Friday, June 20, 2008

Midsummer Night

I have only the vaguest of emotional responses to midsummer, funnily enough. It's nice enough, and all. But I've never had any strong responses to it, not the way I do to the other three seasons. Shakespeare's play has repeatedly been a source of joy and rejuvenation for me, I can say that. Incidentally, did you know that just as Macbeth is supposed to be a cursed play, A Midsummer Night's Dream is supposed to be very lucky?

It has been for me, though I'm starting to wonder if I'm going to get cast as Puck before I need to play him in a walker. (Are you listening, universe? I was born to play Puck! You KNOW that. What the hell is the hold-up? Let's get crackin'!)

I did spend some time outside today, and I spent most of yesterday in what is probably my favorite park (were I forced to choose just one) Fort Tryon. Alert gardeners will recognize many of these flowers are out of season, I'm sure. Some of the photos are from yesterday, some are from May 29th. There weren't as many blossoms yesterday, though there was a ton of lavender.

Oh how I do love lavender. I'm beginning to think that whomever decides what goes into the Heather Garden pays as much attention to scent as she or he does to blossoms. Every time I go, there is some new fragrance gracing the air.

I came across a wonderful snippet about the summer solstice; according to some, the Oak King was crowned on this night, and it was the only time when he was the equal to the Goddess. He immediately began losing power of course, and his winter twin, the Holly King was born. I've recently become very enamoured of oak trees, no doubt getting more in touch with my Celtic roots, since it was the most sacred tree to them. One possible entymology of druid is 'oak sage'.

I like that.

So, my celebration tonight is rather cursory; I'll light a candle no doubt, drink a glass of wine, eat some fresh fruit, vegetables, cheese, chocolate. Funny how my celebrations almost always involve wine and chocolate. Eh, it works. As with Samhain, St. Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, and my birthday, I always think this occasion calls for me getting laid. Rarely has this panned out however. If there is one thing I do feel about this time of year though, it's gratitude for the rich lush fecundity around me, and the optimism it engenders.

Have a lovely time tonight, my friends, even if for you that means just a nice quiet Friday evening.

"Live each season as it passes: breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit..." Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Nature Kills Me

I hadn't expected to be posting again so soon, but my walk in Central Park had a nice resonance with Joe's most recent post. I first saw this fella (or dame, I don't know) on the far side of a small pond. Even with my tightest shot, this was as big as I could get the image. Suddenly, it was as if the egret (or is this a small heron?) had read my thoughts, and decided to help me out. He flew across the pond (I love how they skim just above the water) landing on the shore directly in front of me. (My camera doesn't respond very quickly, so I was lucky to get a shot of him with wings out-stretched at all. ) There was a fairly large crowd around me who had been there for a while, and farther along the pond there were other people actually feeding some ducks, so it doesn't seem like he was coming over in the hopes of a hand-out. I noticed I was the only person around wearing a white t-shirt. Maybe he thought I was another egret. This event was definitely all about me, no question.
Unfortunately, also sitting on my bench was another guy with a camera, who seemed to believe mistakenly that the bird had flown over for his benefit. He got up and began moving far too fast (in my opinion) and too close (ditto) for the bird's comfort. The latter tried to accomodate us for a bit, but then flew to another more secluded spot on the pond. Eventually he flew back nearby me (but on the opposite side from the other guy, so I know it was all about me), but not as close as before, taking advantage of the protection afforded by a willow tree and some tall weeds. By the way, what do you think, do long-necked water birds deliberately choose locations and poses that make them look like Chinese paintings? Why did this bird go right to this rock, for example? I see no benefit in it for him, but it does make a lovely composition.

Anyway, I wasn't able to get as close as I might have, had Mr Eager Beaver not chased the egret away before, but I still managed to get some nice shots. How on earth does something with a neck this skinny manage to hold its head up, or eat anything solid? Nature kills me sometimes.

