Can Picnics Help Save the World?
Is this a crazy notion?
Author’s note: This story originally began as a response to an article by Christiana White . As per Christiana’s suggestion, I have expanded it to take the subject of picnics into a much more thorough examination.
I’ve been a picnic freak my entire life. I am convinced that food always tastes better out of doors. I’ve had untold thousands of meals in my life but the ones I remember are the ones I ate out of doors. The picnics.
During the 18 years my daughter spent at home growing up we took her on countless picnics. In the early years it was at least weekly and often two or three times a week. Preparing a picnic was an extreme joy and I never considered it ‘work.’ Once the food from our picnics was consumed the entertainment began and that involved watching our daughter play out in nature.
Once, after finishing a truly delightful picnic meal we watched our little girl skipping in circles through the grass and leaves as she sang, “I’m full of fun, I’m a jolly old elf. I’m full of fun, I’m a jolly old elf. I’m full of fun, I’m a jolly old elf.” She kept singing those same words over and over until my wife and I were beside ourselves laughing.
Now my daughter is 30 years old and has two daughters of her own. While I was visiting a couple of months ago she was trying to think of something exciting to do with her family the following weekend. I suggested a picnic. She immediately dismissed that, saying, “Oh, that’s too much work.”
I wanted to cry.
Her daughters are now around the same age as she was back when she was a jolly old elf skipping through the grass. She, of course, doesn’t remember when she was a jolly old elf. She remembers very little of her childhood. Of course it is vividly etched into my memory and my soul.
I tried to explain the joy of picnics to her but she only came up with excuses.
“We don’t have the right equipment. There’s so much cooking involved. And then there’s all the bugs. And a big mess to clean up. And hubby’s allergies are so bad we can’t do anything outside….. “
I felt so sad for my darling little granddaughters.
To young people today if a meal can’t be prepared in a microwave in under 3 minutes then “cooking” is just too much work. If they can’t bring their goddam smart phones with them when they go out of doors then they complain they have nothing to do. They can’t seem to eat a meal unless there is a TV on. There is a wondrous, fantastic paradise of a world outside and they remain utterly oblivious to it. Nature deficit disorder is a cancerous disease that is eating away and destroying Western Civilization.
I am an old guy who lives by myself and goes on nature walks every single day and who still has picnics all by myself on close to a weekly basis. I am an old fogey.
I have been writing about picnics for many years and sadly all that writing has fallen on deaf ears. Sadly, picnics are quickly becoming a thing of the past. It’s not something that fits into our modern technological world. It’s a bridge to nature that we have blown up in our race to distance ourselves from the natural world.
Personally, I feel picnics are a bridge that we can re-construct to bring humankind back in touch with nature. For years I have preached that picnics can help save the world. When I say this I am looked at like a lunatic who needs to be locked away along with all the vestiges of our natural past. Picnics to save the world? No one gets it.
What was probably the best picnic I ever had occurred in the middle of winter. My newlywed lover and I hiked up to the top of a waterfall. There were no picnic tables. We had our picnic meal sitting on boulders alongside the creek that poured over the small cliff. The sound of the water landing down below was deafening. It was a small waterfall but it was loud. There was also the sound of the water gurgling over the rocks in the creek bed before the water reached the edge of the precipice.
It was very cold. I’m guessing the temperature was in single digits (Fahrenheit). Snow was falling — not lightly but moderately. We were wearing multiple layers of clothes.
We had no fancy picnic baskets. We carried our picnic lunch up the hills in cloth shopping bags. We carried a bottle of cheap champagne, which needed no chilling in the prevalent conditions. We carried two champagne flutes, two plates, two forks, a small disk of Camembert cheese, a baggie of grapes, a small Tupperware container of potato salad which I had made the previous day, two chicken sandwiches that I had prepared the previous day, and a loaf of fresh French bread which we picked up at the local deli on our way into the mountains.
Just a few feet away from a 30 foot vertical drop-off to the small pond below, we sat at the very edge of the stream as it flowed over the precipice to the pond below. Our feet were just inches away from the water.
It was incredibly cold but we uncorked the champagne and filled out glasses. We clinked our glasses as we toasted life. We got out our food and as snowflakes landed in our champagne and on our bread and cheese and on our sandwiches we ate the most delicious meal ever devoured. The stillness of the frigid air combined with the cacophony of the waterfall to create what can only be described as the “music of the spheres.”
It may very well be the best meal I’ve ever had. Every bite and every sip contained all the limitless beauty of nature, the fullest intensity of joy.
About a month later we became pregnant…..
….. pregnant with a jolly old elf.
When I was a kid growing up my family went on picnics and, while I truly enjoyed them, there was an unpleasant element about them. Our parents took the family on quite a few picnics and they were usually in conjunction with some sightseeing trip. We did a lot of sightseeing — especially while we were living on the East Coast — and they usually managed to work a picnic into the itinerary. Usually it was at a park near whatever historic destination we were visiting although sometimes it was at the destination.
