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October 13, 2003
Finding the WayColumbus had maps, of course; it’s just that his maps didn’t accurately depict the territory he was sailing into. He thought he’d reached the “Indian sea.” Which is to say, his preconceptions compromised his capacity for surprise. Discovery is what’s left once misinterpretation is sorted out.
The names of places are important. Calling America the Indies did not make it so, but tracing our winding path of misnomer, appropriation of native terms, nostalgic invocations of the Old World, and visionary evocation of a new one, may lead us to a better understanding of where we are and how we got here.
But to be really useful, a map must also show us how to get where we want to go. The rub is in the “want”; it’s harder to put a name upon desire than on a hill or stream, though the names we choose for the places in our lives may tell us much about our desires. A reasonably accurate depiction of the field, and thereby a display of possibility, is about as much as we can reasonably ask of any map.
Beyond the edges there may be dragons.
In taking the occasion of Columbus Day to present a map of the Park’s North End, I’m responding mostly to inquiries from the birding community. Reporting sightings from the less-familiar North End, my use of traditional nomenclature, (even more than idiosyncratic coinages,) has occasionally led to confusion as to just where I’m actually talking about. I’m used to being told I don’t know what I’m talking about, but where is another matter. I don’t mean to be willfully obscure, and in my defense I would say my concern is analogous to the effort made by Roger Tory Peterson and others in the mid-twentieth century to restore the traditional names of the American raptors. Just as I’d rather see a Kestrel than a “sparrow-hawk”, I’d prefer to see it perched on the Mount, rather than “at the dump” or “the compost”.
In fact, most of what I know about the Park’s nomenclature can be found on readily available maps. The Greensward Map is the best, including all the original names applied by designers Olmstead and Vaux, as well as providing elevations and historical features.
This map from New York Focus, with annotated links, is also useful.
My map is a bit simpler, but it does include some of the non-traditional names used by birders. These are ad hoc coinages, subject to the vagaries of usage, developed by various North End birders, or else just whims of mine. Many spots remain nameless; you may invent your own appelations. Invention aside, the map remains less fantastic than the one in The Lord of the Rings, though it may also be less sophisticated than the one in Winnie the Pooh. At least it is more accurate than what Columbus had. I only hope it has as much power as any of those to open up a space where imagination and actuality can intersect in an arena of unknown potential.
Map of Central Park north of 100th Street, with a few notes.
September 23, 2003
Autumnal EquinoxBlown between extremes.
Autumn is only in passing; passing from hot to cold, light to dark, lush to barren. Half way between falls the Equinox: a point of balance, of equal tension twixt.
A hurricane blew by, worrying the weather forecasts for a week, but ultimately sparing us its extreme. Birdwatchers were hoping for some rarities to be blown in with the wild weather. Storm-strays are a genuine phenomenon, but we are always half-wishing for the “normal” scene to be blown away; for the World to offer up its unknown wonders in some dizzy display of novelty. Not much happened this time around; the birds are the same ones we expect to see this time of year; the ones that “should” be here, and that’s fine with me. Novelty vies with Tradition, but everything that was new grows old, along with the Year. If we tend the new things properly, they may weather the Winter, and remain with us, growing into the new traditions.
Next it was the Dalai Lama blew through, on a milder breeze, no doubt. His is an old tradition, but more or less new to us in the West. He’s no novelty in the Park, though, this being the second time he’s packed the East Meadow with a rock star-sized crowd. You could hear the chanting half a mile away. His fans are better behaved than a lot of Park-goers, and it would be unseemly for me to resent his presence, but I do have to chuckle at a guy who practices humility while bearing the appellation “his holiness.” I guess that’s what you call a spiritual mystery.
I have nothing against Buddhism, but I prefer to practice my local Tradition. It may be an index of the debasement of Western spirituality that so many are attracted to an exotic faith. I can’t really blame them, especially at a time when the “peoples of the Book” are so politically polarized that they seem to have lost sight of the text. It’s my faith that whatever is crucial to the spirit must be available to everyone, and can be found through any Tradition, if practiced appropriately. Maybe it can be found without tradition, just by learning to live appropriately. That, in and of itself, would constitute a fine new Tradition.
I think a lot of the Lama’s followers are still searching. After the event they dispersed throughout the north end of the Park. I was watching birds from the bluff where stands the Blockhouse, (a traditional lookout point, older than the Park itself,) when I was unsettled by a parade of seekers who’d wandered into the North Woods. Mostly mild-looking young white people, college types with backpacks, and rather a contrast to the lurking gang-bangers and homeless who typically frequent the site. By walking a narrow ledge you can get around the Blockhouse, reaching the steep north edge of the bluff, which provides a good view into the treetops. From there you can look out into Ash and Hackberry, Oak and Elm. But your body can go no further; the rest is vision. The afternoon acolytes seemed confused; they kept brushing past me, but all they could do was circle the battlement and go back the way they came. If they had stopped to lift a binocular they might have seen the newly arrived Dark-eyed Juncos, a harbinger of Fall. But that’s often how it is: we don’t see what’s right in front of us. Hence the attraction of the exotic, which stands out by virtue of its novelty.
