Design For Life: Camping Brings Me Home

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I’m sitting at a picnic table, enjoying the spring morning sun on my face. A bird pecks at the ground near me, and a squirrel skitters up a tall pine. I inhale deeply and take in the scents of sagebrush and my neighbor’s pancakes cooking over a fire. The nearby stream gurgles down the mountain. Behind me is the steep, eastern face of the Sierra Nevada; far below me spreads a lush valley where cattle graze.

An hour ago, at sunrise, I lay warm in my sleeping bag, gazing up through the netted top of my tent at the pale blue sky laced with pine branches. I love these moments, when early sunlight slowly brings me to consciousness and all my senses come awake to the gentle nourishment of the living world.

Now all is calm and the morning chill abates. My tummy is satisfied with the simple breakfast of cereal and fruit I’ve just finished. I’m sipping my herbal tea, thinking about how I’ll wash my dishes before setting off on a hike. This just might be heaven.

One with nature

I’m not sure who I’d be if I didn’t camp regularly. Being outdoors in a beautiful place, day after day, renews me. I rediscover my organic nature and my kinship with communities of plants and animals. I can become absorbed in watching ants flowing in and out of their anthill, birds pecking insects from the bark of a tree or lizards sunning on a rock.

The special feeling begins even before I leave home. Planning what to take reminds me of how little we really need: clothing, easy-to-cook food, basic kitchen equipment and sleeping gear. Food, clothing, shelter.

When I pull into a campground, I scan the terrain to determine patterns of sun, shade, wind and water flow. I make note of the human features–outhouses, main roads, campsites, garbage cans–and decide how near or far I want to be from each. I look for the primal features of prospect and refuge; I want to feel protected yet have a nice long vista. I may circle a campground several times before I’m satisfied that I’ve picked the right place.

After selecting my campsite, I refine the details. My tent goes where I’ll feel most protected from the wind, noise, campfire smoke and neighbors. If rain is likely, I trench around the tent to deflect flowing water. I orient the door so beauty greets me when I crawl out in the morning.

These are the same site-planning skills I use when working with architectural clients. Camping lets me practice them in their most essential form.

The richness of now

Along with the sensory delights of camping, I love being absorbed in the present. With my simple camp-kitchen setup, cooking and cleaning require planning, but I enjoy every bit of it. Each moment is its own reward, and there’s no hurry. I don’t feel behind or pressured.

Throughout the day, I think about how to stay warm or avoid getting overheated. I have to stay hydrated and avoid attracting bears with my food. I need enough firewood, kindling and matches to make the fire that cooks my food and keeps me warm into the evening. I must monitor the fire, stop fueling it at the right time and put it out cold so I don’t start a forest fire.

In short, my day is occupied with the most basic kinds of self-care–with things that could even make the difference between health and injury, survival and death. The kinds of luxuries and security that I take for granted at home are not present. Rather than feeling burdened, I feel enlivened by this elemental way of being. It brings me back to what life is all about, in ways my rational mind can’t even explain.

When I’m camping, I’m aware of how much our modern environments–cities, suburbs, houses, apartments–cut us off from the rich, natural, sensory textures we crave. They remove us from the cycles of sun and moon, the changes in temperature and moisture, the companionship and challenges of wild creatures.

Camping reminds me of what environmental design is all about. When I return home, I rededicate myself to not just designing houses for my clients, but to creating natural habitats for them and other forms of life.

Over the line

The wild world has a darker side, too. Sometimes the line between bliss and danger, pleasure and pain, is thin. When camping early or late in the year, air that’s refreshingly brisk while I’m hiking can become so cold at night that I never get warm in my sleeping bag. Then I find myself trying to remember how cold you can be for how long before you lose toes…or die. I remember why people created walls, roofs, insulation and heating systems.

Sometimes my fellow campers un-make my day. With their generators, dogs, off-road vehicles, loud parties and even guns, they make me think fondly of the solid walls, double-pane windows and security locks back home. Wildlife can make me rethink things as well. Once I disrupted a yellow-jacket nest and was stung all over my body. After I dragged myself back to camp and pulled out all the stingers, I sat there throbbing with pain and feeling unsafe. I packed up and went home, where I knew I could make myself comfortable without too many unpleasant surprises.

Home free

Camping increases the risk of having intense experiences, but it’s a risk worth taking. Every time I go camping, I’m reminded of why we have buildings–with their protections, functions and privacies–and what we’ve lost by living inside fortresses.

When I camp, I remember what environmental design is all about: mitigating extremes of temperature, moisture and danger while keeping us in relationship with breezes, animals, plants, the sun and moon, and the earth itself–all engaged in a constant dance of delight. 

Carol Venolia is an eco-architect who is passionate about reuniting humans with the rest of nature. She’s the coauthor, with Kelly Lerner, of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006), and she codirects the EcoDwelling program at New College of California. Share your experiences with her