The Waterfall Project: Central Park

IMG_2462A version of this post has been published at Entropy, an incredible literary and community space.

Dear S,

We entered Central Park on the Upper West Side at 103rd Street to look for the five waterfalls we’d heard were somewhere in this section of the park. I hadn’t known they existed until we started this project.

The transition from city to park is abrupt. It’s as if someone turned down a volume dial the instant we walked through the iron fence. What a powerful thing, that fence, which is not meant to keep anyone out or in, but provides a definitive, solid boundary between city and green space, a tangible marker dividing metropolis and oasis, between Culture and Nature.

Once we stepped into the park, we wandered up a small green hill and climbed on some rocks, taking a moment to ground ourselves after shuffling from our Metro North train to the Shuttle to the One to the B. Then we walked for a bit in the wrong direction, stumbled upon one of the playgrounds. Moms and nannies pushed strollers and juggled aluminum water bottles and sunscreen and already-peeled clementines. Most of the kids were younger than you and I wondered for a moment if you’d outgrown playgrounds.

You sort of have. A younger boy asked you to play and you climbed the rope web and scrambled down the cool marble slide, and then you were ready to go.

I don’t know how this piece of the park swallows the noise of the city. Perhaps the lush greenness of it all reminds us to whisper and to listen. Hushed, we wandered through paths cut and carved by strangers over a century ago, to find our way to spots that feel new, but aren’t, really.

Walking trails is a lot like writing.

In the 1970’s Sherry Ortner published “Is Female to Nature as Male is to Culture?,” an essay that sociologically examines how women, historically and universally, were and are aligned closer to nature, whereas men, historically and universally, were and are aligned with culture.

She goes on to acknowledge that the categories of nature and culture are, of course, conceptual, and that there are no actual boundaries out in the real world between the two realms. But here, in this park, there is a line; that old iron fence, cleanly splitting the city from the park. There are gaps where we enter in and out, like air or blood whooshing through the valves and openings of our guts. But, like skin, that fence is a boundary that protects, keeping the bustling traffic and construction away from the tumbling grassy hills and ponds full of lily pads and algae blooms.

Ortner points out that, “every culture implicitly recognizes and asserts a distinction between the operation of nature and the operation of culture…and further, that the distinctiveness of culture rests precisely on the fact that it can under most circumstances transcend natural conditions and turn them to its purposes. Thus culture (i.e., every culture) at some level of awareness asserts itself to be not only distinct from but superior to nature, and that sense of distinctiveness and superiority rests precisely on the ability to transform-to ‘socialize’ and ‘culturize’ – nature” (26-7).

I was reminded of Ortner’s essay the moment you paused, awestruck by a man who had set up an easel slightly off the trail and was painting his view. Below the man, out of his sight and ours, was the first waterfall. Directly in front of this man was a bridge, more like a tunnel, covered in ivy, a dark stream slowly moving alongside the pathway. His canvas was Art in and of Nature. And he was painting as a way to capture nature- and that word: “capture.” How violent this serenity.

And so when I came home and re-read Ortner’s piece, it felt like I was traveling through it, all the while thinking about us and our waterfall project. You, boy child, and me, your mom, searching for places where water cuts through earth, and feeling exhilarated and humbled by what we find. (Do you remember how, when we first started, you snapped photos with a waterproof camera to capture the falls and hold them forever? You aren’t doing that anymore. One camera sits undeveloped, that first roll of photos is still in an envelope by the backdoor.)

Ortner explains that Culture rests precisely on the fact that it can under most circumstances transcend natural conditions and turn them to its purposes. Transcend. There is that word again, too. So then, if a masculine-leaning Culture transcends a feminine-inclined Nature, is there a gendering to transcendence? Is Emerson’s transparent eyeball male, casting his gaze downward?

Throughout the essay, she stresses that she’s not binary or absolute in her conclusions. For her it is not that man = culture and woman = nature in every case, but rather an observation on the global tendency to align women more closely to nature and men more closely to culture. She says we do this because of women’s bodies’ connections to nature through childbirth and child rearing- “species life” she calls it. Women are naturally and circumstantially placed in social roles that are in a lower order, more closely bound to “home,” whereas men are “freer” to explore the outside world and can only create artificially, through some sort of cultural means. Men give birth by and of culture. Her conviction that she is not absolute rests on the fact that, despite the ties to home, women are still participating in dialogue, participating in culture, and therefore are something intermediate between culture and nature (30). She’s drawing the swinging curve created by a pendulum, not tracing over a solid line until it etches in the wooden desk beneath her pen. However, Ortner’s theory is binary, for her thoughts do not take into account the socially constructed spectrum that is sex and gender.

In the margins, at this part of her book, I have written, “I am eating a clementine.”

