‘Why I believe camping should be compulsory’

‘The Outing’ by Norman Rockwell – a famous American painting from 1947.

Weeeeeeh. Hnorrrrrrrrrrrrr, hnarrrrrrrrrrrrr. Waaaaah! Zzzzzeeeeeeeeeeb. It is dawn. A French municipal campsite stirs in a wide, flat field on the banks of the Tarn in August.

In campsites everywhere this summer 30,000 years of human evolution were put to the test. Much of it, along with innumerable pairs of flip flops, was lost and forgotten.

Middle-aged fathers made strangulated noises to the sound of badly tuned guitars. Bodies of all shapes and sizes in pyjamas of wondrous colour and design waited patiently in queues by sputtering basins as the modern rite of two-minute teeth brushing played itself out. The zipping of a hundred tent doors, each with their own distinctive whine, unstitched the days and nights. Brits who disconsolately traipsed around Blacks, goggled with envy at gleaming German folding kitchens and chopping boards that can bloom into bread baskets.

And despite the inevitable exceptions, all of this made many thousands of campers profoundly happy. Rather than two weeks forced labour on the collective farm, governments of advanced societies should declare compulsory camping for all. Society’s problems, the world’s problems, would be fixed in less time than it takes to pump up an airbed.

In Provence, near the town of Buis les Barronies, there is a campsite by a milky white stream, the Derbous. All along the little river is a maze of dams, pools, waterways and makeshift miniature waterwheels bobbing with reed rafts and leaf sailing boats. More than anything, camping is about play. The game is simple: ‘let’s pretend’. Children are the grand masters, adults the struggling learners. Tree bark for a boat, dead branch for a towel rack, broken mug for a candlestick; pretend for long enough and it scarcely seems possible that anyone ever wasted money on the real thing.

Just as radical is what camping does to privacy. Assume that in wealthy countries the average home consists of about ten walls per head. Camping does to domestic walling what the trumpet did to Jericho. No matter how many yards of high tenacity polyester has gone into your tent, walling it ain’t. All will hear your snufflings and rumblings, many will see your crumpled face well before it is polished and primped.

Does anyone care? No. On the contrary, international tolerance blossoms over the shared Fairy Liquid and cultural bonds flourish as you perform the charade for ‘please can we borrow a cheese grater’. In this universally undignified world, serious conflict would be impossible.

One evening, holding our breath, we watched an elegant heron fishing for her supper, dragon flies landing on our shoulders, before slithering into the river current and allowing ourselves to bob downstream almost brushing the tails of flashing, silver-bellied river trout.

Being underwater and horizontal, reminds you how upright (and uptight) wealthy societies have become. If beds, chairs, tables, worktops and desks have raised modern life to an average of 30 inches off the ground, then camping, with its rugs, mats and tent pegs takes you back to a cruising height of around two inches. The smell, temperature and texture of the earth become close; as do the busy strings of ants scurrying away with their treasure of spilt couscous, never pausing for a café latte or a Facebook break.

Earth to earth is a more powerful truth than ‘nostalgie de la boue’, the snob’s notion that we all crave our basest tastes. It is a truth better embraced than derided and, along with a period of enforced play and a temporary loss of privacy, constitutes a mighty vanity-repellent and sympathy-incubator for selfish getting-and-spending humankind.

You Decide

  1. Should everyone try camping at least once? Or is it your idea of hell?
  2. Does privacy matter as much as we assume in the West? Have we gone so far in protecting our privacy that it creates isolation and loneliness?

Word Watch

Collective farm
During the Chinese ‘cultural revolution’ of 1966 to 1969, the Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong decreed that many of the brightest and most creative intellectuals should work on agricultural collectives in order to prevent ‘incorrect’ thinking.
The city famous in the Old Testament of the Bible for being conquered by the Israelite army after their general, Joshua, was told by God to march his army around the walls blowing their trumpets. On the seventh day, the walls fell down.
High tenacity polyester
Probably the most common material for modern tents. Alternatives are cotton, polycotton and nylon.
Groomed, preened or prettified with meticulous care.
Nostalgie de la boue
First used in a play Le Mariage d'Olympe written in 1855 by French playwright Emile Augier. A former courtesan marries a nobleman and tries to pass herself off as a lady, but she cannot escape her craving for her previous base tastes.
Getting and spending
First coined by the poet Wordsworth in 1802 in his sonnet The World is Too Much With Us, which begins: ‘The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers’. He is attacking materialism and the Industrial Revolution and lamenting humanity’s loss of contact with nature.

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