The people past, present and future who help us evolve as a species in and of nature.
by Clement Borden
Ever Eat a Pine Tree?
Euell Gibbons asked this question of the American public while pitching Post Grape Nuts cereal in a series of television ads in the 1970s. It was an odd question from an equally odd pitchman, the likes of which no-one had ever seen before. Prior to Euell, most packaged cereals were sold by animated product mascots: pictures of laconic bears, macho tigers and hilarious sea captains lined the supermarket shelves. It had been the norm since the beginning of television, and the kids were taught to trust cartoon characters as surrogate authority figures. The friendly faces on the cover of the cereal box were rarely depicted in a realistic manner, let alone representing an actual human. The Quaker Oats man and the Cheerios athletes had been the ones most like living beings up until that point, but even they were rendered as art rather than as photographs.
As the Vietnam war began to spiral into operatic chaos, this clever advertising approach began to symbolize the lies of the politicians, and a generation of disillusioned youth began to drop their protest signs, vacate the cities, and head for the hills. It was the burgeoning of the back-to-the-land movement and the kids were learning how to disconnect from technology and re-embrace the natural world. Granola, muesli and home-made yogurt were all part of the reconnection to the land, with people creating their own cherished versions, growing and preparing them all by hand.
However, it didn’t take long for the advertisers to catch a whiff of the maple syrup in the air. An entire demographic of city-locked apartment dwellers and suburbanites also began to crave the wholesome goodness of a breakfast cereal that was not entirely shellacked with glucose and artificial coloring. Enter the conscious breakfast era.
Believe it or not, most early cereal manufactures were simply providing raw grains, whole, rolled, puffed and powdered. (It was only in the post-WWII years that the public started demanding food rewards for all the sacrifices they had made and sugared everything began to appear on the market.) Like wet oats on a wooden spoon, the Quaker brand was one of the few companies that stuck to what they knew, not on account of any viable connection to the Quaker sect, of which there was little to nothing, but more because people simply liked oats, as is. The Post cereal company had a similar product in Grape Nuts. Introduced in 1897 and entirely devoid of grapes or nuts (it’s a wheat and barley composite), they never veered from the original recipe except to capitalize on the granola craze, and that’s when Euell Gibbons was discovered and introduced as a perfect representative of the product.
Until that point, Euell had lived a wildly rugged and adventurous life as a theoretic communist (i.e., not Stalinist) traversing the country as a carpenter, farmer, surveyor, soldier, boat-builder and sometime hobo—very Kerouac-like long before the Beats became established. But from an early age he knew about homesteading from his own upbringing, and learned all there was to know about wild foraging and living off the land, so much so that he began to journal his findings and develop his skills as an amateur scientist, eventually becoming an anthropology major but never abandoning his fascination for the botanical world.
With titles like Stalking the Wild Asparagus and Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop, his writings became a very publishable commodity and he began to win fame for introducing the subject of foraging and living naturally to a very wide-eyed public. Though he was well known to the literary and counter-culture public, Post cereals took a gamble in using this very unusual human mascot to bring attention back to their somewhat archaic product. Post got its poster boy and Gibbons gained a platform that translated into uncountable guest appearances, lectures and articles that championed all the things he believed in: environment, community, native issues and so on, which went far beyond his love for those little grape-nut flakes.
Though Post and their advertisers had little foresight about the effect this man would have across North America, it didn’t take long for the collective conscious to zero in on the unintentional lessons, or the idea that this large, soft-spoken pioneer was something of an antithesis to their own manufactured lives. He was symbolic of land stewardship and was, himself, a living, breathing version of the fictionalized Grizzly Adams and Jeremiah Johnsons that fed the same ethos. And while John Denver sang about the Rocky Mountain high, Euell had lived it and was very real. He offered hope.
Sugar Bear may have been a lot more fun, but Gibbons was a strange proponent of truth in a medium that relies on false realities. In the greatest irony of all, Euell was, much to the discomfort of the Quaker company, the actual Quaker Man and not a mere pictorial mascot. He was a practicing member of the Society of Friends (the Quakers) and perhaps the most famous cook they ever had. And if you know anything about that noble group and their belief in plain dress, refusal to swear oaths, opposition to slavery, abstinence from alcohol and their refusal to participate in war, you’ll know that he was a man of integrity. A slightly better role model than the other product mascots.