When you were eight weeks old I went back to work, a corporate job in IT sales. I went back even though you still needed to be fed every three hours. I chose to breastfeed, which meant I also chose to pump. I was given a supply closet to do it in, a place where Post-It notes and copier paper lined metal shelves. My office mates, mostly men, all knew why I got up, hoisted the black plastic backpack stowed under my cubicle over my shoulder and shut myself behind the door at the end of our row. The pump was loud, its motor rhythmically taunting me in the da-dum of iambic pentameter. There was no lock, so they placed a sign on the door. It had a drawing of a cow on it. I laughed.

There was a day when a colleague walked in on me. He ignored the sign, or missed it, somehow, the drawing of the cow, and when he exposed me, I screamed. “Jesus fucking Christ.” He slammed the door. I cried. He reported me to HR, offended that I had taken his lord’s name in vain.

What does it mean that, years later, after I moved on to a different company, after I had mostly forgotten that day, that that colleague came out as transgender?

In her essay, Ortner also meditates on breastfeeding. She writes, “since the mother’s body goes through its lactation processes in direct relation to a pregnancy with a particular child, the relationship of nursing between mother and child is seen as a natural bond…Mothers and their children, according to cultural reasoning, belong together” (31). And so, as the baby grows and needs help, the mother is the obvious person to provide. Ortner acknowledges that although this is all compelling, it is still problematic, because it doesn’t need to be this way. That this phenomenon rests on something less than concrete, and that there can be (must be?) a way to create a shift in the paradigm. And furthermore, even within the domestic sphere, a woman is still in the cultural space, because, when she is home, she is socializing (culturizing?) her children.

So then women, specifically mothers, are transforming nature to culture, too. However, as Ortner writes, “women perform lower-level conversions from nature to culture, but when the culture distinguishes a higher level of the same functions, the higher level is restricted to men” (34). Women cook, men become chefs. Women garden, men build parks.

The waterfalls in Central Park are all manmade. The water that flows over the rocks is NYC’s drinking water, and it tumbles out of a hidden pipe somewhere around West 100th St. The waterfalls look natural, as if they have always been there, as if ancient glacier waters from a faraway mountain have slowly bore their way through the lichen-laced stones. But architects covered marshes and pastures to build these ivy-tunnels, rock ledges, and softly babbling streams.

Rocks are just rocks to me, but to others they have names like shale and granite and gneiss and limestone.

One of the co-designers of Central Park was the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted. “Olmsted” is derived from the Old French word “ermite,” which means hermit, and the Old English word “stede,” which means place. Olmstead. Homestead. A lonely place to call my own. When we sat on the cool ledge of the first waterfall, I wondered if manmade falls counted for our project. Whether we lost any sense of awe and wonder once we understood the park’s un-natural beginnings.

I think they fall somewhere in the in-between. A mediated space between natural wonder and manufactured serenity. Something made complicated by knowing the space was conquered and manipulated, and has become a melding of Culture and Nature.

Maybe that fence isn’t a great divider after all, but just another boundary, the mediator between two different cultural spaces created by men.

Ortner tells us that because women are the mediators between culture and nature, they are perpetually outside.

This is a construct of culture, obviously. Men and women are both conscious and mortal beings.

We only found three out of five waterfalls. Tired and thirsty, we headed to Chelsea to visit with a friend, then headed further into SoHo to visit your stepfather at work, then to dinner at our favorite restaurant, before taking the subway and then the train back home, where we found a parking ticket on the Jeep.

In the end, Ortner writes, “Ultimately, both men and women can and must be equally involved in projects of creativity and transcendence. Only then will women be seen as aligned with culture, in culture’s ongoing dialectic with nature” (42).

The other day you asked me what anthropologists do. I explained the basics, and then I told you about Sherry Ortner and how her essay has been churning in my head since our day in Central Park. I gave you the watered down, Cliffs Notes version of her theories. You said, “I like nature better.”

In the opening of her essay she says, “My interest in the problem is of course more than academic: I wish to see genuine change come about, the emergence of a social and cultural order in which as much of the range of human potential is open to women as is open to men” (21).

This essay is forty-five years old. This means Ortner was thirty-one when it was published, only a bit older than I was when I had you. How much and how little has changed. I wonder if this association lies less upon the alignment of women to Nature, and instead lies within the disregard for the importance of Nature. Maybe Culture should not be the superior higher ground we strive toward.

You and I started this hunt for waterfalls because I want to be closer to you, to relish in these quickly fading moments of your boyhood, while you still think I am fun and you don’t have your own cell phone. I wanted to spend time in nature, explore new places, and watch your eyes shine with awe and wonder. I want to teach you to respect the beauty we find simply for what it is.