With that thought, I once again call on my plant and tree experts; what the hell is this? It was close to a small playground, so at first I wondered if it were artificial, and part of a Dr. Suess theme. Seriously, doesn't this look like a truffula tree? I kept looking around for the Lorax, but he never showed. Closer examination proved it to be an actual growing tree, but I have never seen anything like it before. Can anyone help me out here? This can't possibly be native to North America, can it?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Another Look

After I had reread the Wind in the Willows, I was mulling over things it had stirred up, and taking walks to help the rumination. In the latter half of May here, there were some wonderful, cool blustery days full of racing clouds, scattered raindrops, diamond light and sharp shadows. I love this kind of weather, and appreciated it this time all the more since it seemed to mirror the English landscape of my thoughts.
I live about three blocks from a state park called Riverbank, not to be confused with the city park that lies south and north of it, called Riverside. Riverbank is basically a sports complex with a track, playing field, handball and basketball courts, a couple of playgrounds, an indoor pool, an outdoor pool, and a handful of buildings I know nothing about. It sits up maybe six stories above the Hudson River, atop a city sanitation facility; the smell of cooking sewage is not a constant presence, but it does pop up pretty regularly. In the past when I have wanted to take a walk, but didn’t have the time to take a subway somewhere more appealing first, this was one of my default paths. You walk out my door, turn right and head down to the pedestrian bridge over the Westside Highway into the park. Walking the perimeter, you get some gorgeous views of the river; to the south it feels like you can see all the way to the end of the island; to the north you see the George Washington Bridge and the Palisades State Park in New Jersey. Exit over another walking bridge at 145th, then back down to my house, the whole thing takes maybe thirty minutes at the most.
At the north end of Riverbank there is an elevator and stairwell that takes you down to the northern part of Riverside City Park. In my first few years here I would occasionally visit this area too, but generally I went there even less than I went Riverbank. The only way I knew to access it (and in fact construction was blocking most other ways) was by way of this stairwell. It would take me at least twenty minutes just to get there so if I wanted to spend any time actually walking near the river, I had to expect it to take at least forty minutes, or, better yet, an hour; in that time I could have ridden the subway to Central Park or Fort Tryon, someplace I really liked. This place had very little to recommend it, as far as I was concerned. It is flat, narrow strip of land with an admittedly pleasant boulevard of oak and mulberry trees, some playing fields to which I am largely indifferent, some additional basketball courts (yawn), and some enormous parking lots. Its biggest drawback as far as I was concerned though was the highway running alongside it. The constant roar of six lanes of heavy traffic I could sometimes fool myself into thinking was just the sound of a waterfall, but the honking and frequent off-ramps usually ended up breaking that illusion. Above, you can see what I mean when I say the park is over-shadowed by the highway. There just wasn’t enough to keep me coming here.
But then there was this blustery day, see? I walked down 139th with the intention of first visiting the small gardens that lie under the pedestrian bridge (themselves recently made accessible by the end of construction), below the highway, next to the Amtrak tracks. This spring I’ve been enjoying the ever changing flowers on display there, and the increase in green loveliness as the trees leaf out. On the first of these blustery days, I discovered that some additional barricades had been removed, and some grand park stairs were now available.. I’ve mentioned before than any kind of elevation change, but especially an unexpected descent is, for this flatlander, a rather mystical experience; I always feel like I’m walking into a new, secret world. This time the experience was all the more powerful because the staircase itself looked like something out of Middle Earth, and at the foot there were a whole line of restaurants I had never seen before, with outdoor eating areas, tucked away in a quiet little cul-de-sac (well, as quiet as the nearby six lane overpass would allow).
Heading closer to the river, I found a pedestrian/jogger/bike trail. There wasn’t anything particularly attractive, but here again, something about finding it today had a magic to it. I recognized too that weather I was enjoying was keeping most people indoors. Almost since I had left my apartment building, I hadn’t seen another soul. In Manhattan, during daytime. Once I walked under the 138th pedestrian bridge, (taking a moment to marvel at the daredevil graffiti on the sides), I realized this path was going to take me right to the park.
The racing clouds-and-light show above me was quite exciting, but I also didn’t mind – in fact even kind of liked – the gritty urban quality to the sights. Parking lots and sanitation works to my left, railroad tracks and high walls to my right, metal fencing all around me, nothing but this stretch of tarmac and some green on either side. This marks an interesting step in my development; as a kid, even into my twenties, I would have found this landscape claustrophobic and terribly depressing. Don’t know if that’s progress, or resignation exactly, but it’s interesting. And did I mention how much I was loving both the weather and the solitude?
In the park itself, a fierce wind blew off the water more or less drowning out the sound of the highway. The light and water were constantly changing from the wind. I took note of the fact that most of the water appeared to be flowing upstream. This close to the ocean, the Hudson is actually an estuary, not a river; this apparent reversal in flow let me know the tide was rising. I didn’t see any boating rats or moles, but there was something so right about being by a mighty river during a blustery day, as I thought about life on the Thames. When I came home I felt like I had been miles away; I get the same experience from my other park walks, but the subway ride always breaks the spell before I walk into my apartment. This time I was able to sustain the feeling all the way home.
Three days later I took exactly the same route, in exactly the same kind of weather, once again having the place to myself almost the entire time. As is the case with these things though, it was an entirely different walk. Different things were blooming, recent heavy rains had some areas flooded, and I pushed farther north this time, ending up finally at the sight of another children’s book, the Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge (I haven’t read this one, yet). I’d been noticing, and photographing the lighthouse from a distance for years, but this was the first time I actually paid it a visit. It was nice enough, but it was the walk there and back that was the real pleasure.
A few days later I took the walk yet again, on the spur of the moment, after I had run some errands on Broadway and 145th. That endeared this place to me even more, that I could simply be out and about, and decide to head home by a scenic route. This time the weather was warmer and calmer, so I no longer had the place all to myself; seeing people fishing helped me take note of the fact that this was one of the few places in Manhattan where one could walk right down to, even into the water, if one was so inclined. Most places the closest one can get is a railed walkway at least six feet about the river. I sat down on a rock and stared into the water. Two hours later I was still there, drinking in all the millions of things going on; there were ducks, Canada geese, a single cormorant. One tourist boat chugged south, followed later by some larger working boats, hauling something (lumber? garbage?). The sky wasn’t putting on quite the dramatic display it had the last two times, but it was still lovely and cool there by the water as the sun set. I had sat next to the river this long many other times, in other locations, mainly Battery Park, and the new Chelsea riverfront, but today was the first time I felt like I was really noticing the Hudson itself. I thought again of the River Rat talking about the Thames to the Mole when they first met: "‘It’s brother and sister to me, and aunts and company, and food and drink and (naturally) washing. It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing.’" That afternoon, sitting by the river with those words in my head, getting better acquainted with this water's moods and secrets, I felt like I was just making friends with the Hudson. I don’t know how else to put it.

