17 jul 2012

The Outdoors

I consider myself a city person. Raised in the suburbs (tell me if you’ve heard this one before), I grew attached to downtown and its thrills. While I didn’t spend a lot of time downtown until I attended the University of Toronto, I had previously felt its pull and never really felt the sensation of hectic overwhelmedness that many anti-City types feel towards it. I loved the feel, I loved the people, I loved the variety, and I loved the idea of the big city.

It would be fair to say that I did and still do romanticize the notion of downtown life, though I would say not without just cause. I could spend many words on the inspiration I get from the city, and at some point I hope to. This post, however, is about its opposite. This post is about the wilderness.

First Contact

While I was nurturing a love of the big city, I was frequently indulging in escape to nature. I have been very lucky to have parents whose parents both had cottages, and I got to spend a lot of time at each of those lakeside escapes while growing up. While they aren’t wild by any stretch, they are a step away from the city and one which has provided me with a great source of relaxation and escape over the years. Looking out over the lake, reading in the shade, and falling asleep to cool air and the sound of crickets and frogs are all experiences that I treasure.

Going wilder, I got into the camping habit as a Cub and then a Scout. Starting with tame car-camping style experiences, I quickly moved up to longer and more demanding trips such 5-day canoe trips in Algonquin Park. I credit my Scout leader and friend’s father (Thanks Richard!) for pushing the troop to take on these more challenging (and fun) trips at a younger age than other groups might.

At first, even going on the car-camping trips to Scout campgrounds intimidated my young self. I distinctly recall one night when I pretended to be sick (or convinced myself that I was) and asked the aforementioned leader to take me to a phone located back at the main camp area so that I could call my parents. Looking back, I’m sure that what I thought was clever deception was actually completely and utterly transparent. This is somewhat embarrassing in retrospect, and I’m sure it wasn’t the only time in my childhood or adult life that I have tried to deceive for the purpose of saving face and failed.

I’d like to say that, in time, I got over this feeling that made me freak out, knot up, and want to call home, but, to be honest, it has never fully gone away. It is not substantial nor is it inhibiting, but even now I feel small pangs of similar emotion when I’m away, and especially when I’m in the middle of nowhere. In a way, I’m thankful for this feeling and the effect it has on my psyche. More on that in a bit.

From those early experiences a habit was formed. After I was too old for Scouts, I volunteered to help out on Scout trips and, in recent years, canoe trips with friends have become a summer tradition that I am very glad to have.

All That Beauty Stuff

What would a tribute to the great outdoors be without some requisite waxing poetic concerning its physical beauty?

It’s true, the world is beautiful, innately poetic, and frequently awe-inspiring.

With that said, I don’t actually have much to say on this subject. That is, I don’t have much of anything original to add. The beauty of the world is well documented by authors, artists, and photographers who possess much more ability at documenting and conveying the power and subtlety of natural beauty than I do.

So, for the time being at least, I will leave more thorough meditations on natural beauty to the experts. I apologize for the lack of waxing poetic that you may have been expecting.

Modernity Rejected

While the beauty of nature and these excursions into the (relative) wild is certainly inspiring and something that I love to expose myself to, the most substantial impact that I personally feel is not a feeling of wonder at beauty but rather a feeling of release from what I will loosely refer to as modernity.

Due to this release, a camping trip is probably the most relaxing kind of vacation for me, despite the physical exertion these trips sometimes involve. When I’m out there I am, to a point, away from technology, away from media, away from constant connectedness, and away from time. Of course this is actually more a matter of being more away than usual rather than being completely away. We only deprive ourselves of modernity to the point that we’re comfortable with, or perhaps just a little bit over the line of comfort for the thrill of pushing ourselves.

When I say “technology”, your mind probably immediately jumps to thoughts of computers, phones, cars, airplanes, etc. We tend to see technology more as what’s new or what is very impressive to us and forget about the rest. Technology is bigger than just our iPhones and MRI machines, though. Defined as “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes”, technology can really encompass most of the things we use to live our lives. In that light, camping trips aren’t really eliminating technology from our lives, but removing certain technology. When camping, we bring certain obvious technological things such as camping stoves, flashlights, and compasses. These are things that we deem important enough to our comfort in order to tame the more uncomfortable aspects of these trips or simply make things easier for ourselves. Even more hidden than that, we bring all sorts of things that we might regard as simple but can only exist due to modernity. Canoes, waterproof and compact tents, sleeping bags, modern clothing, maps and all sorts of strange modern food optimized for light travel all fall into this category. On top of all that, we make extensive use of communication technologies to organize and book these trips followed by heavy machinery in the form of cars to get ourselves there.

