Magazine | September 8, 2014, Issue

State of ‘Nature’

For the past 200,000 years or so, mankind has done nearly everything in its power to mitigate the disagreeable reality of living with nature. Actually, when you really think about it, our entire technological edifice rests on a desire to escape the unpleasantness, capriciousness, and nefariousness of the outdoors. Civilization’s most vital function, after all, is to shield humans from the vagaries of climate and save us from the discomfort of cohabitating with insects, vegetation, critters, and beasts that spread pestilence and death and make our skin itch.

So I am compelled to ask: What’s wrong with you people?

Here, among purportedly educated and reasonable friends, family, and acquaintances, I’m often treated as if I were guilty of blasphemy when I suggest that hiking into a forest during summer’s high humidity to gaze at a pond or a rock — or whatever’s out there — is a less worthwhile endeavor than, say, watching my plasma screen in a temperature-controlled atmosphere.

A person can enjoy both the outdoors and modern conveniences, of course. Still. Nature, I contend, is best experienced in a car shuttling from one outpost of civilization to another. Or better yet, in one of those brilliant contraptions that soar 30,000 feet above the ground and drop you off at a cabana a few hundred feet from a combed beach. To understand my apprehension, you need not go any farther than the aforementioned television to witness any number of documentaries that will, in great detail, exhibit the unimaginable brutality that goes on in places like the Serengeti, the bottom of the sea, or your very own backyard.

Yet, despite my strong preference for manicured environments and the indoors, I’ve always felt a tinge of embarrassment admitting that I find any prolonged encounter with nature irritating. People treat my perfectly rational outlook as if it were immoral. And as I have children, I do occasionally rent a rowboat, take a walk in a flora-infested field, or visit a collection of something called “mangroves” — otherwise describable as a swamp with massive mosquitoes and green guck. And since societal norms force us to pretend that it’s enjoyable to wander aimlessly around national parks, I do my part on that front as well. (In the Washington, D.C., area, incidentally, there are perhaps five or six days each summer when the weather is agreeable enough for you to venture outdoors without nearly dying of dehydration.)

Until recently, though, I had obstinately held the line on one critical point, refusing under any circumstance to participate in what is unquestionably one of the least pleasurable activities ever concocted by man: camping. To my regret, however, I finally capitulated and agreed to accompany my family and some good friends on a camping trip to upstate New York. Here I would, like my unlucky prehistoric ancestors, “sleep” on the ground, burn during the day, freeze during the night, and watch for snakes. Oh, and diligently avoid the public showers at any cost.

In the imagination of the average urban American — whose impression is reinforced by movies and television — camping is a tranquil experience in the wilderness that entails two sticks, a fire, some marshmallows, and tons of relaxation with the family. Needless to say, the reality of camping is quite different. You can’t simply roll up anywhere you like and set up a fire pit. And this fact hits you immediately when you pull into campgrounds that feel more like a football tailgate party than an escape into the countryside. Campers park their cars in small camping spaces to make way for their massive RVs and trailers, which bring with them the disquieting smell of human affairs. A camping area on the other side of the park, I was informed, was equipped with electric outlets and running water, but we, new rubes, braved the elements with a modest tent and snuggled in among what was basically a village of mobile homes.

And what magnificent homes they were. These campers do not, as I found out, have much contact with nature. They hole up in portable apartments — some of them the size of an average Manhattan dwelling. Some of these vehicles, which I’d previously witnessed only as they disrupted the flow of traffic on our highway system, were beautifully sleek aluminum-rimmed retro jobs, and others resembled tour buses that I imagine could fit ten people rather comfortably. Most didn’t need electrical outlets anyway. Buzzing generators powered television sets, refrigerators, sound systems, and water pumps. The pumps, in turn, fueled toilets, sinks, and showers. Campers laid outdoor carpets in front of their trailer doors to keep the sand and mud out and plugged in lights to illuminate food-preparation areas that were equipped with portable propane-powered grills. (One camper took a pizza delivery. God bless him.)

This entire scene was strangely heartening. There, in my own hell, I realized that mankind’s evolutionary impulses could not be quelled by the reactionary forces of nature lovers. Even they were surrendering to modernity.

Those who have silently suffered through the misery of camping may still scoff at me when I contend that mankind will have reached peak humanity as soon as we stop pretending camping is enjoyable and admit that what we really want are transportable homes that will occasionally take us to locales with better views. If those were available, I’d happily spend time “camping” with my wife, kids, and friends. I’d even bring my dog. Well, to be precise, my genetically engineered canine — because, much like nature, animals left to their own devices are incorrigible, dangerous, and to be avoided at all costs.

Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.

David Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, From the Revolution to Today

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