Urban Wilderness: Central Park

A piece I wrote my first autumn in New York City.


I have been living in the city for more than a month and consciously saving this adventure for myself.  I imagined Central Park as this huge dark forest that one day I would venture into, but today I thought I would only dip into one of the corners and explore a little bit before returning to running my errands.  So far I had only allowed myself to wander along the fringes, leaving the interior of it impenetrable and unknowable in its entirety to me.  One of my favorite things to do on the autumn weekends was walk up Central Park West, whose uneven brick sidewalk served as a path between two worlds – on my left I could see the looming architecture and congested streets of the city, yet on my right were the barriers of the trees and the great stone faces visible from the outside.  As I peered into the depths of the park I used the numbers of the cross streets to map its exterior against the grid of the city and help remember where certain parts of the landscape were where I knew I wanted to return – an interesting rocky outcropping, a pool with a huge willow tree, a playground with elaborate wooden equipment. 

Today I ended up traveling through nearly a third of the western side of it, starting near the lake and working up through the ramble, past Belvedere Castle, around the rim of the reservoir, and a little further north than that.  It’s true that the park isn’t thoroughly portioned by cross streets and avenues, but it is traversed by paved roads, perimeter fences, and the more rustic gravel or wood-chip paths.  There are signs and maps all over the place – in another life I would have been a cartographer, but here, as nearly everywhere in the world, the work is already done for me.  When I asked my native friend if I would really find a troll in Central Park, he said “Oh there are plenty of trolls, especially if you look under the bridges at night.  But they won’t be as charming as you’d like to think.”

            I didn’t let this deter my enterprising spirit – I traveled several beaten and off-beaten paths, constantly pushing myself further, while at the same time telling myself that I should stop, that I should turn back, leave something undiscovered so that I can return another day.  I went as far north as I wanted to go on the heavily populated, jogger and biker-friendly bridle path, then I came back here to this bench in the ramble.  While I forged ahead I made the effort to notice the sound of birdsong, the rich smell of mulch and woodchips, the different types of trees – pine, maple, fir, willow – and the leaves that are starting to yellow, and the western afternoon sun peeking through the branches above me. I am content to march up and down these hills, or climb out on the rocks by the lake and watch the ducks and canoes.

            Even though I have found what I imagine to be the most heart-of-darkness-y place in my travels today, where rocky outcroppings jut out of the hills, the paths dead-end into thickets, and the canopy of trees provides shade and blocks the sight of buildings and highways, the forest is still curtailed by paved paths and benches, I am still sitting on a bench watching tourist families pass by with strollers and shopping bags, and I can still hear the whir of traffic even if I can’t see it.  In fact, I think there’s no place you can go in this park where you can’t hear the noise of the highway, or the musicians who strike up, or the hollers and thuds from the stadiums and tennis courts and playing fields.

I understand that New Yorkers need Central Park – this little piece of wilderness is necessary to save the urban soul.  In most places the buildings still dominate the skyline, towering over the tallest trees.  Then of course, because I cannot forget I am in the heart of the city, the tourists and locals frequently pass me by, even ones I see more than once in the same day – the recurring faces whose paths I continually cross. And just as I studied all the idiosyncrasies of the landscape, observing the so-called natural world, I observed all the idiosyncrasies in the people, most of them seeming completely self-absorbed, texting, listening to iPods, or even talking on hands-free phones so at first glance it seems like they are having a conversation entirely with themselves. 

            Whose world are we really in? At least in this place I fear more from the human world – I have much more dangerous things I could run into than trolls – than I do from the wildlife that seems to offer nothing more threatening than squirrels. In this epic quest through the forest I may not encounter witches or wolves, but the sinister elements are still here.  I know magic is perception, and if I journey far enough, and keep my eyes open, I will find the heart of darkness if I look for it.  Children exploring caverns see fantastical creatures molded out of the shapes of stalactites and stalagmites; all the human imagination needs is a canvas.  Yet I also see what is actually there – lovers in blankets on the lawns, children on the swings, the neat, well-kept plot of Shakespeare’s garden, the musicians, kids smoking on low branches – do people feel more uninhibited here?  Has the park transformed them as well? 


I came here today with the intention of just walking around a bit, of enjoying one of the last really warm days before the onset of fall.  I saw the sign and the map that said “North Woods” and I decided to go down that path – not only because it was an unexplored area, and because it sounded alluringly romantic and mysterious, but also because I saw a trail on the map heading south, which was the general direction I was going.  I like to plan my spontaneous expeditions.

            But whatever methodical plan I tried to imprint upon my wanderings, I’m glad I ended up here.  There is a stream, and a small waterfall over the rocks – I love the sound of rushing water.  Very few tourists have passed over the wooden bridge over the path, although I’ve seen a few kids climb over the rocks with their parents warning them.  I am sitting on a rock face myself, loving the near vertical precariousness of it, tilting toward the flowing stream, as if I’m not careful I might lose my balance and tumble into the shallow water.  The stream bed is littered with twigs and branches poking up from the bottom, and the surface with a few scattered leaves and insects and bubbles.  Every now and then something falls into the water with an audible resounding plop, and I wonder if it is an acorn or something that fell from a tree. There is no one here to throw stones.  The western sun is behind me, turning the leaves on the branch next to me more yellow than green in this light.  I am left in the shade for now and the autumn breeze feels delicious against my skin. Clumps of delicate white wildflowers spring up all over on the rock face where I am sitting, their resilient roots tenacious enough to defy the stone.  The undergrowth along the other bank is dense and tangled, hanging over the water in some places, weeds and vines and branches not preventing easy paths.  I love it – there is something very un-scenic about it, uncultivated.  Its one of the closest things I’ve seen to untamed since I’ve been here in the city.  Same with the bare branches criss-crossed low over the stream and the trees that have fallen in the water – there is something beautiful about them because they are not there to be pretty.  I have been watching the robins flit and hop in and out of the undergrowth on the other side, and the occasional squirrel tentatively venture out onto one of the fallen branches suspended over the water.  Once, when I was watching the other bank carefully, I saw the long tail and then the whole big-bellied rat as it crept through the pile of roots and twigs and other forest debris along the streambank.  I thought of Eliot’s rat dragging its belly through the slime and litter on the side of the Thames and wondered how far away my experience today has been from that.  The air has no smell, which is hard to believe – not the smog and feces and concrete smell of the city, but not the cold wet scent of water either, or the richness of trees and soil.  But I am glad I came here at least – I wouldn’t trade this afternoon for a street festival.  Even though I’ve become too intellectual and pretentious to believe in anything like a soul, I would say something inside me has found peace here this afternoon.