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, “The Scarborough Bluffs.”
My wife, Lori, and 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.
Sure, parks with tables, barbecue 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 and close personal conversations are wanted, the only place to go is the open commons – unclaimed and untamed spaces that are neither privately owned nor government-supervised, the most endangered spaces on the planet.
Such spaces are traditionally only saved from “development” because they’re too uneven or unstable to build on. But these barriers are no longer insurmountable, 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, I had a sort of anthropological revelation. It occurred to me that the habit of bringing flowers as a gift when invited to a friend’s house for dinner or to set off a romantic occasion at home that will also be marked by a special meal is related to the fascination we feel staring into a nighttime campfire.
Both rituals may well up from a time when the earliest humans and prehumans ate in wildflower fields during the day and by fire at night.
To eat without the exquisite fragrance and beauty of flowers, which court humans as well as the bees attracted for pollination, may disappoint ancient associations deep in human memory.
It also came to me that the 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 – is not really apt.
It takes complex skills to appreciate this unplugged world, compared to the relatively simplistic pleasures of distraction by Game Boy or iPod.
The ability to chat at length without props or prompts, to pay attention to the details of a scene or a taste, to get lost in thought now have to be learned. We have to acquire a taste for them, just like the ability to enjoy tea, coffee, wine or scotch, which are usually spurned when tried 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 help us all be alive to the much 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. Most of them, unless defended by dedicated naturalists, fall prey to the great deception of the property industry, which likes to call itself the development industry. This is 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.
But if personal development is our concern 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 choose 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 trash that was used as fill for the same unruly bluffs, so parkland could be “reclaimed” and accessed by car.
I choke up every time I visit that park. It is a place of great happiness for thousands of families who picnic there on summer weekends. Thanks to this admission-free park, 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 waters 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.