[This week, I’ll be camping with family up in Maine’s beautiful Acadia National Park. So I wanted to AmericanStudy come contexts for this longstanding form of national recreation and escape. Share your camping contexts in comments, please!]
Two vital lessons we can learn from the father of American camping.
I couldn’t possibly do a better job telling the amazing American story of Frederick Gunn, the educational reformer, abolitionist, and activist considered “the father of recreational camping,” than does this wonderful ConnecticutHistory.org piece by scholar and Gunnery School historian Paula Gibson Krimsky. Along with urging you to read that piece before you continue with my post, I’ll also note that (at least of the mid-June moment in which I’m writing this post), CT Humanities, the vital organization that runs ConnecticutHistory.org among many other resources and projects, is in serious danger of disappearing, having had its funding cut entirely from the state budget by Governor Malloy. After you read that piece and before you return here, I’d ask you to support CT Humanities in any and every way you can—I know Frederick Gunn would agree that such public and communal humanities organizations represent an essential part of education, civic life, and American society.
Welcome back! Clearly Gunn’s life and work have a great deal to teach us, on many topics; but here I want to emphasize a couple lessons related specifically to his emphasis on the great outdoors and on recreational camping (as Krimsky’s piece notes, Gunn’s 1861 two-week camping trip with a group of students is considered by the American Camping Association to be their historical origin point). For one thing, Gunn would most certainly argue with my use of the term “escape” in the bracketed intro section for this week’s series; to him, the Gunnery camping trips, like all explorations of the natural world, were a vital part of the education he and his school offered, a necessary complement to the students’ classroom work. The first 1861 trip drove home that point with particular clarity, as the campers spent time practicing military drills in preparation for Union Army service during the Civil War; not sure any camping activity could be more overtly distinct from the concept of “escape” than that. But Gunn and the school continued the trips long after the war’s end, and so they became a more overarching and philosophical component of his educational and service work—and thus remain a powerful argument for what camping can add to our identities and communities.
To this day, however, as I’ll analyze at length in the week’s final post, camping is associated with some ethnic and racial communities in America much more than others. And on that note as well Gunn and his school and camp have a great deal to contribute to our collective conversations. Gunn’s abolitionism and his educational reform efforts were very much of a piece, as he saw his school as helping prepare students and citizens for a future society that would be transformed by such activism and would require new skills and perspectives as a result. Although Gunn did not, as far as I can tell, have African American students in his school and camp during his lifetime, I hope and believe that was due to circumstance rather than prejudice—a hope given credence by Gunn’s early 1870s admission of four Chinese students who were part of Yung Wing’s Chinese Educational Mission in nearby Hartford. In any case, Gunn seems very likely to have seen camping in precisely the same progressive and egalitarian light as he did education and society—and that’s a light that we could still do a far better job shining consistently on the possibility and power of recreational camping.
Next camping context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other camping contexts you’d highlight?
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