Simon Ings writes:
Years ago (too many, don’t even ask, I’ll start crying) my girlfriend and I met up with Stan Robinson in Davis, California. He introduced us to iced espresso, to farmers’ markets (both were novelties at that time), and to his strange, ecologically sensitive home in the desert (the architect was a Seventies child and all the roads bear these profoundly embarrassing Tolkien references). Jane and I were heading for a week’s backpacking in the Sierras, and Stan couldn’t understand why we were carrying so much gear. I gamely tried to explain Scotland. The rain. The midges. The peat. The rain. The hail. The rain. I’m not sure any of it survived translation; certainly Stan was not convinced, because these days he is carrying even less into the outdoors than he did before.
And maybe, just maybe, he has a point. The better we acclimatise to a landscape, the more our old “essentials” turn out to be comforts: psychological props that we shed as we acclimatise to the new conditions. Stan reckons that as our population expands and our resources shrink, we will need to adjust ever more quickly and ever more cannily to what appears (but only appears) to be a hostile world…
Back in the 1970s, when I like many other hippies began to backpack in the Sierra Nevada of California (the greatest backpacking mountains on Earth, but that’s a topic for a different essay), backpacks often weighed fifty pounds, and when I took mine off at the end of a day’s walk and flexed my shoulders, it sometimes felt like I was going to float off into the sky.
So all along there were people thinking things could be different – in a word, lighter. And as the years have passed, my aging cohort has gotten too brittle to carry the old weights happily, while at the same time younger hikers have been attempting continent-crossing feats that have transformed backpacking from a hippie ramble into a postmodern extreme sport. These long-distance hikers often walk more than a marathon every day for months on end, and for them every ounce matters. So a new design ethos has sprung into being to serve this need. The important thing to note here is that it came about as a result of a shift in people’s desires and in their thinking about what matters, not from a change in materials, or from some kind of inherent technological progress operating on its own. The raw materials have gotten a little stronger and lighter, but not much; they are still mostly nylon and down and various light metals. And really there’s no such thing as inherent technological progress. It’s our philosophies that change, and then we act on them. This is what makes the ultralite movement suggestive when we go on to think about the rest of our lives. Because we always carry our houses, one way or another.
You can read Stan’s full article, Shedding Skins, in Arc 1.4: Forever Alone Drone, out now
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