A spiritual tradition should be like a binocular, allowing us to see into a world that lies hidden right in front of our eyes. If we look far enough we may collapse the distance that renders the East exotic. We will learn to respect other Traditions as complements to our own, but we need not view them as replacements.
After the storm and the priest in orange, it was only the birds blowing through, on a trip that bridges the seasons. They successfully inhabit two worlds, though theirs are north and south, not east and west. They seem so native to our woods and meadows that it’s hard to remember that they spend much of the year flitting through the exoticism of the tropics, where they are just as much at home. We might learn something about the Mystery of Distance from them. I keep trying, but it’s tough, picking up bits and pieces, here and there, from year to year. Each one is treasured, for there’s no use in seeking except to find. But in the end, the birds are like all our experience in Life: seen but in passing.
September 1, 2003
Holding Pattern...still hovering...
but that’s the nature of hovering: to continue, in the same place; position suspended in passing time; standing still and moving all at once...
August is gone, a month without a single Holiday, but now it’s September, and Labor Day. For me, the celebration rings ironic, as I’m on indefinite holiday...
Being out of work, I’ve had as much time as I could want for birdwatching.
Hovering around the Park as fall migration begins in earnest, I’ve been watching a couple of avian hover-artists lately. Vertebrate flight is amazing in and of itself, but hovering is a special case, and requires another level of effort. Most birds can accomplish it only briefly. Many songbirds practice what’s known as hover-gleaning, a momentary “pause” in a short flight to pick off a berry or an insect from the tip of a twig. These are typically small, flighty birds, and the behavior manifests as a natural facet of their buoyant flight style. More unexpected is the hovering of the Belted Kingfisher.
The Kingfisher is a curiously proportioned bird, over a foot long, with much of that size concentrated in its large, crested head and long bill. The top-heavy bird looks rather ungainly flying with its rowing wingbeats, but the shocking thing is to see it stop in mid air and hover laboriously over the waters of the Pool. The tension of the unlikely scene is only broken when it spies a fish or frog, or some invertebrate. Then, of a sudden, the bird folds its wings and plunges straight down, head first into the water, like a living harpoon, to nab its unsuspecting prey.
If the Kingfisher seems an improbable hoverer, it’s in comparison to the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which epitomizes the art. Hovering is at the heart of the Hummingbirds’ lifestyle. Their wings pump so fast they blur towards invisibility, such that the birds appear to hang in the air without any labor at all, even though they must actually work at a very high metabolic rate in order to stay aloft.
Hummingbirds are just plain preternatural. Their flight is so specialized that it seems more like an insect’s than a bird’s. They hover before flowers, cruising through the Touch-me-nots along the Loch, probing for nectar with their long, thin bills. Then they zip off on a beeline, changing direction instantaneously. And they are able to move in any direction, up, down, even backwards, at will. With their miraculous powers of flight, and jewel-like, iridescent colors, Hummingbirds appear all but magical. Like fairies, they are ever found among flowers, tiny beings suspended in a thrumming dream of unfolding blooms and flowing nectar...
Or so it seems to a lazy viewer on holiday at the end of Summer...
I suppose even the magic of the Hummingbird is an illusion, the evanescent image of hard work. For me, a new direction is less easily achieved. The clumsy Kingfisher rattling from its perch is closer to my method.
But I’ve been working for years, and I thought I’d take a little time off before diving back in...
Hovering can’t go on forever, can it?
August 22, 2003
July 21, 2003
Happy BirthdayToday is Central Park’s one hundred and fiftieth birthday.
That’s how they’re putting it, anyway, the Conservancy and the Parks Department. If they’re looking for an excuse for a celebration, I can’t blame them. These are not the best of times in New York. A gritty adrenaline animated the immediate post-9/11 environment, but that’s dissipated, like a fading drug rush. There was the horror of death, and the marvel of survival; well-deserved sympathy was matched by self-congratulations, and amid it all we were reminded that there would be hard days ahead, but that we, being New Yorkers, were up to it...
Those days are here now, here and all over the country, as the nation faces enormous expenses for war and security, even while the general economy struggles and public services are curtailed. Trying to repair our own particular damage has made it that much harder in New York. Yes, we will be up to it, not because we are special, but because we have the spirit and resiliency native to human beings. Certainly there’s nothing special about being unemployed these days; the numbers keep growing, “recovery” notwithstanding. Now I know what it is to be a number, and on the negative side of the ledger.
