Matt Voigts, Digital Anthropology, UCL
The shores of Camp Grady Spruce
In 2012, an estimated 11 million American children attended summer camp for a day, week, month or more. Camp reads at times like a performance art parody of ethnography: a constructed community, in ‘nature’, often suffused with Native American-inspired tribal imagery. Indeed, both anthropology and camp began in the late 1800s, creations of a ‘civilized’ world exploring more ‘primitive’ lifestyles. In England, researchers like Frazer and Tylor synthesized cultural theory from the British Empire’s field reports. In New England, around the same time, outdoorsmen and churchmen began leading groups of children on camping trips, indulging an “Arcadian myth” (as described by Schmitt, 1969) of unspoiled wilderness as refuge from the unhealthy, congested modern city.
As the two academic book-length studies of camp – Van Slyck (2006) and Paris (2008) – catalog extensively, just how technologically-advanced the camp environment becomes is, in practice, a matter of negotiation. Flush toilets, air conditioners, movies, and stereopticon shows (to name a few) have all been employed at summer camp over its century-plus history. The contemporary camps at which I conducted my MSc dissertation fieldwork prioritize interests of safety and leisure in choosing what to include in the experience. Children’s encounters with potentially dangerous aspects of nature (wildlife, water) occur under close supervision.
In the service of enhancing the immediacy of the group experience, contemporary campers are not typically allowed personal communications devices. The Internet and cell phones are, nonetheless, integral to forming my field sites’ constituent community. I conducted participant observation at Camp Quest Oklahoma (June 24-30) and Camp Quest Texas (August 5-11), two of about a dozen Camp Quest (CQ) weeks held nationally (plus one in Canada and another in the UK), geared toward children from non-religious families. Most of the adults involved in planning and staffing the camps were apostates; after losing their religions and reading material from the ‘New Atheist’ movement, they went online to sites like meetup.com to find a nearby community of likeminded individuals. As described by Tillery (1992), one of the few anthropologists to study camp, the experience of friends and campfires can be a powerful agent for communitas. In forming a camp, CQ’s planners and participants (mostly, people outside American Judeo-Christian normativity) created a temporary hangout space, an opportunity for bonding around traits which the children’s families felt pressure to suppress in everyday life.
For Tillery (1992, p.376-7), camp was “the autonomous other community to which I removed myself yearly to enact a complex symbolic transaction with the rest of my life… to reflect upon, and transact the nature of, my identity and presence in that life.” The ‘transactive nature’ that Tillery discussed in personal terms, I was interested in exploring in terms of mass culture and technology. Camp is an experience at once ‘natural’ (as in, in nature) and yet also alien to children’s lives; adults respond to this complexity by framing the experience in terms of both ‘reality’ and through association with fictions. For example, counselors at CQ Texas referred to a densely-foliaged island at their host camp – Grady Spruce – as ‘Mordor’ after Lord of the Rings’ most foreboding landscape, in an attempt to heighten the experience for campers: to emphasize its difference from the everyday, to drive home both the ‘reality’ and danger of the island’s nature.
These combinations of nature, fiction, localized and mass culture are shown visually in the above picture, painted by college-age counselors at Camp Waluhili (CQ Oklahoma’s host), which hangs at the camp’s dining hall. In the center are the counselors themselves, depicted as their nicknames, which are bestowed on them at the end of their counselor-in-training program; each counselor finds his or her name at the end of a string, which has been looped elaborately throughout the cabin, through and around its furniture and windows. The nicknames (“Ms. Starburst”; “Mr. Tumnus”) – as well as the iconography of the board itself – are drawn from combinations of mass culture, inside jokes, and the archetypal experiences of camp life itself. Throughout the camp, the counselors refer to each other exclusively by their nicknames in front of campers (and anthropologists). While this heightens the atmosphere of the camp, it also serves another, practical purpose: helping to prevent campers from contacting counselors outside of camp, a prohibition instituted by Camp Fire Green Country (Waluhili’s parent organization) to help guard against child abuse.
You can hear a similar cycle of camp, mass culture, and technology in this song: A Pizza Hut, sung by a few of Camp Waluhili’s counselors, that references mass culture (Pizza Hut, Star Wars), technology (Macintosh, Linux), and the camp environment itself (campers, counselors). You can also see it in the logo for Camp Waluhili this year – an iPad (certainly, something not allowed at camp) reimagined with camp iconography. Camp situates itself in campers’ lives and the technologies they use, even as it kindly requests campers leave their own mobiles, laptops, and music at home in the service of the Great Outdoors and the immediacy of the camp experience itself.
Paris, L., 2008. Children’s nature: the rise of the American summer camp. New York: New York University Press
Schmitt, P.J., 1970. Back to nature: the Arcadian myth in urban America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Tillery, R.K., 1992. Touring Arcadia. Cultural Anthropology, 7(3), pp.374-388.
Van Slyck, A.A., 2006. A manufactured wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890-1960. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.