Tents, walls, borders



Get Outdoors Colorado

Note: a version of this was delivered as a talk at IONA: Art Sanctuary, Sewanee, TN, on 4/17/19.

If you’ve ever spent a night in a tent, you’ve probably experienced it.

Perhaps you’ve hiked all day, through trails, over bridges. Maybe you’ve only gone a short distance from a trailhead, or you’ve been on a lake or river. You’ve dropped your pack with a sigh or groan, set up your tent and unrolled your sleeping bag. You’ve cooked dinner, sat staring at the campfire, felt the descending of the night. It surprises you how ready you are for sleep so early; you’re in your tent long before your usual bedtime, reverting to nature’s rhythms. You zip yourself in, shutting out the wild.

Then: at night in the woods or mountains, in the quiet without household hums or manufactured rushing of cooled or heated air, noises are magnified by our imagination. An insect scurring along the nylon hem has the sound-shadow of a cat. A squirrel sounds like a bobcat, or mountain lion. A raccoon crunching leaves or twigs inhabits the sonic silhouette of a black bear — or even a grizzly.

Of course, at least part of this is not because of the relative ambient quiet of the campsite. Rather, it is the projection, the pushing outward, of our fears of what lies on the other side of that millimeter of tent fabric — of all the maulings and clawings, of the fangs, poisons, injury, and death which potentially lurk outside our vision, but definitely not outside our capacity for imagining.

And the wall between us and those potentialities isn’t just nylon mesh and polyester taffeta. It’s also fashioned of our hopeful beliefs and our mental defenses against our dread. We want it, need it, to save us from whatever is out there. We have to believe that it is enough to protect us from what we ourselves have fashioned out of our knowledge, and lack of knowledge, and terror.

To put it another way: the tent, during those nights when we have put ourselves literally out there, closer to the strange, uncomfortable, unknown world and farther from what we know as home, is the border between our feeling of safety, of security, of what we can see, and the unseen but almost certainly bigger and scarier things on the other side.

And we erect borders like this throughout our lives, across our personal landscapes. Our neighborhood, on this side of our arbitrary imaginary border, is affluent, peaceful, desirable. That neighborhood is run-down, crime-ridden, and to be avoided. Our town and that town. Our state and that state. Our team and that team.

Our [blank] and that [blank].

In the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder described extraordinary races of humans living in India and Ethiopia — where, of course, neither he or anyone he knew had ever been. They included mouthless hairy creatures called Astomi, who had no need of food or drink; men with dog's heads; and one-legged creatures who could hop at incredible speed and use their giant feet as umbrellas to protect them from the sun.

A thousand years later, in his account of Ireland, Gerald of Wales (c. 1146–1223) recounted tales of a talking werewolf, a bearded woman, creatures that were half-man and half-ox, and a fish with three gold teeth.

We have never been deficient in creativity when it came to supposing what kinds of fantastical beings existed out there. We’re also extraordinarily good at assuming the worst. Not many movies or tv shows, after all, are developed around the idea of a stranger having a flat tire at midnight in a small town, and things turning out well. We love to scare ourselves with our rampant awfulizing — and the less we know about a place or its people, the worse the assumed outcome of any encounter.

We tell ourselves we need walls, protection, we assume evil intent of the stranger, in other words, for the same reason that the globe fashioned in 1510 famously noted of an unknown sea, ‘here be dragons.” The difference is that for dragons, we substitute the deadly wild animals outside our tent. Or for some of us, the dragons are the "rapists, murderers, and drug dealers" that teem just across the border of our imagining.


We wake in our tent with the morning, and unzip the door. As we peer out at our campsite, the terror of the unknown, our fear of the talking werewolves and one-legged, stomachless creatures crunching the leaves in the surrounding woods seem ridiculous and silly.

As a species, we seem fated to cycle through these nights of fear and mornings of relief and enlightenment. What’s certain is that we are now as a nation figuratively huddled helplessly inside the very small, stiflingly claustrophic tents of our own creation, staring at the nylon walls as we reassure ourselves of the awfulness of what’s beyond, unseen and unknown.

My deep, fervent hope is that we can summon the courage to ignore our fears, step outside our tents and beyond our self-made borders, and begin to understand the richness and complexity of the ecosystems to be found where ignorance ends and experience begins. Xenophobia — Greek for ‘fear of strangers’ — typically doesn’t survive the encounter with what one fears.

Sometimes, sleeping out under the overarching brilliance of the stars is the best choice. Sometimes, there’s no need for a tent at all.

No tent. No border. No wall.