Summer 2024

tulip leaf summer

Arboretum Archive


North End Map

Calvert Vaux Park

View current page
...more recent posts

January 2, 2005

The Ninth Day of Christmas


January 1, 2005

The Eighth Day of Christmas

is also New Yearís Day.

December 31, 2004

The Seventh Day of Christmas

[link] [1 ref]

December 30, 2004

The Sixth Day of Christmas


December 29, 2004

The Fifth Day of Christmas


December 28, 2004

The Fourth Day of Christmas


December 27, 2004

The Third Day of Christmas


December 26, 2004

The Second Day of Christmas


December 25, 2004







Merry Christmas!
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.
Sing strong;
Drink deep.

[link] [3 refs]

December 21, 2004

Winter Solstice





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

[link] [6 refs]

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 Day

2000 (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.