May 1, 2004

May Day





Oí, the first of May.
I call it a holiday, but it has no special place on our official calendars. The leftist usurpation of the date notwithstanding, the celebration of May Day at this point in history would seem to be largely a matter of nostalgia. Several posts from the first year of the Arboretum discussed the old English tradition of the Greenwood: that ever-vernal zone of mythic happenstance, told in song and story, and epitomized in the frolic of the May Games. Outside of the occasional childrenís maypole, and the sometimes-questionable realm of neo-paganism, the date is little noted by our modern culture.

Well, I note it. In large part, my intent in these pages has been to revivify the Greenwood Tradition. I have always embraced nostalgia, which is the desire to return Home, and I see it not as an anachronistic longing, but as a basic component of the human psyche; part of a dialectic with our impulse towards the exotic, that being the complementary need to explore that which is not our home, but rather the dwelling place of the Other.

For us today, the nostalgic vector of this dialectic is frictional with our alienation from nature, and the more we despoil our environment, and embed ourselves in technology, the more energy this friction develops, until it catches fire, and throws off a great light, illuminating our deep-rooted need for a direct experience of nature as the life-giving Source. So it is that we have built the Park in the midst of the City; a greenwood set among towers of steel and concrete; not an answer to alienation, but a sort of song in the form of tree and brook, field and meadow, that has the power to express, and somewhat to assuage, our longing. Or so it is for me, at least in my better moods, and this I have hoped to communicate here within the confines of the virtual greenwood I call the Arboretum.

My mood is rarely so hopeful as on the first of May. But thatís what holidays are for: to force a necessary mood, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Begun in hope, the Arboretum project has become to some degree a chronicle of woes. Its first Fall was blighted by my fatherís death, as traumatic an experience as I ever hope to go through, and before my twelve-month-and-a-day of mourning was finished, the national tragedy of 9/11 struck, inflicting trauma across the board. I began that day only a few blocks away from the scene, at a job which at least provided me an island in the storm, but the storm has blown that away too. Now war and woe the world over seem the order of the day, and if I greet another May in hope, it may be that I hope for too much.

But through it all, the Greenwood endures. Or at least I hear its music echoing in the memory of country-dance tunes, mingled among the bird songs and the voice of flowing waters issuing from the wooded shades of Central Park. Now, even as of yore, May Day marks the high point of the Springtide. The reality of reborn green transcends time, as pleasing to our modern senses as to our medieval forebearsí. This is what I alluded to in 2000, when I plotted the course of the season through a triangulation of Spring holidays, ordered in the ancient Celtic form of the triad. A triad creates a relationship of three, in which the first two items set up the third as the real point of the poem. Thus I said that Spring has three faces: St. Patrickís for the past, Easter for the future, but May Day for the moment: the only time we can actually inhabit.

In 2001 I gave myself over wholly, and didnít even write the real post until afterwards, when I detailed the course of a dayís rambles through the Park. And in 2003 I sought to use the immediate as prophylactic against the overbearing symbolism of two vultures that shadowed a war-wracked Spring. That turned out to be a failed effort; more to the point was 2002ís poem, which introduced a theme that ran to the end of the year, linking the seasons through flower and fruit, by way of a riddle acknowledging that though these may be in a sense the same thing, it is transformed through time, and we cannot have both at once.

What we can have is the gift of Spring. Traditionally this takes the form of the Branch of May: the flowering bough collected before dawn for exchange between lovers. If the Greenwood is to persist, its rituals must of necessity change somewhat. As antidote to our carefree destructive ways of old we no longer need to break boughs or catch birds on limed twigs. The camera and the binocular will suffice, allowing us to possess these things without maiming or imprisoning them. Just to glut upon sensation is enough for May in the twenty-first century.

The value of this natural sensuality is no small thing. All the more so now, when our own sexuality is too often vulgarized and pornographic, lacking the perspective of natureís context. For our ancestors, nature was the domain of a wildness that held a threat equal to its enticement, honing the piercing point of sensual ecstasy. The Puritans outlawed the May Games, and the walls of the City protected them from natureís rank encroachment, but now all is turned inside out; it is we who wield the threat, and the wild things fly before our sprawl. Yet with care the Greenwood can grow inside our walls, be they walls of concrete or of mind. But the music of our Maying must be as a feigned birdcall, designed to draw the winged enchantments back within our view. There is an old song in which the catching of the flitting bird is equated with the fleeting pleasure of love, but for us, capture is now beside the point, for such birds as these will ever elude our snares. May we rejoice in the freedom of their being.

- alex 5-01-2004 12:54 pm

return to: Mr. Wilson's Arboretum

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