We brought a rug for sitting on.
Our lunch was in a box.
The sand was warm, we didn’t wear
Hats or shoes or socks…
Lines above are from a children’s poem describing the playful cultural ritual of The Picnic, harking back to the simplicity of a rustic Garden of Eden experience before The Fall, Nature’s beneficence of ripe harvest and good weather. Say, what could be more delightful, beneath a summer sky, than a group or pair of us enjoying the idyllic experience of your picnic on the grass?
Etymology of the word ‘picnic’ unknown, perhaps of French origin, le pique-nique, from the verb ‘piquer’ which means to pick, with the rhyming nique meaning trifle. What is known is that the practice of going on a picnic has a long history, not only in the West but much further a-field, from China and Japan in the East, to European New World settlements in North America and Australia.
This picnic scene painted in 1846 could be depicting a picnic in England and France but it isn’t. The artist was an American painter, Thomas Cole, the setting the Hudson River Valley with a view of the Catskill Mountains in the distance.
The picnic scene below, Goten-yama hill, Shinagawa on the Tokkaido, was painted by Hokusai in 1832, one of his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Picnics in the Cherry Blossom Season are still a popular event,
As many responses by variable humans through history to going on a picnic, as responses to ways we experience the natural world. Herewith some observations in the literature, from Nature as transcendental experience, those feelings of amazement and awe to feelings of pleasure and contentment, of human oneness with Nature.
On responding to the sublime in Nature, Edmund Burke in his essay, ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.’ (1857) writes of our feelings of the sublime triggered by ‘ an experience of subjugation to something greater than ourselves, such as nature or the divine, experienced as a feeling of terror or pleasure, depending on a person’s proximity to real danger.’
In 1764 Immanuel Kant wrote an essay, ‘Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime,’ in which he noted that feelings of enjoyment are subjective and that there are two kinds of finer feelings, the feeling of the beautiful, that occasions a sensation that is ‘joyous and smiling, ‘and the feeling of the sublime that is ‘sometimes accompanied by a certain dread or melancholy.’
And further to those human responses of awe and dread before Nature, there’s Herman Melville in his novel ‘Moby Dick.’ (1851) describing many shades of the beautiful and sublime, including Nature’s indifference to human concerns, which is the motivation behind Captain Ahab’s quest to destroy the white whale:
‘I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.’
None of these responses to Nature, I’d say, seem likely to predispose us to going on a picnic. Picnicking requires the kinds of feeling about Nature you find in Wordsworth’s and Thoreau’s writings, more a deep and joyful sense of belonging in Nature. Here a stanza from Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Prelude:’
‘Yes I remember when the changeful earth,
And twice five summers’ on my mind had stamped
The faces of the moving year, even then
I held unconscious intercourse with beauty
Old as creation, drinking in a pure
Organic pleasure from the wreaths
Of curling mist, or from the level plain,
Of waters coloured by impending clouds.’
Here’s Thoreau’s ecstatic encounter with Nature described in ‘Wild Fruits,’ in which he actually invites us ‘to picnic with Nature.’ Thoreau focusing on eating and drinking as bodily, but also spiritual modes of experiencing our communion with the earth, recommends this communion by way of picnicking on locally gathered wild fruits, thereby dramatising how ‘man at length stands in such a relation to Nature as the animals which pluck and eat as they go.’
Thoreau sees the fields and the hills as a table constantly spread:
‘They seem offered to us not so much for food as for sociality, inviting us to picnic with Nature. We pluck and eat in remembrance of her. It is a sort of sacrament, a communion – the not forbidden fruits, which no serpent tempts us to eat.’
Now if that doesn’t make you want to go on a picnic, I don’t know what does! Not so much a feeling of awe as of being part of it all would seem to be behind the ritual game of going on a picnic.
So who gets to go on a picnic? Well, historically it was your aristocracy. Only the nobility had the time and inclination to enjoy picnicking. In England and France,
from the Middle Ages on into the eighteenth century, you’ve got the aristocracy experiencing a view of Nature’s plenitude that was not the common experience of the general populace. Consider their large estates, a team of gardeners, the Ha-Ha to keep out grazing animals, the manicured Garden of Delights, the Orangeries.
Through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, picnics took place in the midst of the hunt, likely in the King’s Forest. In England, after William the Conqueror made England’s forests, which were most of England, his Royal Domain, this meant that picnics were a somewhat exclusive activity.
Those hunt picnics were likely not a simple affair, expect some sumptuous ingredients to the repast, venison and other baked meats, champagne or maybe red wine in fine goblets. A ploughman’s lunch in the field would not be classified as picnicking…And certainly the forests were out of bounds as the playground of the lower classes.
From the art and literature of the 19th century we find the growing Middle Class adopting the pleasurable pastime of the picnic. Picnicking enjoyed by the gentry, of course you’d expect, regarding the picnic experience, a response more ironical than transcendental from Jane Austin, and that’s what you get in her novel, ‘Emma.’ Here’s the strawberry picnic, the whole party assembled and a monologue by one of Miss Austin’s comic characters:
‘Mrs Elton in all her apparatus of happiness, the large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting and talking. Strawberries and only strawberries could now be thought of and spoken of,’ and so on and on until … ‘one’s objection to gathering strawberries the stooping – glaring sun – tired to death –could bear it no longer – must sit in the shade.’