So the city is in a ragged state; tax revenues are down, and money for parks is not a top priority while schools and firehouses go wanting. All of which makes this the perfect time for a Central Park party, and a little coincidental fund-raising. I don’t want to be so cynical as to suggest that money and publicity are the motivating factors here; it’s genuinely appropriate to focus attention and appreciation on the Park. Treating it as an entity, with a birthday, is, however, rather problematic. For one thing, birth implies a reciprocal death, and is properly attributed to living things. The Park contains life of many kinds, but is itself a cultural artifact, and has already “outlived” generations of its patrons, with no end in sight. Perhaps the devastation of 9/11 reminds us that even seemingly immutable monuments may “die,” but we are not much in the habit of contemplating the ultimate disappearance of our self-created environment. We know that we will die, but surely our world will go on.., even if the countless lost landscapes that ripple through the last few billion years tell us otherwise.
It’s an anniversary we celebrate then, rather than a birth, but even the date’s debatable. The Park has not yet really existed for a hundred and fifty years, but it was imagined even further back, at least since the 1840s. The date chosen for the current observation, July 21st, 1853, was when the state senate empowered the city to purchase the land that would become Central Park. Of course, the same legislative session also approved the acquisition of another, competing, site: Jones Wood on the East River, and it wasn’t until the beginning of the next year that the courts settled the issue in favor of the central location. After much haggling, landowners were compensated, while those who merely lived in the location were evicted. Surveying and clearing began in the Summer of 1856, with heavier work commencing in 1857. Still, it wasn’t until the Fall of that year that the design competition was held, with the commission awarded to Olmstead and Vaux’s “Greensward Plan” in April of 1858. This is really the beginning of the Park as we know it, though it took years to actually complete the work, and since it was opened bit by bit there is no one final date to mark. The Park was first used by the public in December of 1858, when ice-skaters took to the barely completed Lake. The Ramble was opened the next June, with drives in the southern end following, but many of my favorite haunts in the north end were not even on the map until the parcel from 106th to 110th Streets was added in 1863.
So there are plenty of dates to chose from, but leave it to bureaucrats to honor bureaucracy. The real point seems to be to have a celebration now, rather than five years hence, so 1853 it is. In keeping with the imprecision, this has been an on-going affair, with events scattered throughout the year. Even the “big day” was displaced from July 21st to the 19th, so that it could be held on a weekend.
I was in the Park that day, last Saturday, and it was as beautiful a Summer day as can be conceived of. A cold front passed in the night, draining the humidity and leaving a bright blue day, hot enough to honor the season, but not so hot as to be overtaxing for the stroller. Volunteers distributed flyers with a lengthy list of functions, occurring throughout the Park over the course of the day. The funny thing is, I managed to miss every one of them. Which just goes to show how truly amazing the Park is; how it serves the broadest public need in the course of catering to the all the idiosyncrasies within that public. That’s what I call resolving the dialectic of individual and society. Or if not resolving, at least escaping such conundrums. For over a hundred and fifty years, escape, most specifically from the city, has been the very premise of the Park.
I managed to escape the crowds. I’m admittedly alienated, but I am honestly happy for the enjoyment people take in the Park. I just want to take mine in a more contemplative fashion than some folks. And that’s generally no problem. Even on this “biggest event day in the history of the Park,” I was able to wander over the Great Hill before the Revolutionary War Encampment was in place. I saw the bike race and the run/walk going by on the Drive, but they didn’t distract me from viewing baby birds, fed by their parents throughout the North Woods. I was aware of the World Archery Championships proceeding on the far side of the North Meadow, but I was finding butterflies in the plantings on the knoll at the northeast corner, and couldn’t be bothered.
These plantings are indicative of the way the Park works for me. Referred to as “Butterfly Gardens,” they’re just a few square yards, protected by flimsy wire fencing and planted with flowers, especially Buddleia, commonly known as “butterfly bush.” Somehow they survive on that little slope, just above the ballfields. There’s a lot of traffic there, dogs; mountain bikes; violent exercise rituals, you name it, but the flowers persist. And they do draw butterflies, as if from nowhere.
It’s not really from nowhere that they come, but from outside the usual boundaries of consciousness. The butterflies were there all along, but I couldn’t see them, not until now, when Swallowtails and Tortoiseshells, Azures and Anglewings are concentrated in these tiny plots, almost ignored within the labyrinthine landscape of the Park. Meanwhile, everything goes on all around me, but I turn away from the rest of it, and train my glass upon a Question Mark...
I can, at leisure, turn back, as well. The Park has that much latitude. Enough for me to grant as much to its administrants, to whom I must admit some debt. If their celebration falls squarely between the fatuous and the cynical, perhaps that’s where the garden of human sincerity truly blooms. Therefore, they may have their party, with my blessing. As long as I can have mine, with butterflies.
July 4, 2003
Lets just call it the start of Summer.
On this Fourth of July, I must say that I don't feel much like throwing a party on behalf of my country. In milder times it functions as the American Midsummer, but this Independence Day is bound to be a real flag-waver. For my part, the recent war and attendant wave of preemptive patriotism alienated me plenty, and losing my Federal job at the hands of anti-public service ideologues hasn't helped my attitude either.
