How Sleeping — And Waking Up — Outside Makes Us More Perceptive

Apr 24, 2019

When I first began camping, it seemed like so much work. 

To make a cup of coffee, I had to first pack, then unpack, then cart over to the picnic table a stove, matches, fuel, water, kettle, press, mug, milk and then the coffee. What was the point?

But now I’m grateful. Grateful I have a French press full of French roast, the milk hasn’t turned to cheese, there’s a chipping sparrow at my feet, a raven above my shoulder — and look, here come a dozen turkeys plucking ticks from ferns.

Maybe all this work is the point, I think — to trade in one life for another.

In the Berkshires, I like to set up my tent by a brook so there’s water on two sides. The rocky ground may not lead to the best night’s sleep, but all night I'm aware of nature moving and living around me.

And when I climb out in the morning, I'm immediately in the day.

At home when I rise, I look out the window trying to judge what’s ahead — hot, cold, damp, dry.

Stepping out of a tent, there’s no pausing to consider. There’s just the world.

My mother-in-law once called to say she’d lost power for two hours when a storm rumbled through. I lived without power for two weeks camping, I tell her. But of course there was power — the power of the sun, of water flowing, wind blowing, the powerful smell of fresh-cut hay.

We evolved outside, and the more time we spend there, the more we perceive. We can’t see things change in geological time, but we can see and hear daily shifts: plants beginning to bloom, birds to nest, bullfrogs bellowing their charms.


Susan Johnson relaxing on one of her camping trips.
Credit Tom Johnson / Courtesy Susan Johnson

As I pull my tent from its tight casing, it reminds me of a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, unfurling its thin bright wings — a butterfly I can climb into and zip closed, creating my own retreat. It’s temporary, but that’s the point, too. In the morning, I’ll be moving on like the migrating monarchs.

If it starts to rain, I think of Cherry-Garrard in Antarctica in winter, 65 below — and then his tent blows away in a blizzard.

I have it easy, I think, washing out my mug. This is work, but that’s why I do it — to escape all the conveniences of home.

Susan Johnson teaches writing at UMass Amherst.