Last weekend, I spent the three day holiday weekend camping with my family. This is an activity that we’ve always enjoyed, an opportunity to spend several days and nights in a relatively natural setting, enjoying the outdoors. I never thought to question why it is that I so enjoy camping, because for a person like me, it seems quite obvious.
Yet there was a point sometime on Saturday afternoon when I thought to look around me and wondered at what I saw. My mom was standing to one side of the picnic table, boiling water to wash dishes. Around her were various amenities of modern camp life: battery powered lamps, citronella candles, coolers for our perishable foods, the Coleman camp stove, a can of instant coffee. My dad sat in his camp chair laboring to cut a log with a hand saw. My boyfriend sat opposite him, and was cooking something over the fire in a pie iron. My puppy was in the woods, joyfully digging a hole in the soft earth. I sat observing all this from the vantage point of my own camp chair, not separate from the scene, but part of it, my hair still damp from having been shampooed in a bucket, my towel drying on the line strung between two trees. I sat eating a granola bar. It occurred to me that this familiar family scene had the qualities of a diorama of tribal life which could be found in any museum of natural history, yet with a few modifications of our modern age. It occurred to me how odd this activity truly was. In the modern age, we somehow feel the need, or at least a strong desire, to pack up those of our worldly belongings which will function in the woods, and we gather together to sit around a fire, cooking our meals, talking, listening to bird song. Why?
My perception of this activity may be somewhat skewed because I have a tendency to romanticize and idealize the tribal life of my ancient ancestors. I don’t belong in today’s world, I often think to myself. I don’t mesh well with the rest of society: its aims, its values. I am something different; I am tribal. Whenever I engage in an activity which is earthy or ancient, having been practiced for centuries, I’m strongly aware of the fact that I’m doing something which has been enjoyed since the dawn of humanity. Perhaps other people are not this way. I wasn’t sure, so I attempted to share my theories with my family, which is to say, the notion that people enjoy camping because it hearkens back to the earliest days, and that maybe somehow, in the darkest realms of our evolutionary memory banks, we have a tribal spirit yet, and these communal wilderness activities somehow resonate with us on a deeply subconscious level. No, others said. It cannot be that camping is a primal re- awakening of our tribal instincts, because not everyone enjoys camping. It’s something which a person has to be indoctrinated into from childhood, as I certainly was. Otherwise, it seems, people will only find camping dirty, grimy, and wholly unnecessary, a hardship to be endured. Perhaps.
Yet, looking around me at the campground, I realized that most of our neighbors hadn’t left their sites in several days. We at least had gone hiking at the park down the road and visited the dog park and the lake shore, but there were no trails near here, no form of entertainment, nothing, unless you wanted to get into your car and drive. (We chose this campground because of its close proximity to us, in case my puppy decided to behave badly. Though it was a beautiful campground, it was one without much in the way of recreational options.) It seemed to me that whatever our fellow campers had gone here in search of, they had found merely by setting up tents on the ground and clustering together around the fire with their dogs and their children.
If the desire to camp is not brought about through a resurgence of human tribal instinct, the need to gather around a fire, the feeling of solace when in such an environment with one’s fellows, a soothing of one’s estranged heart, then why go to the trouble of lugging buckets of water and firewood out to the woods? What need does this activity fulfill? I’m open to the possibility that it fulfills some other need altogether, but what?
Soahki is is a contributing writer for projectgroupthink.wordpress.com. Get instant updates for this blog via Twitter: PGTblog.