Once a suitable picnic table was chosen the kids were recruited to haul all the picnic things from the trunk of the car to the picnic table. Our mother scrubbed the picnic table clean (she had a germ phobia) then covered it with a plastic table cloth. She then set the table just like she set the dinner table at home. Plates, flatware, napkins; everything was placed in their proper order. Food was then dispensed onto plates but no one was allowed to start eating until our mother took pictures.
To our mother, pictures of a picnic were more important than the actual picnic itself. She needed proof that would exhibit well in the photo albums she meticulously kept. We were told to pose as though we were about to take our first bite of picnic food. She took several pictures from a few different angles and then once she was done we were allowed to actually take that first bite of food and the actual picnic commenced. Truthfully, the frustrating photo session was really not that big a price to pay to have an enjoyable picnic. It was as a kid that I became a lover of potato salad.
As an adult with a little family of my own I ditched the camera and had many, many picnics of which there are no photographic records. They are, however, permanently etched into the skein of time and space.
While a picnic can be an euphoric family activity as well as a very romantic activity, there is another kind of picnic I wish to discuss: The solitary picnic.
To this end I bring forth from my memory banks the summer of 1992. My little family and I had moved back to New Mexico from the Pacific Northwest and I was once again working as a stone mason/landscaper. While I had previously worked as part of a two-man crew I now worked independently. I worked exclusively for older rich women whose husbands were big shots at Los Alamos National Labratory. These were the wives of big shot physicists who were all trying to out-do each other as to who had the coolest property.
At the beginning of the summer I had called up a few of these women that I had worked for before to tell them that I was back in town and available to do stone work for them. I told them that whoever offered me the most money per hour could have me for the summer. A bidding war commenced. (I had a stellar reputation.)
The winner of the bidding war was the wife of the head honcho of the National Labs. They had an adorable adobe mansion-ette on four acres sitting atop a cliff overlooking White Rock Canyon, a pristine wilderness area through which the Rio Grande flowed. It was the most incredible piece of real estate I had ever put my shovel into.
The edge of the property was literally the edge of a cliff. Standing on the edge of that cliff you could see for 300+ miles. You could see almost the entire Sangre de Christo mountain range on the other side of the canyon — all the way from Santa Fe to Taos. Looking to the right you could see the Sandia Mountains, on the other side of which was Albuquerque. The vista was nothing short of breathtaking.
And then you could look down. Below was a 350 foot vertical drop-off leading down into the wild canyon. The river flowing through the canyon was several hundred feet below the bottom of the vertical drop-off. There were no roads in this canyon. It was pristine wilderness. It was all desert with cacti, pinon pine, chamisa, yucca, and a swath of green alongside the thin silver ribbon of river. It was teeming with wildlife.
Back when I worked as part of a crew when lunch time arrived everyone stopped working and gathered together around the cement mixer or on the tailgates of pickup trucks and ate the lunches they had packed. The men burped and farted and scratched themselves as they talked about their real or imagined sexual exploits or some sporting event. Lunch always came with a healthy dose of testosterone.
That all changed when I began working by myself.
The woman who hired me for the summer liked to throw cocktail parties. When you are the wife of the biggest big wig you want to invite all the other big wigs and their wives over to show off the fact that you have the absolute best piece of real estate in all of northern New Mexico. What this woman wanted was a flagstone walkway that followed the very edge of the cliff at the edge of her property. This cliff edge had one of the most incredible views in the American West and she wanted to incorporate it into her cocktail parties. (Who wouldn’t?)
But this was very rugged land. It was not made for older women with a cocktail in one hand wearing expensive high-heeled shoes. One slip and a party guest could end up flying off the cliff to a certain death.
That’s where I came in. The woman wanted me to build a flagstone walkway all along the cliff side at the edge of her property. It not only involved a simple walkway. It involved building several stone steps leading up and down along the walkway as it was anything but level. She also wanted stone benches along the walkway so that party-goers could sit down and enjoy the view.
But that wasn’t all. She wanted it all to look ancient; like it had been there for hundreds of years, like it had been built by the Anasazi or some ancient civilization. She wanted it to blend in perfectly with the natural surroundings. Luckily, this was my specialty.
The edge of the cliff along her property’s edge was quite a long distance. I wasn’t sure if I could complete the task in just one summer but I told her that I would try.
She said that she didn’t care how long it took me. She wanted it perfect. And she trusted me to design it. She wrote me out a check for $500 as a “hiring fee” and then told me that she would write me a check every Friday for whatever I told her and then she handed me a key, “This is a key to our extra pickup truck in case you need it to haul rock or something.”
I had never been given an advance before. I had never been given the key to a vehicle for my use before. I had never been treated so well before. I was speechless.
“Oh, and one more thing,” she added, “as you know our dog has the run of the property and she thinks she’s the queen of it all so she’ll be following you around as you work.”
I already knew the woman’s Australian Shepherd dog from the time I did a small stone job for her a couple of years before. We were already friends.
So for four months back in the summer of 1992 I worked on this woman’s incredible property, her dog at my side most all of the time. I made more money than from any job before or since. It may very well be one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.
