When you throw a bunch of people together in the forest, they become something more than just a bunch of people together in the forest. – From the movie Happy Campers
To borrow from Anne Taintor, I love not camping. I am not fond of bugs or snakes. I like to have a place to recharge my iPhone. I am not big on having to do the flip-flop march to the communal showers (or the lake) to get clean (truth be told, I cannot stand flip-flops, period.) Truly, an hour or two in a good shoe store proves far more restorative than a week inside a tent where the combination of my forty-some year-old back on an air mattress and trying to listen for The Blair Witch disturbs a sleep that not even a silk eye mask brought from home can salvage. Even well-appointed cottages can seem a little rustic (what, no high speed?)
But spending some time in nature is so important for the spirit. Even die-hard urbanistas should swap their Louboutins for a pair of Kodiaks every once in a while. There is something about being outside that seems to put everyday stresses in perspective. No matter how slow the traffic, how rude the waiter, or how jerky the boss, the sun still rises and sets, the river still flows, and the moon waxes and wanes. When we find ourselves overreacting to life’s irritations, sometimes it’s best to get quiet and go for a walk through the woods, or sit by a stream. Wallace Stevens understood how being in the natural world can give us a fresh perspective when he wrote, “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”
Being outdoors can help us learn the art of acceptance. In the city, it’s easy to feel we are in control of things. If it rains, we go to a museum. If it’s cold, we turn up the heat. If we want coffee, we pop into a cafe and can kvetch if the barista screws up our decaf tall no-fat latte. When things happen that are beyond our control, it can feel overwhelming as our acceptance muscles are weak. But outdoors, we must simply accept the rain and the cold and the fact that brewing a pot of Sanka first means building a fire. It’s harder to be silly and shallow in the woods; there are no Real Housewives of Algonquin Park.
It is easier to calm one’s mind in nature and tune into the natural rhythms of lapping waves or the wind in the trees. Some people can use banging garbage trucks and police sirens and a passing car’s thumping rap music as part of their meditative practice, but I’m not that enlightened. I need cottage country’s equivalent of whale music to relax and always look forward to hearing the tremolo call of the loons. As Margaret Laurence writes my favourite short story, The Loons: “No one can ever describe that ululating sound, the crying of the loons, and no one who has heard it can ever forget it. Plaintive, and yet with a quality of chilling mockery, those voices belonged to a world separated by aeons from our neat world of summer cottages and the lighted lamps of home.” It’s that separateness that helps us detach from the everyday and clear our minds.
My favourite part of the camping experience is the campfire. I am not sure if it is because fire is a primal element or because I just really like s’mores but there is something quite lovely about sitting around a crackling fire. As Charles Dudley Warner put it, “To poke a wood fire is more solid enjoyment than almost anything else in the world.” (As a 19th century puritan, however, Mr. Warner was probably not privy to the solid enjoyment of finding an in-season Bvlgari handbag at 70% off.)
Most importantly, being outdoors makes us feel grateful for simple things. If we are warm, if we are dry, if we are fed, then life is good.
We should always feel this way.