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Culture Change
# 37

Living outside the box
I love nature so I sleep with her

by Jan Lundberg

For years I've wanted to live closer to nature instead of in a house or apartment.  Now, even with my town existence, I'm sleeping out a lot, and on the whole it's very good.  People slept out for the most part during our millions of years of evolution, making us stronger in many ways because of it.

Wilderness is relative, and there's more of the real thing further from towns.  Places for sleeping out are ideally the bigger nature preserves, but closer to town and in towns there are spots to sleep in that are pleasant.  A balance can be struck: sleep just out of town for a tolerably long commute.  

One thrifty outdoorsman described sleeping out in a favorite Humboldt County, California forest as "a total freebie" - no rent.  For the most economic experience for travel back and forth, use human power as opposed to driving a car - although a bus or commuter train can aid you.  In addition to the exercise factor of the cost-free walk or bike ride, fresh air outdoors is wonderful both along the way and at camp.  

Action camps, for opposing forest clear-cutting, for example, are sometimes at designated campgrounds, and provide free sleeping space, food, and conviviality - all for a good cause.  However, these opportunities are vacations from the city and are rarely feasible for the workaday urban routine or frequently visiting a town's infoshops, Food Not Bombs meals, and other community amenities.

Tents are optional, and like all gear need to be carried around.  Tarps are easier.  Another alternative to portable shelter is vegetation, for those with aboriginal skills, if precipitation threatens.  Bivvy sacks (that fit around your sleeping bag) are handy.  When commuting and sleeping out, the process should be simple and light, partly because locations can change frequently.  

Not convinced yet that it's good to start sleeping out now?  How about rehearsing for future social havoc, when, because of the major upheaval when the global economy and petroleum-flows stop, one must depend on new kinds of mobility and survival skills?

It goes without saying that one must leave no trace of having stayed anywhere, unless one is returning.  Trash is anathema.  However, one can return to a campsite and find it trashed: vandals and police are accused of ripping up sleeping bags, for example.

The box as a home
Why would you want to always live next to other boxed-in households, along filthy asphalt, beset by noisy, deadly pollution machines passing by?  With lawn mowers and other power tools spoiling a nice day?  The list goes on.  Not having one's own box to live in makes it easier to sleep outside.  But, unless one is without a comfortable box, the tendency is to stay indoors constantly, despite the daily dreariness in any pseudo community of consumerland.  

As much as people want to do more camping, they will complacently sleep in their box with poor air and unnatural noises only because of the availability of conveniences.  I rely on buildings too, as I house-sit and couchsurf in my particular temporary circumstances.  However, when one practices sleeping outside, sleeping in a box becomes a mere option instead of one's sole routine.  Burdened with few possessions, or keeping them in storage, one can live in a complete way and satisfy the soul.  On the other hand, reality can appear starker when one sleeps out - but so be it.

We are almost all prisoners of boxes we call homes.  They are homes, but nowadays are rarely built to be Earth-blending.  Unobtrusive and ecologically functional homes in the U.S. are considered weird and substandard, although since the 1960s primitive and simple designs have enjoyed a resurgence.  It's less urgent for the soul to escape such structures.

Inside the typically modern home is an obscene array of pollution devices warming the globe.  I refer without exaggeration to the heedless reliance on luxuries thought as necessities by hundreds of millions of us.  It is tempting to always use the appliances when they are present, and easy not to share them with neighbors who are hardly known to us.  

Benefits, risks, techniques
When people meet in nature, they tend to share and help each other.  Especially when walking in wilderness, coming upon people is not as dangerous as when being approached on any street in the U.S.   In wilderness you almost never feel any of the even minimal fear that pervades the urban or suburban setting in the U.S.  With our self-congratulatory hoopla as the greatest consumers in history and the world's only superpower, we ignore that we are the most violent, paranoid and trigger-happy society of all.  

That can present a problem for one who seeks the freedom of the outdoors.  Older consumers are particularly wary of a stranger, especially a "nature person," looking for a place to lay his or her head.  Understandably, a stranger in the neighborhood may be a crazed criminal, although rich-looking people are rarely so suspected.  With violent crime so much more common in the last several decades, it's no wonder one does not normally consider knocking at any old door, and asking for minor assistance - let alone hospitality - of a random U.S. urban or suburban home.

Nature in her beauty and abundance allows relaxation and active meditation, reducing stress and friction between people lucky to be there.  You gather around the campfire for companionship and enjoyment, feeling the flow of nature's peace.

People spend so much time in cars that people almost live in them, as well as in their houses or apartments.  Some sleep in cars regularly, a much better use for the things than running them (on petroleum).  Sleeping in a car is not quite sleeping out, unless it's a nondriveable car.

A bicycle is handy for sleeping out, and you can always replace a bicycle dirt-cheaply.  Not even having a bike works too, but walking around with all your possessions for sleeping out is a giveaway to the vigilant property-owning/serving classes.

Staying warm and dry is harder some times of year, depending on the climate of the bioregion. The West Coast of the north American continent is generally more inviting than the rest of the U.S.   But no matter where you do it, the rewards of feeling like a free animal and in touch with nature are incomparable.  Earth lovers should head for the outside and leave the polluting and the pollution behind and in the past.  Do it for the Earth and the future, as a revolutionary act, or because it feels good.

