Sunday, August 19, 2012

21. Central Park: Playground, Sanctuary, Threat

                                                                                                                                                                     Fritz Geller-Grimm

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." 

File:Hylocichla mustelina -Central Park, New York, USA-8.jpg
Wood thrush in Central Park.
Dendroica cerulea
The Park has a hundred features, a thousand attractions.  This won't be an organized tour but rather a random ramble that may even take us out of the Park and then back in again.  Where to begin?  Maybe birds.  Situated on the Atlantic flyway, an oasis of green in an urban desert, it attracts over a hundred migrating species in the spring and fall, which in turn attract hordes of birdwatchers, binocs in hand, who from an early hour scan the trees and bushes and ground of the wooded Ramble for darting warblers, keen-eyed flycatchers, the scarlet flash of a tanager, or a wood thrush poking about for insects on the ground, or perched on a branch, giving forth its faint, delicate, flutelike notes.  I have often seen the wood thrush's nest, hidden unless you looked close, but a few feet away from a much- traveled path in the Ramble.

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
I haven't birdwatched for a number of years, devoting myself instead to wildflowers, which have the distinct advantage of not flying away; when you spot them, they let you look your fill.  For spring wildflowers I have to go elsewhere, but the Park is rich in summer species like the cardinal flower and ironweed and great lobelia, and late summer and autumn species like the many goldenrods and asters, ending with the spindly, spiderlike yellow flowers of the witch hazel, which many would not even take for a flower, and which bloom as late as November, sometimes even when snow is on the ground.  Medicinal witch hazel is an extract from the bark of the tree, and freshly cut forked branches have been used as divining rods to locate the presence of underground water, so a well can be dug.  (Any water witches out there?  If so, please explain how it works.)

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.

Bethesda Fountain and Terrace:  Everyone looks at and photographs the angel-topped fountain and the ample terrace around it, adjoining the Rowboat Lake across from the Ramble.  Certainly the site is impressive.  But my eye always goes to the sculpted detail -- birds, fruit, and foliage -- on the sides of the stairway leading from the terrace to the upper level of the Park.  Created by the sculptor Jacob Wrey Mould, they fell into disrepair until restored by the Central Park Conservancy, which has renovated the Park section by section -- a marvelous project undertaken by volunteers that is still under way.  The detail of the bas reliefs is charming and well worth a look.

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.

File:Bow Bridge in Central Park NYC 2 - August 2009 HDR.jpg
Francisco Diez
The Bow Bridge.  It arches gracefully over the Rowboat Lake,  on calm days mirrored perfectly in the Lake's greenish waters.  (Greenish, that is, until cleaned.)  My favorite bridge in the Park.  Crossing it into the Ramble one winter day, I was mugged by a junkie, a story I've told in vignette #15.  Memories of that incident have faded to the point where I can enjoy the tranquil beauty of the bridge without anxiety, but it does remind me that the Park can, on occasion, present a threat.  I have been attacked there twice, the second incident occurring at the Pool, a quiet pond near 103rd Street and Central Park West, when, without provocation, a large dog knocked me to the ground and tore my jacket.  I should have confronted the owner, who belatedly called the dog off, but at that point I wanted only to put space between me and that damnable canine, which I promptly did.  My jacket bears the rip to this day, but at least it was the jacket, not me, that the blatant beast stabbed with his fangs.

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.

File:Untermeyer fountain1-Walter Schott.jpg
Ralph Hockens
The Three Dancing Maidens:  There are many impressive statues in the Park, as for instance Romeo and Juliet in a rapturous embrace outside the Delacorte Theater and, near Strawberry Fields, Daniel Webster rising majestically on a massive pedestal bearing his famous words LIBERTY AND UNION, NOW AND FOREVER, ONE AND INSEPARABLE.  But, on a less grandiose note, I'm especially fond of Walter Schott's 1910 work Three Dancing Maidens, originally done for a private estate, but now installed at the center of the north section of the Conservatory Garden, New York's only formal garden, at 105th Street and Fifth Avenue.  The sculpture by another artist of a boy and a girl in the garden's south section breathes an aura of innocence, but in the north section sensuality runs riot as the merry trio dance their joyous round even in the ice of winter.  In 1910 Victorian morality still purported to hold sway, so the dancers are clothed, more or less, but the clothing is flimsy and revealing.  Maidens, if you say so, but surely aware of gawking males.  If a Victorian matron had got word of her daughter disporting with the daughter's friends in this fashion, she would have yanked the offender home, lectured her, and launched a boycott of the dressmaker responsible for such immoral attire.  But this, of course, is art, not life, and originally intended for private, not public, display.  Today we think differently; in our more enlightened age some of the mamas might be tempted to join in the frolic.

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

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