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December 21, 2001

Solstice

Weird warm weather, and reverberations of war, have made the Holidays hard to focus on this year. But then, itís always that way; always some distraction; something that seems important, taking precedence. Thatís why the Holidays are enshrined in a specific time, even as they allude to something timeless. The calendar brings them to the fore, and, ready or not, we must celebrate, or else suffer alienation.

So here we are, in the very trough of the Year, yet turning towards the Sun once more. A little piece of Sun got caught in a cloud, like a fragment of rainbow; what my Dad used to call a sun dog. I put it up on the page as a sign for the Holidays; promising a Summerís worth of Sun, even as Winter begins.

But first: the Time weíve been prescribed. Weíll do the best we can with it, and hope todayís hearts can still conform to the Traditional message of hope and rebirth.

Step number one: send a Christmas card.

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November 22, 2001

Giving and Getting Thanks

Troubled times, but there is still much to be thankful for. With all the horror close at hand, I've barely been scathed. Life is still a gift, and the first thing for which we give thanks. That we in America live so much better than most of the world is perhaps a great accomplishment, but it's not our god-given right. We should be thankful for our good fortune, and willing to look objectively at the reasons behind it.

A nation is an abstraction, of people, land, and laws. On Thanksgiving Day we habitually turn to things that are more palpable to us: the friends and family we love, even the food we eat. If Thanksgiving represents Tradition, then it is our harvest holiday, Pilgrim mythology notwithstanding.

Harvests are of many sorts, but here we mark the fruition of routine. The toilsome tending of the crops; the daily interactions with the people closest to us; the reliable turning of the seasons: these are the patterns that breed Love and Life.

My routine in the Park has gone on.
Outside circumstances have polluted my concentration at times, but the seasons pass unperturbed. This page has wandered a bit from its usual subject matter, but I don't enforce borders here, and whatever works its way into my life is apt to leave a spoor within the Arboretum. Still, I do want to get back to such important matters as may be buried in the fallen leaves, glimpsed in the first light of dawn, or argued in the variant plumages of south-bound birds.
To that end, I will tell a little of the doings of the Fall, and, perhaps, illumine something of how thanks may be given.

The Fall migration of birds is winding down, and I have to say I've done pretty well with it. I've seen seven new birds, including some that are not easy to see. Most notable of these is the Connecticut Warbler. I found it on a chill and windy afternoon in early October, after a cold front moved through, which is often the occasion for a wave of migrants.

Some birds are rare, and some, though common, are hard to get a look at. The marsh-dwelling Sora Rail, another new sighting, falls into the latter category. The Connecticut Warbler on the other hand, is both rare and difficult to see. It skulks in the underbrush, walking more than it flies. In Spring it migrates west of the Appalachians, so it only appears in the Park during the Fall, when it takes the Atlantic route. Wood Warblers are the crown jewels of birding in eastern North America, and among them the Connecticut is one of the most sought-after, and one of the most elusive.

But there it was, walking through the Wildflower Meadow. With its dusky brown hood, it was a female, or else a first fall bird, born this year. The adult male is brighter, but I'm not complaining; any sighting of this bird is special. It's a cousin of the Mourning Warbler, and young birds pose some possible confusion between the species, but I knew the proper field marks. The strong eye-ring, the long undertail coverts, and most decisively the walking, rather than hopping, gait, were unmistakable signals of identity. Still, I was glad to have the sighting verified by another lucky birder who happened by.

It's good for one's reputation to have an unusual sighting backed up. But more than that, I've had some good birds pointed out to me by other observers, and one wants to be able to return the favor. This is done as a matter of principle, not tit for tat (or tit for chat), so ďthanksĒ is institutionalized as a system of nonspecific reciprocity, spreading the good stuff around. Which is great, but I prefer to bird alone, as a form of meditation, so I don't always get the chance to share. On this occasion it was almost preternatural the way Nick Wagerik (an insect enthusiast, but also a birder, fully appreciative of the warblerís import) appeared at just the right moment. He thanked me for showing him the rarity.
But who do I thank?

