Sharon Wall. The Nurture of Nature: Childhood, Antimodernism and Ontario Summer Camps, 1920-55. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2009. xx + 369 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7748-1640-3.
Reviewed by Tarah Brookfield (Wilfrid Laurier University)
Published on H-Canada (May, 2011)
Commissioned by Stephanie Bangarth
While reading Sharon Wall’s The Nurture of Nature, I was flooded with memories of my own camp past. Sent to a sleep away camp at age seven, all I recall is my severe homesickness and the shame of vomiting cream of mushroom soup all over the cafeteria floor. Luckily I recovered from this experience. I have fond memories of my time as a Girl Guide, performing skits, discovering the joys of canoeing, and figuring out the best way to hold my breath while cleaning the latrines. Beyond triggering bouts of nostalgia, Wall’s fascinating history offers an analytic lens through which to understand the historic circumstances that produced summer camps and made them into something that parents, philanthropists, child welfare experts, and youth considered to be valuable, almost necessary, childhood experiences. By blending oral history and archival research, The Nurture of Nature interrogates how the locations of and practices at Ontario’s camps reflected the ways in which Canadians responded to the perils and pleasure of modernity and sought to give meaning and structure to modern childhoods. The camping experience also served to preserve, and in some cases reshape, understandings of class, gender, and race in interwar and postwar Canada.
Wall sets her study in Ontario, the province that she argues became Canada’s largest campground, drawing thousands of Ontarian, Canadian, and American children to the wilderness. Throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century, boys and girls traveled far from home to soak in sunshine, fresh air, and the values associated with simple living. Wall explains how summer camps were viewed as therapeutic spaces for elite and middle-class children plagued by the sedentary and frivolous world of mass media and consumer culture, referred to in one brochure as the “‘disease of bleacheritis’” (p. 32). Camps were also thought to rehabilitate the health and characters of working-class and impoverished youth by offering them a temporary respite from cramped urban dwellings and presumed narrow childhoods. At camp, both groups of children could shake off the maladies of modern living and rejuvenate their bodies and souls by returning to nature. In this manner, camps were the ultimate embodiment of antimodernism. Yet Wall cleverly demonstrates that camps were also a thoroughly modern project based on a “devotion to the ideals of order and efficiency that resulted in efforts to ‘clean up’ the natural environment and to rationally order and control landscapes prized for their ‘wildness’” (p. 14). To understand this process, Wall borrows Ian McKay’s theories of “modernizing antimodernism” to characterize summer camps as a “hybrid institution” representing the intersections between a romanticized past and an idealized present (pp. 14-15).
Camp was also very much about shaping the future. Under the guise of recreation, camps were designed to imbue a progressive form of education critical to child development. Here a new breed of teacher and authority figure was created, the counselor, whose job was to foster an appreciation for nature, which was thought to enrich children’s characters. Wall demonstrates how the expectations of summer camp were based on theories emerging from newly established departments of psychology. Blending structuralist and Freudian psychology, camps were seen as controlled environments in which to mold children and free spaces in which to encourage children’s natural instincts. For psychologists, like Dr. William Blatz, they were also outdoor laboratories in which children could be observed and analyzed. Wall argues that these scientific observations contributed to building a new definition of a “normal” childhood, which reinforced “the belief in a child’s right to play” and the benefits of insuring structured time for children to be carefree (p. 156). Wall includes evidence drawn from camp archives which reveal how strict military style regimentation often ruled the day in terms of schedules and policies. Yet oral history and other evidence produced by the campers themselves suggests that moments of spontaneity, rebellion, and agency occurred in spite of the rules, such as when counselors, some not much older than their charges, were lax in their supervision or when the canoe trips away from camp allowed for more autonomy. Camps, being both sites of structure and freedom, parallel the comfortable paradox of these experiences being both modern and antimodern, natural and managed.