Unfortunately, even patches of nature are disappearing everywhere in the development-mad regions of civilization.  In the U.S., cities have become privatized fortresses - anti-poor and anti-homeless.  It's not original to point out that Jesus's parents would probably not be well received today in their time of need, by most households and institutions in this country.

When one is houseless in and around U.S. cities, he or she is like a hunted animal.  But we're all hunted animals.  It's just the illusion of security that a box brings that allows people to feel non-hunted.  Instead, they are trapped, and they can be found there.  Yet, to them this is vastly preferable to "having nothing."  Some people think they are what they own.

Where people are consuming the least in terms of energy, paper, plastic, etc., they are far kinder to the Earth than upstanding citizens supporting the local and global economy.  In towns that have embraced the Kyoto Protocol to cut greenhouse gas emissions, homeless people - particularly the car-less - should be treated as honored citizens encouraged to keep up their less consumptive and less self-consuming life styles.

To be barely surviving, in terms of material tonnage, is at least to not live in a fantasy world (like the middle-class or very rich person might).  In the U.S., the facade of a kind, open society fades quickly when homeless or nomadic people make the dutiful drones of the materialist herd uncomfortable.  Society's growing tendency is to forcibly move people away who are unqualified to shop.

Campgrounds needed for homeless
The benefits of sleeping out, such as enhanced awareness of our life-support system known as nature, are hardly ever appreciated or acknowledged by those not doing it.  Also, sleeping out implies homelessness and begging.  In the town of Arcata, California, there is no legal campground, and the police go to lengths to uphold the no camping ordinance.  The community redwood forest, 500 acres, is off limits!  So is the marsh wildlife sanctuary where sewage is biologically treated - 100 more lovely acres off limits.  Anyone caught sleeping in those giant parks or anywhere around the city in his or her own vehicle is rousted.  

This is tantamount to an anti-homelessness law.  It is just what was ordered by some downtown merchants and other proper folk of what has been hyped as the most progressive town in America.  "Sleeping is not a crime," goes a protest slogan in Arcata.  City Councilman Dave Meserve is trying to assist the homeless, which has been a rare act for politicians of the past.  He is already rather busy trying to pass a City Resolution calling for our Congressman to initiate impeachment of George W. Bush.  

The local chapter of Veterans for Peace is working on establishing a nomadic camp.  Some vets like sleeping out as therapy for what they endured in Viet Nam.  One Vet for Peace told Culture Change that in the 1930s, during the rough economy, homeless camps were established around the nation that were self-governed.  

Arcata's approach - if the city council does not keep ducking the issue by continuing to criminalize homelessness - will be to help establish nomadic campgrounds up and down the coast.  The reason for careful planning and coordination with distant cities is to avoid making Arcata a sole destination for homeless people, if it has the only nomadic camp for hundreds of miles.  A well-designed, well-run camp for the homeless would feature showers, the ability to use an address and a phone for job qualification, and other amenities.  Arcata's activists also plan to draw upon proven efforts elsewhere.  In Portland, Oregon, for example, homeless people erected Camp Dignity almost three years ago, and have successfully dug in for the duration despite little public tolerance initially.  

Locales and practices
In Amsterdam in 1974 I made it a point to pitch my tent in a nice, central park, where I heard it was acceptable to do so.  No one bothered me.  I was having an out-of-USA experience!  I don't know if Amsterdam is still allows camping in that park, but the whole nation still has a reputation for tolerance and putting public funds toward social needs of the whole population - an alien concept in the Empire on the other side of the Atlantic.

Many environments for sleeping out abound.  Who cares about sand?  Or redwood leaves?  It's all good.  You take what you can get.  Make a pillow and mattress out of nature's materials.  To be truly off the grid, do without the techno-gadgets that turn camping into an artificial incursion into nature.

Camping out as recreation is healthy under almost any circumstances as quasi-direct experiences of nature.  Sleepin' out is different: getting funky, being feral.  

Green is the shelter 
Of all that I need
I feed on the berries 
and bathe in the stream

I've always lived here 
In circles life goes
I'm the same as the creatures 
that live in the groves

- the Depavers, from Green is the Shelter, 1997

Walking and even biking around in the dark without a light, both on roads and in nature, is sometimes necessary.  Some day soon there will not be abundant energy for many of us to have artificial light.  Fortunately there is always some light at night in addition to both street lighting and our friend the Moon Goddess: starlight.  With that, I bid you a good night outdoors where you may enjoy yourself.  Watch the sky, the ground, and the horizon - things you don't do when you're stuck inside the box.  Feel more human!


- Read about Dignity Village, a tent city in Portland, Ore.
- Take the Pledge for Climate Protection and reduce dependence on appliances

- At the Redwood Peace and Justice Center in Arcata, and all over the land, protesters are organizing for a  pro-impeachment/end the Iraq Occupation demonstration in Washington, D.C., Oct. 25.  A joint action is in San Francisco.
- See previous Culture Change Letters on Archive page


Jan Lundberg formerly ran Lundberg Survey Incorporated which once published "the bible of the oil industry."  He has run the Sustainable Energy Institute since 1988.  It can use your assistance and generous help.

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