I like picnics. Picnics take us outside, to share food with people we like. Those are my three favorite things, and picnics offer all three with a minimum of fuss or cost.

Every picnic is a special occasion. But one stands out because it showed me how much we can learn from deeply observing the world around us. Such observation joins us to the experiences of those who have come before, and perhaps even see through their eyes. It is a humanities experience.

One summer day, to celebrate a birthday, my spouse and I packed up our little girls and went to California’s China Camp State Park for a picnic. China Camp is a few hundred acres of oak savannah and salt marshes on the Marin County shoreline of San Francisco Bay. It is a humble place, just a few buildings clustered around an old pier, but the sheltered cove offers one of the few calm wading beaches in San Francisco Bay. Settled at the lone picnic table under a feral plum tree buzzing with bees, we ate our food and then played with our toddlers on the gravelly shore.

But it wasn’t gravel, we soon realized. It was shell. Much of the beach was composed of tiny, sharp oyster shells of the California oyster, Ostrea lurida. Long thought functionally extinct, the bay’s native oyster still flourished on the Marin Shore and across the bay near the Chevron oil refinery. This humble state park, named for the Chinese shrimp fishermen who lived and worked here in the 19th and 20th centuries, represented not only a physical reminder of these men’s presence, but also the bounty of fish and shellfish that fed Californians for more than a century.

For me the picnic brought an epiphany. San Francisco Bay is not only the battered, polluted remnant of a majestic natural resource, as environmentalists often see it. It continues to be the living, thriving host to the West’s most productive wetlands and California’s green heart. The water that circulates through the bay sustains both the human and nonhuman communities of the region. The shell, and its place, tell an environmental history. They reveal the interdependence of humanity and nonhuman nature. What looks like a purely cultural space turns out to be full of nature. And what looks like a purely natural space turns out to be full of culture. San Francisco Bay, like the oyster and China Camp State Park, is a hybrid of human labor and natural forces.

I am not trying to be nostalgic. Such hybrids are not always peaceful, just, or safe. Indeed the Chevron refinery does more than shelter a threatened native species. The neighboring community, which is mostly nonwhite and disproportionately low-income, suffers from the presence of the refinery. The refinery site is the continuing site of contamination, illness, and hazardous exposure and a textbook case in environmental injustice. Living well with nature requires sharing the risks of our industrial society, not just dumping them on the vulnerable.

My “humanities moment,” then, is an oyster shell I found in an unlikely urban setting. The shell and its place taught me a lesson about nature’s resilience, about memory, and the imperative for social justice. All three are elements I associate with the humanities.

Matthew Morse Booker (Vice President for Scholarly Programs; NHC Fellow, 2016–17)