Limiting our access to modern luxuries is still one of the most notable aspects of the camping experience, but it is interesting to examine the things we use in order to see just how dependent we are on them.

The lack of technology and more advanced tools makes things harder for us, and because of that we feel a sense of accomplishment for doing things and living more on our own without modern assistance. Like most human recreational pursuits, we get pleasure from just being able to do something, and in this case the pleasure is amplified by the satisfaction and slight (or sometimes not so slight) feeling of superiority that one gets at being able to do things as they might have been done a few steps back in the march of technology. I wont pass any judgment as to whether that feeling of superiority is justified or not, but I do think that it is present to some extent in the feelings of enjoyment surrounding outdoorsy activities.

Media has become a companion to our existence and the wild brings us mostly away from the constant bombardment of information and entertainment. Like with technology, there are some exceptions that are smuggled along. Books and newspapers are pretty much the only practical pieces of media that can be brought on such trips. References to media often come up in conversation as well, of course, but the scale of exposure is substantially limited. The feeling of isolation that this separation from media creates is freeing, but at times a little disconcerting. It’s nice to be free from the barrage of information and entertainment, but as people who are used to this, the lack of it seems a little empty and isolating in an uncomfortable way. I have thought many times about how all sorts of things could be happening in the world and I wouldn’t know about them! When returning from a trip I always glance at the first newspaper I see (or, in recent years, I check my phone left in the car) with a mix of excitement and apprehension. What has happened while we were gone? What’s changed? Has something possibly terrible or catastrophic occurred? Will there even be cell phone service when we get out of the park? What if everyone is dead from a virus outbreak and we have to go on living like this (but with our luxuries quickly dwindling) for the rest of our lives? I NEED TO KNOW.

Okay, so I tend to have a bit of an overactive imagination sometimes. Modern society, mass media and constant connectivity is the perfect petri dish for neurosis to grow in and flourish. I’ve never used the word before to describe myself, but I think I can reasonably call myself a little neurotic at times.

Constant connectedness is the fusion of mass media and communications technologies. When out in the wild it is something that we are completely without. While I’m sure this wasn’t as big a deal for past generations, connectedness has become so ingrained in our daily lives that being without it can be somewhat uncomfortable. Being connected has become the default state, and unplugging from our stream of information, social interaction, and intimate friendships at a distance is the conscious choice. (I’m speaking for myself, of course. I imagine there are still some out there who aren’t this way.) I am embarrassed to admit it, but on recent trips there have been times where I’ve put my hand in my pocket looking for my iPhone only to find it missing. You mean I can’t pull it out and check Twitter? What am I supposed to do with myself? It actually takes some time for me to subdue the slight panicky feeling I get when I don’t feel the familiar press of my phone in my pocket.

Part of this whole experience is removing layers of society and behaviour and constructs from our daily lives as a way of exploring ourselves and different experiences. This past summer I experienced the removal—or at least diminishing—of one more layer for the first time. That layer was the construct of time. (Pedant disclaimer: yes, I am aware that time can be/is considered a dimension and as such is maybe not truly a construct. For the sake of this, however, I’m going to treat the way we interact with this dimension and what we call “time” as a construct.)

On previous trips at least some of us would have watches that were durable enough to bring with us. This summer, however, we got to our canoe launch point, put our phones in the car and realized that none of us made a habit of wearing a watch anymore. We all relied on our phones for time.

This realization had a practical impact and a psychological one. Practically I thought it might be a little bit of a problem because even though our schedule was fairly light, we had to get up early enough in the morning in order to get on the water and reach our next campsite before dark. Canoeing at night trying to find a campsite and then setting up said campsite in the dark is not fun. More importantly, we had to be out of the park at a certain time on our last day according to the rules given to us with our permit and in order to check out before the park office people went home. Luckily we had a couple reliably early risers in the group and this never ended up being a problem.

Despite the practical considerations being relatively minor, my brain did a couple flips over itself when I realized that I was about to spend the next five days without a precise knowledge of the time available to me whenever I wanted it and that there was nothing I could do to change that. Why did this bother me? There weren’t any serious practical negative consequences to this reality, but I became a little uneasy regardless. If I thought about it I knew that humans got by just fine before clocks and before watches by telling the approximate time by the sun, but the idea of doing that myself was a little bit unsettling and a little bit thrilling.

