Central Park is a dazzle of green splashed down in the midst of a wasteland of cement and concrete. It is a playground, an outdoor theater and gym, a sanctuary for looked-at birds and neglected wildflowers, a feast of statuary, a forager's paradise, a photographer's dream, an Edenic gem, a threat. (Yes, a threat; I've been attacked there twice, once by a human and once by a monster.)
Central Park, comprising 843 mostly verdant acres, was opened to the public in the winter of 1859. It has a long history, but since I've recounted its beginnings in -- of all things -- verse, and rhymed verse at that, I'll forgo an account of its origins here.
For the hardy few: Those eager to hear the story of the Park's origins can go to the post Poesy, no. 2: "Invitation to Eden."
|Wood thrush in Central Park.|
I have joined the party on occasion, marveling at the avian wonders of a peak migration day, then brooding and lamenting on a day between waves that offers the sorriest of sights: waddling starlings, pushy jays, fat pigeons, and drab-looking English sparrows, all of them visible every day of the year and therefore to be shrugged off or scorned. Since warblers and other species have a way of feeding in lofty treetops, the price of these excursions is what's termed "warbler neck," relief from which comes on those rare special days when decaying stumps and logs suddenly become alive with hordes of hatching termites, and the warblers swoop down to devour them, giving euphoric birdwatchers a half-hour eye-level spectacle to be viewed from a mere six feet away. Such days are glorious, and for them birders from all over the Northeast and even farther away flock to Central Park.
This avian obsession -- so baffling to the profane -- puts initiates at odds with dog walkers (whose canines are too often -- in violation of park rules -- off the leash), but somehow the two groups accommodate. The Ramble has uses for many visitors of different persuasions, as became apparent once when a lady birder, looking for furtive species in a secluded grove, came back with a look of disgust: "Gay porn -- ugh!" So it goes. Birders, dog walkers, joggers, cruising gays, picnicking families, noisy school groups on assignment -- they all use the Park, though mercifully not all at the exact same time. Amazingly, they manage to coexist.
|Witch Hazel flowers H. Zell|
No warbler neck results from viewing wildflowers, and there are no crowds either; I'm usually the only one in the Park who is looking at them closely, as opposed to those who walk breezily past them and remark, "Oh, look at the pretty flowers!" Which gives me a huge feeling of snobbish superiority. Especially when I crouch or sprawl on the ground in grassy or barren places to study tiny flowers like knotweeds and speedwells and mouse-ear chickweed, flowers invisible to anyone standing and that no one else notices or would want to notice. And I never pick flowers, except in rare cases where I need to take a specimen home to study it, and those are always the tiny, near-invisible species, not the big showy ones that everybody sees.
Footnote: As for those showy ones, do people really grasp what they're looking at? If we humans behaved like flowers, luring others with gaudy colors and then brazenly thrusting our sex organs at them, we'd be arrested and fined. Which, come to think of it, happens somewhere every day. Okay, the flowers are luring insects, not us, so they can use them as go-betweens, but it's all still pretty flagrant.
And now for some quick highlights of the Park -- my highlights, of course, if not everyone's.
The Wildflower Meadow: Situated in the North End near the the wooded Ravine, in August it offers showy species like the three-inch trumpetlike red flowers of trumpet creeper, and the tubed pink flowers of false dragonhead (why false? I wonder), suggesting -- with a lot of imagination -- the gaping jaws of a monster, yet a docile monster since, if pushed to left or right, the flowers remain in that position, thus earning the name "obedient plant." And there, towering far above you, grow thick stands of cup plant and coreopsis and coneflower, reaching to nine, ten, twelve, or rarely even fifteen feet high. These wonders I often have to myself, since the Meadow draws few visitors. Going there for the first time was, for me, a revelation: I had had no idea that wildflowers could grow to such a height. Thrilling, awesome, humbling.
Footnote: These misadventures of mine seem trivial, when compared to the case of the Central Park jogger who in 1989 was raped and beaten in the Park, suffering injuries so severe that she had no memory of the attack or the attacker. The police arrested five black teenagers who confessed to the crime, then later retracted their confessions; despite discrepancies in their accounts of the attack, and a lack of DNA evidence implicating them, they were convicted and sent to prison. Years later, after all had completed their sentences, another man confessed to the rape and was confirmed by DNA evidence, causing the convictions of the five to be vacated. This case not only reminded citizens
of the possible dangers lurking in their beloved Park, but also raised questions about coerced confessions and the procedures of prosecutors -- questions still debated today.
I will end with a note on trees, well over twenty thousand of which are found in the Park, including 152 different species. If I love wildflowers, I reverence trees, whose majesty we take too much for granted. In summer trees give us restful shade and nourish the insects that nourish the birds we enjoy. They anchor the soil and are a necessary part of our ecosystem. But to truly appreciate their mighty architecture, one must see them in winter with their branches stripped of leaves.
Decades, sometimes centuries, go into the making of these soaring edifices. When, in August 2009, a freak thunderstorm blasted Great Hill and the Pool, in the northwest corner of the Park -- an area where I have often roamed -- hundreds of trees were damaged or downed. When I went there a few days later, the whine of power saws and grinders reverberated as workmen cut up fallen trunks and shredded them. Each splintered stump, each shattered trunk was a friend lost; I mourn them to this day. Saplings can be planted to replace them, but their growth will take many years; the loss is great.
Maybe it all began in my childhood in Evanston, Illinois, where the streets were lined with arched elms providing a canopy of green. Across an alley from our house a giant cottonwood towered up in a neighbor's backyard. In the worst midday heat I would sometimes lie on a flat roof next to our sleeping porch, hoping for a tan (a youthful folly, but a common one), and watch the summer breeze ripple through that vibrant mass of silver-flecked green. In that luxuriant forest I could see all the monsters and heroes of my childhood. Pterodactyls soared, stegosaurs and tyrannosaurs moved their scaly flanks, and diplodocus oozed his vast weight in prehistoric seas. Robin Hood and his men practiced archery, hoping one day to plant their keen shafts in the villainous heart of Sir Guy of Gisborne, and Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson planned to beat the pants off General Hooker, which they would do, though at the cost of a fatal Rebel bullet in valiant Stonewall's chest. Sometimes I imagined this great tree struck by lightning and falling in just such a way as to shatter the roof where I lay, with dire consequences to our house and especially myself -- a catastrophe that
I anticipated with dread and fascination. For if great trees are majestic, they are also vulnerable and share that quality with humans. And so ends, after a long digression, this ramble through the Park.
An irrelevant aside: My bank, J.P. Morgan Chase (they of the multibillion-dollar loss), continues to outdo itself in cordiality. When I go to my branch, I am inundated with friendly greetings from people I've never had dealings with. The information counter still dispenses not only lollipops, as previously reported, but also pens, and a stand with a hand-sanitizing device has also appeared, its presence confirming the fact that Chase, like all banks, deals primarily in filthy lucre. So what's next? A cookie jar? A miniskirted hostess? A perfumed fountain? All this to redeem their damaged image and repute. I wish them well, but they've a long way to go.
Thought for the day: A rose in full bloom is a raunchy miracle; lilies are obscene.
© 2012 Clifford Browder