So I'm unbalanced, a condition Holidays are meant to alleviate by reiterating the norms of our culture. But nothing has been "normal" lately, from the weather to affairs of state. With weather, we can talk about averages. Between last year's drought and this year's drip, it's been an average couple of years, but that's not how it feels to live through the two extremes. Still, the weather is usually thought of as just a background; the medium in which our lives take place, but not of the same substance. If I insist on the seasonal character of the Holidays, their basis in natural rhythms through which we also subsist, it's as a way of arguing that we and the weather really are of the same stuff, after all. Even so, no one wants to think of their life as merely average. We may dissemble, extolling the "average guy", but every ego harbors its private hopes and dreams, even if these too are utterly average, as mundane as the desire to rule the world, or to be loved.
Power and adoration. This is all anybody really wants, and pretty much everybody wants it, despite the possible contradiction between the fantasies. It's one thing for us to work through these urges in the course of our uniquely average lives, but quite another to see them writ large as our nation acts out on a global scale. It's hard to rule the world and to be loved for it, unless you're very virtuous. And most of us are not quite as virtuous as we would like to think.
Today's holiday reflects another general fantasy, or thing everyone knows: that Home is the best place of all. This is a good way to feel, so long as its complement is a heightened appreciation of the world beyond one's borders, in all its myriad otherness. Trouble starts when we cannot tolerate the differences, and try to make the whole world over in our own image. To do so will require such an exercise of power that it may cost us all the love the world has to give. But this is no average country (as we are fond of noting,) so maybe our future will be different than the rest of the world's history.
Or maybe not.
At least we will love ourselves, even if no one else loves us.
No matter what special calling we imagine for ourselves, and, by extrapolation, for our nation, I'm sure we'd all be happy at the moment with just an average Summer to bask in. It seems like it’s finally here. Sun and heat have at last replaced the endless dankness of June (and May, and April...) It’s about time, but tardy as it is, the balmy turn feels more like Memorial Day’s inauguration of the season, rather than the high Summer typical of the Fourth. So let’s ignore our nation’s doings, and take heed of the land itself, welcoming back the warmth, and soaking up the solar glory. The only borders are on our maps, and maybe in our hearts; I do not see dividing lines drawn across the surface of the Earth, only a landscape longing for relief. Relax, lie back, and share the attitude of the accommodating lawn. Forget the Fourth, fraught with history, past and future; we’ll just call this the beginning of Summer.
June 21, 2003
SolsticeMemory summers in the islands of nostalgia
Awash in lost years but off duty
Too much to recall so all is one
Sun, a ball tossed, and a gull calling
Summers passed pile up a thunderhead
Towering onerous vapors FLASH
And a squeeze releases the sum of
All those Summers to enthrall this season’s path
June 15, 2003
Dad was my UmbrellaIt rains and it rains and it rains and it rains.
They claim that May was actually below average in rainfall, but the precipitation certainly was well distributed. Invariably on the weekends. Now it’s mid-June and it’s still raining, pouring even, day after day of it. My last best hopes for some end-of-migration birding got pretty well washed out, not to mention an outdoor concert that would have been a good time for the DMTree crew. We were lucky to work in one party with our esteemed New Orleans correspondent, whose recent visit found New York damper than the delta.
Yes, it’s been a strange Spring.
Not least because the whole trajectory of my life has been upset. The cycle of the seasons remains a reference point, but my future has been rendered uncertain. I know what Summer and Fall will mean in the Park, but what change will the shifting seasons bring to me?
It is in just such moments of oblique prospect that I wish most fervently that I could talk once more to my Father. This is the third Fathers’ Day since he died, and the pain of it is mostly gone, all but that pain which I suppose will always remain. I think of him more fondly now, and more longingly. I rehearse conversations we might have had, now held only in my head. It’s not that he would have had any means to help me with my job loss, but he was always a source of hope and optimism in a tight spot. I tend towards melancholia, but he seemed ever cheerful, no matter the circumstances. No doubt there were moods hidden from a child, and perhaps my memory is selective, but I saw him go through a lot of ups and downs, even after I’d moved on to my own adulthood. His life was never really easy; what comfort he enjoyed was hard-won, and always a little precarious. Even so, he seemed content, on a level I could never quite understand.
It was by the example of his temperament, as much as any words, that he was always a comfort to me. I know he would have made me feel secure in the face of my current uncertainties. In fact, he does so even now. Through him, and a few friends of similar persuasion, I’ve become at least a little bit less fraught, learning that difficulties must not preclude happiness, the more so when times are truly tough. If the sword falls, well then, it falls. We should do what we can to avoid it, but from moment to moment Life must be lived. It might as well be enjoyed. Whatever efforts we make, things have a way of working out differently than we thought. And often better than we fear. So I will not hesitate to walk in the rain, though I will shield myself at need. And I will assume, regardless of the forecast, that the Sun may break through any time now.
