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David Bouchier: A Few Well Chosen Words

David Bouchier: The Great Outdoors

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Summer carries a heavy load of expectations. The local hardware store explodes on to the sidewalk with garden furniture and elaborate outdoor grills. Newspapers and magazines crank out special supplements showing how we're expected to dress and behave for the next three months. According to George Gershwin, in summer time the living should be easy, but this looks like hard work. We must live outdoors, we must dress very strangely, we must pursue energetic "activities," and we must be full of joy.

Summer is traditionally a joyful time, full of hazy, lazy, crazy days dedicated to pure fun. Summer brings so many experiences that are denied to us all winter, including lawn care, tasty carbonized foods from the barbecue, and hurricanes. Oddly enough, in spite of all this happy stuff, indexes of happiness tend to dip downwards in the July and August. Perhaps it’s the air conditioning bills.

Living outdoors is a collective summer fantasy. Yet the outdoors was not really discovered until the late 18th 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 buy the paintings.

The great thing about 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 McMansions 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. To paraphrase George Orwell: indoors good, outdoors bad. 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.

Our relationship to the outdoors is therefore ambiguous. When summer comes, we feel we should be out there. But the heat is oppressive, there’s poison ivy, mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus and now Zika, deer ticks carrying Lyme Disease, air pollution, ozone warnings, and ordinary sunshine is now known to be deadlier than nerve gas. Going out in the car is fine, because a car is a kind of mobile indoors, where we feel safe. Some Boy Scout troops now have their “camps” indoors, for safety reasons. But if scouts, with all their badges, can’t survive in the great outdoors, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Copyright: David Bouchier

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