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February 16, 2004

Presidents’ Day





I haven’t been willing to take this holiday very seriously. I’ve generally dispensed with it in one paragraph, except for last year, when I used it as an excuse to go off on a lengthy tangent about the politics behind Christo’s impending Gates project in the Park. That dubious display is still one year away, but Presidents’ Day is here again, and since I’m trying to take a broader view of the Holidays this time around, I thought I should make the effort to consider the occasion in more depth.

My observation of the Holidays is in part a defense against cynicism, my own not least of all. Most people I know are more or less cynical about holidays, and I’m probably more cynical about politics than anything, so a politician’s holiday is a bit hard to stomach in this day and age. But, as is often the case for the cynic, who presumes to see beneath the surface, it turns out I knew less than I thought about Presidents’ Day.

For one thing, I’m not even sure how to write the name. I seem to have spelled it differently each year. Presidents? President’s? Presidents’? But it’s not just me. It turns out this Holiday is remarkably confused, as much so as any rewritten ancient rite. It all started with the first public celebrations of George Washington’s birthday (presumably sincere), which began at the end of his term in office. Even then, however, there was confusion about the date. Britain, and her then colonies, were famously reluctant to accept the revised Gregorian calendar of 1582; not until 1752 did the English world make the adjustment, which required excising eleven days from the current year, eliminating the excess built up by an imprecision in the old Julian calendar’s calculation of leap years. The missing days were a cause of some consternation, and there was disagreement about how to account for them in matters of reckoning, such as birthdays. So it was that Washington’s Birthday was initially celebrated by some on February eleventh, the original calendar date, while others adjusted it to the twenty second, to account for actual time passed.

Washington was already a semi-mythic figure in his own time, and appears to have enjoyed more bipartisan support than any president in mine. I suppose I cannot begrudge him a holiday, for everyone needs a myth of origin, and even a cynic should admit that America has been a worthwhile effort, whatever its failings. Personally, I’d be satisfied with the Forth of July, but we are people, and will personify. George Washington, the man-who-would-not-be-king, is no mean symbol, and not so far from the truth as some of them.

So Washington became the iconic President, raised above the dirty business of actual politics. It took an entire lifetime before another president impacted so deeply on the national psyche, and only when the country that came together for Washington appeared to be coming apart. Lincoln is the dystopian president, martyred mentor of dissolution. The nation’s survival has hallowed his memory, but his fate recalls the ultimate cost of political “disagreement.” Lincoln’s birthday, too, became a holiday, but one imposed by victors, and long resented in the South.

They could ignore him if they chose. Federal government holidays are not binding on anyone except the federal government. The states are free to name their own official holidays as they see fit, though they largely follow the federal schedule. The real problem with Lincoln, a century on down the road, was merely bureaucratic, for his birthday also falls in February, on the twelfth; too close for comfort to Washington’s. This tended to have a diminishing effect. When I was a kid in Detroit in the sixties, both birthdays were holidays, but we only got half a day off from school for each, which seemed like a raw deal to me. A real holiday means a whole day off. And you wonder where my cynicism comes from.

Like Pope Gregory with his calendar, there are always reformers. By the end of the sixties legislation was enacted by Congress to overhaul the whole federal holiday system. Most significantly, many of the “minor” holidays were divorced from their traditional dates and made to fall on the nearest Monday, ensuring a long weekend for the working masses. I’m sure we appreciate the sop, as far as it goes. They could hardly change the date of the Fourth of July, or Christmas, but Washington’s Birthday (whatever its “real” date may have been) was among those holidays set afloat, and Lincoln’s Birthday disappeared from the schedule altogether.

That’s a literal reading of the law, as incorporated into the United States Code. The third Monday of February is designated to commemorate George Washington; no mention of Lincoln or any other President. But here’s where the plot thickens, thanks to, you guessed it, a president.

And what a president. Richard Nixon it was, who presided over the institution of the new holiday schedule, which was first celebrated in 1971. His responsibility was limited to issuing a routine Presidential Proclamation of each holiday, thus executing the legal authority of the language in the US Code. But Nixon never shied from exceeding his authority, and it seems that somewhere along the line there were second thoughts about the Washington/Lincoln business, so Nixon’s proclamation announced, not Washington’s Birthday, but a new Holiday, in honor of Washington, and Lincoln, and all the presidents. This was the first Presidents’ Day as we know it. It may be that Nixon thought his proclamation had the force of law, and that the new occasion had been officially instituted as such, but it was not so. That would have required an Executive Order, or a change in the actual law, but this was never done, and as far as the law of the land is concerned, there is no such holiday as Presidents’ Day.