Dad would be proud, though occasionaly wet.
June 5, 2003
May or May NotIt was, they say, the coldest May in a quarter century. It rained on seventeen of thirty one days, and it never once reached eighty degrees.
But I loved every minute of it.
Well, maybe not every minute; the frequent drenchings were frustrating, and I’m certainly not happy about losing my job, but it was May, the height of Spring. It only comes once a year, and only so many in a lifetime.
Whatever its shortcomings, for me, the month wound up with one last wondrous day.
On Saturday, the thirty-first, I arrived at the Harlem Meer on the north edge of the Park at dawn. This despite having stayed out too late the previous evening. Drawn by reports of Black Skimmers and Nighthawks at dusk, I’d waited into the dark on the banks of Turtle Pond without seeing either. With Jupiter glowing, and Night-Herons croaking, I headed home, disappointed, but determined to make the most of May’s last day on the ‘morrow. The forecast was for yet more rain, lasting through the weekend, but it was expected to arrive later in the day, so there was hope for a final push of late migrants, hurrying north ahead of the front.
It takes an act of will and body to make it to the Park by 5:30AM, but birdwatching wisdom recommends it. That’s not to say it always pays off; often I’ve seen my best birds at mid-morning, but on this occasion I wanted the widest window possible before the day, the month, and the weather joined in mutual decline.
I would be glad I'd made the effort.
As soon as I reached the shore of the Meer I saw a long-winged bird in quickly shifting flight high over the water. It was the Nighthawk, sought last evening, but now a dawn-hawk, intersecting the first light of day. Though not as strictly nocturnal as the other nightjars, these wide-mouthed bug hunters are more often seen in failing light, whereas here I had good views; enough to make out the white throat and tail feathers that mark the male of the species.
At the end of the migration season one treasures every bird, especially the rarer ones. Not knowing whether this might be the highlight of the whole day, I studied the Nighthawk intently. Following it back and forth in the binocular, I moved along the shoreline, hardly paying attention to my steps. That’s a good way to bump into something, or someone, but apparently I was no less oblivious than the man who approached a little closer than I cared for, doffed his clothing without regard for my presence, and dove into the Meer for an early morning swim. There are some things you’ll only see on the edges of the day.
Naked humans were the least of my concerns. As I gazed up at the Nighthawk, I saw something else. Actually I saw lots of things. Many birds are typically moving about at dawn, mostly the common local ones, but now I saw long, shifting lines, high above the bounding nightjar. These were geese, but not our common Canada Geese; the shorter necks and unstable skeins, rather than steady V formations, marked them as Brant. They winter along our coasts, and I’d lately read a post on a birding mail-list remarking that they were lingering late this year, but apparently a good number had picked the last day of May to move north. First one big skein, then another, then another passed over, as well as several smaller groups. I managed to count about sixty birds in one of the small formations; there must have been upwards of a thousand all told.
Such a large movement is impressive to see, and gives a broader sense of scale to the idea of birding “in” the Park. Central Park sightings are considered to include any birds seen from the Park, even those, like the Brant, which do not actually touch down within its confines.
Another such bird is the Snowy Egret. The closely related Great Egret, a large white heron, is one of the Park’s most familiar and conspicuous birds. They can be seen from Spring through Autumn, stalking along most any body of water, catching fish with a quick thrust of their long necks. The Snowy Egret shares similar habitat and range, but for some reason is very rarely seen in the Park proper, though they regularly fly over on a well-established east/west “flyway” over the north end, used by herons and other waders traveling between roosting and feeding grounds at local wetlands. The Snowys can be told by their small size, if they are in the company of Greats, and, if the light is right, by their bright yellow feet.
Serious birdwatchers become adept at picking out flyover Snowys, thus adding a “good” bird to the day’s list, but on this day I was distracted from my goose-counting when I caught sight of a somehow “different” egret along the shore of the Meer, and then realized that there were not one, but two Snowys working through the vegetation, alongside a Great Egret for comparisons sake. I hadn’t seen them come in for a landing, as I’d been looking elsewhere. I don’t think they were there all along, but there they were now; the first I’d ever seen at close hand. One of them raised its crest, replete with breeding plumes, and chased the other, then flew off to the west, but the second bird stayed around, moving quickly through the shallow water with a peculiar high-stepping gait, exaggerated by its yellow “slippers”.
All this happened before 6:00AM. I was pretty well amazed. Certainly I’d forgotten about the nude swimmer. He was gone, along with the lines of Brant. I caught a last glimpse of the Nighthawk, higher up now, heading for some typically cryptic roosting spot, no doubt. A Spotted Sandpiper flashed by, issuing its high-pitched peet, while the locally nesting Orioles, Kingbirds, and Red-winged Blackbirds flitted about. I looked up into a Black Locust tree, laden with its spectacular hanging clusters of white flowers, and saw my namesake bird, Wilson’s Warbler, likely for the last time this Spring. I took a deep breath, then let it out.
