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May 16, 2001
I went out one morning in May
Gathering flowers, all so gay
I gathered red, I gathered blue
Every little thing that a love could do
Appalachian folk song
What is so rare about a day in May?
That it falls in the fullness of Spring, and embodies every promise that the season holds.
I enter at dawn, 110th Street and Lenox Avenue, the Farmer's Gate. I scan the Harlem Meer, and its island, peaceful in the twilight. Later the shore will teem with patrons; strolling; sitting; fishing. Even now it is not deserted: the odd runner or dog-walker is always there. The Park is never truly deserted, but if ever it is peaceful, it's in the early morning.
Spring itself is less than peaceful. We have the luxury of observation, but the plants and animals are carried along in the seasonal surge. There is much that must be accomplished, and now is the time. To get closer to it, I head directly into the North Woods, climbing up the steep northeastern spur of the Great Hill, just west of the Meer. This is the part of the Park that most evokes a "real" forest. The Ramble, the other heavily wooded area, is more landscaped and picturesque, with its tightly winding paths. The North Woods is broader, more open. I climb the spur up to a trail that runs along the morning side of the Hill, where one can look both up into treetops, and down onto treetops.
It's the upper treetops that take the first sun. It rises from behind the city, silhouetting sharp angles, banning blind darkness with revelatory light. Working its way through tiny new leaves, among the flowering tips of Oaks, the sunlight discovers birds, first heard, now seen, intersecting May's first morning.
Finally, the whole slope is flooded with fresh daylight. Countless little leaves have appeared, on trees and brush, filling vacant spaces, filtering earth and sky through a glowing green reticulum. I pass along the dappled, Thrush infested hillside, reaching a small plateau that overlooks a steep descent into the depths of the Ravine.
Here is a place between. Poised above the sleeping valley, below the towering Oaks that climb the Hill behind me, I look out through the crowns of trees, onto the city far distant. At least it seems far, framed in foliage, like another country glimpsed in a dream. In fact, itís never more than a quarter mile away, depending, of course, on which path you choose...
I turn away, heading downhill, into the dimness still lingering below.
Heliotropic flowers seek the sun, turning ever towards its rays. I move ahead to wait for it. Prolonging the morning, I precede the probing beams down the steep trail, to the bottom of the Ravine, where flows the Loch. The place-names in the Park are of two sorts. Some, like the Loch and the Ravine, go back to its creation, and indicate something of the designers' romanticized conception. Others have come from practical necessity, assigned by birders and others who need to say with some specificity just where something is. Hence we have Muggerís Wood and the Maintenance Meadow, or the optimistically named Warbler Rock, to go along with such as the Ramble and the Sheep Meadow (long bereft of sheep). The Loch was once more of a lake, but it has silted into a shifting stream course, interspersed with islets which provide prime habitat for the migrant birds. The Ravine is really just the side of the Great Hill to the north and west of the Loch, with a much gentler slope on the east bank, where the margins of the North Woods give way to the Wildflower Meadow.
Over this eastern slope flows the morning sun, once it has cleared the city skyline. Lying as low as it does, the valley of the Loch is one of the few places in the Park where the bordering buildings cannot be seen. Not without some effort anyway, now that the leaves are coming out, delimiting the view. And on a morning such as this, you may escape, at least for a little while, the noises of the metropolis, which travel where vision cannot. The sirens of the city are not forgot, but here their call is easily ignored. Now the sunlight lies upon the Meadow, and leaks through budding Locust branches, backlighting Ash and Maple leaves, falling on Viburnum flowers.
At the bottom of the slope, the Loch creates a sort of tunnel, snaking through the trees. Trees arch above, and spread beyond, and ripple in reflections that seem to echo in the sound of flowing waters. The Spring-light penetrates, then permeates, the space, dancing across myriad leaves; rafts of green, that come as close as green can come to the color of sunlight. Some of the new-sprung foliage is so yellow as to recall Autumn, but this is not the time of decline. Everything is inhalation and exaltation, a gentle breeze like the Breath of Life, quivering among the leaves, flickering with birds, rippling like the stream that flows below, underneath the living, growing, canopy.
Here I pause a long while, lost in things green. At the center of the serpent; every tree a Tree of Knowledge. And this a morning unfallen. Yet morning falls by rising, and the climbing Sun finds me, lost to time, but still confined by it. I pass the better part of the morning along the Loch, and all my looking outward turns back on me, looking inward, with the time-lost gaze of reverie.
Morning is over. Most of the day remains, but itís never quite the same. Not in May, in the Morning of the Year. All the things undone, or done badly, are still potentials of the morning, but now I must go and do them, for the Sun has overtaken me.
I will go on, of course, east to the Mount, and the Conservatory Garden below, electric with Tulips. On to the heights along the south shore of the Meer, till Iíve almost returned to where I started. Then itís back into the Woods, but by a different path, looping around the north face of the Hill, and back to a high trail near the top, through a brushy sector full of low and viney growth. Here there are already signs of habitation. Once the weather warms, a few unmoored souls always find refuge in the Park, to varying degrees of tolerance. They range from amiable to menacing, and their presence has been known to surprise a binocular or two. Skirting the campsite, I descend the Hill, once and for all, reaching the Pool.
The Pool, perhaps the most intimate of the waters in the Park, is the source of the Loch, which flows from a waterfall at its east end. In reaching the head of the Loch, I have pretty much covered the north end of the Park. Below this point, one must go either east or west, as the central terrain is occupied by athletic fields, tennis courts, and then the vastness of the Reservoir, the largest open space in Manhattan.
Here our paths will part. By now, the afternoon is drawing on, and Iíd advise you to head downtown. Survey the Reservoir; the Great Lawn; bird around the Ramble; stroll the Mall of Elms. Youíll find the sunset somewhere at the south end. Thatís what I often do, and itís plenty for any day of the year. But on a day in May, I may turn back, and wander once more where the morning was. A different scene, now seen by westering light. The color of the sinking sun is ever deeper than the morning, tinctured with its foreclosed possibilities. One of these, a day in the prime of Spring, is gone. Too few, the days of May pass too soon.