Give Me Your Birders, Your Paddlers, Your Huddled Masses. . .

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, September 1994

Give Me Your Birders, Your Paddlers, Your Huddled Masses. . .

Ad libitum through Central Park, America's wildest experiment in democracy
By Toby Thompson

It's a perfect fall day in New York City: 60 degrees, the spires above Central Park West bathed in aquamarine, hundreds of people gathered near Bethesda Fountain or passing through its esplanade. A man in tailcoat and spats is telling stories by the Lake. Children sit on the grass as he paces and gestures. What he's saying is unintelligible from this distance, but a sign, GHOST TALES, gives him away. The children don't look apprehensive. Their glances drift to the Lake--with its rowboats, dawdling lovers, lush willows, and the art nouveau curve of Bow Bridge--but soon return. For they are city kids, trained to esteem theatricality.

Which is omnipresent. A classical guitarist plucks New Age riffs as an accomplice hawks cassettes. A fusion band, New Hype Jazz, plays as its leader, a Latino trumpeter in beret and motorcycle jacket (a hockey mask capping its right shoulder) passes a bowl for contributions. The music is infectious; an aging hipster in zoot suit and stingy brim starts to rhumba. Above the Terrace, a puppet troupe called Crowtations--birds costumed like the Temptations--lip-syncs to Motown. Its choreography is hilarious, and the crowd tips big. Beside a willow, white-coated technicians, expert in reflexology, acupuncture, and related therapies, knead the backs of clients (ten minutes, $10) who splay face-down on orthopedic chairs. One masseur's placard reads, BODYWORK FROM CHINA, JAPAN, EGYPT, ISRAEL, TIBET, THE BRONX, AND HEAVEN.

A few yards away, under an overhanging branch, a largemouth bass swirls at the Lake's surface. I spot it and cast a black surface popper, jigging it lightly across the water. I've been fishing for half an hour and, except for two small bluegills, have caught nothing. The Lake is rich in aquatic life, and it is not unheard-of for anglers to take six- to eight-pound bass here. I jerk the popper and the fish strikes, tugging twice and then pulling hard for deep water.

As my rod bows, I hear a father say, "Look, Josh, the man's fishing." Guitar music pauses. I fight the bass to shoreline, where a small crowd of children is gathering. I palm the fish--12 inches--before releasing it, and turn to see some 20 people watching.

The reflexologists seem annoyed, as does the storyteller; I've diverted their customers. I strip out line and cast deliberately so that the children might watch, as curses from musicians and accupuncturists fill the air.

What Central Park is for, and to whom it belongs, are questions that have been argued since New York City's Greensward Plan, developed by city planners and landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, was effected in 1858. This was America's first landscaped public park--and its first democratic one, an archetype for all that have followed. It was conceived at a moment when the perils of city life in an industrial economy, with its wide disparities of wealth and class and its exploding immigrant population, were first becoming evident to Americans. Andrew Jackson Downing, the preeminent landscape architect of his day, had lobbied as early as 1849 for "the necessity of a great park" as a palliative for Manhattan's tensions. He'd long felt that the romantic tradition and its "rural embellishments" were needed "to soften and humanize the rude...and give continual education to the educated." This sentiment was at the heart of the thesis of rus in urbe, "the country in the city," which found its practical application in Olmsted and Vaux's design. Despite Americans' love of theatrical excess, Vaux, a disciple of Downing, had praised their "innate homage to the natural in contradistinction to the artificial," and Olmsted believed that a naturalistic park would have "a distinctly harmonizing and refining influence upon the most unfortunate and most lawless classes of the city." It would calm, and then activate, their imaginations by creating a romantic world of improved nature, where the rough edges of city life were smoothed and the exigencies of industrialism temporarily suspended.

Today, Central Park is synonymous with what's best and worst about urban life. It's where Woody Allen cavorted with Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, and where the celebrated Jogger was raped and nearly murdered in 1989. It's where Paul Simon played to 750,000 fans in 1991, and where Jennifer Levin was strangled in 1986's Preppy Murder. It's where the New York City marathon ends, and where many a drug addiction starts. It's where thousands line the sidewalk to enjoy Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, just a few yards from where John Lennon was slain in 1980.

