Monday, June 01, 2009


What is the physical underlayment to the pleasure of returning to a favorite place? Is there some evolutionary aspect to it, hearkening back to the hunter-gatherer years when tribes would move through a cycle of places through the seasons?

It is noticed most strongly in vacation spots we return to year after year. The very smell of a grandparent's lake cabin - the quickening of the pulse as we drive a road long-familiar but visited only in one season. Look, there's the stream where we saw the beaver...just around that corner, yes! It's the little store! Just where it should be! It has the primitive pleasure that Dave Barry describes his dogs experiencing every day as they go out into the yard. Wow! It's the smell of dog wee-wee! Amazing! (Of course it is, you meathead. It's yours from this morning.) Humans, being more advanced and with better memories, have to be away from a place for a year to get that experience.

Smell is powerful in these episodes, but so is spatial arrangement - see the little store reference above. We cut through the old path and feel a deep satisfaction that the primitive sign is still nailed to the dead tree, and that the canoes are stored right where we expected them. Perhaps the spatial aspect is less common. Familiar sights and sounds are gratifying, but not so strongly as I would have thought. Or perhaps these are just more subtle, to be savored over the next twenty-four hours as the simple pleasure of Being Back Here sinks in.

In the British Isles and Northern Europe at least, major religious ceremonies were associated with places visited only once a year or even less. Stonehenge, the Red Lady, Newgrange. It must have been more generally common - Passover and the Feast of Booths, the Muslim Hajj, Aztec sacrifices. Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage Chaucer says of medieval spring, and church camping is still one of the most powerful tools for evangelising the young and drawing them into the larger church. I don't think this is merely good marketing (though it is that), but a natural connection.

And thus as the people became more prosperous and built second homes, they transferred these acts of worship, these yearly pilgrimages and temple-building, to their secular gods. Perhaps no religion can stand against the god of vacation, and all our intellectual blatherings about the loss of faith in Europe and parts of America are beside the point. As people had the money to travel, and went to Lakes Como or Sunapee, Brighton or the Jersey Shore every year, the deeper parts of their brains simply told them this must be your religion, then. In most parts of the country, Methodists had their camp meeting grounds, Baptists had Bible camps, other groups had family camps, whether in tents, lodges, or clusters of individually-owned second homes. In New England we had some of that, but nature camps, Y camps, and prestige camps were more common. The political camps of the communists, the arts and music camps - these were in the northeast. Second homes tended to be for seclusion or prestige location, celebrating the gods of family or entertainment. Church camping was much rarer in Europe. The Jewish Feast of Booths looks an awful lot like going camping when you think about it.

So New England now has lots of arts and music, lots of suburban environmentalists, acres of entertainment in beautiful areas, more than our share of communists, and empty churches. Maybe there's a connection.

Camp doesn't work for everyone, but the effort of pilgrimage might; the inconvenience of roughing it with others of like mind is a powerful bond, and campfires still draw us.

1 comment:

Gringo said...

Last year I visited my hometown for the first time in over 10 years. A friend lived at the end of a short blacktop road : 1-2 miles. I drove on it, and decided I had driven too far, as I had come to an unfamiliar part. After backtracking and calling, I found out that I hadn’t gone too far. What had thrown me off was that I had driven by a side road, previously dirt, which had been covered over with loose stone. That had registered in my mind as a change, which made me think I had gone too far.

FWIW, I never went to a camp as a child. When one is surrounded by trees, with only three neighbors within a half mile radius, in effect one is at camp year ‘round. And yes, memories of the landscape are very strong. Like they say: you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. Memories are stronger of winter and fall landscapes than of summer landscapes. Seeing the green of princess pine and creeping jenny among the brown of wintertime detritus, not to mention snow, sticks in one's mind.