I knew the Connecticut was a good bird to get, but I didnít know quite how good. People actually congratulate you for having seen it. There are birders far more skillful than I, with years of experience, who have never seen one.
So why me?

It must be said that luck is no small part of birding, and my luck is leveraged, if not by skill, then by persistence. Not to mention an appetite for spending inordinate amounts of time staring into dense tangles of vegetation. Itís part of my routine. These factors alone are enough to explain why I might see good birds, but I like to think that itís more than that. Yes, Iím thankful, but sometimes I actually think that the Park is thanking me. Because I appreciate it; because I use it in an appropriate manner; because I love it, its treasures are endlessly unfolded before my eyes.

I donít want to see a rare bird; I just want to see whatís there. And thereís always something worth seeing. The more I see, the more enchanted I am; the more inspired to look further. The more I look, the more I see; the more I see, the more I look, and so on, in a reciprocity of fulfillment beyond expectation. At some point, I find myself looking right through the Park, and onto the very visage of the Goddess, and surely itís Her that I must thank. Yet She sheds my thanks like water off a duck's back, and everything returns to me.

When Love has leveled the divide between the Lover and the Beloved,
what we do for ourselves will be done for the Other,
and a ďThank YouĒ earns more than it owes.

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November 11, 2001

Veteran's Day in Time of War


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November 6, 2001

Twelve Month and a Day

After its appropriate interval, mourning comes to an end. My father's death is now a year and more removed. A cycle through the round of seasons serves to put things in the past. If grief subsides, the pain of loss does not. But we come to recognize it as the same pain that touches all of life; an undertone that ever drones beneath our descant joys. My memories of him remain a melody surmounting the basso-continuo of death.

The business of his estate is also drawing to a close. It's taken a full year, and taken a psychic toll greater than the actual work involved. Legalities too, are best left in the past.

To move beyond is not to forget, but to put the memory in its appropriate place. Mourning dignifies the process; it's better than just waiting for time to drive a wedge between us and grief.
Either way, the time is past.

I've looked forward to the release, little dreaming that my loss would be outstripped five thousandfold. And now my heart rehearses the cliche, and I'm actually glad that my father isn't alive to see this war. He had enough war in his life, rendering civilian service in one; decrying another. This one falls beyond his span. No need for him to see another generation bequeathed the same old shit.
He would have worried over me.

So it's been quite a year, November to November.
Not the happiest of years. But I think of my father, and I joke about my "target" status, and I head out to the Park when I can. Lately it's hard to say whether I have a pursuit or an escape, but I've got to keep looking.
Wandering and wondering.

Last week I saw Eastern Bluebirds, a pretty good sighting for the Park. These birds declined greatly in the last century, their habitat disrupted, their nests displaced. Today they are the beneficiaries of more human intervention than most troubled species. Nest box programs are popular, and have shown success, but the Bluebird remains common only in our nostalgic past.

I'd never found one in the Park before, but it wasn't the first time I'd seen them. One year ago I was in Michigan, attending on my father's death. Amid the vigil and the stress, I took the time, while there still was time, to walk in a nearby park, and there I saw my first Bluebird. A hard pleasure, under the circumstances. I remember thinking it was not the Bluebird of Happiness.

Bluebirds generally seem to elicit positive responses, but the popular association with happiness seems to have coalesced in a 1908 play by Maeterlinck. Two children set out searching for happiness in the form of a blue bird, and travel far, only to find it back in their own home. It's a familiar lesson, and I may have suggested as much myself, from time to time.

The birds themselves suggest more.
Reappearing across time and space, bracketing a tortured year, their flight is not deterred by terror. They remain on schedule. Yet they are migrants, and must be at home wherever they are, even in a patch of park between the breeding and the winter grounds.

The dead, we like to think, have returned Home.
If home is at the source of happiness, and if, as the birds teach, it can be found in every place, then we are describing something tantamount to heaven. According to their faiths, my father, the suicide pilots, and the five thousand victims should all be there together. A scenario no less likely than that they should "be" anywhere at all. It is a Traditional belief that death renders equality, dealing the same hand to all. Judgement is a later notion, which some have attributed to god, but the only deity I know forgives us everything, hoping in turn to be forgiven.

