Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Second Helpings at the Picnic

It’s pretty easy to dismiss the decline of picnics as a small loss, if any. However, they indicate a more serious (and solvable) problem with society.
-Bill Allin

Something I appreciate about the internet is how it confirms that I never have an original thought. Take, for instance, yesterday’s lament over the decline in picnicking. It took me about five minutes to find someone who shares my concern about this trend. Not only that, he expresses that concern in a much more convincing and eloquent manner than I ever could.

Bill Allin has posted a thoughtful essay, Decline of Picnics: Another Canary in the Coal Mine, that amplifies my own thoughts on the matter.

First, some background. Allin is a Canadian sociologist, philosopher, educator of children and adults, and author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems. From his website:

Bill's extraordinary hidden disabilities, near-feral childhood and classroom teaching experience gave him a unique perspective on how children learn, where and when they learn, what kinds of things they learn and from whom. These cast strong doubts on accepted wisdom about how and when early childhood learning begins to form the foundation on which the adult is later built.

In his essay, Allin sets picnics within a historic context:

While we in the western world supposedly support "family values," as a society we lack appreciation for the value of the family itself. Thus we find picnics with extended family members unnecessary, if not anachronistic and inconvenient.

Picnics became popular in the 19th century, before cell phones with text messaging, before VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) phones that allow us to speak in real time with people in any part of the world that has internet connection, before televisions, even before radio. In general, they were large get-togethers held in the warmer months so people could engage in simple forms of fun together. They usually had a specific purpose, always social, involving an extended family, a church group, a service club or a Sunday school.

And he goes on to talk about why picnics are beneficial in 2010:

Today we don't have picnics much, so we have to consciously teach our children about nature or they don't learn the lessons. The less they know about nature, the more inclined they are to look away as big corporations clear cut forests, create great fissures covering many hectares with open pit mining and freely pollute the air and waterways with their waste.

And we eat food produced using growth hormones, pesticides and chemicals with names so long they're hard to pronounce let alone understand what they mean and what their long-term effects on our bodies are.

Picnics may have been imperfect, but they were pure. We can't say that about many things in our lives any more.

Not many people have quantified the decline in picnicking, but those who have raise some of the same issues as Bill Allin.

The professionals responsible for managing recreation in our nation’s forests and parks have observed the decline of visitation (on a per capita basis) and, in particular, the drop in popularity for picnicking. These stewards of our special places are challenged to strike the right balance. On the one hand, the onslaught of the human beast is one of the greatest threats to our parks and natural areas. On the other hand, visitation is essential to maintaining public support for the preservation of those places.

As one article put it:

If we are seeing declines in the majority of nature-related activities, it becomes quite likely that we are seeing a fundamental shift away from people’s interest in nature…

As today’s adult role models spend less time in nature, this generation of children is also likely to follow suit…

Less nature experience may be associated with less support for conservation…

I’ve argued that some of today’s more popular high-impact outdoor activities, with their fixation on technology and thrill-seeking, don’t necessarily foster a love and respect for nature. Picnicking, by contrast, can be low-tech, economical, intergenerational, and one of the best ways to cultivate positive experiences and connections with nature from an early age. Without those memories to build on, the future of humans and nature isn’t as bright as it could be.

I don’t need to have original thoughts. I’m just glad to know I’m not alone in looking at all those empty picnic tables at all those beautiful places around us and feeling concern and sadness about what it means.

So much for my picnic basket/soap box. I have a favorite story of a grand picnic - Nick's Picnic - that happened near Asheville many years ago. As soon as I can locate it, I'll be sure to pass it along.


Rick said...

Fine looking red 1960 Ford Galaxie behind the family and the pot of pork and beans!

Anonymous said...

right on! used to see 45 cousins at such an event! no more...
last evening we were talking about the new Harry Potter theme park in Florida and how families now go to man made parks for family activity such as birthday party at pizza place or MacDonalds and use the indoor plastic playgrounds. Another way chidren and adults disconnect from nature and the earth...And the awful food served at these "indoor picnics"!!!!!All the while plugged into cell phone or IPOD..

Anonymous said...

I remember birthday party picnics at Morrow Mountain for various family members, the last of which was in the '70's.

A couple cousins and I are having a yearly picnic around the 4th of July and we get 30-40 people. At this and the yearly Christmastime all-day cooking affair, the menfolks get together and do the cooking. We usually have 40+ for that. Its great to get together all day, talk, cook and eat- cellphones off (except to get Cousin Bobbie to pick up stuff we forgot).