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Darker, Dirtier, Happier

Posted by Mike Beech on

In a way, it's absurd that, as a species, we even have to consider our relationship  with the outdoors. There is a robust four-billion-dollar industry devoted entirely to hiking and camping gear. That excludes the estimated forty million or so dollars spent by hunters on the seemingly endless list of tools, supplies, and gadgets. Entire industries, factories, and supply chains devoted simply to making the idea of being outside more comfortable or manageable. I certainly don't want to presume what our ancestors would think of us. However, I think it might be safe to say that after convincing them that we were not magical deities, they would figure out that we were a much more fragile version of what they were. 

What we consider "anatomically modern humans" appeared 30,000 to 50,000 years ago. While ape-like human ancestors have been traced back as far as 8 million years, it's more important for this thought exercise to imagine organisms that look like, well, us. That being said, they still didn't look entirely like we do today, but the most striking difference would be their lifestyle. They were mostly naked, dirty, and they had rudimentary shelters at best. Shelter was a means to escape dangerous weather or predatory animals. This was as much "comfort" as could be afforded a human in the upper paleolithic. Living in egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups, they used stone tools, hunted together, ate together, reared their children together, and slept together.

At night, they would gather around a fire and, using rudimentary (but rapidly developing) language, would recount the events of their day. Perhaps they vibrantly re-lived the day's successful hunt. Perhaps they fretted about another restless night with no food. Maybe they told stories from days gone past, or even planned for the future. They sat, soft skin exposed to the night air; no claws, no fangs, no weapons beyond crude stone. Their only protection was the glow of the fire and their proximity to each other. The dark held the unknown, and the unknown was often looking for it's next meal: eyes aglow, or fangs tipped with venom. No one dared venture beyond the edge of the firelight. Those who had done so had already likely perished millennia ago, proving unfit to be ancestors to anyone.

No wonder then, that when we go camping and sit below a night sky, we feel so at peace. The default position around a campfire, that no one has to be taught, is to sit encircling it, facing the fire and meeting the gaze of your companions. 

No wonder that children create terrifying fantasies of fanged monsters in the dark, and seek the comfort of parents and nightlights. Even children who cannot yet read are comforted by the presence of loved ones speaking aloud to them, recounting the day or telling old stories or fantastic tales.

No wonder that a home with four walls, locking doors, climate control, and on-demand entertainment in every form is so enrapturing to us. Like sugar-rich foods that exploit our predilection for calorie-dense nourishment ("Eat it all, we don't get this often in nature!"), so too the comforts of the indoors exploit our deep-seated desire safety and security. The outdoors may be fun and engaging, but deep down the human mind instinctively knows that there are risks. Where we begin to run into trouble is when we convince ourselves to mitigate risk down to zero, or as close as we can get to it. 

Living with fear stops us taking risks, and if you don't go out on the branch, you're never going to get the best fruit.

- Sarah Parish

There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.

- John F. Kennedy

For hundreds of thousands of years or more, human beings and our predecessors used shelter and comfort as an all-too-brief respite from lives full of danger, hardship, work, and risk. Just as they used whatever sweet, calorie-packed fruits and tubers they could find for a boost of energy, they used rest and relaxation to recharge, regroup, and bond.

I want you to try something next time you decide to go camping. Don't just get there in order to set up next to your car, get a fire going, eat, drink and sleep. Give yourself some work to do. Do it with family and/or friends. Organize a challenging hike; gather firewood and start it without modern means; clean up the park or public land your are camping on. Afterward, reward yourselves with the serenity and togetherness of the campfire and a shared meal. I guarantee the stories will be livelier, and it will all be just a little sweeter.

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