When I was small, I thought the Hundred Acre Wood from “Winnie-the-Pooh” was in Montauk. We had gone out on an expedition — no doubt a picnic party — and someone, probably my father, drolly told the children we were approaching the stamping grounds of Eeyore and Owl, and — prone to magical thinking, then and still — I decided to accept this as fact. That the Hundred Acre Wood might be in Montauk made more rational sense to me at the age of 4 or 5 than the suggestion adults kept making that Santa Claus was real. (Get out! Santa was, obviously, a story made up to please children.)
I’m not sure which woods in Montauk this was. We went marching off through the woods on expeditions carrying picnic baskets quite frequently, certainly in comparison with families today, but I couldn’t tell you which trails most of these were because the trails then didn’t have blazes or names and there were no maps. They were just ancient paths to destinations that my dad and my Aunt Mary knew how to navigate: to Split Rock, to a certain boggy pond that I think was in the Walking Dunes, to the hidden cemetery and ultimately the water at Cedar Point, where, in later years, my aunt, my cousin, and I would pause to eat pieces of Jack cheese atop Stoned Wheat Thins.
The Hundred Acre Wood was a large stand of trees with tarry, black trunks beside a sandy track, and, now that I think about it, it was more likely Napeague, where the pitch pines are today dying from an invasion of southern pine beetles, falling to the ground, dead, with a powdery thud.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous column, I am childish enough to secretly and silently but seriously begrudge the presence in the woods of so many strangers, on foot and on mountain bikes, now that the trails are all beautifully cleared, maintained, named, and marked with blazes. The upper part of my brain, the superego, is perfectly aware of how wonderful it is that the trails have been preserved and kept open for public use; the lower part of my brain, the id, wants to keep the woods for itself.
And so it was with slightly confused feelings that I received the news from my son, Teddy, when he announced that the community-service hours he will complete as a diligent eighth grader and applicant for the National Junior Honor Society would be “working on the trails.” I was surprised! The ironic part of Teddy heading off into the woods to maintain trails is that our family tradition of woods walking has rather died out in our family with his generation. Teddy is among the 14th generation of East Hampton woods walkers in my family, but I have hardly taken him into the woods at all since we moved home from Canada nine years ago — partly because I keep getting bitten by lone star ticks each time I go into the woods, and the ticks keep giving me the alpha-gal allergy, over and over, and the alpha-gal allergy can be incredibly painful, and partly because the woods are dying, and it’s depressing seeing what the deer have done to the understory.
The ecosystem of Northwest and of Napeague is wildly out of whack, and anyone who tells you differently is kidding themselves. It’s not the deer’s fault, nor the ticks’, nor even the southern pine beetles’ fault, but the situation is dire down here at ground level in our dying world.
“Our dying world.” That is what one of the hosts of my favorite lowbrow podcast says whenever he has to refer to the planet Earth or, straightforwardly, to the place where we — and all the sequined-evening-gown-wearing contestants on ABC’s “The Bachelor” — spend our waking hours: “our dying world.” That seems bad, doesn’t it? A bad sign? That even the host of a fan-spinoff podcast about ABC’s “The Bachelor” should be making it a daily habit to mention that we’re killing off the planet? Is this not, perhaps, a herald of the approaching Doomsday?
Anyhoo. It’s nice to think about what we would have eaten on that picnic day when we passed by the Hundred Acre Wood on our way to some forgotten scenic destination. Maybe we were going to Fresh Pond in Hither Woods. Let’s imagine that. The moms have kerchiefs tied around their hair, as the moms did in the 1970s, and no one carries a backpack; the food is toted in wooden picnic baskets, including a picnic basket made in the 19th century by some late great-grandmother Huntting, and there must also be a heavy plastic cooler with ice, because the dads and moms mix cocktails as soon as we have reached the pond and spread our checked wool picnic blankets. (It’s funny to think that the average American family once even owned a checked wool picnic blanket. We were a multi-blanket family.) Out from the baskets come Scotch eggs with pork sausage, fried blowfish on paper towels, fried chicken, German potato salad, ziti salad with dill and gherkins, a lemon Bundt cake, and cans of Fresca. After a few gins and tonic, the dads wade into the pond among the pussy willows in their boxer shorts, shouting and carrying on.
I’ve told Teddy that we will have to treat his trousers, socks, and shoes with Permethrin, the tick-repelling insecticide, before he begins his community service on the trails. Maybe I will resurrect a bit of picnicking. For the last few years I keep saying that, that we need to go picnicking again, but we haven’t yet. The last picnic in the old style that I can recall was a modest venture to boring old Louse Point in approximately 2002, for which I made sheet cake.
It remains mysterious to me how parents had enough time in the 1970s for cooking and packing elaborate picnic menus, much less devoting entire Saturdays to walking into and out of unpeopled wildernesses, getting a bit drunk, swimming in undershorts, singing a little Peter, Paul, and Mary, and arguing about Marshall McLuhan. The simple answer is that they weren’t tethered to screens in the 1970s, but that obvious and rational answer to the question of where the time has gone somehow doesn’t seem quite adequate. I do concede it’s true that if I untethered myself from the internet — stopped listening to podcasts about “The Bachelor” and never lost another hour scouring shopgoodwill.com for vintage Spode — I’d have more time for Scotch eggs and tucking my pants into my socks for a long walk in the woods, but some part of me, childish and prone to magical thinking, prefers to suspect that we’ve bent something in the time-space continuum, and shortened the hours and the days.