The end of mourning is forgiveness: to hold no grudge against the burden of the Mystery. A hard end, an unasked for beginning; but in between, something worth honoring with an ascendant heart.
I love my father still.
He is a Home I carry with me always, but I will mourn no more.

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October 31, 2001

A Tree Between

What makes this night so different?
The walls grow thin
The veil is rent
Free passage between worlds

All that we deny applies
And all we fear is fact
A night no different except
That we admit

Admit that there is more
To this than what we know
And know there is no barrier
Beyond what we allow

Admission wins admittance
Tendering the key
To open like a dreaming eye
Awakening from sleep

A world of dark
A world of light
And we stand in between
Rooted in the lightless night
But growing toward the sun

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October 8, 2001

New World?

Jet plane, cell phone, fiber-optic cable. With these we bridge the distances. The ďNewĒ World and the ďOldĒ are drawn ever closer. Yet on this Columbus Day the gulf between Worlds seems wider than ever. Itís widely claimed that all of us have entered a New World; that we are marked by the late events; changed: never to be the same. So it was for those who held these shores five hundred years ago, when strange craft and strange men came from the sea to give the world a new name. Even so, the peoples of this continent did not own the land, and had only come here ten, fifteen, at most twenty thousand years before. A mere moment ago, in geologic time.
No one is native to America.
No one is native to this fallen World.
We are all here as exiles, trying to piece together what was broken in the Beginning.

One way by which we join, instead of sunder, is through our relationship with the Land. Itinerant animals though we may be, we do come to identify with the places we inhabit. Not that we own the Land, but we establish a bond with it. Not that the Land owns us, but it gives us Life, and continuity, if we tend it with Love. If we rape it, despoiling while returning nothing, it becomes the Wasteland, where Life cannot survive.

Half a millennium after the European arrival, we have grown close to this Land. The places where we are born, where we grow up, where we live out our lives; these are as close to Home as we will ever come in this World.
Ancestry not withstanding.

Still, Old World names are strewn about out landscape, bespeaking our nostalgia for a deeper, truer Home. We do not find it in any particular place, though our language leads us back to Britain. We live in the New York, not the true York, but we are closer here to Rome, and Troy, and to other names which remind us that our Home is located among ideas and meanings, as much as in places.

We even honor a few of the old ďIndianĒ names, remembering the people who were not Indian, and were not native, but were here before we came.
I think itís worth recalling that confrontation, as we contemplate our actions another half way round the world.
I donít think anyone is proud of the way we behaved back then, but the assumptions of the time now seem so outlandish as to absolve us of current guilt.
How could we think that we had the right to come to a place and just take over?
We certainly wouldnít do that now.
It must have been a different World.
But itís always a different World;
mere Time excusing a blindness thatís enduring.

Sometimes I stand beneath a tree in the Park and look up at a bird, just above me, yet obtuse. Itís so close that I think Iím going to get a real ďgood lookĒ, but then itís silhouetted, shrouded by foliage, a few partial glimpses, and only of underside. Frustration, but what are you going to do? You move on, and try to find another vantage. And maybe at a distance, and with some elevation, you can get a different view into the same tree. And with the light in the right direction you can easily see that the bird is indeed just another Magnolia Warbler (as you thought, but werenít quite sure). A beautiful, but common, species. And the rub is that at this distance, even though you can identify it, you donít quite get the full beauty, the satisfaction of the good look.

Thatís a Mystery of Vision, and of the space through which we must peer. But there are Mysteries within Mysteries, each an adumbration of one greater. Our metaphorical vision is no less bent than our eyesight, and our vision of the future is no better.
Physical or spiritual, Relativity remains the same:
a failure of Unity.

In this World, where we are separate, and not unified, Mystery obtains.
Even when things look obvious, something crucial always goes unseen, though it were right before our eyes. This we should remember when judgment appears clear, and the distance between continents collapses, even as the gulf between us grows.
Itís the same old World.
It cannot excuse us.
It must inform us.