Through popular art, Central Park has been laminated onto our psyches. It's where Stuart Little raced his boat on Conservatory Water, where Holden Caulfield fretted about ducks wintering on the Pond, where The Fisher King's Robin Williams urged Jeff Bridges to disrobe and "give the little guy some air," and where Jack Nicholson howled at the moon in Wolf. Central Park is Manhattan. And if Manhattan epitomizes urban America, Central Park epitomizes all that urban Americans expect from their bits of the country in the city.

Theatricality--of the type that Lillian Russell displayed by riding through Central Park on a gold-plated bicycle with jewel-encrusted spokes--has always conflicted with, and even threatened to overshadow, the park's natural subtleties. In summer they're cloaked by the greenery of 26,000 trees, which help make the park, lying as it does on the Atlantic and Hudson flyways, prime birding territory. Some 270 species have been identified while resting and recuperating here; 39 species, including downy woodpeckers, eastern kingbirds, tufted titmice, gray catbirds, and brown thrashers, nest in the park. More exotic species, such as great egrets, great blue herons, cormorants, and fish crows, have often been spotted. Last year two red-tailed hawks nested on the cornice of Mary Tyler Moore's building, overlooking the park at 74th Street and Fifth Avenue; birders off Conservatory Water watched them mate on Woody Allen's TV antenna, as Allen and Soon-Yi Previn strolled hand in hand.

Most birding territories are in the park's secluded regions: the North Woods, the four-acre Hallett Nature Sanctuary near 59th Street, the 36-acre Ramble at park center. Their winding paths and verdancy cloak what Captain Bill Bayer of the New York Police Department's Central Park Precinct calls "predators": the five to 35 muggers, dozen rapists, and two murderers who in an average year ply their craft in the park. Though its administrators praise Central Park as the safest 843 acres in New York City, the brutality of its predators, when they strike, is notable--and usually well publicized. "If you have the misfortune of being raped or murdered in Central Park," says two-term New York City Parks and Recreation Department commissioner Henry J. Stern, "you become a celebrity."

My uncle William Nichols--a writer and producer of network television shows and a devotee of theatricality--was already celebrated when, while birding in the Ramble one day in 1963, he was attacked by several youths who robbed, beat, and left him for dead. His friend James Schuyler described the incident in a poem, "Dining Out with Doug and Frank":

My abstention from the Park
is for Billy Nichols who went
bird-watching there and, for
his binoculars, got his
head beat in. Streaming blood,
he made it to an avenue
where no cab would pick him up
until one did and at
Roosevelt Hospital he waited
several hours before any
doctor took him in hand. A
year later he was dead.

My dalliances in Central Park are invariably colored by my uncle's experience. Part of me is wary; another, incautious to the point of danger--it's a call of the wild. So on an evening in July, shortly after moving to an apartment near the park, I'm both startled and pleased to encounter a young African-American man spin-casting in the algae-covered Lake, off the Ramble. I've fished for striped bass in the East and Hudson Rivers, where pier fishermen brandish ax handles to discourage muggers, and I know of street kids who angle for the many species thriving there. But I didn't realize that fishermen work the Lake. "There's big ones," the young man claims, and then reluctantly divulges favorite spots: beneath the Pool's willows, at the northeast tip of the Reservoir, deep in the Turtle Pond. Then, as bats dip below the trees, he suddenly hooks something as solid as a tire, fights it to the shallows, and loses it in a swirl of gray. "Definitely a bass," he sputters. "Though when they drained the Meer," he adds, "they found a 20-pound carp and put it here."

The Meer was drained for renovation two years ago as part of Central Park's ongoing restoration, inaugurated in 1980; when it was refilled, it was stocked with 50,000 bass, bluegill, minnow, and catfish fingerlings. In September I bicycle north to find dozens of black and Latino anglers working its banks. Some own tackle, even fly rods, but most use bamboo poles with bobbers and barbless hooks that park volunteers provide free for catch-and-release fishing. As a jazz group plays before Dana Discovery Center, I watch an elderly woman teaching her grandson to fish in a body of water previously thought dead.