It was all one could ask of a morning in May.
I spent over an hour at the Meer, never straying more than a hundred yards from where the greensward meets the cement of the city. I had no way of knowing what wonders might be occurring elsewhere, but one can only be in one place at a time, and if that’s where it’s happening, you’d better make the most of it. And even if most of these birds could be seen in a more “natural” setting, like the Jamaica Bay preserve, only a few miles away, that’s just not quite the same as seeing them in the middle of the mighty metropolis. I continued around the south shore of the little lake, adding Chestnut-sided Warbler, Blackpoll, Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Waterthrush, and a singing male Yellow Warbler, who’s incessant proclamation I could only concur with: sweet-sweet-sweet, sweeter-than-sweet.
Finally, I tore myself away, satisfied I’d seen as much as I could. The Sun was riding high now, though not for long. I wandered into the Wildflower Meadow, (just beginning to rise above the level of a lawn,) where I met Mike Freeman, proprietor of the NYC Bird Report website. I’ve been posting my observations there, where they become part of a communal day list for the Park. We looked for flycatchers and thrushes along the Loch and over the Great Hill, and watched Cedar Waxwings bathing at the Pool, before Mike sensibly departed as the clouds began to gather.
Rain started to fall, but not heavily enough to deter me. Not while there was still a sliver of May to cling to. I walked south in weather that would have flattered April, but hardly seemed to presage June. The Reservoir predictably contained none of the phalaropes lately reported along our coasts, but I did find a lingering Black-throated Blue Warbler, a singing male no less, buzzing his lazy song into the rain along the Bridle Path.
The rain wavered back and forth, threatening to become a downpour, then slackening again, but never quite reaching a sustained intensity strong enough to drive me from the Park. Even so, by late afternoon it was my concentration that was wavering, but a cursory pass through the Ramble led me to a fitting finish: a male Mourning Warbler in the willowy cove known as the Oven. The usually furtive bird, with his bruise-blue hood, obligingly popped up from the underbrush, as if to signal an end to the day, the month, and the season, all at once.
It would be easy to mourn the passing of the Spring, but we need not regret a work well accomplished, even if its progress has been obscured among the rain drops. To bring this point home, there was one last bird, though not in the Park. Heading home at last, I exited the subway at my usual stop in Queens and looking up espied one of my neighborhood Kestrels. The male of a local pair was keeping watch while his mate (as I have had occasion to observe) was hidden in the rusty recesses of a gutter along the eaves of an old church building where she tends her nest. For the last two years I’ve seen the fledgling falcons make their first flight from this spot just prior to the first day of Summer. So even as the riot of Spring and the frenzy of migration come to an end, my “backyard” breeders serve notice that June holds a promise of its own.
May 26, 2003
Memorial MemoI've talked about how we typically celebrate this day as the beginning of Summer, rather than as a martial requiescat, but this is a different sort of Memorial Day. The Spring has been slow and cool; it hardly feels like May, let alone Summer. And this year we have fresh war dead to memorialize, so the Holiday is not merely nominal. I hope we will remember all those who have died, not just our soldiers, but the journalists, and thousands of "the enemy" as well: soldiers and civilians, most of whom I personally had no argument with. The victors may presume their own virtue, but I will not judge the dead. I will only remember.
Today is a gateway, looking forward and looking back. I fear we will find war and death in either direction, and I wonder if we will ever find the Summer.
It will come, no doubt.
Despite a seemingly interminable string of gray and chilly days, the green tide rises. The trees leaf-out, the grasses wax, and the underbrush grows bosky. The worn and naked surface of the land is finally obscured by verdure. The yearly change is wrought again, but ever so slowly. Last year I saw a flame-bright Blackburnian Warbler (one of our more striking birds) in a blooming Hickory tree on the Great Hill. This year the same, but it was more than two weeks later, and the Hickories are only now flowering, while the birds are nearly spent. Last year's was seen on the first day the Blackburnians arrived; this time I was pleased to find a bright male bird as the migration wanes, trailing off with the later moving female birds, duller in color, but no less in worth.
Summer will come, but what will it bring with it?
For me, this is now the question, for here, in the midst of Spring, I’ve learned that I am to lose my job. I’ve never seen fit to say much here about my work; this page represents a different part of my life. I suppose a more fully achieved life would find a way to better integrate these things, but I’ve been a working stiff since I got out of college. For better or worse, it’s only been one job, at the US Government Printing Office Bookstore. I first got involved with GPO through a summer jobs program while I was in school. I started out in Detroit, then managed to get myself transferred to New York, where I ultimately became the Bookstore Manager, a post I’ve held for the last fifteen years. I’ve never considered it ideal, but it’s supported me in relative comfort, and one does come to identify with one’s job.
Now the Bookstore is to be closed.
