All manner of tents

Sioux Teepee

Inuit Tupiq

A tent is a carapace, but thin, fragile, ethereal. Even the heaviest tents are no substitute for sod or wood or ice. The nomadic tents in mountainous Central Asia are layer upon layer of boiled yak wool, Turkish yurts are felted sheep’s wool, and the Tupiq, traditional Inuit summer tents, are made with seal or caribou skins. It takes about ten seals to make one family-sized tent. As heavy as all these are, they’re thin skins against the elements:

Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings!   King Lear (III.iv.5-6)

But the real appeal of a tent–to me in a warmer clime– is that they’re a nod to the human need for boundaries.

And that’s in part why I think children love them; children adore boundaries and they need regulation. Look how they love hopping from paver to paver, so’s not to crack their mothers’ backs. Look at how children use the words “tent” and “fort” interchangeably. Or how monsters really actually can’t get you when you’re under the blankets. In Africa there was a bat that hung above my bed each night. I slept hot and afraid under a blanket, an extra barrier in case it got through the mosquito net, which even in my memory was like a shroud.

For Annie I strung up bamboo from the grove across the pond and draped materials over it, with a Persian rug and a fur coat underneath for extra coziness. Giorgio Piorgio immediately materialized and spread out, his great orange chassis taking up fully a quarter of the space. Cats are barometers of comfort and GP has immaculate taste. Interesting, by the way, how different cats prefer different surfaces. Where KissyBoots likes taut, smooth bedspreads, Giorgio Piorgio enjoys rumpled and downy surfaces; he prefers to occupy the valleys and sink in until he looks like the Grand Canyon, all orange and striated, looking for all the world like Neruda’s

…series of burnt circles–which have formed the odd geology/of its sand-colored tail.

For Annie’s walls, I draped grey velvet and old cotton with flowers that remind me of Baudelaire’s Fleurs Du Mal, a bit twisted, a bit off, “the wrong shape,” as Father Brown said, and pale organza and diaphanous curtains to which I had sewn pom-pom bias. I strung her nightmarish lamp (which she adores, a stuffed clown without a face that dangles grotesquely from what may once have been a parachute) inside. Why are tents always a thousand times more welcoming with lights inside? Aren’t they like cocoons? There’s a feeling of security, I think, with a single brave light inside against the darkness without. Annie, delighted, requested a door so I puzzled a moment, then strung up a chain with clips to hold a curtain.

Moroccan Tent

There are so many sorts of tents, each with a distinct connotation. Pavilions summon Cair Paravel, something about airy heights, wind, and pennoncells. Bedouin tents, stinking of hair-on goat hides, Moroccan tents whipping like small bright jewels against a windy desert backdrop, and then of course circus tents, a near-universal prod of nostalgia, circular and whimsical,

dirty straw underfoot. Beach tents, blowsy and white as brine, through which the sun checkers like a wide-brimmed straw hat. Oh! — and high white wedding pavilions, slung with pennons and pearls and pom-poms and all manner of beautiful smishysmashy pinned and tagged by young female hopefuls in the modern spirit of trousseaux.


I admit I love them too, love the floating white candles (the odd juxtaposition of fire and water), the sheer height of the vault, the ineluctable elegance of the drapery curves, the nearest thing in terms of shape to a makeshift cathedral, clung with a sense of the sacred, like an Indian Pandal, a temporary mosque-sized palace.


Oh they’re beautiful, steepled or domed or draped, glowing against the night, a sort of faery ring, the very nature of which is transient and therefore magical. What is magic, in the end, but transience, a skip in time, something so rapid that it seems a step has been missed, as in sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors, prestidigitation. The Turkic word “yurt” means the impression left behind after a tent has moved, the grass trod down like a giant’s foodprint like something out of Middle Earth. I suppose I find the idea enchanting of how a fort can be plucked, seemingly and truly out of thin air, with nothing more elaborate than a spare sheet, and shield against all  unwelcome: sun, wind, cold, boys, beasties, and all manner of things that go bump in the night.














One Comment

  • I literally just fell in love with you. Again. I adore the part about how children love boundaries. It’s true. Boundaries are a way for children to know they are loved. We all need boundaries.

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