Life Is a Picnic

The scene was just as I remembered from many decades ago, when my grade 5 teacher asked us to name one of the seven wonders of the world, and I stuck up my hand and blurted out “the Scarboro bluffs.” My wife Lori and good friend Harriet joined me for a trip down memory lane on Canada Day when we went for a picnic in my old haunts. The secret trail through the woods was still there, as was the fragrance of clover and wild grape as we tramped over the meadow, until we came to a point where the deep blue eyes of Lake Ontario suddenly stared us in the face from hundreds of feet below.

Parks with tables, barbeque pits, manicured lawns, public washrooms, shelters from the rain and parking lots are good places for group and community picnics. But for a picnic where a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, close personal conversations and wilderness are paradise enough, the only place to go is the open commons – unclaimed and untamed spaces that are neither privately-owned not government-supervised, the most endangered spaces on the planet. Such spaces are only saved from “development” because they’re too uneven or unstable to build on, barriers that are no longer very difficult to overcome, especially when the best views in town are being wasted on happy wanderers, with no parking lot or public washroom in sight.

As we ate our lunch a few feet from the steep cliffs that dropped down to the lake, it occurred to me that the habit of bringing flowers as a housegift when invited to a friend’s place for dinner, or to set off a distinctive or romantic occasion at home that will also be celebrated by a special meal, is akin to the habit of friends and couples staring into a night-time campfire. Both rituals may well up from a time when the earliest humans and pre-humans ate in wildflower fields during the day and by fire during the night. To eat without the exquisite fragrance and beauty of flowers, which court humans as well as bees attracted for pollination, may upset ancient associations deep in human memory.

It also occurred to me that the common phrase about “simple pleasures” – spending a glorious afternoon staring out at a lake and munching on plain fresh bread, trouble-free salads and an easy dish of strawberries steeped in wine, for example – misses the point. The pleasure may be calm and centered, as well as calming and centering, but it takes some complex skills to appreciate this unplugged world, compared to the relatively simplistic pleasures of being distracted by gameboy or ipods.

Maybe it’s the absence of such skills – the ability to chat at length without props or prompts, or to pay attention to the details of a scene or a taste, or to get lost in thought, for example – that accounts for the absence of a culture of “slow food” in North America. If so, then slow food, just like cooking from scratch, is an acquired skill and taste, just like the ability to enjoy tea, coffee, wine or scotch, usually spurned by people when they try for the first time. If so, the challenge is not to get people to renounce the complex and sophisticated pleasures of a consumer society, but to embrace the more complex and sophisticated pleasures that come from participating and contemplating.

The down to earth pleasure of an unspoiled vista isn’t so simple either. Thinking of such vistas as simple falls prey to the great deception of the property industry, which likes to call itself the development industry — a nice way of anointing the paving over of paradise with the civilizing mission of development, just as colonists described their uplifting missions to the undeveloped world. If personal development is at the core of what development is about, we need to be saving spaces from violation by the property industry and even from domestication by government park managers. Life is no picnic, such people like to say, and they probably chose their words carefully.

Half a mile from where we picnicked is Bluffers Park, once wild bluffs where my young friends and I whiled away summer days — leaving only footprints, taking only poison ivy rashes and mosquito bites, the price of admission to special places. One of my summer jobs when I went to university was working for the garbage department, hauling household garbage that was used as fill for the same unruly bluffs, so parkland could be “reclaimed” and access could be provided by car.

I choke up every time I visit that park. It is a place of great happiness for thousands of immigrant families who picnic there on summer weekends. Thanks to free admission, people with few financial resources can enjoy the sun, clear air, a huge beach with a view of unruly bluffs that still disrupt development, and the bracing water of one of the world’s biggest inland lakes. It’s the perfect place for a family outing that combines food, fun and games. I love to see my old stomping grounds used that way.

But it’s no place for a picnic. The perfect picnic can only be enjoyed in the commons, where wilderness, as Omar Khayyam put it, is paradise enough.

(Adapted from NOW Magazine July 10-16, 2008.)

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