Torbjorn Ekelund, A Year in the Woods: Twelve Small Journeys Into Nature, (2014 in Norwegian/2021 in English), Greystone Books Ltd., Hardcover, 255 pages, $32.95
Torbjorn Ekelund, The Boy and the Mountain: A Father, His Son, and a Journey of Discovery (2017 in Norwegian/2023 in English), Greystone Books Ltd., Hardcover, 135 pages, $32.95
A Year in the Woods
This is a difficult book to review because I kind of liked it. The idea behind the book appealed to me. Torbjorn Ekelund, a Norwegian writer, decided he would spend one night a month for 12 months sleeping out in “nature.” He’d leave his wife and two children at home in Oslo, drive to the Nordmarka forest and spend the night, returning home early the next morning. He called it a “micro-expedition.” It would be his way of reconnecting with nature. He claimed that despite spending his life camping, fishing, hiking and boating, he no longer experienced nature as he had as a young child. He wanted to regain the closeness he’d once felt.
Cool idea, maybe a bit contrived, but it was something I could relate to, maybe wish I’d done or would do myself. Predictably, he wrote about how he expected to have great thoughts among the trees. But on his first night out, in January, he poohpoohs that idea. He writes, “[T]he idea of nature as an arena for grand realizations is nothing but pure, romantic fiction.” So why undertake a micro-expedition? But he turned it around. Ekelund continued, “What if our heads are rather emptied of any big thoughts [in nature] and this is what we experience as liberating?”
I stuck with the book wondering where Ekelund would take me. He did have thoughts, but they were lost in his alarming lack of camping and hiking experience – especially for someone who claimed otherwise. In January, in Norway when the sun sets at 3:30pm, he froze in an old sleeping bag not rated for the temperatures common at this time of year. He set up his tent is a spot exposed to a north wind and was unable to get a fire going beyond the smoking, sizzling stage consistent with burning frozen logs.
But I stuck with the book wondering where Ekelund would go. In April, he discussed the difference between being alone in the woods versus with someone. “[Y]ou see and hear almost everything when you are alone in the woods and almost nothing when you are with others.” So true. In August he took his four-year-old-son along to spend the night “alone” in the woods. He wrote, “I watched him from the heather and thought about the overnight trips I’d taken with my father when I was young. We didn’t have too many trips together…but I can remember all of them.”
I carried on, sure that in the small volume’s 255 pages, I’d pat myself on the back for sticking with Ekelund. Surely there’d be a late goal driving the micro-expedition into overtime. And in November it thought it might happen. But no luck. On page 217, he wrote, “Sitting in front of the fire, I tried to formulate something clever that I hadn’t already written three or four times before…There was nothing particularly remarkable about the campsite. It was ordinary bordering on boring.”
In writing about his final overnight stay in December, Ekelund sums up the experience bringing a twist to how we think – or need to think – about nature. His suggestion is reminiscent of his idea that rather than cause great thoughts, being in nature leaves space for thoughts normally crowded out by everyday concerns – as I describe it. And this I agreed with – especially after having recently hiked about 950km of the Bruce Trail, mostly on my own.
The book is a quick read in a small hardcover volume that is fun to have in hand.
The Boy and the Mountain
Three years later, Ekelund wrote this even smaller volume, once again published in hardcover. It’s an even quicker read but, I think, a better book. In the intervening years, Ekelund mentions he’s had a breakdown and had to stop working for a period. His son is now seven and it’s time to take him on The Expedition, one Ekelund hopes the youngster will remember just as he recalled camping with his own father.
They, well Ekelund, decide to climb a massive called Styggemann in the Skrim mountains. The destination isn’t random. It’s where a six-year-old boy became lost in these mountains in 1894. Ekelund’s narrative alternates between details of that story and his own journey with his young son.
What I like about this account is how he balances the highs and lows experienced by his child. Ekelund’s observations of his son’s behavior are nuanced. He neither drives him with threats about how the young boy needing to be a man, nor does he pander to his complaints when the going gets tough. Ekelund’s descriptions of what the seven-year-old goes through are intimate and caring combined with, in my opinion, just the right amount of tough love. For example, when the boy howls at how hard the going is, Ekelund comforts him, but lets the youngster have his cry, and then eases him back to a better place by cleverly turning his son’s attention to happier thoughts.
Ekelund writes, “[I]t is something else entirely to feel the timelessness that sometimes covers over you when you find yourself in a vast, wild landscape. It puts you in your place…And because it has become increasingly important to me, I have decided that it is also important for me to share this feeling with my children.”
It’s a big message in a small book, a message and an experience that Ekelund’s young son will undoubtedly recall throughout his life.