...more recent posts
December 27, 2004
December 26, 2004
December 25, 2004
Weíve reached the first holiday with a history of five previous posts. The Arboretum began late in 1999, way back in the Twentieth Century. That seems like a long time ago now, though five years is not much out of two thousand Christmases, but our lives are shorter than our cultural memory. I was groping to find my way in those early posts, and though clumsily constructed, the one from í99 is notable for containing the closest thing Iíve ever come to an introductory ďwhatís going on hereĒ statement. Itís a bit obscure now, since part of my explanation involved a passing astronomical moment; not a mystic star, but an instance of the full Solstice Moon at perigree, which gave rise to much internet-distributed speculation about just how big the Moon was going to look. In fact, it didnít look any bigger than usual, but I used the intense scrutiny given to an aspect of the natural world that we normally take for granted as a model of the level of attention I meant to bring to my observations in Central Park.
At the time, I promised to look as closely as I could, and to make report of what I found for at least one year. One year having become five, Iíd like to think the project has found some success. Sometimes Iíve strayed from the Park, what with war and disaster, and the mere personal disasters of Life, but Iíve tried never to leave behind the specificity of Natureís phenomena or the guiding voice of the Western Tradition.
In 2000 I presented a photo-essay of some of the more ornamental sights to be found in the Park in Winter; in 2001 it was a poem in praise of evergreen endurance. In 2002 I answered the Cherry riddle of the Spring in the form of a Christmas card, while last yearís card was rather more straightforward, as Iíd had the good fortune to obtain an unusually unobstructed photo of one of our wintering Owls.
I should also note the 2002 post from the twenty-fourth, in which I discussed what itís like to be born (or at least to have a birthday) on Christmas Eve. That coincidence may have something to do with my warm feelings for this season, but as Iíve said, Christmas is our preeminent holiday, however we construe it.
And now itís here again, and what have I to offer?
A cup of cheer, or rather, a bowl.
This yearís card comes out of the old tradition of the Wassail. The Wassail is both a drink and an activity, ancestral to our Christmas caroling. Revelers would wander the countryside with a bowl of intoxicating brew and sing seasonal songs from house to house, in hopes of being invited in to refill the bowl.
The traveling songsters remain a part of our Christmas imagery, but the custom, like much of Christmas, has deeper roots, extending into a pagan past. Originally the songs were sung not to neighbors, but to the trees. In particular the Apple trees, whose cider provided the basis for the wassail itself: the inebriating liquor that kept the singers warm as they went about ďtraveling the mire.Ē The songs were really in the nature of prayers; blessings bestowed on the orchards in order to ensure a bountiful crop for the New Year.
We last saw the Apple on May Day, as the blossoming branch of another seasonal custom. Since then the flowers have come to fruit, and the harvest is in. Pressed into service and pressed into liquid, the cider (with perhaps some fortification) serves as the seasonís sacrament, the blood of the tree as potent as the blood of any god.
So hereís this yearís card: the Wassail Bowl offered around in the spirit of the old songs. The Gower Wassail is a good example, and from it I take my motto, a magical incantation of time and place:
We know by the Moon that we are not too soon;
We know by the Sky that we are not too high;
We know by the Stars that we are not too far;
We know by the Ground that we are within sound
Pinioned between these points of Heaven and Earth, we will find that we are exactly where and when we ought to be.
December 21, 2004
The Solstice is here again, arriving, as always, a few days before Christmas. The Year being a cycle, its beginning could be pegged at any point, and indeed cultures all over the world have chosen a variety of dates. For us, in the long night of the north, the Winter Solstice makes a good starting point. As we slip into survival mode in the interregnum between the harvest and the next sowing season it seems a sensible time to turn the cycle over. Weíve reached the shortest day (or longest night) and though the coldest days may lie ahead itís better to get through them early in the Year, leaving us something to look forward to.
Of course we donít actually call the Solstice by the name of the New Year, nor Christmas for that matter, but itís clear that the three are linked; a trinity at the heart of the Holiday Season. Long before the first Christmas people had taken the measure of the seasons and their days, and found this low point in the Year; extrapolating to the rebirth of Light seems only natural in this darkness, and explains why Christís birthday is fixed in this vicinity even when there is no real historical basis for the date.
So the Solstice, Christmas and New Yearís are all more or less the same Holiday, but itís a multifaceted occasion that bears a triple celebration. The Solstice must have been the original holiday, but now itís New Yearís that approaches a pagan festival, with its parties pushing towards debauchery. The Solstice is mostly a mention on the daily weather forecast, a matter of scientific calculation without much relevance to our day-to-day activities. Christmas maintains the burden of Mystery, though weíve consequently managed to turn it into a celebration of the most secular ideals of our capitalist culture.
