On a Lost Literary Genre

A dull green river glides below me. I sit at a wooden picnic table slathered in moss, a venerable table, isolated from others near the river, framed by two impressive Doug firs. A cobweb hangs from a dead branch.

I hear sheep and chainsaws in the distance, and incongruous pairing. Lots of dogs here, playing ball and stick with their masters. This is a very happy place for dogs; they run free!

It is 37 degrees.

I see a robin perched in a naked vine maple. I inspect the table for carvings of sweet horny math. Nothing. A wasted tableau for equations of love. It might be that, in the Age of the Smartphone, young people don’t carve on picnic tables as they have in the past. They fiddle on their devices or don’t go to rivers to hang out. They certainly don’t carry around pocketknives. You can go to prison for that these days with some prosecutors.

Carvings of love on trees, fences and picnic tables. A lost literary genre of beautiful and often cryptic brevity. We’ve lost something with its passing, but, so too, we lost something in the art of conversation with the death of the rotary phone and the art of communication with the death of handwritten letters on stationery.

It is believed by some scholars that the first North American emoticons appeared in these carvings. They are, in fact, forerunners of text messages, often loaded with abbreviations and innuendo.

A lettering with a pen or Sharpie is not the same! It requires so much more in labor and metaphor to write into wood.

Some would call the carvings vandalism and rejoice at its extinction. But there was history of personal love in these tables across the land in the remotest of places, and one could return years and decades later to reread the equations and take stock of what had since transpired to the carver or the carvee and determine if the equation actually added up correctly or was just another wrong sum.

There are so many wrong sums in these carved equations, but sometimes, they turn out like Newton’s Laws of Gravity.

The rise of the composite and concrete picnic tables also hastened the end of the genre. These tables are so ugly they almost cry out for spray paint!

I carved an equation of love into a picnic table once, eons ago in a state coastal park, the ocean a football throw away. My high school girlfriend sat across from me. She had driven me to the beach in her brown Pinto. I still can’t believe it made it.

We walked the beach and collected shells and rocks. We ate our lunch at the table. (She later immortalized this scene in a work of stained glass.) I no longer recall what kind of knife I wielded. Wait! It was her knife!

It didn’t take long and then it was back in the Pinto and a rambling return to Oregon City in an era of wonderful looseness and shift whistles at the paper mill.

For many years later, I would return to that picnic table, alone, and reread the equation. My girlfriend and I didn’t make it, but the equation was never wrong.

Some 15 years ago, state parks replaced all the wooden picnic tables with concrete monstrosities, utterly Cold War fallout shelter in their appearance. Naturally, they were carve proof.