Andersen: ‘Everyman’s Right’ is about freedom
It was late evening as we dragged our loaded bikes up through a steep stand of pines onto a glaciated hummock of granite overlooking the Skagerrak on the west coast of Sweden.
The air was cool, the sky threatened rain and mosquitoes gathered as soon as the pervasive wind abated for the night. It was early June, and the midnight sun was low to the north where an orange glow radiated over the horizon in the dim light of eventide.
My son, Tait, his Dutch school chum Bram, and I needed a place to set up our tents and sleep off a long day in the saddle. We didn’t know who owned the land we were on, but that doesn’t matter in Scandinavia, where the law allows reasonable access to uncultivated land.
In Norway, it’s called “Everyman’s Right,” and it provides access to the land for a night of sleep or a day of wandering or even harvesting what grows naturally. As long as you don’t interfere with an owner’s privacy or damage a resource — like trampling crops in farming areas — you can camp, walk, ski and roam across the Norwegian landscape.
How different is Norway from the U.S., where trespassing on private property can get you shot and killed, where private property is exclusionary instead of welcoming, where access to the land is based not on generosity and trust but on the limited notion of only one man’s right to the land.
Everyman’s Right is an expression of freedom that eases restrictions on private property by removing barriers to public use. Under this right, which is ancient in Scandinavian countries, the land remains under public domain if it is not being used by its owner.
In Scandinavia, if you have a favorite harvest area for nuts, fruits, mushrooms or berries, you don’t have to step over a barbed wire fence or tiptoe through a gate to gather your goods with stealth. You are allowed free access to the land where you, your family and your friends may enjoy the freedom of your feet.
Everyman’s Right has only recently been codified into law. In the days of yore, it was simply understood as a way of utilizing the commons. For centuries people needed access to nature’s storehouse for the necessities of survival, and so open access became tradition.
Everyman’s Right prohibits commercial exploitation of land that is not yours. Also outlawed are off-road vehicles, logging, mining, hunting or anything disruptive. The idea is to provide a land entitlement for the pleasure of exercise and health, for an unfettered connection to the natural world and for gathering sustenance from the Earth’s bounty. There also is a spiritual dimension which assumes that land access encourages a deeper and more soulful contact with nature through an expanded sense of freedom.
In Norway, this right is called the “allemannsrett.” All visitors are expected to (and most do) respect the property they enter by showing consideration to the farmers who most often own it. Access to cultivated land is open only during the cold, dark winter when the land is frozen and covered with snow.
In Sweden, “allemansratten” offers public freedom officially granted by the Swedes since 1994, where “everyone shall have access to nature.” The law in Sweden is most liberal where it applies to access to a stream or a lake. It is understood that abuses of this liberal law will result in restrictions, so the Swedes extol the maxim: “Do not disturb, do not destroy.” Here is a philosophy to live by.
Most Scandinavians are magnanimous enough to consider free access as a basic human right. Posting “no trespassing” signs would be considered a violation of polite etiquette.
Everyman’s Right is the honor system applied to uncultivated and undeveloped land. It is based on trust, and it foments trust in a quid pro quo that speaks to enlightened mutuality in which landowners offer freedom to a respectful public.
In Scandinavia, visitors are generously welcomed and accepted. Here in the U.S., “no trespassing” signs, fences, vicious dogs, physical threats and litigation take an opposite approach that deters the freedom and birthright of all people.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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