This is sad, and problematic for me personally, but I can’t really mount much of an argument at this point. Our business has eroded badly in the last few years. The advent of the internet and other computer technologies has perhaps been the biggest factor. A little irony for me, as these things have also enriched my life, even as they cost me my livelihood. A great deal of governmental information is now available free online, which is perfectly fitting, since it belongs to the public as much as to the government. Free information is an ethos I endorse, but it does change the retail environment for our books. The agency is going through one of its periodic regroupings, and is struggling to adjust to a changing environment for publishing and printing. Of course the usual bureaucratic in-fighting, inter-agency turf wars, and simple incompetence have taken their toll, but to lament such things is a familiar plaint, and as I said, the Arboretum is not the place for such rants. At least if they don’t involve thousands of deaths.
I am not dying.
Although it does feel a little bit like that.
I really don’t quite know what I will do.
I’m thinking back now to those Vultures, and Mayday’s denial of symbolism. I’ve had my chance at May and its abandon. In fact, I’ve enjoyed it, and seen many wonderful things, but for me, this year’s May has not exactly been the Merry Month. If the symbol is obvious, one cannot ignore it. The Vultures that cast a shadow over the Springtide were no illusion, and it may be that a whole way of life I have enjoyed is coming to an end; dying.
As a symbol of death, the Vulture is unmistakable. But it is only a symbol. Like the Death Card in the Tarot deck, it does not signal imminent literal death, but change, realignment, and ultimately, Rebirth.
Or so I trust.
I’m sure I am much in need of rebirth, but as I’ve noted, it has a way of taking one by surprise. And it’s scary.
The promise and the possibility must suffice.
And why not? It beats fear, and I’ve observed at least a little veracity in the symbols I’ve pursued and deployed hereabouts. But we live in a World so rich in meaning that most of it goes unknown. On this Holiday Weekend, I’ll take my binocular to the Park and try to figure out a little bit of it. Then I’ll go home and try to figure out the rest of my Life.
May 11, 2003
A Real MotherI know I said no symbols, but I owe you one: a branch of May to honor the old Tradition. We can't really do without symbols, most notably language, but I’m not speaking symbolically, or even metaphorically, when I say that the Earth is our Mother.
It's the literal truth.
Where else do we come from?
The ancient bedrock that underlies the Park is not so old as Life itself, which seems to have emerged fairly soon after the creation of the Earth, at least as far as geologic time measures such things. How inanimate matter came to embody Life is hard to know. Some say it happened spontaneously; some say it’s supernatural; some say it came from outer space. We don’t really know, but we do know that Life was nurtured here, as in a womb. Paternity may be questioned, but Motherhood cannot be hid. Wherefore the male principle ascends to some symbolic heaven, while our Mother remains as real as rock, as true as rushing water. Feeding roots, unfolding leaves, she raises trees towards that guessed-at heaven. Not to reach her mate, but to provide a place for mother birds to make their nests.
A Mother cares for her children.
We may think we’ve grown up, that we can take care of ourselves, but we only subsist upon her assets. We drink her streams, we burn her woods, we mine her lodes of metal. If we foul her body in the process, she seems boundless in her capacity for healing.
Even so, we sense that she has limits.
If we render our planet uninhabitable, through poisonous war, or merely by our rapacious consumption, we may (conceivably) escape by leaving the Earth behind, departing into space like children leaving home, waving good-bye to Mother. Children have a way of breaking a mother’s heart, but we will not call it matricide. We’re just behaving in the way that Life does, exploiting our resources insofar as we can. Let’s not delude ourselves: Mother Earth is just a metaphor, after all.
Just a metaphor.
But we have no better way to speak. And even what we call the Truth is no more than an accepted symbol of the Mystery. The long mythology that runs from the navel of the primitive mind to the postmodern psychology of a post-secular world continues to enshrine Mother as a primary face of the Goddess. If we recognize the same face in the very context of our being we are not deluded; we are witnessing the convergence of the actual and the symbolic. Our gift of conscience compels us to treat them with the same regard. The capacity to make the connection is what we call “Love”.
By taking this day to Love Her, we convene the Truth: in a world of artifice, illusion and deception, Mother is real.
May 1, 2003
The Vultures of SpringThe first of May, and Spring is in full swing. There is no higher Holiday than May Day on the Arboretum calendar. I've said it is the Holiday of the Moment: a day not for the observation of any anniversary, but for observation as such; for immersion in the ecstatic moment of being. That makes it the ideal holiday for birdwatchers, especially in our area, where the date generally coincides with the beginning of the main flow of returning migrants. For the next three weeks the Park will be virtually overrun with expectant birders, and I trust they will not be disappointed.
Expectation is a big part of the birding game. I bird all year 'round, as a basic aspect of my weekly visit to the Park. I've found there's always something worth seeing, as long as your expectations are realistic. In Winter, that might mean hoping for one unusual duck; in the middle of Summer it might be a glimpse of fledglings fresh out of the nest. There's not a whole lot else going on at those times, and most birders don't bother with the Park outside of the migration periods. It's more productive to travel to our local barrier beaches, or further afield, to areas where expectations may be higher.