For my part, Iíve tried to keep it close to the Earth. The Holiday ameliorates Winter, but Winter is a part of it. On three of the past four years Iíve presented a photo-essay featuring some degree of early snow as a prelude to the season. But in 2001, at least, I took a different tack, and lacking any really spectacular weather at the moment (though it certainly got good and cold yesterday) Iím going to do the same this year.
Because the Solstice isnít just Winter, itís The Holiday. Christmas, New Yearís, whatever you call it, itís clear that thereís a big holiday somewhere in this vicinity. Our biggest. And itís worth finding a legitimate way of celebrating it. One of my main ways of doing it has long been to make a Christmas card, such as I presented on the Solstice in 2001. This year Iíve collected as many of those cards as I could find, going back into the 1980ís, and Iíve archived them on the web.
Thus I humbly present:
The Official Arboretum Christmas Card Garden
This is in the nature of a homemade and slightly used Christmas present to my readership, but I like to think it has some value. The collection includes cards that few will remember, as well as outtakes, alternate versions, extended editions, and a much improved scan of the '01 card.
The Slideshow is the best way to view the gallery: an edited walk through the collection with brief commentary.
A Thumbnail overview is also available.
How many Christmases can you remember?
These are some of mine.
But if youíre wondering about this year, well, youíll just have to waitÖ
November 25, 2004
Thanking is where practicality and spirituality meet.
ďThank youĒ is part of a utilitarian social etiquette, lubricating our necessary interactions, but it is also the most basic form of prayer, one step up from the utter prostration of sheer worship and awe; ďthank youĒ is the voice of the Ego in the face of the Mystery. The functionality of the ďreal worldĒ thank you is a reflection of its appropriateness as an existential attitude. At least I argued this line in 2001 by way of a birdwatching story, and the follow-up validation provided the next year represents exactly the sort of on-going dialogue of discovery that I hoped to cultivate in the Arboretum. Not so much proof of the ineffable as a day list of its observable consequences.
The face is off the pumpkin now, and Autumn orange and red and brown are the colors of the day, conjuring their mundane magic. Warm earth-tones, even as the Earth grows cold, remind us that when the sun sinks south we must kindle our own warmth, drawing on last seasonís stores. The colors also offer the last great seasonal display before the whiteness of Winter writes us a new page. So naturally Thanksgiving has provided the platform for Fall photo essays, as in 2000, even though that yearís entry, and the one for 2002, were posted from abroad, as part of DMTreeís ongoing (if occasional) effort to spend this New World holiday in the Old.
Last year I offered thanks for the first-ever harvest of the Chestnut renewal program in the Park, but one thing Iíve never really done here is to give a specific round of thanks for the Arboretum itself, its inspirations and its support structure. It may read more like an Oscar acceptance speech than a prayer, but Iím not expecting any awards and whoís to say that either form is inherently insincere? I just thought that after five years the occasion has earned something more than philosophizing. And here no one can hurry me off stage.
Now if youíre going to go thanking people, you must start with your parents. Iíve always posted on the parental holidays, and Iíve mentioned my esteem for my mother, but Iíve said much more about my father, as the act of writing about the events surrounding his death in 2000 transformed my understanding of how the weblog space would work for me. That passage past, I remain eternally thankful to both of my parents for their nurturing of me. They opened me to the beauties of art and nature, to the pleasure of learning, and to the duty of intellectual honesty. If Iíve accomplished anything in the Arboretum, it flows from there.
But I canít even talk about the Arboretum without thanking the one person most responsible for empowering the project. Jim Bassett provides the server space and the programming expertise behind the digitalmediatree site and its roster of blogs. He also provides a positive vision of the possibilities of computer technology and culture, and makes DMTree a great place to be on the web. The vision will, by its nature, always outstrip the reality, but Jim has realized a significant degree of his vision, and sustained it for five years, which is a long time in cyberspace. This has made for a special time in my life as well, and I thank Jim for his generosity in creating this unique community.
And DMTree is nothing if not a community. Iím thankful to everyone who reads my page, or any of the pages on the site. Mostly Iím talking about my good friends, but the tree has grown to encompass a broader audience than that, and itís been gratifying to establish new relationships or receive the occasional nod from a passing stranger. But in the end it pretty much comes down to my friends, the new ones, and all those good folks who have put up with, and even encouraged me, for years. All I can say is ďthanks.Ē
Of course thereís Central Park itself, for which Iím thankful. But Iím really thanking people, and Iíd be remiss to neglect the people of the Park. Theyíre not usually the focus of the Arboretum, but I regularly intersect with a number of people, mostly birdwatchers, who have enriched my experience of the place. Mention must be made of Tom Fiore, birder deluxe, and Mike Freeman, proprietor of my ďotherĒ website, the NYC Bird Report.
