personal essay

The Best Balm Is a Picnic

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A bowl of cherries on a red gingham blanket
Credit: Ania Boniecka/Stocksy

When I am feeling weary from the demands of life, especially now during this global pandemic, I make a meal and get outside, even if I’m just by myself. I have adjusted the meaning of hanging out with friends, like everyone else; I see them on the world wide web. When I leave the house I grab my wallet, my keys, and my mask. 

My definition of a picnic — something I usually associate with too many bodies on an inappropriately sized blanket, food-covered fingers, and eating off each other’s plates — has also changed. Most of my picnics happen on my steps lately and are sometimes a simple meal of beer and peanuts. My fellow picnickers are the feathered, six-legged, and slimy creatures in tree limbs, who walk on a blade of grass, or wiggle beneath the earth. There are times when going outside seems like a risky thing to do. In response to the threat of exposure to or spreading of COVID-19, the safest option is to stay inside. But as the weather continues to warm, those of us who are lucky enough to have a corner of the outdoors — a backyard, a shared stoop, a fire escape — should get outside. We may find that beyond the immediacy of the built environment is the calm and resilience of the natural world.

Being outside is fortifying, restorative, and necessary to us not only surviving, but also thriving. As an herbalist, my work revolves around the relationship between plants and humans. I work to bring plants to people: My book Plant Magic: Herbalism in Real Life and an online Garden Medicine Club that I host introduces people to common healing plants growing in yards and public parks, as well as those stored in jars forgotten in kitchen cabinets. I believe connecting with plants helps us humans connect more deeply with ourselves and the world around us, and we could all use more of that when we feel our most isolated.

There are numerous scientific studies, recommendations from Harvard Medical School, as well as an entire WebMD slideshow pointing to the benefits of getting outside. Some doctors even prescribe time in the outdoors. Going outside for prolonged periods of time is an antidote to the isolation that can negatively impact our mental and physical health, leaving us more susceptible to chronic illness and increased feelings of depression and anxiety. What many people don’t consider is the modern life we’ve become accustomed to — global pandemic or not — which also keeps us mostly separate from the outdoors, can also negatively impact our health

Regular exposure to nature can mean improved sleep patterns, stress reduction, improved recovery from illness, a longer, more robust life, and a positive impact on general health overall. “Exposure to nature” doesn’t have to mean wilderness, in his keynote address to the AAP National Conference and Exhibition in 2010 Dr. Richard Louv said. “It really doesn’t matter whether you come from the suburbs or a farm or the inner city. This experience of touching nature, having nature touch you … it can happen on a farm, in the woods near a suburb, or even in a window nook.”

Any place is a place for a picnic. At the beginning of all of this it looked like me draped in a scarf, wool sweater, and a long coat. I joined my partner on our porch where we ate our hotdogs and salad or root vegetable galette outside to have dinner. Sure, it’s not a “traditional picnic,” but I’ll take what I can get. Over the weeks we’ve been sheltering in place we’ve watched the landscape of the lawn change from daffodils and dandelions to a carpet of ground ivy and violet. Now the motherwort is flowering and the bee balm welcomes native pollinators. As the flowers fell from the cherry trees, the white and soft pink of the dogwoods emerged and were eventually replaced by the tulip poplar bloom. I am comforted by the rhythms of constant change present in the natural world and nourished not only by my delicious meal — whether it’s canned nuts and beer or something more ambitious — but also by the creatures, feathered or full of chlorophyll that go on living their lives, perhaps unaware of what plagues their human companions. I know their own lives are far from easy and for a moment I am able to embody their resilience.

If you feel comfortable, organizing a small, socially distant picnic means you’re not only getting the benefits of nature, but also the benefits of human interaction in nature. Dining al fresco can bring us all connection, relief, calm, and delicious satisfaction. You can picnic under the limb of the linden growing on your street corner (yes, I am suggesting you eat a meal on the sidewalk if that’s what’s available to you and you are able to maintain social distance) or in the mess of grass, dandelions, wood sorrel, and bitter dock growing outside your apartment building or in your unmowed lawn. Bees, birds, butterflies, and nocturnal creatures you may never see frequent all these places; nature is out there, not far from your front door. 

Some of my favorite rules for eating outside come from MFK Fisher’s “The Pleasure of Picnics,” although I think in these present circumstances we are inclined to bend the rules. She insists true picnics happen in the outdoors, away from the home, but I say screw it: Picnic on your stoop, or lay a towel on the floor of your home beneath an open window if that’s your best option right now and invite the outdoors in.

When I was growing up, this is how kids in my neighborhood would bypass family dinner in summer: We’d all gather in someone’s backyard with our food to-go on a plate from home. I’m sure Fisher is spinning in her grave right now at the idea of not eating picnic food with your fingers, but she wrote that essay in 1957 and we are trying to live in 2020: I suggest packing utensils. I think we could spare ourselves an application of hand sanitizer between bites. Deviled egg with a hint of 70% alcohol? No thanks. Do yourself a favor and bring along some forks and knives. One thing we can agree on is that the food should be simple. 

Your Picnic Menu 

I like to make recipes that transport easily and make room for spontaneous outdoor additions. Bring a hearty grain salad, an herby drink, deviled eggs, chicken salad sandwiches, and berry cobbler. As a reminder, any of these recipes can be easily halved to accommodate a smaller party and all work especially well as leftovers.

In addition to packing simple food, bringing a field guide to a picnic instantly transforms what would otherwise be sitting around outside into a scavenger hunt. Ask others to bring field guides too. Learning to use a field guide is a skill; it can be tedious and a little bit frustrating. If you’re with other people, following the key becomes easier and even fun. Bending over a plant to study the leaves and count the flower petals is like solving a mystery, where do all these plant parts lead to? Your field guide can help you discern the clues. Ahead of time you might decide to use the guides to locate foods you can add to your picnic: dandelion greens, rose flowers, field garlic, chickweed, and wood sorrel. Or you could set out to find as many plants as possible that belong to common plant families like the rose family or mint family or mustard family.

As a word of caution: Be sure not to gather wild edible weeds next to train tracks, under power lines, next to busy roads, or in landscapes that have been treated with herbicides and pesticides or you suspect have high concentrations of heavy metals. You can read more about heavy metals here. This is not to scare you, but to remind you that the natural world is not immune to the negative consequences of industrialization. It is all one world, after all, so be responsible. You might decide that looking is good enough. 

Guide Recommendations: Edible Plants

Guide Recommendations: Flowers

Packing a picnic in a pandemic might require some extra effort and personal responsibility — more thoughtful preparations perhaps and more intentionally distanced communal eating — but I don’t think it’s impossible. Just beyond our houses, condominiums and apartments is a renewed earth brimming with life — go out to meet it or invite it in. Bundle up your meal, venture outside, maintain distance, and untie your mask for a brief bite beneath a budding redbud or a bushy pine. Enjoy your picnic safely among the natural world where you might find a moment of peace and joy. Savor it, even though it might be fleeting. 

Oh, one last rule from Fisher: Those who don’t care for picnics must be “dismissed immediately.” Bye, haters!