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January 19, 2004

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day





Two years the Holiday Season spans, animating the annual divide, and linking our past to our future. Then it leaves us, withdrawing its tinkling and its tinsel. We stand exposed, somewhere between hangover and hope, eye wincing, looking out over a Winter the better part of which still lies ahead of us…

Into this bleary landscape comes the first of our Holidays. First, and perhaps fittingly, the youngest. For though the round is ancient, yet it changes to suit our needs. Maybe that’s why I’ve found this recently created holiday more fecund than some others: it was created out of immediate necessity. Not to say guilt.

Guilt will breed its own necessities, and admission is preferable to denial. It is to be hoped that this Holiday was instituted in good faith. Only those who doubt the efficacy of the symbolic will regard it as a mere sop, offered in lieu of a true change of heart.

For a Holiday without any connection to Nature’s cycle, MLK Day has proved surprisingly receptive to my Park-focused natural history viewpoint, and I haven’t lacked for material. The year-in-review pictorial from 2001 is the only concise, single viewpoint image of the seasons I’ve produced for this page, while folk vs. scientific taxonomy (2000) and mixed flocking (2002) still strike me as fitting subjects. All of which gives me cause to recall that our race relations have often been plagued by unfortunately drawn “natural” metaphors, or, under the guise of “science,” descended into a netherworld of vulgar Darwinism. In defense of my use of such techniques I can only offer the sincerity of my own vision, insofar as I am able to express it. But witnessing the Truth is not the same as speaking it. At least I can fall back on inconsistency, and if in ‘02 I used mixed-species flocking to argue for the benefits of diversity in a community, I felt obliged to point out a segregated group of Coots the next year, though I wasn’t willing to draw conclusions from it.

Was that only a year ago?
But 2003 brought different concerns, and the Holiday showed its versatility, leading me to contemplate matters beyond race. With war brewing, it was Dr. King’s pacifism I turned my attention to, finding there an irony, in that while it was nonviolence (along with his clerical collar) which made King a widely acceptable symbol for a racial Holiday, the same quality now challenged the powers-that-be in another context.

This year I actually checked the language in the US Code, and in all fairness, it does say: “such holiday should serve as a time for Americans to reflect on the principles of racial equality and nonviolent social change espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr.”

That says it pretty well. Still, I think it would be historically dishonest to pretend that the Holiday wasn’t mostly “about” race, at least at its inception. And race as a matter primarily of black and white, framed by the postwar civil rights movement that was King’s milieu.

Racial issues seem ever more broadly construed these days, and it turns out there are more kinds of inequality than we ever knew. The image of Dr. King will remain that of a black male, but as a symbol he must be flexible enough to allow for his Holiday’s future development. To the extent that it becomes less of a “black” holiday, and more of a “diversity” holiday, one must assume its namesake would be pleased. Following this course, MLK Day may be revealed as the positive end of a polarity with Columbus Day, another holiday with equality issues.

Ostensibly commemorating what we used to call the “discovery” of America, Columbus Day also has its ethnic and religious partisans, but they are in danger of being betrayed by a closer reading of their own text, leading to a focus on the negative side of colonialism. The Europeans’ disregard for the humanity of the Other seems indefensible to us now, but it didn’t give people much pause a hundred years ago, when Columbus Day was first widely celebrated. They couldn’t see anything wrong.

Martin Luther King Day represents not so much our guilt or shame (for you cannot really make a holiday out of those) but rather our learning to see; to recognize that indeed there was something wrong with the attitude that Columbus (no less than the slave traders) brought to these shores. And the Holiday represents our desire to address the matter. It reaches outward, offering a chance for growth, expanding the possibility of America, even as Columbus Day threatens to collapse in upon itself. I’m not saying we should get rid of Columbus, but if Martin Luther King Day were to truly fulfill its promise and potential, that might also be our best hope for retaining a balanced understanding of our past misdeeds, which we might otherwise dismiss, as our ancestors did, blaming an “other” they failed to recognize within themselves. Only then will we learn how to honor our history without whitewashing it, and Columbus Day may yet have a future.

Certainly Martin Luther King Day has a future, perhaps a glorious destiny.
We can hope.
It is a “political” rather than a “natural” holiday, but ultimately grounded in the true Mystery of Identity. As such, it will always provide fertile ground for contemplation, as long as its symbolic focus remains vital. And in that regard, it seems to me that Dr. King was well chosen, and his Day a worthy addition to our roster of Holidays.


January 6, 2004


Poised upon the New Year.
Looking back and looking forward.
The last day of the Holiday Season is a time for revelation.
Or at least for recognition.

As the Arboretum enters a fifth year I realize that this one must be different. When I started this page, in the Fall of 1999, I promised some sort of nature reports from Central Park for at least a year. I’m not even quite sure what I was thinking of - probably something more like an almanac - but the practice evolved in its own way, and has extended far beyond the original guarantee.

I came to believe that the Park, protean and multifaceted, could provide a focus, some point of reference, for whatever it was that I wished to say, and that submitting my intent to such a stricture should prove a profitable exercise. In this faith I have not been disappointed, though the discipline may have been more interesting to me than to my readers.

My original interest was in the trees, and in learning such wisdom as plants might have to offer. Such a study will naturally be guided by the seasons, which are often reflected in the holidays we humans have established. Ultimately, those dates became my deadlines, and my minimum requirements for writing. As with the Park, I found in each Holiday a reservoir of possibility, guided by an over-arching theme.

Meditation on the Holidays is ultimately a spiritual practice, or at least it can be. They are repositories of meaning, expressing continuities of our experience in the World; they structure our lives, whether we “like” them or not. I was led to the Holidays because many are rooted in ancient seasonal observances, and for a complimentary reason I found it necessary to give modern additions to the cannon the same consideration.

I have treated the Holidays, and the Park, as a sort of mystical fount, or horn of plenty: an inexhaustible source of manifold gifts, replenished as fast as they are harvested. It’s a vision that has enriched my life, but it is a vision of eternity, and our time is briefer. So it is that people have a need to sum up from time to time, and I realize that this is such a time for me.

This Year promises to bring change to me. Doing something about my unemployment is apt to become an overriding concern, and other commitments may have to defer to this basic survival need. As such, I’m not sure how much I can promise this time around, but my intent regarding the Holidays is to revisit the past posts and try to come to some conclusions.
Beyond that, I will write as I can, when I can, and on such topics as compel me, whether within or outside of the walls of Central Park. I realize that, in the end, you may not even notice any difference, but to me, it should be a revelation.

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January 5, 2004

The Twelfth Day of Christmas


January 4, 2004

The Eleventh Day of Christmas


January 3, 2004

The Tenth Day of Christmas


January 2, 2004

The Ninth Day of Christmas


January 1, 2004

The Eighth Day of Christmas

is also New Year’s Day.

December 31, 2003

The Seventh Day of Christmas

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December 30, 2003

The Sixth Day of Christmas


December 29, 2003

The Fifth Day of Christmas


December 28, 2003

The Fourth Day of Christmas


December 27, 2003

The Third Day of Christmas