The Outdoor Life

Jul 7, 2014

It’s summer time and, at least according to George Gershwin, the living will be easy. Newspapers and magazines are full of advice about how we are expected to dress and behave for the next eight weeks. It’s not actually going to be easy. How can we possibly live up to the demands of summer? One particular advertisement I saw in a color magazine said it all. It showed a photo montage of a family dressed in what appear to be circus outfits, and variously engaged in fishing, throwing beach balls, sucking fizzy drinks through straws, cooking lobsters on a barbecue, and apparently playing tennis using a large dog as a net. All of them except the dog had peculiarly artificial fixed smiles, as if they had overdosed on some potent happiness drug. This is summer, according to the advertising industry. We must live outdoors, we must dress very strangely, we must have suitable "activities," and we must smile, because there will be nothing to smile about in November.

Summer is traditionally a happy time, when we can enjoy vacations and outdoor activities in the warm sunshine, if any. Saudi Arabia may be warmer, but they just can’t beat us for humidity. Summer brings many experiences that are denied to us all winter: mosquitoes, deer ticks, lawn care, carbonized food from the barbecue, ozone warnings, deadly ultra-violet rays, and hurricanes. Oddly enough, in spite of all this happy stuff, indexes of happiness tend to dip downwards in the summer. Perhaps it’s the air conditioning bills.

Living outdoors is a collective summer fantasy. Yet the outdoors was not really discovered until the late eighteenth century. Before that, nature was just something you put in the background of paintings, which were supposed to be hung safely indoors out of the rain. Then artists began to paint nature herself, especially in her sublime, picturesque and pastoral aspects: mountains, waterfalls, deserts, and country scenes. Inspired by these dramatic images wealthy folks traveled to wild and remote parts of the world to experience the emotional power of raw nature. But they soon discovered that it was more comfortable to live in town and look at the paintings.

The great appeal of summer is that it offers the possibility of an outdoor life for a few weeks. That’s all most of us need: the possibility. We are an indoor species, not adapted to survive long without shelter. We started out in caves, then graduated to huts and houses, and finally to MacMansions and condominiums. Our whole history has been a progression from outdoors to indoors, so that now we live, and even play within four walls most of the time. We prefer to work indoors. It’s more prestigious, and it pays better. The whole education industry is built on this simple fact. In the science fiction and architectural fantasies of the 20th century, visionaries dreamed of covered cities, completely separated from the hazards of the open air. Nature could be viewed on television. This prophecy has already come true in places like Phoenix and Houston and has been enshrined in fiction by Steven King (in "Under the Dome") and Bart Simpson (in "The Simpson’s Movie").

This nervousness about being in the open air is not entirely crazy. Some Boy Scout troops now have their "camps" indoors, for safety reasons. If scouts can’t survive outdoors in summer, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Copyright: David Bouchier