An Ode to Camping: Presence, Peace and Poetry in the Great Outdoors
We’re packing up the camping gear and heading for the hazy horizon, where life-affirming simplicity awaits and tea drunk from a tin cup by the campfire is the remedy for all ills.
09 September, 2020
There is a strong argument in favour of the entire world going on a collective camping trip, in my mind, at least. I'm aware that the suggestion of this will make some people shudder to their core (insects, rain, kids? together? at the same time?), but stick with it; there is method in the madness.
Let's start with an irrefutable point: right now, we are grounded. It is tricky to go anywhere else. So if you don't want to spend precious time staring at four walls and your own increasingly haggard reflection, it's a good idea to venture outside.
More importantly, let's consider for a moment that there's poetry woven into the very fabric of camping. It involves sleeping beneath a velvety blanket of scintillescent stars, cooking meals al fresco like the hairy ancestors that came before you, and waking up at the break of dawn to put on boots in which spiders have made their home overnight, before legging it to the nearest bush, preferably a toilet. There is no one on Earth who can claim to have had an unmemorable camping trip. Even when the experience is terrible and absolutely everything that can go wrong does, you remember it fondly with hindsight. You think of it in similar terms to the first time you had sex.
Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!The Starlight Night, Gerard Manley Hopkins
I started making my own camping memories at a young age. My mum would wake us all from a deep slumber, bundle us into a jam-packed car with our faces still attached to our pillows, and we'd drive - I kid you not - no more than two minutes down the road, to the local campsite.
Having questioned her about this in recent years, she claims it was because we had cats to feed, but I maintain that for a woman who on more than one occasion forgot to pick me up from school, it helped to be close to home. Just in case one happens to mislay the tent poles, for instance, or the cooker, or a family member.
It was at this very same campsite that my sister decided to test my non-existent swimming abilities by confiscating the rubber ring I was using to keep myself afloat. Predictably, I sank, and my brother was forced to dive in and save me from imminent drowning. You see? Happy times for us all to laugh about through gritted teeth at every Christmas dinner.
There are hundreds more camping trips etched into my memory. There was the time on a cliffside in Newquay when gale-force winds bundled up our tent like crêpe paper; the time at Reading Festival when, as a teenager, I smoked too many spliffs and my legs twitched all night; the time doing my Duke of Edinburgh's Award when I woke up with eyes so swollen from hayfever that I looked like I'd been punched in the face. And when I look back on this year's camping trips, which are already unique thanks to their timing in the midst of a (whisper it) global pandemic, I can already sense the edges of lifelong memories forming.
When you're camping, all the pomp and nonsense of everyday life is stripped away. Nothing remains but the bare essentials for living and the intoxicating promise of what adventures lie beyond. You wake, sometimes to the sound of birdsong, other times to searing heat, but it's only with the distinctive sound of tents unzipping that you know the day has really begun. In some ways, a Herculean amount of organisation is required for camping but once you're actually there, you slip into a slower pace of life that unfolds gently, with no rush.
A Bird came down the Walk— He did not know I saw—A Bird came down the Walk, Emily Dickinson
And so you make a several-staged breakfast that's far too ambitious for the limited utensils you've brought with you, and begin planning the rest of the day. The hours pass in the exhilarating lushness of the great outdoors - scaling a mountain, splashing in the sea and before long you're back at the tent, cooking tuna pasta on the hob that, god damn, is the greatest thing you've ever tasted.
Darkness falls and, with it, the midges descend. But soon enough the campfire's roaring and that does a decent job of keeping them at bay. So you share stories, beers and marshmallows, mesmerised by the dance of the smoky, tangerine embers. You return to the tent, totally spent. In the distance some kid is playing Wonderwall on his acoustic guitar and you wish with every fibre of your being that it would stop but it's not long before you've slipped into a profound, limitless sleep - the kind that only comes from contented, physical exhaustion.
The next day always brings something different. Probably rain, if you're in the UK, or the horror of cleaning last night's dishes without washing up liquid. But you deal with it as it comes, one day at a time. There is an immediacy to camping that demands presence and it's in those moments that a curious peacefulness descends. It's the perfect antidote to strange times, offering stillness amid the constant whirl of chaos. So yes, let's all pack a tent and head for the hazy horizon, where life-affirming simplicity awaits, and barely warm, sweet tea drunk from a tin cup is the cure you never knew you needed.
Here rest your wings when they are weary; Here lodge as in a sanctuary!To a Butterfly, William Wordsworth