An Ode To Canvas
An Essay Contemplating The Humble Tent
A very long time ago one of the earliest Northern Europeans had an idea. His idea was simple: I’ve had enough of this cave dwelling. I want to go and sleep somewhere else…
It’s understandable. The same cave day in, day out, would get a bit boring. Having to walk everywhere, or perhaps riding a pet wooly mammoth, would limit your excursions to how far you could explore before turning for home and the safety of the cave. What with sabre tooth tigers and what not running around sleeping in the open was akin to being a human shaped all you can eat buffet. Not to mention potentially being an icicle come morning seeing as Ice Ages tended to pop up with alarming and rapid frequency.
The frustration of wondering what was over the far hills, what herds of easily stoned to death bison lay out of sight must have been hard to bear. Thankfully the human mind was evolving and problem solving was, and is, what sets us apart from other species. So it’s not hard to imagine the scenario: Our neolithic chum would invite everyone out from lounging around the cave discussing whether dinosaurs were really real or not to show them his creation. They troop out into the autumnal sunshine squinting.Before them lays a dome shape. It looks like a weird boob made of leather skins.
“What is?” they say perplexed.
(Forgive the invention of early neolithic language, no one has any idea what language they spoke, lets assume it’s a stunted comedy caveman version of English).
“Not weird leather boob?”
‘No. Tent. It portable shelter. For thing I call camping.’
“Camping? Sound shit.”
And so they turn, unimpressed, not realising the momentous moment they’ve just witnessed and tramp back into the easy comfort and warmth of the cave to nibble on a few more barbecued dodo wings.
They didn’t even notice that our friend and his weird leather boob were gone come night fall. They did notice two days later when he was nowhere to be seen and got worried. After a week they assumed his remains were somewhere either in the digestive system of a sabre tooth tiger or marinating as sabre tooth tiger dung on a hillside somewhere. Then they picked out a star that was him in the heavens forever more and got on with being cave people.
Then one afternoon our man with the big idea came strolling over the hill with his roll of skins and sticks called ‘tent’ on one shoulder and a brace of fresh game birds called ‘pheasant’ on the other. Which made him extremely popular as pulled pheasant was soon to be a bearded hipster caveman favourite.
Since then the tent has been a staple for mankind. The portable, lightweight dwelling in all its forms has sheltered cultures as they spread across continents. So much easier to take down and move than a log cabin. It’s been through wars, crusades, refugee camps, polar expeditions and more and thousands of years since that first stab at tent we still love them today.
Sure they’re more fancy. More tech. More carbon. They smell less of animals and are far more vegetarian friendly but the concept is the same. Portable short term dwelling. Erectable anywhere the ground is vaguely flat.
The perfect thing for surf trips in autumn.
‘Woah!’ I hear you say. ‘Camping is a summer thing yo!’
And much as your street lingo is impressive you’re wrong. Camping in summer sucks ass. Being woken at 4:30 a.m. by the sun lighting up the tent and then being slowly broiled to an impossibly uncomfortable heat by 7:00 a.m. is total balls. No, friends, summer camping is for mugs. Autumn, when the weather is more exciting, is when camping is character building. Camping that makes you feel alive. Camping that tests the fabric and build quality of your tent and your mettle. You’ve not lived until you’ve spent a night in a tent in a Scottish gale. It’s truly invigorating. Sure. It’s a bit terrifying as well. But it’s living.
Of course there are downsides to camping, even now that getting eaten by wildlife or squashed by rapidly advancing ice sheets is not an issue.
The modern tent maybe the easiest thing to erect in the known universe. Literally undo one strap. Let it go. And ‘BOOM’ you have an erection. It might not be the right way up initially but that’s an easy fix. The flip side. Putting them away is a whole different story. You need a PhD in Physics to put a 2-Second tent away. No messing. You have to able to bend space and time and manipulate carbon poles in to the shape of a Möbius strip to go back in the bag it came in. It’s next to impossible and anyone that can do first go without looking at the instructions is a bona fide genius.
Putting most other tents up, again, without looking at the instructions, is also pretty bloody hard. But once your tent is up and pegged and guyed you are ready to roll. The plus side of this is watching people put up tents they’ve never erected before is all kinds of hilarious. Like watching dudes build a 3D jigsaw on the Krypton Factor with no real idea what it’s meant to look like until they’ve done it half right with the poles in wrong. Of course the tent is half the equation. Humans require shelter. This is one of our main priorities. The others are water, food and somewhere to poop.
Camping brings out the survivalist in all of us. Especially wild camping on a cliff top overlooking the majesty of the Atlantic. No shower blocks and nice shitters here. Just a cliff and a view that money can’t buy. Water becomes precious. Metered out for tea, the odd sip of water and the tiniest splash for teeth cleaning. If people remember that we are civilised humans not stone age dwellers that do actually clean our teeth when living on a cliff edge. Food can’t be chilled. The concept of ‘fridge’ goes right out the window. Of course one of the benefits of autumn camping is milk for the essential morning tea/coffee doesn’t turn to cheese in three minutes like it does when left in a tent in the summer. Crisps and biscuits become the staple diet. How our ancestors would chuckle over their spit roasted fresh catch of the day at our modern inability to hunt and fend for ourselves. As for the bathroom. Well. Wet wipes are the friend of all campers. Surfers are blessed by being able to dunk in the sea all day and not be too grimy … apart from wetsuit wee stench. As for number twos. Well. Digging a little hole and then making sure you burn the bog roll to leave no evidence of your doings does make you yearn for the modern fabulousness of a porcelain throne. But. Again it’s character building to have a poo in a ditch overlooking the majesty of the Atlantic.
The whole point of tents is having somewhere to shelter under the stars. It’s also, if you’re on the north coast of Scotland like we were on this trip, the best way to see the stars. Getting away from the cave. From the streetlights and haze of 21st century man and out to where the air is so clear you can see the wonder of the Milky Way spiralling away into the infinite inky black isn’t something a night in a hotel will give you. Sure hotels have free biscuits and a toilet experience that doesn’t leave you worrying about brown shrapnel hitting your trousers. But it’s not a night you’ll remember. Being under the stars with the northern lights dancing on the far horizon as you drink a hot brew or a cold beer and talk story with friends by your humble tent is one of those things that sticks with you. Hell. It might even make you write an essay on how fricking magical camping in the autumn can be.
Sure tents blow down. People trip over guy ropes when they’ve had a few too many ciders. And inevitably someone called Ben will somehow puncture your airbed just by sitting on it but this is what makes tent life so brill. It’s living raw. It’s exciting. Yes. It’s tiring. It can be cold. It can be damp. But when the waves are firing it also means you are right there at dawn ready to hit it. And with no cosy duvet or partner to spoon and lie in with you’re on it. Steaming brew on the go as you suit up then hit the brine. The cold sting of autumnal Atlantic hitting your face is the best alarm clock in the world.
It’s not too late. Modern sleeping bags are good to crazy temps. If the surf’s good and the weather’s not too apocalyptic go camp. Get tent. Or. If you have a really good tent go camp no matter what. For shits and giggles if nothing else.
You won’t regret it. It’s in our genes see. Being outside under the stars next to a fire chewing on a burnt bit of meat is so deeply coded in our DNA that you’re seeing the stars through the same eyes our ancestors did. We’re the same. Just the modern version. Except they only got to marvel at the sea. Not revel in riding it…