As far as the content of the Arboretum goes, it grew out of my increasing involvement in Central Park, played out against my understanding of what I think of as Traditional spirituality. To the extent that I have any understanding, itís rooted in experience. What Iíve written is an attempt to express what Iíve felt, from listening to folk music as a child, to trying to paint landscapes as a student, to involvement in actual ecstatic ritual practice. Or just walking in the Park. But experience benefits from guidance, and there are a few guides Iíve been overlong in acknowledging here; people who have influenced the posture Iíve taken in the Arboretum and the practice Iíve followed.
The late Terence McKenna was a great inspiration, and is sorely missed. He had a talent for making outlandish thinking credible. He didnít just talk to plants; he listened to them, and related their vegetable wisdom back to the rest of us. His psychedelic dialectic linked techno-futurism to ancient shamanic mysticism in what he termed the Archaic Revival; an evolving consciousness to which I like to think this page contributes.
McKenna was a true visionary, an eschatological prophet even. But Iím also beholden to a somewhat more conservative group of traditionalists from the British Isles. John and Caitlin Matthews, as expositors of the Western Mystery Tradition, have been helpful to me, in particular with regard to the uses of the holidays as doorways to the Mysteries. Iíd also like to note R. J. Stewartís recovery of initiatory practice through the deconstruction of folk ballads, and Adam McLeanís insight into alchemical imagery.
All of these authors are marketed as ďNew Age,Ē often in a ďhow-toĒ format offering practical exercises in what amounts to magic. This is not exactly the most intellectually respectable genre, but these folks represent the best face of a movement that shouldnít be trivialized, despite its excesses. Beyond the nonsense and the frauds, there is a genuine spiritual desire being addressed here. These writers ply the contradiction of a rational approach to the Spirit: that to fairly apply the rigorous standards of rationality to first hand experience, such a study must of necessity cross the border into a world beyond rationality. Iím thankful for these voices that report back on the Mystery in terms that resonate with, and expand, my own understanding.
Iíve only tried to do the same thing in my own way. Iím thankful if anything Iíve written has struck a chord out there. Iím not without some confirmation to that effect, which is always gratifying, but even to the extent that Iíve failed to communicate, Iím thankful for the chance to try. We call that chance Life, but in my life I have a special venue in this Arboretum, and for that, and to all who have contributed to it, in whatever way, I give my heartfelt Thanks. Let that sentiment initiate once more the Holiday Season.
November 11, 2004
Veterans Day2000 (or close to it)
I canít help seeing Veterans Day as a pendant to Memorial Day. It seems a lesser, or at least a less serious holiday, insofar as death is the most ďseriousĒ thing we know, and survival (one might think) should warrant a more joyous celebration. But itís just the opposite: Memorial Day has become a big happy summer holiday while Veterans Day has shrunk like an old soldier, into a gray November day of not altogether brave remembrance. Memorial Dayís dead may have made the greater sacrifice, but itís only the living who actively remember, and the real bitterness of war is best recalled by those who have actually seen it, and lived to tell the rest of us.
The dead tell us nothing, though as with scripture we may draw whatever inference from them we wish; dutiful soldiers, they will defend any position. Our living veterans are more contentious, and their stories are not cloaked in false glory. In my experience, they are not given to the kind of party line patriotic pabulum we too often hear in martial matters. Being in the military can have many effects on a person, but the ability to see through bullshit is notable among them. In this culture, that gift may be a curse, and while all vets are marked by their experience, it must be admitted that a significant number are damaged by it.
Others are ennobled. I mean that sincerely, though not without irony. The taste for war is deep in us, and we put so much of our cultural identity into it that something of whatís good in us must come out there. Iíve not been immune to battleís charms: from Greek heroes to medieval knights to space-spanning comic book warriors of the future, Iíve patronized the shrine of many a god of war. But only in my imagination.
My mythic imagination.
I knew pretty early on that while I might like to play army, I didnít really want to grow up to be in a war. The Park-focused lens of the Arboretum is my current charm against the power of the War God, but I do retain some sympathy for his worshipers, and Iím not above honoring our fighting men and women.
Iím thinking of the rank and file mainly; Veterans Day seems to me an enlisted manís holiday, though I suppose officers and commanders are to be included. But while our foot soldiers may be seduced by myths of honor and duty, those who send them to the field have a greater responsibility, and have too often passed the poison of war down the chain of command. Witness our current adventure in Iraq, where top brass have blamed our prison atrocities on a few rogue soldiers, rather than on the very institution of War itself, which our administration has so heartily embraced, as if its inherent horrors could be dismissed as unintended side effects. Instead of accepting responsibility our leaders have blamed their own followers, and in so doing they dishonor this Day in practice, even as they pay endless lip service to ďsupporting the troopsĒ while unilaterally extending tours of duty.
