I love Toronto, but since returning from a ten-day canoe trip all urban environments sicken me. The forests and rivers have placed the scourges of the city into sharp relief. I’m conflicted: I feel like I cannot readjust to city life without losing the serenity I built up in the woods. That nature recalibrates the soul is a cliché, which doesn’t make it untrue just simply vague, so let’s inspect this.
First, five buddies and I spent ten days in Northern Quebec, shooting the north part of the Coulonge and the Noir. Algonquin doesn’t have rapids as large as the ones we shot, and though there are sections of Algonquin where solitude is complete, we didn’t see a single solitary person from about day two to six. Now for what’s superficial about the city.
The city offers many places for spiritual escape or release, some free, like parks, others not, like museums and other cultural institutions, gyms, or yoga centres where unilingual instructors speak ancient languages they don’t know, and more. That businesses in the city supply life-balance is not proof that the city cares about you, rather they exist to take your money while you recover from the city itself. This compacted parasitical dynamic, this secondary gouging as you seek solace from the primary gouging, presuppose that life in the city is so hostile it requires escaping. In a larger sense these releases from work serve a crucial systematic function, to prevent citizens and workers from going insane. It’s akin to the hip company with the office ping pong table—the company doesn’t want you to enjoy working, they just want you stress-free to increase your productivity for their sake, and really nobody wants to be seen playing ping pong because it reflects poorly. These institutions just seek profit, which is their prerogative and perfectly understandable. But self-interest disguised as selflessness is the commonplace, everyday lie of the city. City life is founded on guile.
In nature, there is no purpose or motive. Nature is neutral, and always will be. It demands and offers you nothing. The actual world is just…there. No ads offer happiness or spiritual respite for a price. It is the primordial world before systems of government or business made direct or indirect demands on people. In this physical and psychological space, free of bosses, solicitations and professional or social obligations, there isn’t total freedom, but the limits, restrictions and hardships imposed on you arise naturally. And not only are they reasonable but they are not subject to questioning; you can only bring the personal effects you are willing to carry, and you cannot blame your problems here on ignorant voters or The Man. Obstacles, whatever they are, simply arise and must be surmounted. There is no alternative. No excuse or complaint will change the fact that you must make it to your campsite or you’ll have nowhere to sleep, and must make a fire if you want heat to cook food, etc.
But let’s not romanticize things too much—camping is not merely you and the elements. If it was, a couple lovely days of reflection would be followed promptly by hunger and death. You bring equipment and food from the city and you do not enter the woods without an exit plan. The outside world is never hermetically sealed off. But life feels different because the nature of work is fundamentally different, and after all work is what occupies most of our time, both in the city and on canoe trip.
Strictly speaking, very few people do work in the city that needs to get done. Even teachers, doctors, social workers and other noble professions must be at least occasionally struck by the feeling that their work doesn’t have the impact that initially attracted them to the profession. Hats off to people who find purpose despite making money! These lucky bastards are the minority. Bureaucrats, pencil pushers, PR people and advertisers, financiers, the producers and hawkers of senseless tacky garbage sold cheaply or outrageous sums—all these should have the good sense to know their work is absolutely useless. The world simply has more people than useful functions; everybody needs a job, but there’s nothing to do. Having a job is useful, even if the job is useless.
I speak here in an existential sense. Of course workers receive money for food and crap to buy in exchange for their labour (unless they’re writers or are otherwise exploitable), but the cycle is roughly this: the economy, the largest determiner of “quality of life,” depends on employment, thus employment per se is a cause in and of itself. Thus, a low (or even high) paying job that actively harms humanity, destroys the worker’s soul, and consumes all their waking hours is thought to increase their quality of life. The economy is merely a measurement of the country’s collective financial affairs, and has nothing to do with the spiritual well-being of people. But politicians and polls see “quality of life” in these terms, and these forces and this mode of thinking hold serious sway in the city.
This faulty system would equally praise all wealthy people with access to healthy food and elite schools but can’t distinguish between someone happy and suicidal. It’s a blunt view that regards quality of life only in measurable economic terms. There is something to be said for having money, let’s not be dopey artists, but soul and spirit can’t be ignored when determining quality of life, even if they defy quantification. The Earth turned for millennia before jobs in finance or PR existed. Nobody would be the worse if these and several other industries collapsed. Indeed, their total demise would probably lead to mass-bliss.
Every single work task on a canoe trip has definite purpose. You don’t do anything on trip unless it’s necessary or fun. And rather than rely on the city’s abstract, arbitrary or vague work evaluation, on canoe trips your body is the arbiter of how hard you worked. You feel it. Employed people in the city might get a promotion if they’re related to the boss, or have worked for __ number of years, or they might get fired because it’s cheaper to outsource their job to China, or getting rid of their role entirely benefits the bottom line. It’s beyond naïve to expect a fair correlation between your fate and how hard you work. The vicissitudes of the city’s relationship between worth ethic and payoff can be opaque and corrupt, nor does it have the capability to factor in unquantifiable things like soul and spirit even if it wanted to, which it doesn’t.