In 1856, the 843 acres that Central Park would encompass had been settled largely by minorities: "poor Irish, German and black families," according to Ron Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar's superb book The Park and the People, "who raised vegetables and tended hogs." Although records show that some park residents, including African-Americans, actually owned their land--a rare circumstance before Emancipation--they were characterized as squatters who inhabited a "scene of plunder and depredations," according to the Evening Post, "the headquarters of vagabonds and scoundrels of every description." Olmsted's intentions were avowedly "democratic," but adjoining landowners wanted a park, too--to improve their neighborhood and boost property values. The "squatters" would have to move. Seneca Village, "one of the city's best-established black communities, with three churches and a school," Rosenzweig and Blackmar report, was razed for Central Park, as were other minority settlements.

Today, Central Park administrator Betsy Barlow Rogers calls restoration of the park's northeastern corner--long a wasteland to its African-American and Latino neighbors--her "most thrilling" success. "When we opened Dana and the Meer last fall," she says, "I was feeling all that delight. 'You gave us back the park,' residents said. They remembered when it was nice, then how it got bad. Now it's nice again."

Rogers, the park's 57-year-old chief renovator and foremost spokesperson, was appointed administrator in 1979 after four years as executive director of the Central Park Task Force, a citizen group, and ten years with the Parks Council, another group concerned with preserving all of the city's parks, before that. One of her three books, The Forest and Wetlands of New York City, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1971. Rosenzweig and Blackmar rate her as "one of the five most influential figures in the park's history."

One of Rogers's most important roles--and one of her greatest strengths--is as a go-between for the New York Parks and Recreation Department and the Central Park Conservancy, a private fund-raising group. Coordinating gifts from the vastly rich denizens of Fifth Avenue, Central Park West, Central Park South, and neighboring locations, as well as from foundations and corporations, the Conservancy matches and at times betters the city's budget for park restoration, generating $100 million to date. Rogers in fact founded the group, and it is largely through her skill at facilitating such public-private partnerships that the current restoration project has come to be.

Such collaboration has become a panacea to urban park distress worldwide. "If parks are going to be truly great," says Stern, "there has to be some kind of partnership, with the city providing basic maintenance, and the frills and the special things that make them great being paid for privately. You can't have a series of royal gardens paid for by tax funds."

"They're all in trouble now," laments Rogers of the urban parks she's in touch with in Japan, Ireland, Italy, Germany, and France. "We had such vision when we built these great park systems in the nineteenth century. Now both a psychic and financial disinvestment in public space is going on. Some of us are optimists. We believe that there is an essential good in public spaces, and we think that you can overwhelm unsavory uses by bringing in positive uses. If you make the park look like it isn't a lawless and abandoned environment--if, to use a really old fashioned word, you invest in beauty--I have found in my work that there has been a corresponding appreciation. People have come back enthusiastically. It's a great and successful experiment in democracy."

Much of Central Park's democratic appeal is anchored to its fundamental accessibility as place. Except for the rivers, it's the only sizable expanse where Manhattanites may embrace the natural world. New immigrants are especially drawn to Central Park, some fishing, some hunting crayfish in the Meer, some picking ginkgo nuts or mulberries, some scouring the understory for pigweed or field garlic, others cleaving to rock outcroppings as if they were the spine of the island--which they are. One such is a Japanese boulderer named Yuki Ikumori. I meet him in October at Umpire Rock, a 400-million-year-old chunk of mica schist with grooves, made by glaciers 40,000 years ago, marking its northwest face like finger swipes in chocolate icing. Many such rocks, stumps of a decapitated mountain range, protrude from the park's landscape and elsewhere support Manhattan's skyscrapers. But none is so dramatically grooved as Umpire.

On its northeastern side I spot Ikumori, plastered to the face in khaki pants and pink drover's shirt, his only concession to gear a pair of chartreuse-laced climbing shoes. In his forties, he's lean, with powerful arms and back, a warrior's face, shoulder-length hair, and samurai mustache. He's coaching a young climber, leaving chalk prints on the schist as he fingers the way, while a Spanish television crew films him. He climbs with primitive grace--as a slow loris or a sloth might, negotiating a tree. He studies the rock, noting hand and toe holds, and then moves with the fluidity of aikido.