I’ve taken this jaunt three or four more times since then. The rate of change among the flowers and plants seems to be slowing down, naturally, though I did have the chance to drink in the scent of clover (I hadn’t realized I missed it), and, to quote my friend Greg (quoting Will Smith), to appreciate just how many plants and trees were "getting jiggy with it." I came home from some of those walks covered in a wide variety of seeds, fluff, down, and dust. Thank god I don’t have allergies. Each walk was a completely different experience.

As the weather has gotten warmer, the place has gotten more crowded, and now, it’s always packed full of people grilling, picnicking, fishing, playing ball, lying under the trees near the water in pairs, hanging out in large noisy crowds. Now the roar of the highway is more often drowned out by someone's really hot sound system in the back of his car. The park no longer makes me think of an English meadow, and the lack of tree cover means I probably won’t be back to visit it much until the weather once again turns cool (sometime late October, no doubt). I’m happy though; the place is being well-used and well-loved.

At the end of my second blustery, solitary walk, I came back by way of the state park, since it is slightly quicker, and I was hungry.
The contrast this time between the relative silence I’d been experiencing, and the roar of traffic from the highway as I crossed over it was markedly distressing. It was the Thursday before Memorial Day Weekend, and the stream of cars leaving town was already quite heavy. As I turned in the direction of home though, I saw this.
It looked like it was looping right over my building, calling me home. Silly, I know, but it restored me to a sense of calm.

Friday, June 13, 2008

My Inner Adolescent

... can never walk past this corner without snickering. I'm barely even embarrassed anymore.