Nature is different. Reward and work in the woods are always governed by a simple, incorruptible dynamic: hard work gets physically easier the more you do it, and do it you must. This is the natural law. Muscles respond to paddling and portaging, and gradually these become simpler and more enjoyable. More, these tasks are never pointless or arbitrarily assigned along a top down hierarchy—boss, manager, useless employee, more useless intern. Trip life has an unselfconscious equality because you’re all in the same position. You need to portage because you’ve reached the shore, and carrying your gear across land is the only way to get to water again. The necessity of the work gives it meaning, and the rewards and pains are always in perfect proportion to the work put in. But nature is refreshingly indifferent to your productivity or how your muscles hurt. There’s no ping pong table, but if you need to chill, then chill. Pontoon, stop paddling eat something, roll a hasher, jump in the river. Nobody offers you a break, secretly judging you for being unproductive. But the rivers gives.
Let me absolutely clear about one thing: nature can be milk and honey but also a motherfucker. The woods offers lots of ways to be killed, and while I’ve stated that the work on canoe trips is necessary for survival that’s only true once you’ve embarked on the trip itself, which strictly speaking isn’t necessary. But canoe trips are the best vacation there is.
A vacation has two functions for the urban worker: first, it alleviates pent up work-related misery, and second, the prospect of vacation during work is a carrot that makes time stuck at work bearable. In other words, city work basically cannot be endured unless there is promise of release from it. Pretty much everyone agrees work is shit, and somehow if the world flipped upside down, we’d rather not do it if given the option.
On paper, it makes sense that vacationers aggressively seek to do as little work as possible. Sloths gorge their faces off at all-inclusives. On beach vacations, bliss is attained by remaining dormant for extended periods of time. Vegas-type gambling excursions promise glamourous thrills via ill-advised bets, outsized stage shows, cocaine and hookers. I find these fundamentally unappealing and possibly immoral. What’s so attractive about spending vacation time on a canoe trip, working?
I can invoke Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic, that work per se is rewarding, but this emphasis on work might distract from a better reason: canoe trips are a vacation from so-called civilization, and work is just what you do on them. (Though there are flog trips…) Nature washes away the city’s spiritual pollution. The city’s disgusting advertising everywhere, the lies we’re numbed to through sheer bombardment, the disconnected people, the enormous stacks of windows that pass here for architecture, the crippling car traffic stuck on broken concrete, our caveman mayor, media reports of the latest international atrocities—these and more are escaped with wonderful effect. This might sound like a cop out, like naturalists flee their world because they’re weak, but in fact they’re returning to the actual world that the ghastly city supplanted. It was here first.
Computers, screens, and office buildings are so pervasive that it’s easy to forget how foreign they are to our species. The industrial revolution was very, very recent compared to our evolutionary history. Human bodies and minds are designed and wired to move about in nature. Doing so feels like an ancient memory stirred up. You sweat at first, because it’s hard and unfamiliar, but you adjust soon.
The handsome eagle with its shockingly expansive wings is a worthy representative of its majestic habitat. The city’s emblem is the pigeon, probably disease-ridden and definitely disgusting to behold, accurately described as a rat with wings. Even the city’s parks and green space we loudly applaud ourselves for maintaining are only a taunting simulacrum of what was. However well-intended to impart in us a restorative, Wordsworthian appreciation of nature, they are only a token, a paltry fraction, a castrated version of what used to be. For me right now parks are no help coping with the city’s heinous aspects (roads, buildings, smog, work). Imagine about what Toronto looked like 1000 years ago, then celebrate our abundant parks.
Nature might be so comforting because it is basically people-free. Go somewhere remote to increase your odds of being somewhere that hasn’t yet been ruined by the human race. The few people you do encounter camping are there to do the same thing as you. They know the guide book and the ways of the forest and water, in the same way it’s unnecessary to explain who Jerry Garcia is at a Phish show. But a Phish show has thousands of people, some primarily there for drugs. The woods only a handful, and it’s unforgiving to amateurs. It rewards experience and purer intentions, though of course nature lovers can die in the woods.
Many differences between city and nature are more obvious, and no less important. City lights kill the stars, which illustrates perfectly how nonchalantly, how easily, even if indirectly, the city ruins the wonders nature gives us freely. In the bush, water is fast on rivers, vast on lakes. We are separated from Toronto’s waterfront by a highway. The sun, the only source of light in the woods but not the city, wakes you up and announces bed. Electric lights cause irregular sleeping patterns. Animal chatter and gushing water is nature’s background noise, replacing car horns and pop up ads. You involuntarily digest these contrasts in thoughts and feeling and they accumulate somewhere deep inside you. It’s this interconnectivity between you and all these elements which causes that precious, impossible to articulate thing—spiritual bliss. Hopefully you’ve filled up a reserve of it large and intense enough to last a considerable time while you’re stuck in that godforsaken shithole, the city.
Brian Miller said:
Jeff, this is a compelling read! Congrats on a truly excellent article!