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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

August 1996

Sleeping in a tent

"In truth, no one fully appreciated the celebrated deeds we conceived, or ill-conceived, in that tent."

Thomas L. Eddy

It's in the genes, deep within the marrow of our bones. Throughout our natural history there endures a biological basis for sleeping in a tent, an innate longing to protect ourselves from sun, rain, darkness and predators. That's what building leaf forts, treehouses, and camping is all about: satisfying a primordial urge to seek out shelter and lay claim to a sense of place.

Excluding our ancient, incontinent cat and the Dalmatian from Hell, ours is a family tent. My wife, our two young daughters and I each value the makeshift "home-away-from-home" – a 144-square-foot geodesic dome tent made from fire-retardant, rip-stop nylon supported by aluminum shock-corded poles. However, it's the smell of musty canvas that evokes my memories of rural darkness and "camping out" in the backyard with my brothers and sister.

The first tent I shared with my older siblings was a wall tent made of faded green canvas; a heavy skin that drooped over a plain, unvarnished wooden skeleton. A two-by-two ridgepole served as the backbone connecting the front and rear uprights. It ran the length of the tent and supported the canvas. To prop up the poles, the tent was moored to the ground by six pieces of taut baling twine, three to a side. Each piece of twine was knotted to a canvas loop sewn along the sidewall seam about two feet above the ground. The other end was bound to a piece of box elder or green ash that was driven into the ground away from the tent wall. Loops on the base of the sidewalls anchored by wooden stakes kept the 8 x 10 foot tent from collapsing. The half-dozen lengths of frayed twine applied opposing but equal tension; the shelter appeared to defy gravity – it stood, all summer.

The front profile of the tent was an irregular pentagon with short 90 sidewalls and a longer 45 pitched roof. A single entrance consisted of two canvas flaps on either side of the front pole that could be hitched to the outside front corners (doors open) or lashed to the front upright (doors closed). No windows. No floor. Even during the daylight hours the interior light was at best dim, making the inside volume appear more spacious than the true dimensions allowed.

A semi-permanent backyard fixture

Once the tent was pitched, usually by late May or early June, it remained so well into September, intermittently occupied by us and whatever non-human transients that found suitable habitat there. Although it stood more-or-less erect on the east side of our home, the tent was, in fact, measurably closer to our good neighbors, the Vonderlindes. For me, the seasonal canvas niche was simply an annex of my home.

Despite a few sagging creases and a couple of torn loops, it was a handsome tent. It resembled a lesser version of the military-style wall tent one sees behind Abraham Lincoln and his generals somberly assembled for a Matthew Brady photograph. Or, it could have been a suitable backdrop for some intrepid explorer posing stoically, cradling an elephant gun and smoking a pipe in a remote exotic land. In truth, no one fully appreciated the celebrated deeds we conceived, or ill-conceived, in that tent.

At twilight, we entered the tent to recap the day in rather animated discussions – who "killed" whom while playing "army" at Armfield's grove, plans for the next day's fishing at Hank's Creek, and, of course, baseball. Gradually, as brown bats got down to the business of catching and eating insects, and lightning beetles pricked pinholes in the darkness, the banter subsided. In our sleeping bags, in pajamas, we wriggled forward halfway through the tent doors and lay on our backs to absorb the radiating flecks of night sky.

Invariably, Mr. Vonderlinde's cigar smoke, along with muffled television noise, diffused through a screened window and seeped across a flower bed border to where we looked out and pondered our place in the universe. Facing the tent, our own kitchen was quiet now, save for the clamorous buzzing of June beetles attracted to the fluorescent beacon above the sink. My dog Bugs, lying nearby, arched his ears whenever he heard something that I didn't – silently reassuring me that he never slept at night when we fell asleep in the tent.

Sometimes we didn't sleep either. While the rest of our little town slumbered, we awoke and armed ourselves with nets and "killing jars." Like the insects we pursued, we were drawn to the town lights – riotous scenes where countless moths, beetles and bugs converged. Cecropias. Click beetles. An occasional giant water bug. And the most rare and beautiful, a Luna moth! A few weeks later some of our specimens would be on public display at the county fair; and as was ordinarily the case, brother Doug's 4-H insect collection advanced to the state fair.

Our night outings were not limited to collecting insects. In fact, our other diversions verged on the felonious – stealing green apples off Roscoe Carr's tree; smoking cigarette butts fresh-picked off Main Street; and even risking hell and damnation by streaking stark naked from one end of town to the other. Had we never slept in our tent, perhaps none of these unremarkable yet unforgettable deeds borne beneath canvas would have come to pass.

Convalescence under canvas

These days the act of sleeping in a tent takes me beyond camping in the backyard, cataloging insects or pilfering green apples. It is a healing process – a therapeutic course prescribed by myself. It is a convalescence of sorts that transports me away from overindulgence and lopsided living. In my tent, I awaken to early morning bird twittering and beaded dew that forms lazy rivulets on the tent walls. At night in a tent, I wake up and drift off to sleep again many times over to the rise and fall of rustling leaves or a chorus of crickets. In my tent, where I ride out a good thunderstorm, the sound of drumming rain makes me neglect the book I've intended to read and leaves me feeling better.

I'm reminded of this passage from W.H. Auden's The Art of Healing: "'Healing,' Papa would tell me, is not a science, but the intuitive art of wooing Nature."

Sleeping in a tent is repose from changes that are too much too soon. It's where I can daydream and nightdream unfettered, while still wearing my mental pajamas. From time to time I retire to my tent with worn emotions only to leave feeling grounded, centered and mended once again.

Well into his seventies, my Grandpa Holland still slept in a tent. He would bundle a small pup tent in his car and drive to visit old friends. At least that's what he said. But I'm not so certain anymore that Grandpa visited anyone. I think he just needed to sleep in a tent – to rest close to the Earth. I suppose it was his way, and now it's mine too, of making ready for the next day.

Thomas L. Eddy writes from Green Lake, Wis. and still camps in the backyard.