the bathroom she nailed a sign that read: ‘Here you can sit and think and think some more, until someone else comes a-knockin’ at the door’. The closed woodburning stove was thrown out, and an open fireplace installed. And last, but not least: in the living room a cabin guestbook was set on the shelf beneath the coffee table. A coffee table made of pine – with, you guessed it – visible knots.
And then we named the cabin Haugtun, based on its surroundings, and over the almost 25 years that have passed since then the cabin has – at the time of writing and according to my father’s marathon table, which can be consulted on the back page of the first volume of the cabin guestbook – been used for 829 days. The more than two decades in which we have logged the nights we’ve spent up here at the cabin are clear proof that Willy Vyrje, public relations manager at the National Federation of Furniture Dealers in 1974, was right in his assertion: it’s possible to have a perfectly comfortable, cosy time at your cabin – even with pine furniture with visible knots.
[End of chapter]
We meet the authors grandmother who every night, as she gets ready to sleep, gaze longingly at a painting of a notched log cabin. For seventy years she spent weeks at a time at that cabin. But after she began to need nursing care, she can no longer wander around in what she calls her “paradise on earth”.
We visit the authors mountain cabin during the Easter holiday. When his parents bought the place in the 90s, the house was not a cabin. For one thing, the house had never been used as a holiday home, but perhaps even more importantly: it looked nothing like a mountain cabin. So we learn how to “cabin-ize” a house, and that an outdoor toilet is a status symbol in the Norwegian Cabintopia. Norway is a country in which sitting with your trousers round your ankles, outdoors in temperatures around 20°C below freezing, to do your business in a hole in the ground, affords you rather high status
Chapter 2 – The devil makes work for idle hands
The author takes us along on a 40-kilometere cross country skiing trip with a good friend of his. While taking in majestic views, surrounded by snowy mountains, we talk about the Romantics and the notion of the sublime in nature. We learn how to build a fire, stumble upon a group of female skiers posing for #nakedinnature-photographs, and let American sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) explain why on earth Norwegians spend their long-awaited holidays undertaking strenuous physical activity outdoors. The Norwegian national credo seems to be that “the devil makes work for idle hands”.
Chapter 3 – Simple living
The author spends a chilly afternoon beside the fireplace, accompanied by two dogs, while contemplating the value of the simple life at the cabin. Not that long ago most Norwegian cabins were no more than small wooden shacks, with no electricity and without running water. They were a place where you lived a different life to the one you lived back home in the city. The cabins being built today are twice the size and have heated driveways. Does comfort and technology pose a threat to the cabin as a getaway – and as a society can we learn something important from simple living in nature?
Chapter 4 – The Norwegian playground
The author challenges his brother and father to a game of Monopoly. Board games are an important part of cabin life in Norway, and the history of Monopoly actually has something to teach us about the conservation of nature today. With 5,000 cabins being built every year, Norwegian nature is under pressure. We also take a look at what happened when British mountaineers discovered Norway and christened it “the northern playground”.
Chapter 6 – How many Norwegian-Somalis does it take to find the two Norwegian-Somalis that own a cabin?
Not all Norwegians are cabin crazy. Of the 42,217 Norwegians of Somali descent, only two own a cabin. The author does some detective work trying to find out who these two cabin-owning Norwegian-Somalis are. He ends up on a little island dotted with tiny wooden houses, situated a 15-minute ferry ride from downtown Oslo, which the capital’s working classes began to occupy a century ago.
Chapter 7 – The Norwegian Riviera
This chapter marks the starting point of the author’s road trip along the southern Norwegian coastline, and thus the start of the “summer” part of the book. The author first visits the islands of Tjøme and Hvasser, where the cabins of wealthy people from Oslo are situated, and we meet billionaires who illegally blow up rocky beaches to make way for their cabins. We meet a family of almost 50 persons sharing a cabin of 50 square meters because none of the three owners are willing to sell their part (1 in 10 inheritance disputes in Norway pertains to a cabin). And we encounter a lady who poisoned her brother-in-law because he made alterations to the family cabin without asking her first. The author makes use of both recent anthropological studies and poetry from the 1950s to understand why Norwegians are so attached to their cabins.
Chapter 8 – A history of sunbathing
Just as skiing is an important part of winter cabin life in the mountains, activities by the sea are rituals at the seaside cottage. The author takes us along for a day at the beach on Tjøme, and through the history of swimming in the sea for fun, and of sunbathing. We go skinny dipping with the artist Edvard Munch, who himself owned a cabin in these parts – and get caught in the process. We also learn about 19th century doctors who advocated the use of stinging jellyfish as a remedy for a sore neck.
Chapter 9 – The family museum
The author travels further down the coast to the region of Telemark. Here, we look into the cultural divide and the disputes between caravaners and cabin owners. With help from German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Polish philosopher Zygmunt Baumann and British correspondent Roland Huntford, we reflect on the deeper, underlying aspects as to why Norwegians are cabin crazy. The cabin represents an anchor in a postmodern world where everything is in constant motion.
Chapter 10 – Southern Norway
The author has now reached the idyllic inlets and islands of Sørlandet, the most southern part of Norway, where he visits his editor at a seaside cabin. But since the saying “make yourself at home” has probably never been uttered in a Norwegian cottage, he finds that being a guest in someone’s summer house isn’t all that easy. We observe people on the island who happily get out of bed at 06:50 a.m. on a Sunday morning – just to paint their cabins. And we look to former prime minister Einar Gerhardsen, the author’s grandmother and the term JOMO (Joy of Missing Out), to better understand why cabin life makes Norwegians among the happiest people on earth.
Chapter 11 – Paradise on earth
We join the author’s grandmother at the one time of year she’s able to visit her treasured cabin – if only for a few hours. And we let Japanese scientists and avid hiker Friedrich Nietzsche explain why a walk in the woods, and a stay at the cabin, can make our lives better.