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On Camping and Pipelines, Wilderness and CultureOn Camping and Pipelines, Wilderness and Culture

On Camping and Pipelines, Wilderness and Culture

In its nominal renunciation of culture, camping puts a lot of undue pressure upon many would-be-Thoreaus who want to participate in world-preserving by getting back to this wild "state of nature." Such glamping comes with an interesting shame-factor: the more of civilization you take with you the more guilty you are meant to feel.

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Topics: Culture, Environment
On Camping and Pipelines, Wilderness and Culture June 20, 2014  |  By Doug Sikkema
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Why shirk off millennia of cultural progress to run around in the woods and sleep in something that separates us from a prowling black bear by only the thinnest layer of nylon? It's ridiculous. 

Perhaps it's out of some basic primal urge to reconnect with the wild and some lost hunter-gatherer past. But last summer, as I sat under our plastic tarp, finished one of the bacon-wrapped tenderloins we had cooked on our portable barbeque, and washed it down with a beer imported from Belgium, I realized we were hardly doing away with culture. I didn't even hunt the cow we were eating, I had simply gathered it. At Costco.

In its nominal renunciation of culture, camping puts a lot of undue pressure upon many would-be-Thoreaus who want to participate in world-preserving by getting back to this wild "state of nature." Such glamping comes with an interesting shame-factor: the more of civilization you take with you the more guilty you are meant to feel.

Of course, there are those campers who have no such ideals, and their entrance into the park is like the heel of culture, crushing the head of nature forever. There is always that retired couple who seem to have retrofitted an aircraft carrier into some ungodly motorhome painted with a mural-montage of loons and cougars, pine trees and sunsets, ironically and ominously named "Last Resort." We enviously watch them park and—voila!—they are camping.

All this to say: camping is complicated. And it should be, because there is no easy division we can—or should—make between nature and culture. Yet we want this easy division, and it's almost everywhere we look. Particularly with a lot of the rhetoric around why not to build a pipeline, many people imply that wilderness, if it is to maintain its pristine goodness, is not to be touched by the marring human hands of culture.

Really, what people forget—and will continue to forget, to our detriment—is one simple truth: Wilderness is a cultural construct and that is contingent upon the cultural situation in which it is imagined. Its champions love Thoreau, Emerson, Muir, and Leopold, but forget they were city boys all. Talk to a settler on the frontiers of wild, those Lilliputians who had to bind the massive giant of the wild frontier, and I imagine you'd find that the goodness of wilderness for them and the preservation of the world for them was in the making of a civilization, the one (ironically) carved from the very wilderness we now take in its anesthetized form.

We like to think we can get back to "wilderness," but when we camp, deep down we know we're only petting the lion in the taxidermist's shop. Travel to Banff and you can actually have a morning Starbucks. Head to Georgian Bay's Killbear and all the bears have been tranquilized and relocated to the North.

I mean, really, if I want the freedom usually associated with "wilderness," one of the last places I'll find it is in one of the totalitarian bureaucracies that are State or Provincial parks. They are cultural entities, almost more so than urban cores. Just go to such a campground and try to make noise after midnight or skinny dip and you'll soon experience the tight bounds circumscribed on your autonomy.  

Ultimately the only reason we like camping is because it's not natural. And that's fine. We like camping because it's deeply cultural. And if the only reason we don't want a pipeline is because it will disrupt nature, then we have a faulty understanding of nature distinct from culture. In its very preservation, nature is a product of culture. We love the idea of wilderness, but that's all it ever can be—an idea. Where we are, wilderness is not.

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