The states, however, generally accepted the language of the proclamation. Most of them went over to the new Monday Holiday schedule, and most included a single Presidents’ Day in February, under that name (and usually spelled that way.) So while there’s no official federal Presidents’ Day, most of us celebrate one under the auspices of our individual states. Which is a funny way to honor centralized power. Actually, the term “Presidents’ Day” is widely used within the federal government, and appears in official documents, but it would be cynical of me to suggest that one hand of the government doesn’t know what the other is doing, or that it fails to follow its own law.

Then again, it was Nixon who brought us to this pass. And since we’re remembering presidents today, I will say that of those in my experience, the man-who-would-not-be (but was) a crook is the most memorable. And not a little responsible for whatever political cynicism I may own. Was he trying to horn in on an honor undeserved, enlisting such lesser lights as himself in the mythic van of our Founding Father? That seems to be the result, for now the lot of them are celebrated equally. But I was working for the federal government, years later, when Nixon died. Then we got an unscheduled day off to mark his passing. I guess that’s customary upon the death of any president, and not untoward. But it’s a good thing I’m not really a cynic, or I’d be tempted to say that was the real holiday…


February 14. 2004

Valentine’s Day





The roots of Valentine’s Day are vague, with ties to Christianity and Traditional midwinter observations alike. At one extreme it’s basically the same holiday as Groundhog Day, helping us get through the season (as evoked in last year’s poem.) In its contemporary incarnation it’s been turned into a sales pitch for flowers and greeting cards and chocolates and such. The commercialism may be decried, but this debasement is only the usual tax levied by capitalism, and accrues to everything we celebrate. Even so, I can’t think of anything more worthy of celebration than Love.

Love, of course, can mean many different things, but whether we consider the mating of birds or people, it’s clear that romantic love is the object of the Holiday. This Valentine’s Day comes at a low point in my personal romantic arc (at least I hope it doesn’t get much lower,) as I am single, and aging, and now feeling the emasculating effect of unemployment, which makes one reluctant even to put oneself forward in the face of the inevitable “and what do you do?” Do? I walk around the Park, and wait for Spring, and I profess about it, but that doesn’t amount to a profession, nor does it serve the cause of seduction much.

I touched on these matters (minus the unemployment) in my first Valentine’s post in 2000, ultimately focusing on the symbol of the Rose, something that can be found in the Park. Not to say that love itself cannot be found there, but it seems to require an expansion of the concept, such as I argued for in 2001.

But that’s all just another way of saying that Love is more than romance, which proceeds from saying that romance is more than sex, which is what it really comes down to. Sex is Nature, while Love is Culture, but a connective tissue of metaphor (which is to say, meaning) grows between, and knits our bodies to our souls.

So for me, Valentine’s Day has been a matter of expanding the boundaries of the Holiday, and I think that’s fair enough, if we accept that a holiday is something visited on the whole of the populace, not just those for whom it is “applicable.” This is surely true of the official holidays; in the case of those that are not government sanctioned I suppose we may pick and choose, but certain of them: Valentine’s, Halloween, Mother’s Day, etcetera, are so deeply worked into our culture that they are hard to ignore, and I have included them in my personal canon insofar as they seem good to me. And as I said, the idea of a Holiday of Love is estimable; far better than many things we celebrate. If chastening the chaste is the danger, then loving outside the box, so to speak, is certainly preferable to the depression some singles are said to suffer on this occasion.

February is depressing enough in and of itself. The shortest month is the hardest to bear, even without the extra day this year brings. Maybe that’s why I like to fill it with holidays, official or otherwise. With Groundhog, Valentine’s, and Presidents, there are three guaranteed holidays in February, which equals any other month, as long as we don’t count the Twelve Days of Christmas individually. In many years there’s even a fourth February holiday, when Ash Wednesday wanders in.

Ash Wednesday is one of my more idiosyncratic choices for inclusion in the canon. There will be more to say of it when the day comes, but I mention it now because I see that in 2002 my Valentine’s post was predicated on the fact that Ash Wednesday fell the day before, leading me to present love as the last means of survival in an abnegated and excoriated world.