If our veterans are bitter in the face of such hypocrisy itís an old story. War may fire our imaginations, but the story most often turns to tragedy, or the kind of comedy that forces a laugh in the face of tragedy. Tales of untarnished triumph are best suited to indoctrinating children and cowing trepidatious voters. That being done, the carnage can be blamed on its victims.
We are all Warís victims, and as I suggested in 2002, we are all veterans of a sort. That was specifically a post-9/11 sentiment, and meant as no slight to soldiers, but my refusal to privilege war is part of an effort to understand our innate equality, and all false promises of ďsecurityĒ aside, Life is always at risk.
I learned as much in 2000, when the trauma of attending on my fatherís ďpeacefulĒ death distracted me from this holiday, the only time Iíve failed to come up with a post for an official occasion. Since then the holiday has gained moment, with war coming closer than we had been accustomed to. In 2001, a mere month after an act of war I stood within a few blocks of, the best I could do was to mount a montage reflecting my sense of the impending mobilization and its uncertain prospects. By 2003 uncertainty had coalesced into the current mess, and I documented a symbolic distress signal from the Park. A year later itís a disappointment to have the current course endorsed by the electorate. The country is deeply divided, and much of the support is, I think, provisional, but America remains in thrall to martial mythology, at the expense of the human reality of veterans.
October 31, 2004
Halloween is one holiday Iíve never really addressed in a straightforward discursive manner. Usually Iíve written a poem, an oblique approach to an oblique occasion, but rhythm and rhyme may serve better than reason in accessing the spirit of a Day that probes the limits of identity and belief.
Or rather I should say, a Night.
Halloween is our darkest holiday, with one foot in the grave, but itís not somber like the elegiac Memorial Day. The dead of Halloween offer the thrill of horror but do not inspire mourning, so my experience in 2000 was ironic, as the holiday was consumed by my fatherís death. His story keeps surfacing in the old posts, echoing across the years, but that was his final night. He hovered through the midnight hour, then crossed another boundary, the last weíre sure of, in the early hours of November first, All Saintsí Day. That was only in keeping with his offbeat sense of timing. He was no saint, but he was a great soul.
All Souls are honored on November second, which is called the Day of the Dead in Latin America, where itís celebrated with gusto. Halloween and el Dia de los Muertos are linked by their dates, and their Christian veneer, but appear to represent two independent yet parallel traditions. On both sides of the Atlantic it was understood by the natives that this is the time of year to get in touch with the dead. Christianity has its own investment in the Mystery that lies beyond our final boundary, but it could never fully reform the pagan spirit of its converts. In fact it was enriched thereby, and the many compromises and accommodations made between the Old Religion and the new were as much a matter of spiritual necessity as of political expedience.
Traditionally, this is the time when the barriers between our everyday world and the spiritual realm are at their most permeable. Spirits pass freely between worlds; the living, the dead, and a host of strange beings that have never lived, but do not die, meet among the shadows of the Night.
This meeting may be terrifying or orgiastic (or both.) As a matter of religious practicality, it offers a chance to propitiate the inhabitants of the Other World, but itís most pious overseers are no longer conquering Christians, but New Age neo-pagans who have made of the holiday a major focus for the aspirations of alternative spirituality in the modern West. The altar is pretty much theirs: outside of a few zealous cranks, nobody in the Christian community takes Halloweenís dabbling in the dark too seriously anymore, and for America at large itís all about fun; an occasion for indulgence without remorse. Children play questionable pranks and gorge on sweets; adults drink and flirt, and that party spirit, bereft of moralizing, makes Halloween one of our most popular and vital Holidays.
Halloween is a three billion dollar industry. In the ultimate measure of secular worth it is only surpassed by the big gift-giving holidays as an economic event. Its market is expansive because it caters to separate audiences of children and adults. Bridging the gap between generations is the constant of the costume. The dressing up is not so much a matter of disguise as it is a display of our secret egos, and if the young tend towards the terrible and the marvelous, adults are apt to engage the occasion as an opportunity to disinhibit their sexual self-images. Amid the post-modern flotsam of constructed identity, the holiday seems altogether up-to-date, and its popularity is only likely to increase.
Still, we should not ignore the nostalgic pagans in their sacred groves. Their spiritual aspirations may appear as a silly costume in todayís secular world, but the power that continues to animate Halloween, however mutated, is by no means disconnected from its ancient roots, and those draw nourishment from a level of being far deeper than any contemporary mainstream religion.
