Hiking Without Mountains

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What Uppsala lacks in mountains, it makes up for in color.

What Uppsala lacks in mountains, it makes up for in sky.

Worldviews may seem to arise from pure observation of the physical world, but I think our ideas about even the most basic, physical aspects of the world are less objective than they appear. It seems that the two shape each other, that we observe our world, form ideas about it, and shape our world according to those ideas. When this process happens on the societal level, over time, our cultural worldview shapes our very homes and communities and the way we interact with them.

I got to thinking about this after a weekend spent hiking on the trails around Uppsala. I resist the urge to put quotation marks around hiking. See, in the U.S., I’ve done my share of hiking around New England and the Mid-Atlantic. The implication: I’ve only known hiking as walking up and down and around mountains. Show me flat land and I’d say the best you can do is to go for a long walk on it. If you’re not making substantial vertical progress, you’re not hiking in my book. I didn’t realize my conception of hiking was so tied up in altitude until I spent the weekend stomping around on relatively flat hiking trails. The paths ran through forests and fields and through tunnels and across streams. They were well-maintained and well-marked and green and lovely. I put my mountains aside and let flat hikes be real hikes.

With the topography issue settled, I found I had another dissonant idea about hiking. Now and then, someone would pass me on the path, carrying groceries home, or biking to work, or just casually strolling around a field wearing slacks and loafers. My American brain was bemused that the trail that I saw as a place for rugged recreation, a place removed from society and mundanity, was, for some people, just part of the daily commute. Somehow, I’d internalized that American compartmentalization of Wilderness versus Civilization, sacred nature versus vulgar society. And though I found it absurd to see a man in a crisp collared shirt stumbling out of the brush, I realized it was just as absurd that I’d gone full Paul Bunyan for a two hour walk past multiple grocery stores and bus stops.

Lake Mälaren at midday

Lake Mälaren at midday

I was told when I arrived in Sweden that nature is highly valued in Swedish culture. I filtered that through my American worldview and figured it meant that Swedes do a lot of camping. Great, I thought. I love it, let the camping begin. Unsurprisingly, I’ve found that this value manifests with much more nuance. For one thing, it seems that the general Swedish mind doesn’t share that firm man-versus-nature framework so fundamental to the American worldview. The Swedish conception is mirrored by the way the town is laced with parks and woods, no hard distinction between civilization and nature.

Even down to the individual level, Swedish culture offers constant opportunity to be outdoors. People walk and bike for fun and transportation, pick wild berries, go roller skiing, sail, play football, garden, cook out. Even in my student apartment building– a monument to budget-conscious architecture of the 1960’s– there are balconies and windows as big as kitchen tables that swing completely open, and fire pits for barbecuing, and tall pine trees filling in the spaces between bike paths and buildings. In Sweden, nature isn’t a place you have to travel to. It isn’t confined to monumental, sacred, powerful wilderness. No, it’s just outside the door, it’s familiar and comfortable, it’s part of the everyday business of being here. Hiking boots not required.

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