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David Bouchier: The Great Outdoors

Image by Larisa Koshkina from Pixabay

The Summer Solstice is still two weeks away, but now that damp and dismal Memorial Day is behind us we can and do assume that summer has arrived, whatever the exact angle of the Earth towards the sun. That’s for astronomers to worry about, but we are terrestrial creatures and can recognize summer when we see it, and we know what to do.

We will live differently for the next three months. Our clothes will become lighter — often very much lighter. We are expected to indulge in appropriate outdoor activities like fishing, boating, swimming, throwing beach balls, sucking fizzy drinks through straws, incinerating our food on the barbecue and hiking into any scraps of wilderness we can find. Glossy magazines, TV shows, and the advertising industry are unanimous on all these points. This is how summer is supposed to look, and this is how we are supposed to behave. We should explode maskless into the great outdoors, undertake these special seasonal activities, and we should smile a lot. Summer is a happy time. Nobody smiles in November.

What I like about summer is the possibility of living an outdoor life for a few weeks. That’s all most of us need: the possibility – there’s no need to actually do it. 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. 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 to pass in places like Phoenix and Houston.

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 their town houses and buy the paintings.

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 spreading West Nile Virus, deer ticks carrying Lyme disease, air pollution, ozone warnings and ordinary sunshine, which is now known to be deadlier than nerve gas.

In summertime, at least according to George Gershwin, the living is easy. We shouldn’t be afraid of it, and we are fully armed and ready with stocks of bug spray and sunscreen lotions, along with a supply of barbecue coals. I have found an ancient pair of shorts and a sunhat. We can do this. We’ve done it before, and we don’t have much choice.

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.