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September 22, 2001

Fall

How far is it?
The towers of the World Trade Center were each less than a mile high, and their footprint was less than a city block.
You could bury the buildings in Central Park twice over, yet like the Park, they were a world unto themselves.

There are things, and there are places, but these skyscrapers were both.
They were made to be seen from too far away.
At vast distance, we lose the details. We see a simple generality, easy to categorize, but not examined in detail.
We see a symbol.

I saw details.
Saw from a few blocks away, through binoculars, people hanging out of upper story windows, flickering between the columns like birds among the meadow stalks. I saw people falling that impossible distance.
Not a mile, but forever.
Fall
Fall
Fall

We are all fallen
and falling still.
We never do settle
in this world.

By some sad pun of circumstance todayís occasion is the Autumnal Equinox, and the first day of Fall. The season seems appropriate: the Year turning the corner into retraction, darkness and death. But even when all the leaves lie dead on the ground, the tree survives, to bloom again in time. And first there is the harvest of the fruits, and the beauty of the change; the south-bound birds and butterflies that glorify the atmosphere. All going on now, without regard for our concerns.
A wonderful season, the Fall.

Iíve spoken here before about our Fallen World, and of my (as Irenaeus put it ďfalsely so-calledĒ) Gnosticism. I am hardly the first to fall back on spirituality; indeed some have fallen forward on it, as on a sword.
I have no beliefs, and do but offer my understandings, limited and flawed. I know it may seem ridiculous, not to mention pompous, not to mention escapist, to retreat into such musings. An intangible net of unverified imaginings about the unknown can hardly contain the reality of our current pass, but itís what Iíve got. And itís something to work with, when reality fails, as it so spectacularly has.

Gnosticism says that reality always fails; that it is not we, but God that is Fallen, and that Creation is the consequence of this Fall. The World is born of some desperation or distress, some instability in that which should be perfect, immutable and unchanging. Yet even shattered into Being, the fragments of Divinity intuit restoration and return. I would choose the Garden of Paradise over the Holy City, but all our visions are just that: visions; tantalizing us with intimations of some ultimate destination beyond our comprehension.

If reality ever succeeds in getting there, it will be its own undoing.
Yet that is our true desire, and with this faith we proceed along a mysterious path. Now and again we earn a revelation of just how we may serve this end, but mostly we go in darkness and uncertainty. Our Ecstasies point the way, but the terrain is twisted into a maze, with no direct path. Our morals and our ethics, traditional or ad hoc, must guide us where illumination is lacking. Our progress seems as slow as our lives seem fast, and there are always those who would force the issue and speed us headlong to the brink; a danger to themselves and others.
A danger most of all to God.
For our failure will be Godís failure, and Creation may yet climax not with the transformation of Matter into Spirit, but in final dissolution, each shattered particle adrift, alone, inviolate: never to be reunited.

How far is it?
From here to the Apocalypse.
From here to Paradise.
As far as forever, as far away as the gods we only imagine.
As close to us as death is every day.
As close as we hold what we love.

We will achieve it.
Near or far, we will find the right way.
I say this in faith, but also in knowledge, or whatever sort of knowing I have gained by everything that I have seen and lived. I know it by every pattern of my mind and heart that finds harmony with a pattern larger than myself.
Laugh with me,
for the whole World is a disaster, and one more cannot defeat us.
Let it teach us the better way.
Cry with me.
We will only win by knowing better.
And by acting better than we have.

That we can do this, I have no doubt, for we house a sacred force. We have seen it in the selfless sacrifices. We have seen it in the will to persevere. It is the same force that weathers Winterís wasteland, then blooms again in Spring. Our Summer slain, still it ripples in the Autumn leaves. And if the billows of red, yellow, and orange that will unfold amid the green should recall a vision of terror, we will know better.
We will be better.
Pray with me.

A wonderful season, the Fall.