Ikumori takes a break to introduce himself. A native Japanese who's lived in New York for ten years, he's a visual artist who sleeps and works in the storeroom of an East Village restaurant in exchange for odd jobs and gardening. He spends much of his time painting, but otherwise lives to creep up the face of Manhattan bedrock. He's been climbing six years ("In clear weather I'm here every day," he says), pursues no other sport, and appreciates that "there are no champions in bouldering--you compete with the rock." The concentration it takes to best a boulder is similar to that necessary to create art, he points out. "And like art you have to find the route. I do ten new paintings a year, and I find ten new routes up the rock." Then he takes off again, climbing toward lovers seated at Umpire's summit, as music drifts from the Carousel and the Essex House's tower seems to dare him from Central Park South.

So great is the Manhattanite's hunger for nature that "Wildman" Steve Brill, since his arrest for picking and eating a dandelion here in 1986, has led more than 18,000 people on his Edible Tours of Central Park. (His book, Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, was published last spring.) Meanwhile, artist Walter De Maria's installation The Earth Room has been on display in a SoHo loft since 1980: 3,600 square feet of black dirt, microorganisms, and worms, with which visitors silently commune. Its keeper, Bill Dilworth, recently told the New York Times, "When people become disoriented and troubled, they will isolate themselves with the earth--and renew themselves." The same week, local TV reported that New Yorkers' innate sense of fecundity has transformed some 41 vacant lots on the Lower East Side to vegetable or flower gardens. That was underlined, three weeks later, by a second Times piece, on the biophilia hypothesis, which posits that humans have "a deep, genetically based emotional need to affiliate with the rest of the living world" and that scientific evidence suggests that "if we complete the destruction of nature, we will have succeeded in cutting ourselves off from the source of sanity itself."

Sources of sanity are at a premium in New York, of course, and I join the late-fall visitors hurrying to Central Park's woods. On a brisk December day the park's woodlands manager, Dennis Burton, accompanies me on a tour of the restored 90-acre North Woods. He's a fortyish fellow in a backpacker's parka and boots, with frizzy brown hair that this afternoon is flecked with sawdust from cutting a fallen black willow. "Huge," he assures me, "and planted about 60 years ago." He speaks, through a slight New York accent, of how he came to be an urban forester: "I have a degree in English from Stonybrook. When I graduated there was no job, so somebody offered me one doing tree work. Just the names of the trees--Viburnum dentatum--it all sounded so poetic... It kind of blossomed, so to speak, into this."

We stand a quarter-mile from Harlem, but this section of park could not feel more remote. In Olmsted's plan, its modest forest was left unimproved, suggesting the Adirondacks. It had been trampled by British and Hessian troops during the Revolutionary War and largely denuded by American forces during the War of 1812. Villages were cropping up when Olmsted acquired the land in 1863. The park's oldest building military Blockhouse #1, sits ruined on an adjacent hilltop.

I follow Burton south through Huddlestone Arch, a gravity bridge and tunnel made from elephantine blocks of Manhattan schist. "The idea was that you would walk from that open vista into this," Burton says, indicating the forest. "It's kind of like the magic gate." We emerge at the Ravine and walk past a restored waterfall, the Cascade, to Manhattan's last surviving streambed, from which Olmsted later created the Loch.

Burton pauses above a marsh crowded with asters and fallen willows. "We're starting to lose them," he says evenly, "but you can see the canopy has opened up. That's become one of our best bird habitats. On any given weekend, we'll find a line of birders on this path, looking in with their binoculars and spotting all kinds of stuff."

He gestures toward the trees. "What we're doing here is making kind of a model of the northeast deciduous forest--an oak, hickory, chestnut, tulip forest. That's what was here when the Europeans first discovered it." He walks on, pausing to toe a hillock. "We started replanting and restabilizing these slopes," he says. "We've used only native vegetation so far, mountain laurel and witch hazel, pin oak, ironwood, and the ground vegetation, plus different kinds of wildflowers that we would normally expect in here. The theory being that if you return a habitat to its original state, then you'll get wildlife to come back."

But Burton hasn't waited. "Because we're on an island, the best we can really hope to return naturally would be winged animals--birds, butterflies, bees, wasps, flies, that sort of thing," he says. "So we're introducing some amphibians and reptiles. The problem is that a lot of kids use the area, so turtles are difficult to bring in here because they're captured. Snakes pretty much the same. So we have, since last spring, introduced green frogs and the spring peeper. We've actually dug holes for them to lay their eggs." Raccoons, groundhogs, and rabbits are already well established. "We have a number of feral cats," Burton adds. "And we had a couple of dogs that had puppies over at Huddlestone, but they disappeared."