Neo-paganism locates the pre-Christian roots of Halloween in the old Celtic New Year holiday of Samhain. Samhain marked the end of the yearís harvest and the preparation for Winter. It was a fire festival, when the old year was reduced to ashes and fires were relit from a single ceremonial source. Itís strange to say, but today we are closer to the Celtic spirit world than we are to such basic seasonal observations. Ghosts and witches titillate our sophisticated modern belief system, but we are truly alienated from the actualities of the Earth and the harvest, going on unseen somewhere off on some huge, spiritless corporate farm whose acreage has displaced what we used to call ďthe countryside.Ē
By putting a face on the pumpkin, and filling it with fire, Halloween reminds us that the fruits of the Earth, and the Earth itself, are indeed living entities, and the spirit in the squash is of the same order as the one in us. Death is a necessary part of Natureís cycle, but its darkness is full of illuminated souls. By recalling this ancient wisdom we propitiate their spirits, and learn to recognize ourselves among them, mingling freely and without fear.
October 11, 2004
Columbus Day is a holiday in trouble.
Of all the official national holidays it has the most mixed-up constituency, and the most freighted historical premise. My reading of it has always been skeptical, in essence arguing that historical revisionism is a necessity if the Holiday is to survive.
Survival is a strong word, and once something is written into law itís not going to easily be gotten rid of, but a holiday that fails in its intended mission will morph into something else, something unintended. As I suggested back in January, what is critical for Columbus Day is that its transformation must be by way of a dialectical confrontation with its dark side, which may be effected through our recognition of a polarity between Columbus and Martin Luther King Day.
I stated the basic problems of the holiday in 2000: bad history and colonialist arrogance; Europeans as an invasive species. In 2001 I found in it a warning against making assumptions about any ďnew world,Ē in this case the one widely proclaimed a month earlier that year. 2002 found me extolling the virtues of the vacant lot, a space with all the potential that Europe found in America, and receiving a similar degree of respect. Last year I used Columbus the navigator as an excuse for presenting my map of the Parkís north end, but I couldnít help pointing out that Columbus was a navigator who didnít know where he was.
When I make recourse to MLK Day, itís to argue that we do know where we are today, or at least weíre better oriented that our ancestors who took such pride in the subjugation of a continent, with so little introspection regarding the consequences. In offering up Kingís holiday, we show that weíve learned (at least symbolically) to honor the equality of the people we once felt justified in annihilating or enslaving. Columbus Day must be guided by King Day, as a ship on night waters is guided by the fog-piercing beam of a lighthouse. And even though that light be kindled more in the realm of the ideal than the actual, heading towards it will bring us to good harborage.
Otherwise, we leave the whole mess to the Italians.
Not that I have anything against Italy or its people. But as I explained in 2000, Columbus, the Spanish agent, who couldnít even make a successful career as ďdiscoverer of the New World,Ē is hardly an optimal choice as culture hero for the people who produced Rome and the Renaissance (Michelangelo Day, anyone?) More to the point, the language in the US Code only refers us to ďthe anniversary of the discovery of America,Ē nothing about Italian heritage. Iím in no position to criticize Italian-Americans for sailing in the wake of the occasion, but it remains a fact that no other ethnic holiday is coincident with a national holiday. People are free to celebrate St. Patrickís Day, or Steuben Day, or Pulaski Day, or any nationalist or ethnic holiday they wish, but they donít get to have it tied to a governmentally endorsed day-off-with-pay. It doesnít seem quite fair.
To a great degree, our ethnic holidays have been reduced to a series of clichť-ridden, corporate-sponsored parades. But when Central Park was young, a century and more ago, many of the celebrations took place within its confines. The only evidence remaining is in the statues the ethnic associations funded, scattering in bronze the culture heroes of many nations across the Park. Four hundred years after Columbus the tide of European immigration was peaking, and celebrating European entrťe to the ďLand of OpportunityĒ seemed like second nature. Today itís worth noting that many of the most vital parading communities in town are of a decidedly ďpost-ColumbianĒ sort: the Puerto Rican, Dominican and other Caribbean celebrations generally make the Old World affairs look stodgy, as the hybrid children of Columbus continue the immigrant trend, in the process transforming the very world their native ancestors saw transformed by the arrival of the Europeans. Not so much an irony as an historical dialectic at work in real time.
If Columbus Day can deal with such tricks of time and circumstance, then it has possibilities, even if they are forced upon us. The holiday will survive, I do not doubt. It already has a long memory, referencing the most distant event among all our national holidays, with the exception of Christmas. Christmas was once more of a spiritual holiday than an historical one, but we have remade it into a celebration of consumer culture. The source of Christmas is four times more distant than Columbus, and maybe so many centuries will always give way to mythology, but some would say our current Christmas is less than Christian. Columbus Day too is changing, but as Christmas shows, the course between transcendence and trivialization is not always clear. After all, trivialized or not, Christmas has become both our biggest holiday, and the one most representative of our character. Whether Columbus can come through the straits of history with as much potency remains unclear, but he will do well to navigate by the light of Dr. Kingís day. In the new world opened by our youngest holiday we may yet find the redemption of our beginnings.