In the end, I found this experience to be incredibly freeing and going forward I might actually want to make “no watches allowed” a policy of future camping trips unless practical needs really dictated otherwise. After I got over the initial unease about falling behind schedule, I found that the beautiful thing about not always knowing the time was that I listened to my body and my surroundings for cues about what to do next and, in turn, my mind didn’t protest or second guess itself nearly as much as it otherwise would have. On past trips when I was invariably woken up by a morning person every morning, I would always either check the time myself or inquire about it. Upon finding out that it was 6AM, I would groan and grumble and feel generally wronged that someone was making me wake up at such an unfortunate hour almost regardless of how tired I actually felt. Without timekeeping devices, I was far more content when woken up in the morning. What time is it? Time to get up. A similar ease around decisions extended to meal times and bedtime. When should we eat lunch? When we’re all hungry enough. When should we go to bed? When we’re tired enough that the desire to sleep outweighs the desire to sit out under the beauty of the stars or in front of a mesmerizing fire. Some nights I think we stayed up far later than we would have with watches due to conversation running on in a relaxed way or our inability to tear ourselves away from the beauty of the clear night sky. Other times, I think I went to bed far earlier than I ever would have found acceptable with a watch.

While there were unsettling times, such as lying awake unable to sleep one night having time just drag on, going without time was a fascinating and freeing experience. I recommend it for anyone who has ever felt like a slave to the hours and minutes.

With all these things said: I love modernity. Plenty other posts I plan to write will be singing the praises of things only possible due to modern society, technology, and all that fun stuff. As I mentioned before, the only reason I can comfortably engage in these kinds of experiences is due to the small luxuries modernity and technology has given us. Without those, I’m not sure that I’d have the same fun experience. It might just be more hard and unpleasant. We deprive ourselves of our luxuries up to a point as kind of sport afforded only to those of us privileged enough to do so, but in the end we are only reallybtaking away just enough to give us a little sense of adventure. Take away too much and a little adventure might turn into too much adventure.

Simply Complex

A lot of the ideas around a modern narrative about an escape to nature or doing things in a more “old fashioned” way involve some romanticism about the simplicity of the experience. This can be true. Without modern bombardment, things often do seem simpler, more straight-forward, or easier to understand.

Beneath this impression of simplicity hides an extreme amount of complexity. If you spend a few minutes focusing closely on something as common as a leaf, you’ll find an object and a system that is incredibly complex. If you then turn towards examining the tree or the forest or the ecosystem or the climate, you can reveal progressively huge levels of complexity that we frequently just take for granted and don’t really think too hard about. We oooh and ahhh over new technologies, but what are they when compared to the understated complexity of the natural world? Impressive, of course, but it’s nice to sometimes be reminded of the heights that we are reaching for.

I find that the social and technological simplicity (for lack of a better term) of many outdoor experiences allows me to focus on things I otherwise take for granted and reveal or unlock thoughts or observations I otherwise might have just glossed over. I can zoom in and out from what is going on around me and reveal a world that is either simple or complex or a nice mixture of the two, depending on how I observe it.

The escape from technology allows us to understand and appreciate how far we’ve come. Focusing on natural systems allows us to see how much complex possibility there is in the world. While escaping to nature is certainly not the only way to gain these insights, it is an extremely powerful and pleasurable way to go about it for me. This duality of being able to appreciate the natural simplicity and natural complexity provides a great setting for putting any sort of thoughts in perspective. It inspires me through appreciation of simple natural beauty and elegance or the mind-blowing complexity that is hidden under the surface.

Air, Water, Trees, and Room to Think

When my mind isn’t being blown by the complexity and wonder of it all, I find that the outdoors can deliver extreme stillness of mind and sense of peace.

A lot of my time outside is characterized by stillness. Watching a fire, watching the water, watching the stars are all things that are almost endlessly captivating to me. Even when my body is active, such as while canoeing, my mind is frequently far more still than it generally is in my day to day stimulated life. Watching a fire burn is stimulation of sorts but, to me, it is a stimulation that helps push my mind into a more focused or, at times, almost meditative state.

Frequently, when my attention is captivated by nature or I’m generally letting it all soak in, my senses feel heightened and so do my thoughts. Though there are meditative moments where my mind feels far more empty than it generally does, there are also times where this freedom from extreme stimulation replaced by gentle rolling stimulation and relaxation allows me to focus on thoughts, contemplate problems, and synthesize ideas in a way that I generally am not allowed to do or do not let myself do.

People often talk about how they get ideas while in the shower or while doing other so-called “mindless” activities. There is a lot of evidence that indicates that an important part of being creative and solving problems is allowing your mind to have so-called incubation time. Noted psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (who also proposed the term and described the idea of flow while working on something) includes incubation as one of his five stages of creativity that helps you to be creative, productive, and later achieve flow. I find that this kind of extended time away from societal bombardment is an incubation period for my mind and thoughts I have relating to life, work, the problems I have to solve, and the decisions I have to make.