Just as in the public lands of the West, restoration in Central Park has come up against the conflicting values of multiple user groups. "There were so many constituencies that were concerned about what kinds of projects we were going to do--what we were going to put in here, what we were going to cut--that at first we didn't do anything," says Burton. Birdwatchers, for example, didn't want the underbrush cut back, and the Historical Society and Arts Council wrangled over every architectural maneuver. "We hired a consultant from Philadelphia--Leslie Sauer of Andropogon Associates--who's very cutting-edge on restoration of urban woodland ecosystems. She wrote us a 56-page report, and we created a Woodlands Advisory Board"--with representatives from the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the New York City Parks and Recreation Department, the Central Park Conservancy, and others--"which hashed over the information and slowly started approaching the restoration." Sauer's report cites four major contributors to the deterioration of North Woods: off-trail use of bicycles and vehicles, trampling by hikers, improper storm drainage, and the spread of exotic invasive vegetation.

"Most urban parks are going through a similar evaluation of the issues of landscape management--how they're going to protect natural areas," says Sauer. "We're reviewing the final draft of a master plan for Brooklyn's Prospect Park. We also did a master plan for Manhattan's Inwood Park, and we just completed one for the whole Olmsted park system in Louisville, Kentucky. But Central Park's program is the most intense and probably the most rich. Its level of expert staffing is really exceptional. It's the leader."

After examining Glen Span Arch, a restored portal at the Ravine's western entrance, Burton and I backtrack to a small meadow below the 102d Street Cross Drive. "We're slowly trying to establish this as a native grass and wildflower meadow," he says, "but it's slow because right now it's mostly inhabited by lawn grasses and that sort of thing." He grins. "So I got myself a kerosene torch, and what I'm going to start doing is burning off little sections, and uprooting those grasses, burning it again to stimulate the soil, and then seeding with the natural grasses and wildflowers." He steps back. "It's a gorgeous meadow, with goldenrod and different kinds of asters and a lot of different kinds of grasses in it. In late summer it's hip high." An older couple passes, arm in arm, and Burton glows. "Within a year and a half," he murmurs, "people started coming who say they haven't been down here in five or ten years. On weekends, I've seen more and more families coming through here. It seems to bring people together."

Such pastoral delights are a direct link to Central Park's nineteenth-century origins, when sheep grazed the Meadow and barouche carriage rides were the entertainment of choice. But professional outrageousness and native theatricality have always chipped at the park's gentility. From the start, working people preferred less-fettered commercial parks, such as Jones Wood or Hoboken's Elysian Fields, where beer drinking, ball playing, militia drills, gambling, picnicking on the grass, and Coney Island-type diversions were prevalent. Central Park had too many rules, and its acreage was removed from where poor New Yorkers lived. Populist voices, such as that of the Irish News, cried, "New York wants a place to play leap-frog in."

Olmsted and Vaux included several small playgrounds and a parade field in their Greensward Plan. But as the city grew northward, Boss Tweed paid off political debts with porkbarrel construction projects in the park, and in the 1930s parks commissioner Robert Moses reshaped it with countless new paths, buildings, and recreational and commercial facilities. Today's 15 million annual visitors are served by two skating rinks, a gigantic swimming pool, numerous tennis courts and ball fields with backstops, formal gardens, a model boat basin, two major restaurants, rowboats for rent, a zoo, a chess and checkers house, the Delacorte Theater, a cricket green, a concert stage, a police precinct, and two museums--the Natural History and the Metropolitan.

Yet it never seems enough. Conflict between recreational and romantic factions will again erupt when the fate of the recently decommissioned Central Park Reservoir is decided four years from now. Covering 110 acres, fully one-eighth of the park, it has for a century and a half quenched New York's thirst while providing a staggering aquatic vista that's home to waterfowl, huge trout, bass, bluegills, catfish, and turtles. Yet some would prefer it drained for tennis courts, softball fields, and horseshoe pits.