Maybe the falls we found that day are a metaphor. The rambling streams, fluid like gender, but controlled, ultimately by the manmade nature that surrounds it. Maybe the falls remind me of power struggles, colonialism, and destruction, a green space grown from the demolition. Or maybe they are a reminder to seek hope, rebirth, and connection. Do these manmade falls count? They count, because we were there, you, boy child, and me your mom, breathing and learning in the sun.

The Waterfall Project: Southford Falls

 Southford Falls Pond

Dear S,

I assumed that somehow the Board of Ed’s website updated its calendar automatically whenever there was a snow day. When I checked it sometime in March, June 8th was marked with a star, so I told your stepdad that June 8th was your last day of school. Then he took two vacation days, June 8th and June 9th, with the idea that we would celebrate your completion of third grade and enjoy the first day of summer vacation together.

There’s a special reason he took those days, a reason that stretches beyond the simple fun of vacation days. Two years ago, after you’d completed first grade, you woke up in the morning, in our bed, because that’s where you slept, and sat up, confused as you watched M button up his shirt. I’m sure the sheets had left lines on your face, and I would bet that your hair stood on end. I know that your eyes brimmed with tears when you asked him, in your soft, little boy voice, “Why are you leaving? Today is the first day of summer vacation.”

The same thing happened the next year.

Your disappointment each time was palpable. It is hard to understand that the world does not follow the same calendar as elementary school. This was harder to understand because, at the time, I was in grad school and also on summer vacation. Of course the concept of him leaving every sunny day of the three-month stretch of summer was completely nonsensical to you.

And so, this year, he took those days off to surprise you. But this year I screwed up the dates. Your last day of school was actually June 14th.

We kept you home on that Friday anyway. And we kept our plan a secret from you. This year, on the morning of what was not actually the first day of summer break, you came into our room, bleary- eyed, hair on end, confused, and stood at the foot of our bed, because you sleep in your own room now, and with a slightly bewildered squeak asked us why we were still sleeping. “Is it…Saturday?”

***

Lunches were packed before noon. We stopped at Target before hitting the road, looking for sunscreen and a disposable camera. We found the sunscreen easily and had to ask someone where to find the camera. The guy behind the counter in the electronics department laughed. Disposable cameras are pretty much extinct. In fact, film photography in general is vintage, I think. But I wanted you to try it. I wanted you to capture these hikes in a way that will give you something concrete to look back on. I wanted you to learn about seeing something and capturing it through a lens and then having to wait to see how (or if) it comes out the way you’d hoped. I needed these images to be familiar, to be real, not on a phone, buried in data, stacked with intentions to print them but no real drive to do so. And I wanted you to have something that will remind you that when you were nine we had adventures and they were fun or challenging or beautiful or boring.

They only had an underwater camera and it was twenty bucks but we bought it anyway.

***

Southford Falls is about forty minutes from the mall where we bought the camera and I had recently found the Nintendo DS that had been misplaced in a bag of stuff that got shuffled back and forth between our house and your dad’s. You quickly reacquainted yourself with Pokemon as we drove inland to hike our first waterfall. Your stillness back there, in the back of our rustly old Jeep, your concentration, the way the tip of your tongue pokes out at the corner of your mouth, I know I should have been aggrieved by your penchant for technology, that I should’ve insisted that if we are going back to nature, you should unplug. But this time I don’t. You are beautiful.

***

My siblings and I weren’t allowed to have junk food very often when we were kids, and we certainly didn’t eat in restaurants. There were occasional trips through a drive-thru, clamoring kids anxious for the toys and cookies in our boxed Happy Meals, but any time we ate take out it was a very special treat.

Maybe I’m making this up, then. But I don’t think I am. After we pulled into the parking lot at Southford Falls, as you and M and I hopped out of the car and looked around at the pond and the field and the paths where I have been so many times before, where you have been twice before, where M has never been, I remembered KFC. Not the restaurant, but the time my dad brought the three of us kids (before Auntie Teesa was born) to this same place with a red and white striped bucket of fried chicken and a vat of mashed potatoes and a container of the too-peppery gravy that he loved. I think we sat on a blanket next to the picnic table, even though I remember that the picnic table was empty. I’m sure we stuck our feet in the cool pool of water on top of the rocky ledge where the first waterfall crashes and wiped our greasy chicken hands on our shorts.

*** 

Southford Falls is, in many ways, a collection of varying environments. There is a long pond filled with lily pads, where dragon flies hover and old men fish, which flows under a walking bridge before torpedoing over the rocky ledges of the falls. There is a meadow next to the pond that sort of swoops up the hill and ends abruptly at a line of dark and scrawny pines. That’s where the pavilion and restrooms are, in the clearing, away from the thickets of forest. The trail near the meadow, which runs next to the placid pond, leads directly to the watch tower.