September 22, 2004
Autumnal Equinox2000 (And a follow-up.)
Hurricane season again. Looking at last yearís post I see that we were dodging a tropical storm then too, though weíve only gotten the after-effects of more distant dramas this time around. Hurricanes are extremities of the weather, but while balance between extremes has been an Equinox theme of mine, this Summer was something less than extreme; cool even, and itís easy enough to feel Autumn arriving in the wind and rain of a draining hurricane.
Fall is always a mixed season, full of conflicting emotions. It bears the sadness of decline, but as I noted in 2000, itís also a time of refocusing and new beginnings following Summerís relaxation. And itís beautiful: particularly here in the northeast, Autumn offers the widest array of scenes of any season, from lush green to vivid, varied hues to the bare bones of the landscape exposed, and maybe even the first snow.
Perhaps the beauty piques the melancholy. Winter is worse, but in a more grit-your-teeth-and-get-through-it sort of way. On a sensual level the better part of Fall is an agreeable experience, but it reminds us of the downside of a cycle that moves through our lives as well as through our seasons.
Death, then, is the specter that haunts our Autumns. So itís no coincidence that my posts on this occasion have often struck a plaintive note. Or rather it is coincidence and more than coincidence. That other present specter, the terror of 9/11 and its baleful aftermath, is now a part of the season, still echoing in the present presidential campaign. In 2001 it was only my ritual duty to the Equinox that forced me to focus on my first post after that date, mixing metaphors of various sorts of ďFall.Ē
Even a year later I was still searching the natural world, or at least the Park, for ways to raise fallen spirits. Compared to our affairs a mere natural disaster like a hurricane is a small matter.
Or at least it seems that way until you actually have to go through a hurricane. Luckily, weíve been spared the brunt of the latest storms, but the residual effects have certainly been felt here. In a way, they mirror the piquant mix of pleasure and pain that animates this whole season. Torrential rains soaked me on the way to work, and washed out half of last weekend. Thatís a loss I grudge, now that my free time is at a premium, but the other side of the coin was that as the storm finally moved off it drew a strong cold front in its wake, sucking autumnal airs down from Canada. The result was a huge movement of birds, many of them perhaps stressed by the weather, leading them to stop en masse in Central Park for refueling last Sunday.
There were birds everywhere. Usually they tend to concentrate in particular areas with favorable characteristics, which birders refer to as ďhot spots.Ē On this occasion the whole Park was a hot spot. Almost any tree you looked at had warblers flitting through it; flycatchers ringed the Pool; sparrows fed on lawns; hawks passed overhead. And this went on all day. Typically, birds are most active early in the morning; often they all but disappear by mid-afternoon, but these birds were seriously hungry, actively feeding throughout the day.
It was a great show. Park observers tallied at least one hundred and seventeen different species, the highest daily count in the last two years. Birdwatchers wait for rare days like this one. But the beauty of it was only in our eyes; for the birds, itís a different story. What seems to us a wonderful display is for them a highly fraught matter of life and death. For a stressed-out migrant, finding enough to eat after a hard flight is crucial. The frenzied feeding suggests that many had a rough trip, and then they found themselves concentrated in a small area with lots of competition for resources. Imagine yourself having to fight your way around a buffet table in a crowd of thousands of starving people.
We do associate Autumn with feasting, but soon enough the choicest fruits of the harvest are consumed. The birds are abandoning this table, headed for better feeding opportunities in southern latitudes, and for those of us staying around these parts it pays to have something put by against the hard times ahead.
But thatís Fall: feast and famine, effervescing into a passing pageant of tragic beauty. Spring is too far away for hope, and Winter too close to deny. In the meantime, we have the glory of the moment, and no choice but to live in it. So spread your wings, but mind your manners at the table.
September 6, 2004
Iíve always found something to say on Labor Day: musing on its metaphysics in 2002, and on the irony of honoring labor by not working in 2001. More personally, I worked on facing up to my fatherís impending death in 2000, while last year the irony really hit home as I hovered in unemployment. But this year Labor Day is all too literal.
Yes, Iím working again.
Back with the federal government, for the sake of my pension, and because theyíll have me, even when the private sector wonít.
I canít say Iím all that happy about it.
It was nice taking a year off, but dangerous, making it that much harder to go back to the workaday routine. I mean, working really takes a bite out of your day. Not that I got a lot done while I was off. Being unemployed I thought Iíd have more time, but of course one always has the same amount of time; itís just a matter of what you do with it. And I didnít do much. Well, I was tired after working for my whole adult life; I deserved a rest.