Yet another reason I love going to Melissa's apartment.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Favorite Books: The Wind in the Willows:'Spirit of Divine Discontent and Longing'

Friend Cooper’s comment a few entries back inspired me to revisit an old friend. I first read The Wind in the Willows when I was ten. My family was spending a year in London, and during the Christmas season we attended a panto entitled Toad of Toad Hall. Loving the production, I was then thrilled to learn there was a book involved, one in fact that was already a great favorite with my mom, dad, and sister. I soon joined their ranks. I think I reread the book sometime in my twenties, but even that was so long ago that this visit felt almost like the first time. I had forgotten so much! How could I have forgotten about the Wild Wood, Badger, the weasels, the Jail-keeper’s Daughter?

This time through, perhaps because it was almost a new book to me, I became aware of a theme I’d never noticed before. Throughout the book Mole, Rat - and countless unnamed birds and fieldmice - find themselves hearing and responding to strong calls, voices of some great, unbodied presence, that command or entice them to action. In describing a specific call, the author paints this general portrait:

We others, who have long lost the more subtle of the physical senses, have not
proper terms to express an animal’s inter-communications with his
surroundings, living or otherwise, and have only the world ‘smell’, for
instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills which murmur in the
nose of the animal night and day, summoning warning, inciting, repelling.
The book begins with Mole answering one such command. He’s in the midst of cleaning his little home:

Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said ‘Bother!’ and ‘O blow!’ and also ‘Hang spring-cleaning!’ and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously...

Mole soon meets two life-changing friends, the Water Rat, and the River Thames. (For both animals, the river is as much companion as habitat.) In responding to Spring’s command, Mole’s life is expanded, and invigorated. Three seasons later, however, during a mid-December walk with Ratty, he experiences a different call.

It was one of these fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in
the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar
appeal, even while as yet he could not clearly remember what it was. He
stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts
to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly
moved him. A moment and he had caught it full again; and with it this time
came recollection in fullest flood. Home!

After a brief misunderstanding, the Rat and the Mole pay his home a visit, settling in for a cozy evening that soon includes local fieldmice carolers. After the party, as the two of them nod off to sleep,

[Mole] let [his eyes] wander round his old room, mellow in the glow of the
firelight that played or rested on familiar and friendly things which had long
been unconsciously a part of him, and now smiling received him back, without
rancour. He was now in just the frame of mind that the tactful Rat had quietly
worked to bring about in him. He saw clearly how plain and simple – how narrow,
even – it all was; but clearly too, how much it all meant to him, and the
special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence. He did not want to
abandon the new life and its splendid spaces, to turn his back on sun and air
and all they offered him and creep home and stay there; the upper world was too
strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return to
the larger stage. But it was good to think he had this to come back to, this
place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again
and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome

The Water Rat experiences two calls as well; the one he and Mole experience together I will get to in a moment, but the one he experiences alone I am still mulling over. Though it is only just past high summer, Rat notices – to his irritation – that many other animals are making preparations for autumn; the field mice are seeking out winter quarters, the birds are making plans for their flight south, if they haven’t left already. A quartet of swallows is particularly eloquent in describing both the call south in autumn, and call north in spring, thus increasing Ratty’s discontent.

Restlessly the Rat...lay looking out towards the great ring of Downs that barred his vision further southwards – his simple horizon hitherto, his Mountains of the Moon, his limit behind which lay nothing he cared to see or know. Today, to him gazing south with a new-born need stirring in his heart, the clear sky over their long low outline seemed to pulsate with promise; today, the unseen was everything, the unknown the only real fact of life.
To brings matters to an even greater boil, Rat is soon joined by a Sea-Water Rat. After six months living on a farm, a life he considered "the best" the Sea Rat is nonetheless "tramping southward, following the old call, back to the old life, the life which is mine and which will not let me go." He captivates Ratty with stories of life on board, the exotic sights and sounds of travel, and in ending says,
And you, you will come too, young brother; for the days pass and never return,
and the South still waits for you. Take the Adventure, heed the call, now
ere the irrevocable moment passes! ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a
blithe some step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then
some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been
drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a
store of goodly memories for company.

