The first time I went camping was in 2010. The gear I took with me filled the entire boot and both rear seats of a car I’d moved house in several times as a student. Yesterday I managed a pretty cosy camping setup which left room to spare in the boot of a clapped-out Metro. What changed – and why on earth should that merit a blog post?
Well, over time I learnt something from camping. Let me digress; my father, with whom I spent very little time as a child, was and is a devoted outdoors enthusiast. This Sunday his father’s day phone call had to wait till he’d got back from his sailing club. He ran an outdoor shop when I was eight or nine years old, and once wrote a mountain bike guide to the county I grew up in. So I’ve seen a fair bit of pseudo-mystical mumbo-jumbo spouted about the power of getting out there over the year. There seems to be some inarticulable feeling that almost all outdoor-loving journalists and writers seem to share. But then, I’m a practising Pagan: I’ve seen pseudo-mystical mumbo-jumbo spouted about everything from crystal healing to gas cookers (really). So you might imagine I was skeptical about what great transformations might really happen in the depths of my soul, simply from spending the odd night in a well-maintained field.
And then I spent one Beltane evening standing around a leaping fire with a few very special close friends. We were each consigning to the flames some symbol of a past we wished to move on from – something I’m more used to doing at Samhain, but in that palce and at that moment it felt right. I threw in a veritable ream of old paperwork; money and journeys and property long since gone. I was burning a decade of my former self; receipts and statements dating back to my student years, the tedious trivia of a life I’d left behind. The tickets that I’d used to travel to the gender clinic, whose treatment of me I will always prefer to forget. I felt lighter for watching it all crumble away.
The man next to me, a stoic, quiet figure, threw in a single faded rose. It had come from a coffin wreath; the coffin of his late husband, in fact, who died young from a hereditary illness. I’d been drawing laughs with my flippant remarks about the various places and institutions I was glad to consign to the fire. In the moments while that dry rose took fire and curled into ash, there was a silence over all of us; it was incalculably rich with love and meaning. Every single one of us seemed in our own ways to be reaching out to that lonely figure with his open, empty hand. Every one of us wanted to say something, to seal the moment as the ritual it was. I’d been around pagans enough to have a ready aphorism.
“Blessed be,” I said quietly.
I would spend that night in a tent just a few yards from the firepit, and I would wake at 5.30 the next day in opalescent predawn light. I would hear nothing but woodpigeons, their calls drifting on the peace of the field. My first breath of air would be fresh and full of dew-mist; it would make me feel clean from the soul to the skin. (Subsequently to which I would notice the coating of unseasonal frost on my tent and flee to the spare bedroom inside the house like the coward I am, but it’s the principle of the thing that counts).
But then it was right for me to feel cleansed; I had also let go of something in that fire. And not merely the paperwork, or the self it represented; that was a journey of grief that I set out on years ago. No; I had packed for that camping trip in less than an hour. I had chosen to believe that my friends would have food I wasn’t allergic to. That the back door really would be unlocked if I woke up cold. I had chosen to trust, utterly uncharacteristically, that I could cope for 24 hours without packing the kitchen sink, the bathroom and a couple of spares just in case.
And that was how I learnt my Zen of camping: carry only what you need. It’s about knowing yourself. Knowing what you really need to get by. Knowing when to stop – and like the stoic widower, knowing what will make you ache more to carry it than having it will bring you joy. It’s about the tang of woodsmoke in your hair and the memory of watching bright fire swallow history. And not pulling a muscle lifting your backpack on the way home.
To Pagans Beltane is a festival of beginnings and of richness; it took me a while to look at it the right way, to see that new beginnings also mean letting the past wash away. I don’t stuff my paganism down other people’s throats; I believe profoundly that it’s my own, particular individual relationship with the world. But I found myself realising that night that it takes up no space in my backpack, adds no weight to my feet, and gives me a deep way to show people I care when times are hard. I’m happy with that. It can stay.
As the grieving man beside me looked down at the faded petals of his husband’s rose, he spoke of moving on; of recognising when things are no longer beautiful. He had the courage to let his beloved partner return to the earth; to live on as memory, one of the beloved dead, instead of as an emotional millstone weighing him down. If he can manage that and I can burn the life that used to be, then perhaps I can take a few risks with my backpack too.
Carry only what you need, after all.