For me, the birds are just an index of a deeper engagement, but you can be sure I develop some expectations of my own come Springtime. Migration in April is more fitful than in May, and hopes are often dashed by wintry weather that refuses to depart, or by a simple lack of birds, even when it seems they should be around. Still, anticipation entices and incites, so I'm out there, trying to keep my expectations under control, but hoping for some early sign of vernal promise. An impatient warbler, perhaps? A premature flash of yellow from some southern bird, overshooting its intended destination: a Yellow-throated Warbler; a Kentucky; maybe even a Prothonotary?
Such things are known to happen.
So what did I find, on a splendid morning in waning April? Some beautiful little bird to set my heart a-fluttering with the speed of warbler wings?
I got vultures.
There I was, in the middle of the North Woods, when I found myself staring up the wrong end of a Turkey Vulture. At first I took the big, dark, ungainly shape in the treetop for one of those plastic trash bags that Winter scatters through the branches, but this one had feathers, and a bright red head. When I lowered my binocular I saw that there was a second bird, circling in classic vulture fashion, then descending to a nearby perch, while the first one hissed and hunched and flapped its way to an adjacent tree. This dance went on for a few minutes, until both of the birds departed, only to reappear a couple of times, making larger and higher circles around the north end of the Park, before finally disappearing entirely from my view, if not from my consciousness.
The possibilities for metaphorical interpretation are all too obvious. No friendly Robin, or any warbling songster, this year’s herald of Spring is a dusky carrion bird, arriving on the heels of war. But today, of all days, is no time for metaphors, and on this occasion I've promised myself that, in the words of the old spiritual, I ain't gonna study war no more. So let's study the Vulture instead, and see how it fits into the Springtide.
Despite its dark reputation, the Turkey Vulture is considered a "good" bird, at least in Central Park. They're not seen here often, though they regularly fly over during migration. Only serious birders are apt to spot them, little black specks against the high sky. They can be identified at great distances by their characteristic dihedral wing posture, their rocking motion, and their soaring flight style. That's how they are typically seen hereabouts; it's quite rare for one to actually touch down in the Park, let alone two of them. So I was happy with my sighting, the best looks I've ever had at the species. And yet, I must admit I was somewhat taken aback by their presence.
It's hard to know where the line is drawn between learned and instinctual responses. We've learned that vultures are associated with corpses, and we find them odious for that reason. They’re big, almost eagle-size, and any large wild animal will trigger an instinctive alarm, but I think the gut-level thing that grabbed me was the bird's naked head. This is an adaptation to the diet of carrion: it's hard to keep your cranial feathers clean when you spend a lot of time sticking your head into the recesses of a carcass. Hence, vultures worldwide have naked heads. The head appears small compared to other birds, but that’s only because it has no feathers to exaggerate its size and shape. Laid bare, the underlying structure of any bird’s head is a little like a reptile's. A beak is substituted for toothed jaws, but the basic form confirms the evolutionary heritage. There's nothing odd about a vulture's head except that it upsets our expectation of a bird as an animal entirely covered by feathers. As a result, this bird looks somehow "wrong", and elicits a strange range of emotional responses. There's concern that the poor thing has been plucked, or perhaps damaged in a fight, or maybe it's ill, but this concern conflates with the inadvertent voyeur’s sense of embarrassment over an unexpected confrontation with nudity. Maybe it's just too intimate for us to see the naked flesh of a feathered creature.
But no, there's nothing wrong with a vernal vulture, bald pate and all. It’s just not quite what I expected. But let me point out that while the local Red-tailed Hawks have legions of followers, and are widely admired, vultures might be a better model for us. They don't go around killing things, the way the hawks do. They are of an older, gentler lineage, akin to the storks, which are notably associated with birth. Vultures attend the other end of life, but they’re not violent; their relationship with death is more priestly than prosecutorial. Scavenger is an ancient niche, given less honor than it deserves. Vultures are involved in recycling; their highly evovlved immune systems allow them to act as purifiers of the environment. They do the dirty work on the food chain, and get little credit for it. They serve as a higher taxon reminder of the microscopic forces of decay, which we might prefer to ignore; a reminder of the dialectical intertwining of Life and Death. Beneficent caretakers, Vultures embody "green" values. They should be celebrated; we should be pointing to them as an example for our children; the Green Party should adopt the Vulture as a mascot...
But that would be expecting too much subtlety of a political symbol. Besides, politics will only lead me back to war, and I said I wasn't going to get into that. In fact, at least for today, I'm going to dispense with the symbolic altogether. I'm just going to go out there and give the day free rein to mean whatever it may, in May. I won't try to see anything except what's there, and I will have no expectations, not even of the expected. I will leave the soaring shadows of April behind, and accept the Vulture as one more pretty birdie of the Spring.