Isnít that what Summer is all about, the languid lacuna between the gateposts of Memorial and Labor Day? But we work too hard, or work at the wrong things. Now even our leisure is being filled with ďextremeĒ forms of play which are as taxing as work, or else we are so consumed with our jobs that we bring them on vacation with us via our phones and laptops for fear that any downtime will leave us vulnerable.
Oh, for an extremity of inactivity: the bliss of nothingness.
The Gnostic vision of creation differs from our mainstream notion of a proactive God inaugurating the workweek in a flurry of invention. Rather it would seem some instability in the fabric of emptiness occurred, some disaster of discorporate eternity, bursting forth into the labor-intensive dimension of temporal resistance. Creation is only Godís reaction; more in the nature of the filmic action-heroís implausible last-ditch stratagem; the impossible rescue that animates our secret hope. For this cause the World of Work was born: to body forth as a means to extricate us from our obligation to the same. The achievement of the Kingdom of Heaven will be the end of all effort, and the end of all. Then let the credits roll.
But we are in the midst of the movie, and only prophets (or critics) want to spoil it by telling the end in advance. Closer at hand we see work going on all about us at an alarming pace. One cannot watch the natural world without being impressed by the incessant effort it betrays. Tiny shoots of Spring strain skyward until they tower over the Meadow by Midsummer, while a plethora of insects emerge among the stalks, feed, breed, transform, and reemerge with such profligate alacrity that we might feel not only that we inhabit a Summer action move, but an episode shot in time-lapse.
Even if we observe a turtle basking in the sun we are told that it does not indulge in the sin of sloth, but only suffers the cost of cold-bloodedness, forced to wait until its metabolism warms to an active level so that it can pursue its duties. In the meantime, it is exposed and vulnerable, like an executive at the beach without a cell phone.
So the World is a hard-working place, and we humans alone among its denizens seem subject to the temptation of not pulling our own load. At least thatís whatís taught at the confluence of business and religion that currently dominates our culture. But I see us as not so different from the rest of our co-inhabitants in this World, in the sense that we are no more inclined than a turtle to do what we do not need to do. The point being that we very much do need to lay our business aside at times; it is our very capacity to free ourselves from necessity that has made us more than the other animals, and thus the agents of possibility in the drama of Creation. From our indolence are born the dreams and visions that inspire our work, and provide the new ideas that our efforts develop into an ever changing and evolving reality, one that heads towards its own transcendence.
Or such were my thoughts when I had the time, a whole year, to think such things. Now itís turtle-time again, pulling the head back into the dark recesses where work devours time and Holidays are less the domain of imagination than a mere pause to catch our breath, grudgingly granted by the guardians of productivity, in a worksite-world where too much of the work we do were better left undone, and much that needs doing is disdained as something less than work-worthy.
Well, I tried (not too hard) to find something worth doing, ending up at the Food and Nutrition Service, which is engaged in feeding people, one of those things that really does need to be done, though of course itís done in the usual roundabout governmental fashion that frustrates as much as it rewards. And Iím working harder for less money, but I have to feed myself too, and I wasnít going to work for the military/security complex that seems to be the main source of federal jobs at the moment.
In the end itís just a job.
My real work is elsewhere, and more rewarding, if less remunerative. A few things did get done in the Arboretum over the past year. Seasons were transformed, and cycles turned; birds came and went, while flowers came to fruit, and whoís to say I didnít have some part in all of that? I saw twelve new species of birds in Central Park, and the only effort it took was to be there. But we live in a culture that grew up thinking that seeing is a kind of work; that vision goes out from the eye to seize upon the thing thatís seen. After a year off I know better: simply open your eyes and the World pours in. The only effort is in recognition. The real work is in recognizing whatís worth working toward; the rest is the labor of love.
July 4, 2004
Patriotism and nationalism are more or less synonymous, though patriotism somehow sounds a little less aggressive to me. My problem with the present holiday is that I donít really feel much of either; Iíve just never had that deep-seated need to wave the flag. And it shows in my Fourth of July posts, which, when they havenít been more concerned with celebrating Summer, have often critiqued notions of patriotism. That was only natural last year, when the nation was too busy warring to keep me employed, but even in the peaceful days of 2000 I was expressing my preference for the original Dionysian lyrics to the battle-born song that became our national anthem. Interdependence, rather than independence, has been another recurring theme, comparing the ties of nation to those of family in 2001, while in 2002 I stood at the continental divide and wondered how a land so wide could truly be united.
But I donít actively dislike my country, disjointed though it may be. Its problems are the typical problems of human beings, magnified by historical happenstance that has brought us to a peak of worldly power beyond the expectation of our original patriots. If we have squandered opportunities for virtue, others might have done no better in our position, and some would surely have done worse. But there you have it: itís my country, right and wrong.
