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Where the Wild Things Were: Abbey’s Road Revisited

Communing with nature: Camping in the Adirondacks, 1874. Wood engraving by Winslow Homer.

“Life is already too short to waste on speed.”

~Edward Abbey

Harper’s Magazine published this bucolic scene of camping in New York’s Adirondack Mountains captured by up-and-coming artist Winslow Homer in 1874. It’s one of many illustrations he turned out in competition with Currier & Ives in the mid-to-late 19th century for magazines and newspapers, most depicting Americans comporting themselves out-of-doors in cities, towns, villages, and hinterlands, in an age unmarred by automobiles, aircraft, telephones, and digitalia.

But even by then, the accelerating pace of progress had decimated the vast Adirondack region in its voracious demand for lumber, paper, and charcoal. In the mid-1880s, after much environmentalist agitation and corporate opposition, New York’s legislature designated much of the area as a forest preserve. Ten years hence, after the preserve’s stewards were exposed as corrupt, the state constitution was amended to protect the 6.3M-acre region (almost the size of Vermont) “forever.” The amendment was all of two sentences, but it did the trick:

“The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”

And so, were you to visit the location in Homer’s illustration, it might still look pretty much the same as when he depicted it, except, perhaps, for the campers and the campsite. Hardy hikers and boaters still improvise shelters like the branch-and-blanket lean-to these dudes put together some 150 years ago, but camping and its attendant gear and expectations has changed radically since, and with it the very notion of what it means to confront and commune with nature.

While a healthy number of extreme outdoorists still pride themselves on packing as little gear as possible to escape from civilization, most Americans prefer to bring as many comforts of home as possible (including phones, satellite TV, and internet) when they park their overstuffed vehicles and bodies at campsites. It’s yet another depressing symptom of how utterly well-wrapped we are in our thickening technological cocoons. Even atop Mt. Everest, it’s quite impossible to get away from it all.

Campers still arrive at destinations travelling light by canoe and by kayak, but most check in on four or more wheels, in cars, trucks, SUVs, and RVs, guided by satellite instead of by lodestone, sun, and stars. A dog, as Homer’s dudes seem to have brought along, might accompany the crew. If their vehicle can’t accommodate sleepers, instead of pitching a tent they might unfold a trailer. Out will come hampers of food and drink, cold chests, gas grill, pots and utensils, folding furniture, and perhaps a cabana or beach umbrella. Bicycles, mopeds, or watercraft may adorn the roof or rear of their vehicle for off-road or waterborne adventures. Mobility-obsessed campers and day-trippers turn it up a notch with powerboats, all-terrain vehicles, or snowmobiles that spook wildlife and enhance the wonders of nature with exhaust fumes and high-decibel noise. They will continue to impair their hearing and atrophy their muscles so long as gasoline is still plentiful and flora and fauna remain to be flattened. And speaking of snowmobiles, Edward Abbey had this to say:

“The purpose of snowmobile recreation is not to get anywhere, see anybody or understand anything but to generate noise, poison the air, crush vegetation, destroy wildlife, waste energy, promote entropy and accelerate the unfoldings of the second law of thermodynamics…

Everyone knows that.”

From Hayduke Lives!, Boston: Little, Brown, 1990, pp. 128-129.

All that semi-off-the-grid technology distracts us from experiencing the outdoors when it’s not cluttering our homes and garages. But it doesn’t have to; instead of burdening themselves with a ton of gear to experience the outdoors, vacationers of sufficient means can book into a luxurious outdoorsy retreat offering all-inclusive close-to-nature posh. It’s called glamping (glamor camping, “where stunning nature meets modern luxury” according to glamping.com, whose motto is “Travel…evolved”). You should be itching to, they say, “experience the untamed and completely unique parts of the world—without having to sacrifice creature comforts. … You can wake up in a yurt on a mountaintop. Reside in the forest canopy in a treehouse. Take in the panoramic views in an eco-lodge. And that’s just to name a few.” Let them further explain in aspirational words and pictures what you’ve missed if you’ve never glamped:

Experiential travel, they call it, as if only high-priced retreats qualify as a holiday experience. Jetting to an upscale tent city to be treated as an ersatz potentate while we pretend we’re roughing it is truly camp. Glamping—and car camping too—fulfill bourgeois fantasies of being served by locals while living better than them. More than the journey or the destination, it’s about pampering ourselves. By making us feel safe, comfy, and special, all this evolved travel mediates our outdoor encounters. From the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with Styrofoam, dwelling in our portable playpens and paradise playhouses distances us from nature by circumscribing our experiential horizon around the familiar objects at hand and focusing on our own enjoyment. Are we having fun yet?

* * *

After we have made the planet one vast brownfield, you’ll be able to trudge through clear-cut forests, scale mountains of mine tailings, or paddle along dead rivers in VR goggles that display the glories of wilderness in 3D as it once was or might be once we’re no longer around to trash it.

But why wait to inconvenience yourself and waste gasoline to experience nature virtually, second-hand? Soon, if not already, some clever innovator will open an indoor hiking range with programmable treadmills, where you don headgear and dial up a trail in a virtual mountain, desert, tundra, jungle or arctic landscape with surround sound. But until then, you can take virtual hikes on YouTube, such as this one and others from Tall Sky (boots optional). If you’re the competitive type, “forward motion video technology” (aka a GoPro cam movie) lets you experience running in a road race at home from start to finish (treadmill optional but recommended). And, if killing large animals is your thing, you can hunt big game from the comfort of your lounge chair (camouflage optional). With technology, the possibilities for physically isolating ourselves from nature and one another are endless, and there are more than enough clever entrepreneurs and marketers out there to keep it happening.

Earth First’s tomahawk and monkey wrench logo.

And happen it will unless we turn away from the mediated life to regard and protect nature. You might not be the sort to join the radical Earth First movement (motto: “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth”), pour sand into the crankcase of an earthmover, chain yourself to old-growth tree trunks, or drive spikes into trees slated to be clear-cut, but consider supporting them and coalitions of indigenous people who are on the front lines of resistance to the abuse of public lands, fracking, pipelines, big dams, and other environmental assaults.

The Adirondacks were saved by a handful of citizen activists who persuaded politicians and the public of dire downstream consequences should nothing be done to end their plunder and despoliation. Environmental challenges from corporate greed and compromised stewardship are much more daunting today, but if not now, when?

“The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.”

~Edward Abbey

* * *

Inspired by re-reading Edward Abbey’s radical and raunchy 1975 fictional epistle against ecocide, The Monkey-Wrench Gang. See Robert Macfarlane’s retrospective review in The Guardian for more about the lasting influence of his environmentalist credo.

Here’s the full Edward Abbey quote that speaks of speed:

“There are some good things to be said about walking. Not many, but some. Walking takes longer, for example, than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed. I have a friend who’s always in a hurry; he never gets anywhere. Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting. You have time to observe the details. The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated and anyone can transport himself anywhere, instantly. Big deal, Buckminster. To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me.”

~ Walking, from The Journey Home, p. 205

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Geoff Dutton is an ex-geek turned writer and editor. He hails from Boston and writes about whatever distortions of reality strike his fancy. Currently, he’s pedaling a novel chronicling the lives and times of members of a cell of terrorists in Europe, completing a collection of essays on high technology delusions, and can be found barking at Progressive Pilgrim Review.

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