I love camping. I love waking to the sounds of a slow running, melodic creek beating across soft stones and a mountain chickadee’s tunes hanging mysterious in the air. The strong scent of evergreens bursts into the tent. The cold air yields cloudy breath-smoke and a crackling fire slowly warms bones in a singular sensation. It is overwhelming and beautiful, the soft solitude. There is nothing quite like an extended stay in the mountains; there is little to making the woods one’s home temporarily.
When I camp, I pitch a cheap tent with sleeping bags on the dirt. When I’m honest, I might admit I tent camp less out of choice than out of necessity – but, like many other outdoorsman, I hold up my own style (rugged and hard in my case) as the most true to the natural order. I complain about large recreational vehicles, cabin campers, and the over-use of technology in camp sites. I rail against those who appeal to the luxurious side of fancy manmade accoutrements in the great outdoors. I often assume the role of purist in these situations. My way of appreciating the glories of the outdoors, I claim, most aligns with Mother Nature’s way.
This tendency to bolster and defend the superiority of personal methods over darn near everything, I believe, rests within each of us. Certainly I could be pedaling such a perspective to somehow ease my own conscience due to my own tendencies, but it seems to jive with what I see in everyday life. We people are, in my view, bound by human nature to participate in copious amounts of one-upmanship, even in the arena of recreation in nature. As petty as that may seem, I’d wager most all of us knowingly, or ignorantly, partake in this little game.
Take, for example, my high school English classroom where I conducted a little survey with my students. I inquired about how many of my students were fishermen-and-women and a large majority of students raised their hands enthusiastically. I then narrowed the field and asked how many students were fly-fishermen-and-women. Less students lifted their hands, but with no less enthusiasm. I then asked the fly-fishing folk to tell me how they felt about those who fish using lures and worms. The responses were telling: posers, cheaters, talentless losers, and hacks. Sides were drawn, and the ensuing discussion bordered on a kind of verbal battle royale. My students demonstrated my theory well; even in a recreational activity steeped in the mysteries and beauties of nature, we people can find ways to create hierarchies of importance, legitimacy, or talent. It is not enough to have caught the most fish, or even the largest fish. Our methods are our art.
I’ve seen this done with snowboarding and skiing, mountain biking and road biking, rifle hunting and bow hunting, hiking and trail running, bouldering and vertical climbing, and of course, tent camping and everything else. Not only do we find ways to mark ourselves as being the truest to a natural way of participating in these recreations, but we also demonstrate these marks of natural art in decidedly consumer terms. One may argue the truest winter adventurer is not only he or she who straps a snowboard to his feet instead of skies and flies sideways down a snowy mountain, but he or she who does so with the most extravagant, top-of-the-line, and impressive equipment. Of course, the inverse could also be proved more powerful. Only on self-constructed or originally conceived equipment can such recreations be most artistic and legitimate in other folk’s perspectives.
The deciding factor between these alternating viewpoints is the personal preference. Although we build these mini-hierarchies like towering pyramids on the landscape of our life, they are founded on our own ideas of what makes an activity legitimate. It is interesting to consider our human tendency to force value structures on even the most casual of recreational activities and to draw lines of division in the sand.
I say all of this as a man who has found a way to twist even the most casual and pleasant of natural experiences, watching and viewing various and lovely birds (among other things), into a race – a kind of voyeuristic competition. As I write, I reflect on this tendency inside of myself to create these tensions, these oppositions, and I hope that I could seek a different entry into nature and the outside world around me, a way that avoids all this bloody one-upmanship. In a conversation like this, one may say the pathways to nature’s splendors and wonders are many, but these different and opposing paths could all exist as legitimate paths just the same. Different vehicles of the arts often take us to the same places, especially when nature is taken into consideration. If there is a right way to do nature, well, I’m hardly the one to pretend that I know it. Somehow, I doubt the right way to appreciate nature rests in a petty or superficial game of one-upmanship. I’m trying to be more aware of my own games these days and less judgmental of those who might approach the natural world differently. Still, you’ll probably catch me scoffing at the campers and RVs rolling into campgrounds, while at the same time others who sleep under the stars shake their heads at my extravagant tent.