Of course it was back-breaking work. I was digging and moving heavy rock and all in 110 to 115 degree sun-drenched desert weather. I became the buffest I’ve ever been that summer. I also got an incredible tan.
Most of my life I have worked indoors. I’ve worn ties and never built up a sweat. I’ve managed other people and I relied on my intellect and charm. But that summer of 1992 was the opposite of everything I’ve done before or since.
For an entire summer I worked on the very edge of a cliff. At any moment I could have slipped and fallen ass over teacup to a certain death in the canyon below. Every day I worked among the vagaries of nature with only a cute doggie to protect me. Every day I labored like Hercules startled by abilities I didn’t know I possessed.
What I liked about this job is that I worked alone (except, of course, for the dog). I showed up every morning around 8:30 and left around 3:30 and charged the woman for 7 hours of work each day. I didn’t deduct time for lunch.
Of course, I can’t call it a lunch. It was nothing like those lunch breaks I had with fellow male co-workers that involved excessive belching, farting and testosterone talk. It was just me and the dog. It wasn’t a lunch so much as it was a…..
For four months I had a picnic every day (Monday through Friday) sitting on the edge of a cliff, my feet dangling out over a 350 foot vertical drop-off precipice. For four months I ate lunch every day just an accidental slip away from certain death. I felt like those Native Americans who helped build the skyscrapers of New York City. They had no fear of heights but I did. But for some reason I didn’t care. The exhilaration of sitting at the very edge of death somehow fueled me and transported me beyond who I thought I was.
For four months I sat on the edge of that cliff eating the lunch that I so joyously packed for myself that morning. I looked forward to each and every lunch…. each picnic. As I ate I looked out over one of the most incredible vistas nature has to offer. Every day I saw red-tailed hawks and bald eagles. I saw an incredible amount of swifts, the dive-bombers of the avian world (they often dive-bombed me — surely in play). I saw jack-rabbits, coyotes, tarantulas, an occasional deer and numerous snakes.
Every day that I had my picnic on the cliff edge the woman’s Australian Shepherd dog would sit right next to me on that cliff edge. She would watch me eat my lunch knowing that there was a treat waiting for her. When I packed my lunch I always packed a little treat for her which I would give her when I was done with my lunch. Why would I not reward her? After all, three different times that summer she saved my life by warning me that I was about to step on a rattlesnake. (The place was teeming with rattlers.)
Then one day the woman who hired me took her dog with her on a day trip. I was working alone. I ate alone on the edge of the cliff with my feet dangling over the precipice. Like every other day I thoroughly enjoyed the profound incredible-ness of nature as I ate….. picnicked.
As I was almost finished with my lunch I happened to look to the side and about 25 feet away from me, a little higher up from the cliff edge between two pinon trees, was a coyote. As I saw it my body bolted just a tiny bit. The coyote’s body bolted just a tiny bit, too. But we both became quickly still as we stared into each others’ eyes.
Very slowly, I finished my lunch. There was nothing left of my lunch except for the treat that I had packed for the dog. Since the dog was gone for the day I placed the treat on a rock next to where I had been sitting. I slowly got up from the cliff edge and went back to work.
Some time later I happened to walk by where I had lunch on the cliff edge. I looked at the rock where I had left the doggie treat and I saw that it was gone. I looked around but, of course, the coyote was long gone.
All summer I had a daily picnic on the very edge of a cliff and I was treated to the very utmost of what nature has to offer. I suddenly felt utterly overjoyed at having given something back.
For a very long, arduous yet wondrous summer I was paid for very hard work by a woman who appreciated my work. But nature paid me ten-fold what that woman paid me.
It was a summer full of solitary picnics in which I was never alone.
Modern humans in Western society have become profoundly disconnected from the natural world, oblivious of the paradise they are an intricate part of. Technology has lured them into a pseudo-reality in which they spend ever greater amounts of their lives. This pseudo-reality has become for them the real world and the real world has become for them a distraction, a nuisance to be put up with between the front door of their homes and their cars and from their cars to the front door of their workplace. (And even then they are usually busy texting on their smart phone or listening to music on their ipod or looking at their watches.)
As a society we have come to believe that we are not a part of that natural world; that we are separate from it and not dependent upon it and not a contributing factor in the symbiosis of all life in that natural world. We figure that once we’ve used up that natural world we can just go to Mars and transfer our civilization there.
We have forgotten that the Earth is inside us as well as outside us. We don’t realize that the technological pseudo-reality cannot sustain us like our planet — Gaia, a living organism — can. We search that pseudo-reality for happiness, for comfort, for abundance, for love and friendship, for beauty and joy, and for all of our sustenance blissfully unaware that all those things can be found in the real, natural world; that we are surrounded by it.
Can going on picnics heal the profound disconnect we have developed from the real, natural world? Probably not. But maybe…. just maybe it can be a step in that direction. Maybe if everyone made a conscious effort to put down their devices periodically and go out into nature for a delicious picnic and communion with nature then the healing can begin. Perhaps we will begin seeing the paradise we live in but are consciously unaware of. Then maybe we can begin to heal both ourselves and the planet.