Ideally, campers were expected to graduate with an appreciation for and the skills required to become productive and well-rounded citizens. That there were different camps for children based on class and gender shows how the expectations of citizenship in this era were far from uniform. Wall’s analysis of how camps were a tool of class formation and class harmony is one of the book’s major strengths. She devotes a chapter to the private camp experience serving children from elite families, which, in many cases, were enclaves that mimicked the private school system. Certainly the privileged children “roughed it” at camp, but they also acquired social connections with fitting acquaintances and leadership and athletic skills believed to help them achieve successful careers and marriages later on. Meanwhile for underprivileged children, considered by many camp advocates to be “modernity’s most vulnerable victims,” a stay at summer camp was supposed to uplift their minds and bodies through an improved diet and a break from the rigors of urban living (p. 104). These children were sponsored through popular charitable ventures, including The Star’s Fresh Air Fund. Not only was camping thought to make poor children happy and healthy, it was also hoped to make them less likely to disrupt social norms upon their return home or as adults. Wall convincing maps the segregation of classes geographically, with private camps being founded in the purer wilderness of the far North. Meanwhile the children funded by the Fresh Aid Fund made due in pastoral Bolton, which required much less costly transportation to and from Toronto.
Unsurprisingly, Wall demonstrates that camps, like many expressions of children’s culture, were heavily invested in shaping boys to be men and girls to be women, with emphasis placed on heteronormativity. Proper gender formation was thought to be best realized in sex segregated campgrounds. Wall highlights changes in the postwar era that led to coeducation becoming an option, not so much because of egalitarian ideals, but “to establish heterosexual attitudes” (p. 206). As one training manual for counselors extolled, “we have to watch homosexuality in every camp,” a warning directed at counselors developing inappropriate relationships with same sex campers (p. 206). The camps’ formal records and anecdotal evidence shows that both appropriate and inappropriate relationships flourished under the stars. Wall’s gender analysis also includes a little-known part of camping history. I had no idea that the mothers of working-class and poor children were often invited to become campers themselves. Ostensibly this was so women could take a break from wage earning and child rearing, though the mothers were often expected to defray costs by assisting with the camp’s cooking, supervision, or housekeeping. Much like their children, this holiday was disguised as a lesson to fine tune their “natural” mothering skills with parenting, grooming, and domestic science classes as another way to improve child welfare.
The last chapter of The Nurture of Nature covers the tendency of Ontario’s camps to “go native” by incorporating, or rather appropriating, the culture and traditions of First Nations into camp programming, spirituality, and aesthetics. Wall explains how “playing Indian ... offered [children] the emotional outlet of intense experience not frequently promoted by modern childrearing experts and standing in contrast to the camps’ simultaneous preoccupation with order and control” (p. 218). Yet it was deemed acceptable because in this context “Indians” were considered as close to nature as possible, so exposure to their cultures had to be good. Wall notes the hypocrisy of camps lamenting the loss of the Indian way of life, all the while legitimizing and marketing the authenticity of their particular parcel of nature because of the extolled proximity of their campgrounds to land formerly occupied by indigenous peoples. Given the focus on children, I thought Wall could have compared, at least in passing, the similarities and differences between summer camps and residential schools. Both were institutions acting as anecdotes to problematic child development. As white children ventured north to “play Indian,” First Nations children were being forced south to embrace modernity and “play white” in a much less benign manner.
Wall’s research joins recent publications on camping history by American historians Leslie Paris (2008) and Abigail Ayres Van Slyck (2006). Clearly Canadians and Americans saw camping as having great transformative power on children, particularly in the middle of the twentieth century. Wall mentions the number of American campers who chose Ontario private camps as their campground of choice, perhaps because Canada’s nature represented the ultimate wilderness, and therefore, the most impressive form of nature. Perhaps future historians could take up this point more thoroughly and examine if Americans were playing “Canadian,” because that identity was much more closely connected to nature than the more heavily urbanized and industrialized United States.
The Nurture of Nature is an engaging and well-rounded narrative of interest to anyone who studies environmental, social, cultural, or children’s history. By framing summer camps as a consequence and symbol of modernity, Wall is able to explore the multiple dynamics and evolution of Canadian identity and values between 1920 and 1955. Furthermore, her constant attention to the prescriptive ideals of the adult facilitators and the lived experiences of the young campers offers insight into the diverse and sometimes contradictory perceptions of what a stay at camp was supposed to accomplish.
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Tarah Brookfield. Review of Wall, Sharon, The Nurture of Nature: Childhood, Antimodernism and Ontario Summer Camps, 1920-55.
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