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September 3, 2001

Laborious Days

Not working is one of those things that makes Humans different. Weíve accrued leisure enough to skew our schedules. The End-of-Summer Holiday marks the passing of an indolent season for some, but Iíve been working overtime; too pressed to write much, or even visit the Arboretum with the frequency Iíd wish.
So it was nice to take a break, enjoying the hospitality of DMTree matriarch Jeanne, while all around Summer culminates in nuts and fruits, and a few early withered leaves, the cost of Augustís week of heat, which averaged out an otherwise mild Summer.

But how can I divine from the recliner the effort that the Pokeweed must expend to turn its berries purple? Do they ripen for the purpose of the south-bound birds, or do the birds delay on their behalf? Do I rise at dawn, or sleep into the sun? Do we work to purchase leisure, or rest but grudgingly and from necessity?

We work to live.
Mere existence entails incalculable effort. Leisure requires more than that. So we honor laborers by resting, rather than by having everyone else pitch in. The lilies of the field have toiled all Summer, and gone to seed will make a working-manís bouquet.

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August 28, 2001

Squint...
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August 8, 2001

Can We Keep It?

Back again, slithering through Summer.
Hard to work up much energy, but Iíve got to tackle that alligator.
Not literally, of course, but then, it wasnít really an alligator, and I think I can handle a two foot long Spectacled Caiman if it comes down to it.

It was a classic tabloid news story: alligator in Central Park. Well, almost. Sewer-gators are a staple of the New York mythos, lurking beneath the surface of our psyche, if not our city. Here was a real one, albeit on the small side. A gator-wrangler was brought up from Florida to subdue it, which seemed like a bit of overkill. In the end, it was his wife who nabbed the poor thing, comprising, perhaps, a manifestation of the Goddess, embracing a traditional reptilian familiar. Or maybe it was more a dismissive jest of the Male power, spoofing the paucity of our local wildlife. Iím not quite sure, but the crocodilian supposedly got sent home, everybody had a good laugh, and nobody got hurt.

The Caiman was lucky. Itís no myth that people flush unwanted pets down the toilet, if they can. I donít know why you couldnít just hand the animal over to a shelter, but larger creatures require another strategy once theyíve worn out their welcome. Like dumping them in the Park. Which probably explains the foot-long lizard I saw the other day, ambling through the underbrush on the slope of the Point. As far as I know, turtles are the only reptiles that manage to live in the Park, spending most of their time in the water. This was no doubt a pet, likely let loose because it had a large tumor on its back, which may have degraded its exotic cachet. No cute news item here.

Wild animals are compelling.
Hence birdwatching, and every other approach, including zoos and hunting for sport. Iíve come around to the birding philosophy, in which simply seeing a natural occurrence of the beast (or plant, for that matter) is fulfillment enough. I donít need to own it, and I certainly donít want to kill it, but Iím afraid the two often go together.

Iíve kept various reptiles, amphibians, and arthropods. Even a skunk (very briefly). But all of this was as a child, and all it taught me was that to keep a wild creature is to kill it. Some may fare better than others, but itís always clear that these exotic pets do not enjoy their captivity in the manner of truly domesticated animals.

Cats and dogs have entered into a mutually beneficial relationship with humans. They make good enough pets. Our world is their environment, and a good relationship with a domestic animal is one of the most humanizing experiences we can have. Wild animals signal the Mysteries of a natural world from which we are alienated.
We are ourselves domesticated.

A side effect (which is to say, an effect) of domestication is neoteny: the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood. Humans can be understood as neotenous apes. Like infants, we have scant body hair, as well as big heads, relative to body size. An oversize head means a big brain, which may have something to do with why our cognitive capacities appear to outstrip other animalsí, but itís still the juvenilism that makes the difference. Itís not just the size of our brains, but the fact that they keep learning, even after we reach sexual maturity. Learning is juvenile behavior. What we call play, when a child or a kitten does it, is actually an arena for exploratory and imitative experimentation. But while most animals settle into a routine of stereotyped behavior once they pass puberty, we keep playing, learning new things. We are virtually unique in carrying this behavior into adulthood.