Initially Ratty chooses to follow this summons, though his moving like a sleep walker ‘with slow deliberation’ suggests a creature possessed rather than one answering a higher call. As he’s about to leave, Mole runs into him; disturbed by his odd, listless behavior, and the fact that his eyes are ‘'that of another animal’s’' (they are now the "streaked and shifting grey" of the Sea Rat’s, not Ratty’s normal warm brown), he physically prevents him from leaving the burrow. Rat struggles at first, falls into a storm of weeping, finally succumbing to an exhausted slumber. Upon waking he’s unable to explain things; "[e]ven to himself, now the spell was broken and the glamour gone, he found it difficult to account for what had seemed, some hours ago, the inevitable and only thing."

This is the only time in the book that a character chooses not to accept the call, and I’m still unsure what to make of that. The pattern of an Odyssey is used throughout the book; hell, the final chapter is called The Return of Ulysses. The best I can come up with is that while Rat feels generally restless and discontented, he never actually hears the call of the South himself; rather he becomes infected with the experience as it hits other animals. First the birds, then the Sea Rat mesmerize him (perhaps literally, in the case of the latter) with their own longings. For them it is in their natures, but for Ratty, apparently it never is. The gentle expansion Mole experiences is somehow in keeping with his nature; running off to sea simply isn’t for his friend. I’m still not fully satisfied with this answer, but it’s the best I can do for the present. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that this story of a call is the last such one to occur chronologically. Is the author suggesting some wayfaring is a fine thing, but abandoning one's home completely is not? I welcome thoughts from others. I find it touching that Mole talks him back into a state of health first by casually talking in detail about the pleasures of the coming autumn, then suggesting, "It’s quite some time since you did any poetry,’ he remarked. ‘You might have a try at it this evening, instead of – well brooding over things so much. I’ve an idea that you’ll feel a lot better when you’ve got something jotted down – even if it’s only just the rhymes." Perhaps epic travel isn’t for Ratty, but creating (and perhaps the concomitant flights of imagination) clearly is. With these actions, Mole mirrors what Ratty did for him, back in December, in his little home.

One of my, and my mother’s, favorite stories involves a call Mole and Rat experience together, one that is literally divine. Out in the middle of the night in search of a lost otter child, first the Rat, then the Mole become aware of enticing piping that brings them to a small island.
‘This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. ‘Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’
Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet th the ground. It was no panic terror – indeed he felt wonderful at peace and happy – but it was an awe that smote him and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very , very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently.... He looked into the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter...
‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’
‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid of Him? O, never, never! And yet – and yet – O, Mole, I am afraid!’
Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.
... The sun’s broad golden disc...took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.
As they stared blankly, in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realized all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface the surface of the water... blew lightly and caressingly in their faces, and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. For this is the last best gift that the kindly demigod is careful to bestow on those to whom he revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and... spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and lighthearted as before.
Does it surprise anyone that it was from this chapter that Dear Sweet Cooper drew his quotation?

Of course you know where this is going, don’t you. I have been feeling the call of some voice lately too. It’s the reason I spent so much time wandering about in parks last month, average walk lasting three hours. If all the voice wanted was for me to experience one of the finest urban MaysI ever have, I would be satisfied. I suspect though that the walks are also intended to help me clear my head, lower the static a bit, so I could better hear the real message. Is it calling me to adventure or home? It’s probably wishful thinking, but right now I think the answer is ‘yes’. Whatever joys this place holds for me, it has never been home, and I’ve always known that. Where home is, however, is by no means clear. If it were, I’d have gone there ages ago. Whether it's a journey of geography or psychology, I have a sense that my next adventure will be the search for home. That said, I've been feeling pretty lighthearted most of the time lately. I may be feeling a ‘divine longing’ but I wouldn't say I'm that discontented. Whatever else the voice may be saying, I think right now it's telling me"wait, be patient, it’s not yet time." I'll keep taking my nature walks; all the photos in this entry are from a walk near my home that I’ve taken several times in the past three weeks. I want to tell you about them, why they’ve surprised and delighted me, but this has already become an epic tome. So I’ll save that for another entry.
Side note: Blogger is acting odd again today, so my quotations, first in block mode, then changed to italics, aren't behaving. Whatever I do in the entry seems to bear little effect on what actually gets published. Just to reassure you, the entire novel is not written in some bizarre blank verse.