I spent a fair bit of August under canvas. We had good weather and bad. One night in particular it was as though we had erected our tent in a car wash which had been left on all night. When we awoke in the morning after a patchy night’s sleep, it was clear that while we had weathered the storm, not everyone had. Around us, tents had buckled and collapsed, damp and bleary looking children were being reassured that the weather forecast for the next night wasn’t so bad and for sure things would dry out during the day. But the winds kept up during the day, and several neighbours returned from trips out to find their tents looking as though an elephant had used it as a leaning post.
As a child, I recall camping holidays generally involving the same tent year after year. A heavy orange canvas thing that smelt a little damp for the first couple of days but which went on and on. Now, like much of what the Oil Age offers us, we are surrounded by tents that offer convenience, lightness and lower cost, but which end up being a far inferior thing, and which inflict their legacy far into the future.
As the festival season draws to a close, we again see the impacts of this shift. Festivals such as Reading and Leeds result in literally thousands of perfectly good tents being left there, or some people ritually destroying their tents as part of their leaving ritual, like these guys:
I recall festival culture when I used to go to more festivals than I do now as being pretty respectful of the site. Now it seems to be a three day exercise in obliterating both yourself and the place you’ve pitched your tent. While there are homeless or emergence relief charities that salvage what they can, many tents still end up being landfilled. When you can buy a 2 man tent in ASDA for £19.99, the temptation to view it as being as disposable an element of festival-going as, say, toilet roll or rizlas, is easy to imagine.
Writing in the Guardian, Karen Luckhurst puts forward the idea that the reason for this is that “the damn things are so difficult to pack up”. She continues:
“They (tent manufacturing companies) seem to be unaware that people may not be folding up tents in ideal conditions – that it might be windy and wet for instance, or a woman might be camping on her own with small children, or a hapless and hungover teenager could be trying to deal with a sodden, mud-encrusted mass of nylon and bendy poles”.
Her theory is that by making them up-repackable, regular sales are reassured. I think it’s more that our throwaway culture has addled our brains to the extent that on holiday we feel it is somehow our right to not give a shit. While camping, in spite of the provision of recycling bins, I saw so many people just throwing everything away together (“well I’m on my holiday aren’t I?”). Many of those tent fatalities from our car wash night were just bundled up and stuffed into car boots to be driven to recycling centres. And, while I’m on this theme, what’s with the amount of bagged-up dog poo left on the beaches. If you’re conscientious enough to bag it in the first place, why then just toss it on the dunes?
Tents have also got larger and larger. Many family tents are now the size of the average garage, and are still growing. Tents with numerous bedrooms, kitchen areas, and for all I know, skate parks and saunas. But as they get bigger, they get more vulnerable to storms, to breakages. And as they get cheaper, why would you try to fix them anyway? One snag, one snapped tent pole, one snapped guy rope, and the whole lot is binned.
For years, my family was in the same cycle. We’d buy a tent, and within 2 years it’d be wrecked. Something would break, split, rip or tear, and that’d be that. When you camp every year, those costs build up. So two years ago we changed tack, and invested in a bell tent. Yes, ‘glamping’ and all that, but it’s fantastic. There’s nothing new about bell tents, they were used in the 19th century by prospectors and soldiers, and they’re a tried and tested technology. They’re also a gorgeous space to be in, easy to put up, and they somehow speak to our own ingrained recognition of patterns than the soul-less people pods of modern tents.
They cost perhaps 3 times the price of a plastic family tent, but for us, it’s an investment. Our bell tent will outlive us. If it breaks, we can sent it off to be repaired. If it gets dirty or stained, we can send it away and have it cleaned. Provided we take good care of it, it will be the last tent we need to buy. It is well made, something to love and cherish. For me it embodies Transition thinking, choosing permanence, investing in the future, choosing beauty and craftsmanship, over disposability.
In the week while we were taking our battering on the Cornish clifftops, the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) at the International Geological Congress announced that in their view, we can now officially refer to the geological epoch in which we live as the ‘Anthropocene’, so marked has been our impact on it. An article about that by Ian Angus read:
“The AWG will now shift its focus to identifying a global “signal” that coincides with the change. Ten of the AWG’s members favor using plutonium fallout from nuclear tests as the signal, but there are many other possibilities. Once a signal is agreed on, they will determine a “golden spike” ( properly, a “Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point”) — an actual location in rock, sediment or ice strata, somewhere on earth, that would physically define the onset of the new epoch”.
Might I respectfully suggest that, in their pursuit for that “signal”, they might identify the shift to cheap plastic tents, as evidenced by the discernable layer in the fossil record of scrumpled flysheets and tentpoles, broken zips and bent tent pegs, used and discarded with such regularity that they formed a recognizable layer in the geological record?
So, embrace the sewn-in groundsheet of radical possibility! Make your camping as much a manifestation of your determination to create a better tomorrow as your home! Rise up with canvas! Fall in love with craftsmanship! You’ll be glad you did. And so will the geological record.