By Maria Evans
In the Magazine this month, we’re looking at the experience of God in and through nature. In this piece, Maria Evans reflects on how breaking out of our hermetically sealed, climate-controlled lives now and again is good for the soul.
Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers of the Lord, *
O heavens and all waters above the heavens.
Sun and moon and stars of the sky, glorify the Lord, *
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
–from Canticle 12, “A song of creation,” Book of Common Prayer, page 88.
Recently, I discovered some fascinating statistics about how little of our lives we spend outside, and how insulated we are from creation. Americans spend 87% of their time indoors, and a 2011 poll in the UK revealed that the average citizen of the UK spends approximately 17 minutes a day outdoors. Ostensibly, this is because of air pollution. Yet at the same time, the evidence is mounting that our buildings are making us sick, with allergies and asthma on the rise. It’s possible that 80% of the people in the world have never truly seen the Milky Way.
The reality is that we live in a hermetically sealed life, and were it not for camping, or camping-like activity, we would seldom challenge that life.
We work in hermetically sealed offices that are not even designed for it to be possible for air to flow through the building if we broke every window in the place. (Have you ever wondered why old hospitals were built in crucifix, menorah, and stacks of Legos shapes? It was so air could efficiently cool the buildings in the pre-A/C, not as cued in to nosocomial infections world.) We go home to hermetically sealed temperature controlled homes and start to think anything warmer than 72 degrees or cooler than 68 degrees is intolerable. We take multiple showers a day in the summer when two generations ago, we were just getting out of the “you only bathe on Saturday; you wash with a rag the rest of the week” norm.
In our hermetically sealed lives, we lose the ability to hear the subtle joys of the world around us; camping jars us back to a strange clarity of the intersection of humans and creation. That horrible noise outside the tent? Just the raccoons licking the grease in the empty tuna fish can. Was that a woman screaming? No, only a screech owl–and not to be confused with the barred owl, who calls out, “Who cooks for YOU? Who-who? Who cooks for YOU?”
Camping reminds us there are many smells out there we take for granted or have forgotten about entirely. (Has coffee or bacon ever smelled better inside a house? No way!) It pushes us to have a tolerance for our own human smell, and reminds us there’s an odd passion attached to a sweaty person we love, just like those of us predisposed to equines become addicted to the smell of horse sweat.
Camping might be the gold standard for enjoying God’s creation, but even camping-like activity has its perks–walks in the park, puttering in the flower bed or garden, or simply sleeping out on one’s own deck under the stars has benefits. Yes, there are mosquitos (in my case, after all, it IS Missouri.) Yes, there are ticks. (I’ve always wished someone would invent Frontline for people.) Yes, I’ve been rained on, while sleeping out on my deck. Yes, sometimes it is too freakin’ muggy outside (see earlier aside about Missouri.) But there’s something indescribably delicious about being out for the night, more exposed than one would be even out camping in a tent, while at the same time having the option of only being a few steps away from shelter if the elements turn dicey. It gives a person a chance to feel enveloped by the heavens, with night sky every direction one looks. Had I never spent a few nights out on the deck, I would never have appreciated the deafening cacophony of birds that start up in the trees near the house–inside the house, they’re only muffled chirps and cheeps. Would we be more committed to the difficult work of using less and sparing the Earth more when we see just how magnificent 150 squawking birds can be, in the tree right next to us?
Also, sleeping outside now and then brings a new dimension to understanding the people we’re called to help and serve in our Baptismal Covenant. Granted, it’s not fun to wake up 2 a.m. cold and shivering on a camping trip or an overnighter in the yard, or to have not even a dry sock after the wind blows down the tent in a storm–but it’s also a stark reminder that for some people, this happens all the time because they are sleeping on the street. Smelling a little sweaty and funky and not rushing to the shower can bring us to insights about those who have little access to water clean enough to bathe in, let alone drink. These are understandings we don’t appreciate in our hermetically sealed world.
Finally, camping and other outdoor pursuits shatter our illusions of control. In our hermetically sealed lives, we get immediate relief by changing the thermostat, jumping in the shower, or muting the TV. When one has sat inside a tent for three solid days of rain, playing Euchre with soggy cards, the idea that we can control anything is laughable.
What might you discover about God’s love for you, creation, and the human family if you pop the blister pack on this hermetically sealed life we lead, and venture out for more than 17 minutes a day? If you are a person who beats that average, what insights have you discovered from simply being outside in the created world for extended periods of time?
Maria L. Evans is a surgical pathologist in Kirksville, Missouri, a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church, and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds a moment to write on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.