Our neoteny may derive from a sort of ďself-domesticationĒ , a concept which could represent the transformation of Evolution from a physical to a cultural vector. Or perhaps weíre just not willing to admit how much of a two way street domestication is. We have been changed as much as the plants and animals we breed. And letís face it, plants had the original ďdomestic ideaĒ to begin with: staying in one place; making their own food. Maybe they started the whole thing.

Grains and farm animals are our most important domestics, but we donít pay much attention to them. We want something wild amidst all our domesticity, so we keep our would-be wolves and wildcats, curled at the foot of the bed. Which is all well and good. Thereís some sort of dialectic at work here, as culture and nature interact, and we may all be hot-house flowers in the end. I wouldnít want to dissuade children from bringing home a wild thing or two, but I draw the line at harboring crocodiles. And leaving them in the Park is downright irresponsible.

Childishness may make us Human, but weíre going to have to grow up sometime, so Iíve got a compromise for those desiring a wild familiar. Come to the Park, and adopt a Grass Spider. Spiders make fine pets, if you insist on something unusual. A Tarantula was the most successful exotic I ever had, though she may not have seen it that way. Ten years in a glass box canít have been much fun. I used to keep Grass Spiders in fruit jars, but why bother with the container at all?

In the Conservatory Garden, you can have your pick of arachnids. Summerís hedges are covered with webs. Grass Spiders weave funnel webs: tubes that open into broad sheets stretched across the tops of the hedges. The spider sits in the shadows of the funnel, then races out to attack whatever insect finds its way into the web. Fierce predators always make the sexiest exotic pets. All you have to do is catch a fly or a grasshopper and throw it into the web. (This is OK, because they breed in vast numbers, and are meant to be eaten.) The spider will pounce, and youíll get a thrill. You may even feel parental, but the spider wonít show much affection. If you look too close, it will dart back down the funnel, into the dark recesses of the shrubbery. Then you can decide whether to wait for it to reappear, which might take a while. Maybe you should just move on to the next web. Your choice will help us decide if youíre mature enough for a pet of your own.
Anyway, itís good clean fun, and brings you closer to nature, as we like to say around here. So brush up on your fly catching, and be sure to bring the kids.
But please, no crocodiles.

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July 4, 2001

The Fourth of July

Independence Day is our countryís birthday.
Independence is a right (or rite) of adulthood, not of birth, when we require care from others.
We are born from something; we are born into something.
We are dependent coming and going.
A nation goes on longer than a person, yet it is not independent of its citizens. No one of us is America, but all of us are. And when we are gone, I imagine America will remain.

Thatís how it is with the other species. Every Red Maple is just that: another Red Maple, replacing those that fell before. Every Robin bears the same two names: Turdus migratorius. Seen one, youíve seen Ďem all. Rarely do we have time to see elsewhere in the World the individuality we find among our own kind.

So independence is a matter of perception, and, at least in this matter, ours is keen. Keen enough to see boundaries between people who are much the same. Homo sapiens all, but each with our own names. And our own lineages.
Iím moved to think of mine.

The occasion is an impending family reunion.
A family is not quite so abstract as a nation, but is much like one. Family groups appear, at least briefly, in many vertebrates, but the lines are lost among generations of unmarked individuals. Keeping track of the line is like drawing a border. A lot of the old countries really are families in a way that America is not, their boundaries drawn along ethnic ďrangesĒ.
The American family is bred more of myth than genes.

In my family, in my motherís line, the mythology is Scottish. Weíve reached our fourth American born generation, but youíve got to start from somewhere. The details are not particularly mythological, but the romance of the old place endures, providing a sign under which to gather. For my part, I need to come up with a few suitable words, so to speak; a toast, perhaps. These things must be kept in perspective, and I donít want to say that the affair is a distraction from the Park, but it will remove me for a while, and something, great or small, will be missed.

Much of history is missed in our 4th of July parties, but myth is well celebrated. As luck would have it, I met two Scottish gentlemen in the Park, keepers of History and of Myth. Maybe theyíll give me some advice on what to say.

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June 21, 2001

The Edge of Summer


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