Back in Northern Ontario they call them “camps.” Out here they’re “cottages” and we’ve been looking for one somewhere on or near a real beach—which isn’t that easy to find in southern New Brunswick.
We went to look at one of the candidates yesterday; call it a Father’s Day retreat. After a long drive we found the place, which was next to a public wharf and a picturesque steel-clad warehouse.
The cottage looked fine in the online photos, but something had been lost in translation. Since taking the pictures the owner had gutted an old 1860s section and started “modernizing” it. The wiring panel was a work in progress, the bathroom was an empty box and the chimney of the historic fireplace (once a lovely, now missing its mantle) had been hacked off and capped in the attic, rendering the entire business inoperable. The whole house smelled damp, and the attached garage, which could have been a real bonus had mold issues. Still, as the real estate guys say in hypnotic client-speak, it has potential…
There must be some kind of universal recessive gene that sucks us into wanting cottages or camping out, tenting, RV-ing, living on sailboats and all the rest of the crazy summer places we crave. But what are we after, really?
Because once we escape the intoxicating thrall of summer, life resumes an arguably saner approach to housing. We go back to the big box that cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars—and tens of thousands of dollars more to decorate—taking for granted all the amenities: the soft beds, central heating, hot water rain-showers, high-speed internet, as if we’ve returned to a birthright, our true reality.
But I have to wonder which is more real: the complex systems and investments we call “home,” or that shabby summer camp in the woods or down on the waterfront? I don’t know.
I do know that the thing I love about a camp is dirt. Back in the “real” house dirt is the enemy. At camp dirt is just another childhood friend that drifts in with the other kids, no reaction required. Beach sand on the floor is one of the romantic attractions of camp—as much as sand between your toes.
Camp means not having to keep things clean, or even staying particularly organized. At camp, you don’t want to worry about paying bills or keeping the cell phone charged or scrambling to keep your coworkers happy back at the office. Camp offers a different kind of work, fun work: cutting firewood or patching up a leak in the roof, mowing the lawn, staining the deck, that sort of thing. And if you don’t get it done today, there’s always tomorrow.
And a few of the lucky ones among us still live as if they’re at camp all year long. From the outside these people might appear to be too lazy or too affluent or too poor, depending on their financial circumstances. The rest of us also tend to judge these people a bit harshly. “What’s wrong with them? Why aren’t they living like the rest of us?” are the unspoken questions. Or we’re inclined to attach labels like, “hippie” or “redneck” or “rich bitch.”
The reason we attach these judgments and labels is simple. We can’t join them because the best places to camp are also the places with the fewest jobs. Sure, we’re attracted to unspoiled places for time off or time out. And we’re attracted to forests and green fields and clear skies and the sound of the waves pounding on the shore. But we’re no longer able survive in these places.
There are two reasons, I think. The first is the great rural-urban migration from a land-based agrarian life to an industrial, post-industrial life—which has moved most of the jobs into the cities. Enough said. The second is the plain fact that we’re running out of resources, and ironically, even places to camp.
Due to the expense and scarcity of good campsites, camping has become a time-shared activity. We rent an RV space for a night, or someone else’s cottage for a week, or even take a sailing cruise for a month. Instead of tying up resources in single ownership, we’ve managed to “stack” ownership, renting spaces in paradise.
But the hidden question remains: if closer-to-nature living is what the inner soul craves, how could more of us get to live that kind of life on a year-round basis?
For the first time in modern history, we have some of the tools. Many of us can work remotely, in an office-less home environment. It becomes a “have laptop, will travel” proposition. And we can see that many professionals and academics spend an inordinate amount of time in hotel rooms and airports doing just that, while their offices sit empty.
But frenetic travel is no substitute for a peaceful residence in a natural setting. It’s one of the human mysteries. We’re restless, yet we crave peace.
Maybe, to paraphrase the old song, we’ll just have to run, run, run until our daddy takes our T-Birds away—that is, run out of cheap gas—before we can all settle down and begin to redesign our lives around nature. Meanwhile, we’ll keep driving around, looking for paradise.