Others, such as former park curator Henry Hope Reed, would welcome a frank return to Olmsted's intentions, if not his plan. Nearly 30 years ago, Reed was advising parks commissioner Thomas Hoving that "what makes the park is the landscape, the green lawns, leafy vistas, and mirrors of water," not recreational features and events that would "desecrate one of the finest American examples of public art." Reed's constituency, Friends of Central Park, continues to advise Rogers in a thorn-in-the-side manner. It has criticized the Central Park Conservancy's allocation of plaques to playgrounds, statues, gardens, and park benches as prizes to those "determined philanthropists anxious to have their names embedded everlastingly in concrete." And a current director, Robert Makla, thinks asphalt paths in the Ravine "a disaster" and the new Dana Discovery Center and its planned restaurant "outrageous," ruining the country lake atmosphere of that end of the park. Says Makla, "This is where Olmsted intended poor people who can't leave New York to spend their two weeks' vacation--in a landscape resembling the Catskills or Adirondacks."

Equally outrageous, critics claim, are events such as last October's "Woofstock," its canine celebrants wearing tie-die, love beads, and bandannas on a march to benefit homeless animals. Beethoven served as Honorary Chairdog. Seventeen-hundred pet aficionados congregated to greet him and fellow celebrities Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Tama Janowitz, all dog lovers. On Rumsey Playfield were paper-fetching contests, obedience trials, dog vaudeville acts, and more subcaudal sniffing than in any porn palace along 42d Street. One woman brandished a sign reading, THERE IS NO SAFE SEX FOR PETS--SPAY OR NEUTER, as another screeched, "I wanna wawk, I gotta brunch date!"

The Woofstockers moved past joggers, in-line skaters, bicyclists, a speed walker reading from a script, and an Asian wedding party being photographed. The bride and groom, immaculate in white silk, stood on steps leading below ground to the Bethesda Arcade. Beneath its arches, where Francis Ford Coppola shot party scenes for New York Stories, some dozen homeless live. As the wedding couple smiled, ragged men and women crouched a few feet away on filthy sleeping pallets, as one troubled fellow shrieked, "Got your foreign policy, your deficit," and then whispered to a muralled wall, "This country, goddam, goddam."

Betsy Rogers admits that homelessness is "a terrible social problem that we have" in the park. "One tries to deal with it compassionately," she says. "We've spent millions of dollars restoring the Arcade. They aren't harming anything, but it's not nice to smell urine down there, and it's not a scene that makes other park users happy. On the other hand, how far do you go, and to where do you displace these people?"

That dilemma has been at the heart of the current restoration. In the temperate months, some 200 homeless people who sleep in the park are rousted mornings and ordered to move along. Rogers works with outreach groups to assist them and employs some as laborers for a project called Cash for Trash, but they won't disappear. "What you don't want is something like Tompkins Square Park," she exclaims, "where the whole place becomes colonized. Because that interferes with our basic mission, which is a recreational one."

Yet she also admits that the newest recreational addition--Summer Stage, an iron-railed platform near 72d Street--is "my Frankenstein." She started its program as a multiethnic venue for local artists but expanded it to include free concerts (Gil Scott-Heron and the New York Grand Opera last summer), plus benefit performances by Elvis Costello and the Neville Brothers. The crowds at these events often dismay park regulars and discombobulate the neighborhood.

Among the outspoken discombobulated is Richard Karp, a writer who lives nearby. "The park wasn't meant to be commercial, and it wasn't meant to be 'entertaining,'" he says. "You were supposed to entertain yourself." Karp has lived by Central Park since 1974 and has enjoyed its rusticity for 30-odd years. Most recently, to escape the chaos of two young children in a small apartment, he has repaired to a bench near Inventor's Gate each day for the past six months to read Gibbons's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Yet his deepest anger is directed not toward rowdy fans of the theatrical, but toward Rogers's renovation of the Boathouse Café. "It used to be you could sit there all sweaty from tennis, drink a beer, and enjoy the best view in New York. Every class and race," says Karp. "Now it's more expensive to sit by the water, cheaper out back. The only people who can afford to sit in front are art dealers and German tourists."

At three o'clock one February morning, I awake and am denied further sleep. I can hear wind rattling lampposts outside; there's little traffic. This has been Manhattan's coldest winter in memory: two degrees below zero on January 19. A foot of ice-capped snow blankets Central Park, skiers and skaters zipping daily across its surface. I've had a rucksack packed, awaiting a thaw, which appears distant. If I'm to explore the North Woods by night, it's now or never.

