The Mystery of Play: The Joy of Direct Experience
There are mornings at Alford Lake when the water is glass-flat, and the hills reflected on the lake’s surface appear every bit as clear as they do above the waterline. There are mornings when the wind plucks at the top of the water and lifts it up into small waves. And there are mornings where a light gray fog does not burn away with the dawn but stays crouched on top of the lake, and when we come down from breakfast to canoe or kayak or swim, we can enjoy the last minutes of the mist
It was on one of these mist-covered mornings that a group of campers and I (their counselor) paddled into the nearby cove beside the McMullan’s Hut. Our colorful little line of boats stood out against the deep greens and browns of a Maine summer cove. For long minutes, we drifted and talked softly, discovering things as we went, like how the stems of water plants feel glossy or how turtles blend in with the logs and rocks on which they rest. Moving along the outer edge of the cove, we felt as though we were sliding through the forest, low to the ground and without the disruption of our own footsteps. On the far side, opposite Mrs. M’s home, we came across something extraordinary in a cleared-out spot of land: two large, smooth, perfectly shaped ovals the color of stone. Based on the voice and behavior of a nearby loon, it did not take us long to realize to whom these eggs belonged. We had discovered the eggs of the loon. Carefully, respectfully, we backed away. We took only our story away with us (“Guess what we saw…,” we’d begin.) and vowed to protect the precious space of the mother loon.
While I was never a camper at Alford Lake, I was fortunate to have spent a great deal of my childhood outdoors. I played…a lot. With brothers and cousins and friends, I ran and swam and explored and discovered things and made up stories to explain all the things I’d seen. There was so much land to cover, so much to figure out, and so much of it was just plain mysterious.
I miss the mystery of play, and I fear that while our culture has given us much (speed, information, access, resources, lots Facebook friends), it has taken away some of the mystery that is always part of direct, tangible experience.
At camp, there was much that I did not know. I could not predict how the lake would appear on a given morning or how it would change throughout the day. I did not know what the weather would bring and relied on the shape and color of the clouds and the direction of the wind rather than on “Weather.com.” I could not always tell my campers the name or source of all the things we saw and heard, and yet, I did not feel the need to “Google” them or search for them on “Wikipedia.” It was sometimes just enough to hear and to see. To wonder.
The outdoor living of camp requires full participation in the world, but more importantly, camp relationships are built on direct engagement. When my campers and I conversed with one another, we did not exchange words on a screen, alternating “Send” and “Reply.” Our voices made a sound. Our friendships were “Confirmed” not by the quick click of a moving arrow but through meaningful gestures like smiles or expressions of concern made by the movements of our faces rather than the typing of emoticons. During tent time, we wrote letters on actual paper and with actual pens and sent them miles beyond ALC. We dropped them in the mailbox and felt the exhilaration of mailing thoughts that are irretrievable, that cannot be called up and reread in a “Sent” folder. Our words were sent with faith and after a patient time, we received other words back, all wrapped up in paper and delightfully sealed. And what gifts, these words. What gifts.
Camp cultivates the mystery of play. The mystery of the full, direct experience. I have heard that camping has become “countercultural.” I disagree; I think camp does not work “against” culture as much as it works to protect it. Camp represents a distillation of the most vital qualities of our culture, the essence of what cannot and should not ever be sacrificed for the sake of speed and convenience.