As camping season approaches, we’re reminded of starry nights huddling around a campfire, roasting marshmallows and telling stories. But a CU Boulder professor’s new book encourages those heading to the great outdoors this summer to reflect on the long history of camping and its implications on inclusion, homelessness and protest culture.
Phoebe Young, an environmental and cultural historian in the Department of History, spent over 18 years studying what it means to camp.
In her new book, Camping Grounds: Public Nature in American Life from the Civil War to the Occupy Movement, Young takes a closer look at how camping taps into some of our core American beliefs about nature and citizenship, and why some forms of camping became mainstream over time and others became marginalized.
“Camping can tell us a lot about how Americans connect to nature, but also who has access to outdoor recreation, how different groups experience the outdoors and the ways in which people camp that are not recreational,” Young said.
Recreational camping is considered the “norm.” It’s the classic image of being in the wild around a campfire. But Young goes beyond the mainstream definition to examine political forms of camping, like the Occupy Wall Street movement, and functional camps, like those of the unsheltered community.
“Recreational and non-recreational forms of camping each shape how we think of the other,” Young said.
“We can’t understand one without the other.”
Origins of camping
Although recreational camping is considered the most universal, or assumed, definition, the origins of camping rest in the functional realm.
“Camping was what you did when you were traveling and found yourself between towns; you might like it or not, but it didn’t carry a whole lot of cultural meaning,” Young said.
But as cities and industries grew, recreational camping became a way of reestablishing connections to the land and claiming a piece of public nature. Gradually, camping evolved from a functional, need-based action to an elite activity for the upper class.
“In the late 19th century, you needed a lot of leisure time, something that wasn't available to most people outside the upper classes,” Young said. “You also needed enough resources to get yourself out into nature.”
This elite group of campers worked very hard to keep up appearances and differentiate themselves from those that were migratory or mobile laborers.
Many non-white populations, particularly African Americans, were also largely excluded from this activity, as they were not-so-subtly discouraged from visiting National Parks.
“This is a fact that is getting more attention and focus lately, but it took a very long time for government agencies to proactively address that issue,” Young said.
The “right” amount of roughing it
Why do we tend to see homeless camps as visual and environmental burdens, but national park campgrounds as wholesome and patriotic landscapes? Why did national movements like Occupy Wall Street result in less tolerance for the unhoused and unsheltered?
Young looks at the way recreational, functional and political forms camping have intersected with each other over the last 150 years, and how those interactions have sparked debates over who has the “right” to camp.”
She uses the example of Occupy Wall Street––the most visible, in recent times, where people used camping for political means. The movement, which began in New York City’s Wall Street financial district in 2011 and spread to other major cities across the country, protested economic inequality and the corruptive influence of major corporations on the government.
Instructions for the Occupy protests indicated a date, a place, and a single instruction: “Bring Tent.”
Young said the tactic took off in ways that surprised both organizers and observers. The grassroots movement turned out tens of thousands across the U.S.––including in Denver, where protesters pitched their tents at Civic Center Park. Camping at dozens of Occupy sites captured the nation’s attention, as did the attempts from legislators to dislodge Occupiers, which allowed the protest to remain in the news for longer.
“Camping has been a consistent protest tactic since the 19th century, but what we saw on Wall Street particularly was this very interesting reaction from lawmakers that saw what Occupy was doing as a perversion of recreational camping,” Young said.
As a result, many cities and municipalities enacted anti-camping bans or closed public outdoor spaces at night in the wake of Occupy that directly affected the unhoused communities who relied on functional camping as a means of survival.
Denver’s unauthorized camping ordinance, which passed in May 2012 after the Occupy movement ended, is not technically a ban on camping, but does outlaw “unauthorized” camping on both public and private property. Currently the city doesn’t authorize camping in any public places.
In 2020, a Denver County judge ruled that Denver’s camping ban is unconstitutional, putting the controversial ordinance, once again, at the center of a legal and political debate over who has the right to camp freely.
Turning the rock over
As a cultural and environmental historian, Young enjoys interrogating things we tend to take for granted, whose meanings may seem obvious, and figuring out how they got to be so seemingly universal.
“I like turning the rock over to see what lies beneath, and how they came to be so assumed,” she said.
And as families and friends across the nation head out camping this season, she encourages people to do the same.
“We need to recognize the reason camping has become so embedded in our infrastructure has a longer and complex history that has differential effects on how we use the outdoors and who gets preference in using the outdoors.”
Young’s book Camping Grounds: Public Nature in American Life from the Civil War to the Occupy Movement (published by Oxford University Press) is available starting May 11, 2021 on Amazon Prime and Barnes & Noble.