The Garden of Eden does have its inconveniences and in reality picnics are not always the innocent idyll of those Claude Lorraine landscapes. After the French Revolution in 1789, royal parks became open to the public. Enter public decadence when, mid-nineteenth century, those bohemian French artists began depicting picnics, as in Edouard Manet’s painting, ‘Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe,’ with its disrobed artists’ models enjoying the out door experience. And then there’s Joan Lindsay’s book – a movie was made of it with pan flute accompaniment, ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock,’ with its troupe of Edwardian school girls going missing in mysterious circumstances in this craggy setting, never to be found again… picnicking may sometimes end in tears, oh well!
Picnicking in the park, whether royal park or further a-field, your hill or dale, or way-side or sea-side, didn’t catch on with the working populace until they had the leisure to do it and that meant something like the eight hour working day and half holiday on Saturday. Most of the general population through-out history had neither. Most of the time before the development of economical machine power, forests were cleared for farm land by working people with axes, minerals mined and roads built by working people with pick and shovel, working women preparing food, doing the laundry by hand and incessantly ironing clothes – phew… Hard manual labour and heavy lifting were the norm, and few sat down to work, Sunday was the only day of rest in Christian societies and was zealously observed as such, – everything closed on Sundays except the churches.
No sport on Sundays, no picnics! In 1856 in Melbourne town, Great Southern Land, stonemasons won the eight hour day – hooray! This was a beginning but still needed were yr engineering innovations to substitute machine labour for manual labour and release workers from the lo-o-ong work day. In the last hundred years in the western world, work and leisure have slowly changed places, yr working family have got to go on picnics, – hooray! Everyone’s involved so, herewith, the second stanza of the children’s poem , ‘The Picnic,’ … plus commentary.
Waves came curling up the beach.
We waded. it was fun.
Our sandwiches were different kinds.
I dropped my jelly one.
So here we are out in Nature’s playground, earth, sea and sky. Play-time! What to do besides sitting on the ground and eating? Proximity to water – some wading, perhaps? Other pleasant pastimes – ball throwing, cricket, frisbies, might like to try a tug – of war, or there’s that Annual Work-Picnic or Sunday-School Picnic favourite, the foot race, categorized as ‘under seven year olds,’ ‘under tens,’ yr ‘married women’s race, etcetera, or as variations on the theme, the egg and spoon race or pair’s one-legged race.
So much to do, or maybe jest sprawl on the picnic rug, listen to the birds, a little conversation, nothing too disturbing, or jest sn-oo-ze in the sun. Picnic fun.
Did you forget the main game – why you’re here? Remember Thoreau’s theme regarding nature and divine plenitude, ‘no picnic w/out the food.’ You, Andrew Marvell, (English poet,) say it well in your vision of the ‘Bermudas’ as bountiful Paradise:
He lands us on a grassy stage,
Safe from the storm’s and prelates’ rage…
He hangs in shades the orange bright,
Like golden lamps in a green night;
And does in the pomegranates close
Jewels more rich than Ormus shows.
So perhaps for your picnic, something close to hand, keep it simple, summer berries, or the serf’s picnic, a thermos of tea and yr simple sandwich, corned-beef and pickle, or variations of same, ham and mustard, cucumber and tomato, egg and mayonnaise, or that delightful surprise, – assorted sandwiches.
The literature, however, might give you a taste for something less simple, something out of the box, a hamper of delights.
From ‘Wind in the Willows,’ by Kenneth Grahame, here’s Ratty going on a picnic:
‘Ratty appeared staggering under a fat, wicker luncheon-basket.
‘Shove that under your feet, ‘he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat.
‘What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.
‘There’s cold chicken inside it’ replied the Rat briefly:
‘O stop, stop.’ cried the Mole in ecstacies: ‘This is too much!’
‘Do you really think so?’ enquired the Rat seriously. ‘’It is only what I always take on these little excursions…’
If you think this is too much take a look in Mrs Beeton’s famous Cook Book, (1861) at her suggested ‘Picnic Luncheon for Twenty Persons.’ In my serf 1909 edition, on page 1729, sandwiched between ‘Menu Luncheon For A Shooting Party’ and her ‘Suggestions For A Week’s Dinners,’ (four pages for four-season dining) her Picnic Menu:
5 lbs of cold Salmon. 2 Cucumbers. Mayonnaise sauce. 1 Quarter of Lamb. Mint Sauce. 8 lbs Pickled Brisket of Beef. 1 Tongue. 1 Galantine of Veal. 1 Chicken Pie. Salad and Dressing. 2 Fruit Tarts. Cream. 2 dozen Cheese Cakes. 2 Bottles of Cream. 2 Jellies. 4 loaves of Bread. 2 lbs of Biscuits. 1 1/2 lbs of Cheese. ½ lb Butter. 6 lbs of Strawberries.
After this repast don’t expect these twenty picnickers to be fronting up for a tug of war, best take it easy, loll back, listen to the birds chirruping, the frogs cricking, the wind in the willows sighing,*…and likely the cooks back in the kitchen could do with a rest, too.
Rest peacefully, Twenty Picknickers, no need to be on the alert in your Garden of Eden picnic surrounds, – no bears or wolves or serpents would dare to intrude upon this idyllic scene. **
*Might like to omit the pan flutes!
** Disclaimer: yr picnic not to be confused with yr garden party or yr barbeque despite some parallels, these are two quite different games. – Think about it.