Ash Wednesday moves around dependent of the date of Easter, which is based on a lunar calculation, and can range over a month’s time. Presidents’ Day also moves, not so widely, but it has a week’s latitude, falling on February’s third Monday, which can be as early as the fifteenth. With Valentine’s Day fixed on the fourteenth, this can lead to a logjam of holidays. In ’02 they all fell within six days. That tends to tear the observer in different directions, but I guess I shouldn’t complain; it would be possible to have them actually overlap. Were Ash Wednesday to come on the fourteenth or fifteenth, we could have three holidays in two days. I’m not going to worry about it just now, but it’ll be a heavy February when that calendar comes ‘round.

This year Ash Wednesday waits for March, but Presidents’ Day is day after tomorrow, leaving me less of a window than I’d like. It’s a real change of gears to go from Love to Politicians. The calendar says the two cannot coincide, but I suppose the spirit of this Day obliges me to apply the one even to the other. The Holidays are challenges as much as celebrations.
Just like Love.


February 2, 2004

Groundhog Day





I’m not going to pretend that Groundhog Day is any sort of major holiday; I’ve generally treated it lightly, pretty much as a joke in 2000, with the old song about eating the critter. There was a photo essay in ’03, and some of my typically groan-inducing poetry in ’02. The 2001 post however was a different story, and I consider it one of the touchstones of the Arboretum: the tale of how an actual encounter with a groundhog initiated a change in my perception of Central Park. For that alone, Groundhog Day deserves a place in my personal canon of Holidays.

Not that Marmotta monax needs my endorsement. The Holiday remains popular, even though it can’t be used to sell much more than one morning’s weather report and a few Winter tourist packages. It helps us crack a smile in February, that least-loved of months, but there’s more to it than that. Groundhog Day’s wink-and-a-nod to our Shamanistic past is an admission that, all our modern sophistication and technological prowess notwithstanding, our relationship to the weather, to wild animals, and to the natural world as such, remains mysterious and unpredictable.

Which is to say, even though we know a lot, and track repeating patterns, the exact circumstance of the coming-into-being of a particular February proves to be a wonder each year, even as it remains something to be endured. A joke on us, as much as on the Marmot.

As far as the Park goes, I haven’t seen a Groundhog since the Spring of 2001, when I had another couple of sightings on the Mount.
Not a one since.
Nevertheless, hope remains. In fact, we have it on expert authority that M. monax is still present. At least the species was listed in an inventory produced last year by something called BioBlitz. Despite the name, a BioBlitz has nothing to do with germ warfare, but seems to combine hard science with public relations. In an effort to “increase public awareness and appreciation of biodiversity and its ability to thrive within an urban environment,” teams of scientists, aided by a corps of volunteers (and official logos) descended on the Park over a weekend in late June in an attempt to catalog every living thing within its boundaries.

According to their list, they found the Groundhog (i.e. Woodchuck,) which is more than I can say for myself. But I was in the Park on one of those days, and I saw a bird that the ‘Blitzers missed, a Worm-eating Warbler, quite unexpected for the date. Birds may come and go without accounting, but even more surprising on that day was a misplaced mammal, not indeed a Groundhog, but a smaller, striped, rodent: a Chipmunk.

Everyone knows there are no Chipmunks in Central Park. Parks in the outer boroughs have them, but the heavily used territory in mid-Manhattan seems to be too much for the little ground-dwellers. The BioBlitz didn’t report any, so that should settle the issue. But I saw one, on the Mount, right in the same place where I last saw the Groundhog, as a matter of fact..

What to think?
It turns out that there was an attempt to introduce Chipmunks into the Park, part of the same project that included the Screech Owls I’ve mentioned. But that was eight years ago, and it didn’t work out. Chipmunks are fine prey for unleashed dogs and roaming cats, not to mention hawks. Central Park just doesn’t offer them enough undisturbed habitat to prosper. They’re more conspicuous than the field mice I do occasionally see, so I can’t believe that a breeding population has managed to sustain itself undetected for years.

All I can suppose is that someone released the Chipmunk into the Park. Probably the usual thing with some kid having to give up on a wild pet. Or could it have been an insidious attempt to fool the BioBlitz, maybe even some sort of fifth column effort from within the organization?

As with so many conspiracies, we’ll probably never know. Which brings it all back to Mystery. All I know is that I haven’t seen hide nor hair of a Chipmunk in the Park since that day. It seems almost hallucinatory now, but I’m pretty sure it was real. I mean, I’ve got photos.

The Chipmunk didn’t tell me anything about the weather, and when it comes down to it, neither did the Groundhog. But they do serve as a caution against magic and science alike; a reminder to look for oneself, and not to place blind faith in experts, whether they are forecasting the future, or testing the opacity of more immediate shadows.


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