My intention has been to camp, but Dennis Burton has convinced me that the restored landscape is too fragile for that. Camping is, in fact, illegal in Central Park. Nevertheless I've packed a sleeping bag and air mattress; I'll meditate.

It's 12 degrees when I hit Fifth Avenue. Doormen yawn at the sight of a rucksacked pilgrim--they're used to us. I enter the park at 72d Street, boots skidding down the walk to Conservatory Water, then digging into snow dusting its frozen surface. Crayfish sleep in this boat basin, a chilly nest. No human is abroad. The apartments above Fifth are Delphic on the horizon. I hump to Bethesda Terrace and find its esplanade empty. Under the Arcade, however, is a sizable encampment: several dozen homeless people in cardboard shelters or tents, huddled against the cold. I cross the Lake's surface toward Bow Bridge, pausing to admire Central Park West's darkened spires against a moonlit sky. I duck under the bridge, and pigeons flutter as I disturb their perches.

I cut to land, tracking the Ramble's walks past Olmsted's rustic shelters, where more homeless camp, and through dark woods where no creature stirs. Here my uncle was attacked, but my only thought is of the landscape's beauty, its boulders capped with snow, its trees gently waving. At Belvedere Castle--a turreted structure on a cliff overlooking Turtle Pond--I disturb one camper, who grunts and turns in his blanket. I cross the Pond to a windswept Great Lawn, where I hunch my pack against the gale.

Passing the 1870 stables--now police headquarters for the park--I cross 86th Street to the Reservoir's cinder track, Manhattan's finest running path. Ducks huddle in the Pump House lee. Standing before this vast space, framed by art deco towers to the east and the garishly lit skyscrapers of Midtown, is like viewing the Rockies at sunset. I cross North Meadow and the 102d Street Cross Drive, where the Jogger was raped, and duck toward North Woods.

I half climb, half skid to the Ravine, where all is quiet. The Loch is frozen to invisibility, but remnants of footprints show me a path. I hike southwest to Glen Span Arch, backtrack to Huddlestone, and then move north through the forest to Blockhouse #1. There is no sound other than the wind rattling the tree limbs. Santeria is practiced here, and the carcasses of sacrificial animals are periodically discovered; in the early sixties, a human torso--with no arms, legs or head--was found in the park. I remember Edward Abbey's comment that "wilderness is and should be a place where, as in Central Park, New York City, you have a fair chance of being mugged and buggered by a shaggy fellow in a fur coat." The Blockhouse's great stones, atop the park's highest point, protrude from the ice like a glacial moraine. From here, Harlem and the Bronx stretch toward Long Island Sound. Headlights dart along Malcolm X Boulevard--the only things that move.

Backtracking again, I spook an owl, which rattles a branch and glides off eerily. Raccoons inhabit this forest, and though I detect scampering, no doubt they are nesting. Escaped parrots live here, too, and I recall a story that my uncle wrote for me about a canary named Henry who flees his cage to become lost in Central Park. I cross the Loch's marsh and unsling my pack at Dennis Burton's meadow, whose snow is pearly in the moonlight.

I lay my gear on ice, where no foliage will be harmed, and ease into my bag. A light snow is falling. I think of All Angels Church--its original structure razed to build the park--which runs an outreach program teaching homeless people to make their own sleepsacks. I ball my parka into a pillow and lie back to contemplate the sky.

I'm awakened by sunlight. It's 7:30. The meadow is powdered with fresh snow. A squirrel scolds me from an overhanging branch, and rabbit tracks encircle my bag. Sparrows chatter, and as I sit up I catch a scarlet flash in the bushes--a cardinal. I scrunch back against a tree and study the brush. A bluejay dips, trailed by the russet whir of female cardinal. One week later, the first warm day will drench the park in sunlight. Musicians will again pack Bethesda Terrace, and crowds will be so thick on East and West Drives that it will be difficult to walk. I'll be challenged twice by street kids and, jogging past the Meer, will watch two youths goading leashed pit bulls to fight.

But now I sit alone with the forest, a magnificent respite. Forty-five minutes later I shoulder my gear and grudgingly rejoin the city.

Toby Thompson profiled poet-environmentalist Gary Snyder in the November 1993 issue.

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