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November 27, 2003

First Harvest


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November 25, 2003

The Garden of Rejection

The Fall is failing, heading into its naked final phase, on the way to Winter. It’s as if the fullness of Summer were too much; a thing to turn away from. We are wound in cycles, with no way to sustain the ripened moment. Always nurturing in expectation, or working vainly at preservation. Towards or away from, but rarely there… Who would not seek to hold on to the long days of growth and warmth?

One Lady, in a song I’m thinking of, would rather look to Winter.
The Gardener Child is the ballad, similar in form to the riddles and “topping” songs I’ve discussed, but with a strange, declining note. The Gardener propositions the Lady with an offer to clothe her in a gown of all the Summer’s flowers, but she rejects him, with a parallel promise to array him in all the discomforts of Winter’s weather.
And that’s all there is to it.
More often this form involves a series of exchanges, working to a positive resolution. Here it’s a simple one-to-one, solicitation and rejection, leading nowhere. Perhaps the song as it comes down to us is a fragment, but it may be more likely that it is lodged in a level of Mystery we customarily turn away from, preferring to invent our happy endings.

A cycle has no ending, happy or otherwise, without recourse to something outside itself. But if Summer and Winter are opposing statements, then Spring is a “yes” and Autumn a “no,” between them satisfying the barest definition of a dialogue; just enough to motivate the ongoing transformations of the Year.
We might prefer to tongue the dialogue of “yes” and “yes”, but that exchange belongs to eternity. From our oscillating vantage we cannot tell it from an argument: for us, even agreement is evidence of fracture; a requirement of separation, in imitation of true unity. To our ears it is as the gossip of heaven, which we can know only as a fitful ecstasy, beyond season or cycle.

Such ecstasy is surely the aim of the Gardener’s importuning: “Come kiss sweetheart and join and join, Come kiss sweetheart and join.” Do we not all wish to Join? Maybe there is an imbalance in his offer of a literal rose in exchange for the Lady’s more figurative “flower.” Her answer is in the same terms, for a gown of plants, however surreal, is something we can imagine, but to wear the wind and hail, or to ride upon the Winter as a horse, is reserved for the realm of metaphor.

Though his desire is “natural,” the male’s role as Gardener puts him outside of Nature, placing him in a position of control. He can train Nature to his will, making it an instrument of seduction. The Lady is not so compliant. Her invocation of the intemperate is the opposite of cultivation. Where the Gardener would manage the cycle, she turns it back upon him, denying “natural” desire (which would enforce the cycle through procreation) by her appeal to the unaccommodating side of Nature, which lies beyond the garden’s fences. Between the Summer’s flowers and the Winter showers, she speaks the “no” of Autumn. This is the voice of asceticism: a form of self-control that resists control imposed from without.
But even if the power of the Outside can be found Within, there also will be found loneliness, and though her “no” may echo through the Winter, maybe come Springtime this Lady will have something new to say.

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November 11, 2003

Too Many, or Too Few?

Veterans’ wars are in the past.
Time’s passage mellows all things, even the hurts of war. Would that we had more veterans today, rather than this host on active duty. How long will they stay? How many will we honor on a future Veteran’s Day? How many on Memorial Day?

Quickly we would wish to put the war away, making veterans out of soldiers, history out of horror. Did I say mellow? Rather, time wears down rough edges, blurs sharp distinctions, and ignores the obvious, allowing murder to adhere to glory, mingling death with duty, impaling the Other upon our best intent.
This Holiday is as much about forgetting as it is about remembrance.

Someone forgot the proper rigging of the flag that flies at the Blockhouse, the Park’s reminder of forgotten wars. The War of 1812; what was that about? Something to do with Britain fighting France; Napoleon and Wellington and those guys, and we no more than a tangent. But that was long ago, and now allegiances are reversed, under our dictate. To remember would only confound, and cause dissent. Perhaps that’s why the flag was flying upside down, the martial signal of distress.
If we do not come to our own rescue, no one will.
But can we be rescued from ourselves?
It is the muster of confusion: call out the troops, before we run short of veterans.

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November 4, 2003

In Memoriam


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October 31, 2003

Ghostwood

At the edge of the wood the sunbeams break
Stippling patterns on the shade
Trail fading into dark…

At the edge of the wood, and the Tree is Birch
White bark peels back and shreds like years
Layer on layer
Year on year
Heartwood wound in a fraying shroud

The light slides over the darkness
As today wraps ‘round the past
The Tree unwinds; a spiral ghost
Revisiting what was

A seed unfolds
A sapling sways
A twig attains the sky
A root winds down
And down
And down
Heaven and earth entwine

But ruin and rot and lightning strike
Reap only blackened ground
And wicked winds will roots upheave
To twist through fallen boughs

At the edge of the wood a Tree is gone
The edge of a retreat
Too dark for evening to discern
The forest from its ghosts

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October 13, 2003

Finding the Way

Columbus 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.

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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.

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September 23, 2003

Autumnal Equinox

Blown 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.

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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...
hovering...
still...

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...

...hovering...

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...

...hovering...

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?

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August 22, 2003

Summer Hovers


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July 21, 2003

Happy Birthday

Today 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.

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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.

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June 21, 2003

Solstice

Memory 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
Overhead

Overhead
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

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