Country has two meanings: one natural and one artificial. It is at their juncture that my reticence comes into focus. We refer to the Land itself as ďcountryĒ, and use the same word to indicate an infrastructure of human agreements, a political construct that binds the people who populate a particular region. Traditional spirituality insists that those subsisting upon the Land, flora and fauna alike, are a sort of emanation of it, and this includes human inhabitants. That notion harkens back to the dawn of human consciousness, and America, paragon of the modern world, might seem to give it the lie: a country recently created, composed of immigrants and migrants of varied stripes, spread over such a range as to comprise many kinds of country in a single one of the national sort.
Of old, countries were mostly drawn along ethnic lines, which were typically enforced by local geographies. America was never so earth-bound; it was born of Enlightenment ideals. That idealism had its flaws, disregarding the native population and countenancing slavery, as well as making the predictable compromises of practicality and self-interest, but the liberal democracy it spawned has demonstrated an elasticity that has allowed for increasing diversity and a measure of self-improvement over the last two centuries.
Even so, allegiance to ideals is of a different order than adherence to place, and the two will learn different lessons. For my part, Iíve always felt more connected to the earth beneath my feet than to the institutions of the social space around me. In this regard I no doubt take the advantages of being an American somewhat for granted, but the ďfruits of libertyĒ must grow from humble soil, and exploitation without regard will exhaust the very land that gives us life. And thatís as true in the country of ideas as in the countryside. Hence the Arboretum is a sort of country within the country, observing natural laws more than national.
As far as my idea of America goes, the last few years have been bleak, and donít reflect my hopes for the nation. This has not been entirely our fault, but it doesnít seem to me that weíve done much to help our case, or uphold our supposed ideals in the world at large. Best intentions aside, it may be that we have yet to fully grow into the land that we have occupied here, wide as it is. Learning to live properly in our own home still has much to teach us. Surely that should be enough to occupy us, without pursuing occupations in other lands. Still, I wouldnít make the nationís birthday the occasion for partisan political positioning. Any patriotism that alienates half of the population is not worthy of the name. Not that I claim to be much of a patriot, but I will say that I am lover of the Land that is America, and a believer in the possibilities we may yet cultivate here.
This country is still being born.
June 20, 2004
The apex of the Year is here. Where the Sun stops, to take the word solstice literally. Stops and turns back, sinking southward, the days growing shorter once more, the window of illumination contracting. Of course itís the movement of the Earth that causes this impression, but thatís astronomy; here on the surface we are subject to perceptual illusions. But it takes months for the gathering Spring to warm the hibernating Earth, and having grown hot it will take even longer to cool off. The pace of the change hastens most around the equinoxes, and it wonít be until we approach the Fall that we really sense the failing of the light and feel the coolness of gathering shadow. For the moment we have the long days to look forward to; the season of the stopped Sun, hovering above us in all its terrible beneficence.
Itís already been hot.
Not that Iím complaining; it beats last yearís ceaseless precipitation, but get over one thing and thereís another waiting. The summery pattern of heat, humidity and thunder started to emerge before the end of May this year, reminding us once more of the specter of global warming. But Summer remains the populist season; few will wish the Sun to stay stopped at the bottom of the cycle, when the Winter Solstice wraps a long night around us.
As I noted in 2002, Summer is the time for taking time off, but now Iím overworked through not working. Trying to put more effort into looking for work that I need more than I want, not to mention scrambling to meet a double-holiday deadline has me sweating almost as much as the heat.
Looking back, I see that weíve finished another cycle in the time Iíve been writing this page. Four years have passed, bringing once more the heavily freighted year with the extra day, as well as the presidential election and the Olympics. Just as in 2000, Leap Year forces the Solstice from the twenty-first to the twentieth, but that year Fathersí Day was earlier, leaving me time to smell the flowers, sweet and stinky as they were. This year the twentieth is also the third Sunday, resulting in this logjam.
It doesnít really matter.
In Summer nothing seems to matter much. Games are only games, and weíll wait for Autumn to really get worked up about politics again. It would be nice if the candidates would take the season off as well.
No, Iíve never bothered to write exhaustively on the Solstice, having other causes for exhaustion. I touched on boundaries, seasonal and otherwise, in 2001 (a post that now requires an update), and last yearís little poem at least acknowledged the gathering storm, but mostly Summer is invitation and acquiescence, rolled together into inaction. Or no more action than rolling over, front to back, so as not to burn.
Well, we may all burn one day, and soon, if the weather keeps going like this, or if we donít change our wicked ways. But right now Iím beached, even here in the city: Summer-struck, and too lazy to care.
Somebody pour me a drink.