Letting the Darkness In

Then there’s the isolation. Then there’s the darkness. There are stars and there is the fire—maybe it seems big to me, but what is it compared to the stars? Then there’s that feeling from my childhood that makes me freak out, knot up, and want to call home.

I can’t do that though. I left my phone in the car and besides, there’s no signal out there anyway.

I miss those I love. I miss my comforts. I get a little twitchy not having them. It’s a little disorienting having so much more time to spend within your own head and with your own thoughts. Without work and chores and socializing and social media and TV shows there is a lot more time left over for thinking. That thinking can bring uncomfortable thoughts, realizations, or fears that otherwise might be covered up by the mundane day to day of life or one of our various social addictions. I’ve touched on how being out in the wild, as it were, allows me to live a little simpler and be more relaxed and thoughtful as a result. That is true, but every so often it pushes up against the edges of my comfort. It’s not the sleeping outside or portaging or decreased personal hygiene that pushes my comfort, but rather what it does to my thoughts. It’s hard to ever say that living one way is more “natural” than another, as changing our environment has been a long-standing human trait, but even if going towards more outdoor/simpler/wild living is more “natural” in the abstract, it is certainly not natural for those of us who have grown up and been socialized otherwise.

Not only does the lack of constant stimulation and things I’m used to make me feel a little uncomfortable, but the sheer grandness of everything starts to tickle small feelings of fear at times as well. I am frequently awed by the forest and the lake and the vastness of the night sky and the stars therein. I am just a small creature in the forest, on a small boat on the lake, and my small fire at night is just barely enough to keep the overwhelming darkness at bay. Awe is a much more interesting concept than those of use who use it frequently with the word “awesome” may generally think about. Awe is “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder”. There is always an element of fear in having these experiences and I think that is a very good thing. The space makes me feel small.

While too much fear and feeling too small can be problematic and very uncomfortable, a little bit teaches me humility and perspective that helps me strive to do my best with appropriate reverence to the world around me. Getting a dose of natural grandeur and space helps me understand that our creations and ways of living are not necessarily as important as we sometimes think.

Balance is something that people talk a lot about when they speak about natural systems. Frequently us humans are cast in the role of the unbalancer. We disrupt what was once balanced and in a lot of ways I think our disruption unbalances ourselves too. That is not to say we really have much choice in the matter. We evolved to the point that we have the intelligence and thus capabilities to change things and move beyond natural balance and create our own world. This is thrilling and amazing, but it can be sometimes emotionally overwhelming. We have built a society and filled it with so many things and ideas and systems, but have our emotions caught up with what we have created for ourselves? How can we ever be satisfied when we are always striving for more and creating environments for ourselves that we don’t even ever fully understand or control?

This may sound more discouraging than encouraging, but it isn’t for me. I find life to generally be an act in balancing contentment with what you have and drive for something more. I think that this sense of awe and humility can be a check against falling into extreme states of mind outside of perspective. This kind of exposure to grandness outside of social constructs and our own personal narratives of successes can fight back against egotism or too much self-pity. In a different way this kind of exposure can also help me fight against boredom with the world and the lack of wonder and excitement that is so often a feature of the average adult day-to-day life.

I find myself inspired by the grandness of the world and its simple compexity to achieve and create things that are worthy of the world and the limited time I have in it. At the same time, these experiences can also inspire a feeling of oneness with things which makes me feel more okay with myself and being part of this whole amazing thing.

I don’t think we’re ever going to really be fully balanced or fully at ease with life and the world. We will always have these competing feelings making it a struggle to both be content and push for something more. We are inherently unbalanced creatures. Though none of us are likely to ever be fully balanced, we can be more balanced and more at ease with the fact that we aren’t perfect. We aren’t the centre of the universe but we are notable and pretty impressive. Outdoor wild experiences help me with this balancing and give me time away to feel better and know what I should be doing when I get back.

The stars are amazing. If I think too hard about them they can seriously freak me out. There is fear and there is contentment and we can’t only have one. The stars help me understand this fact of existence but so does my campfire. It is beautiful but dangerous. Our harnessing and control of the natural world fights against the sometimes intimidating darkness and makes our time more comfortable. If you build a fire too big or aren’t careful enough you might have a problem. If you stare at the fire too long you might have to step away from it for a bit to see the stars. Sometimes I want the controlled fire and sometimes I want the darkness and the stars. Sometimes I want my apartment and the Internet and the city and sometimes I want the wild. Sometimes I want warm contentment and sometimes I want a little unsatisfied ambition.

And that’s okay. Let’s call that an approximation of balance.