We didn’t take that trail. We followed the water and then veered left up the hill. We made it to the watch tower, but it was harder than it would have been had we taken the traditional path. When you read Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” someday, remember that it is often misinterpreted. No matter which path you choose, you will think you’ve made a choice that has made all the difference. But the thing is, if you had chosen the other way, you would look back and say the same thing. Read the middle of the poem carefully- you’ll understand that the paths are the same and it doesn’t matter which one you choose.

***

The trail we took led us through the red-painted covered bridge. You snapped pictures of the graffiti etched and scraped into the wooden rails. The place where we veered left to find the tower was steep and lined with the gnarly branches of pink-blossomed mountain laurels. You lead the way and we stopped a few times, sweaty and thirsty, and I was waiting for you to quit. You didn’t.

We hunted for walking sticks in the dappled light of a flatter area that lead to the hill that lead to our destination. We found a tall one for M, one with a knob at the top for me, a shorter one without bark for you. Three bears in the woods, just right.

*** 

You were shocked and proud and awed when we reached the tower. I had forgotten how steep the steps are. On the floor, written in permanent marker, was this missive:

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman

It is a slightly misquoted line of a Ginsberg poem entitled “A Supermarket in California.” I love this poem, though I didn’t recognize it right away that day. I will leave it here for you:

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families shopping at night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.

I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops?  What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?

I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.

We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in a hour.  Which way does your beard point tonight?

  (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)

Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?

Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when

Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat

disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

 

When we left the tower you had an idea. To leave our walking sticks at the bottom of the stairs in case another group of hikers wanted to borrow them. You arranged the three of them into a star on a concrete slab. sticks of three

Art.

Nature.

Motherhood.

The Waterfall Project

Southford Falls

The idea to write about these adventures was probably rolling around in my head when I first mentioned the idea of hiking waterfall trails to S earlier this spring. However, writing about our adventures in this space didn’t occur to me until last week, after we picked up his first set of photographs from the camera shop down the street.

S and I are on a mission to find and hike as many waterfall trails as we can this summer. He is nine. Nine, I am learning, is magical. Last weekend we talked about books for an hour while he got ready for bed. He tells us jokes that are for-real funny. He has grown wonderfully independent. And yet, he still grabs my hand instinctively when we cross the street, and he still looks to me when he needs reassurance or a hug. He also still thinks I’m cool. I want to hold on to nine for as long as I can.

I will have to backtrack my posts, because we’ve done two hikes already. The first one was at a park near where I grew up, a place I’ve hiked countless times and is filled with memories. M had taken the day off, so all three of us went, and the weather was incredible. Before we left we bought S one of those disposable film cameras. He took a whole roll of pictures and we dropped them off the next day. A week later we walked downtown and picked up the developed photos and took them with us to the café across the street so we could flip through them.

Twenty-five out of twenty-seven are blurry, most likely because he moved before the camera’s shutter was done closing its cheap, disposable eye. He was bummed- disheartened that his photos weren’t accurate representations of his memories, disappointed that his art didn’t align with his vision. We talked about ways he might hone his new craft, and we bought another camera so he can try again. I promised to find a photo album so he can catalog his photos and see how his skills improve.

Art. Nature. Motherhood.

I have decided to write about these trips so I can capture and consider all of the ways these three vital parts of my life intersect. I intend to write after each hike, so that perhaps my art can represent my vision.

I have decided to write about these trips in this space so that I will hold myself accountable for archiving our adventures, and so that S can have a written record of this summer, too.

And I have realized that by writing about these trips, I have found the way for me to hold on to nine for as long as I can.

“Let a body finally venture out of its shelter, expose itself in meaning beneath a veil of words. WORD FLESH. From one to the other, eternally, fragmented visions, metaphors of the invisible.” Julia Kristeva  

The Beautiful and the Grotesque

I have not written in this space in months. Weeks flew by, filled with teaching, reading, writing elsewhere, preparing, planning, parenting, thinking. And now, on the precipice of a new year, I have this small swarm of thoughts. As I wait for the moment where I can change the date, as if turning the page on the calendar really propels us away from the things we want to forget, I write to make sense of things, and share them here to make them real.

I have three siblings and all we all of have children, so we have collectively decided that Christmas gifts are to be given to kids only. Every year, one of my siblings breaks that rule and I feel like a jerk.

We always chip in on a gift for my mom. This year we got her a record player. Her boyfriend is a wonderful man, and also a talented musician, so she is spending more and more time going to concerts and listening to music.

Before the record player idea happened, I was sitting in our newly finished office thinking about my family and holiday gifts. Our office is a room we have been converting for a little over a year. We knocked the shelves out of the closet in the tiny bedroom next to ours, took down its folding doors, sheet-rocked (for the first time ever), and built recessed shelves and side-by-side desks. We repainted every wall and bit of trim, covered the peeling brown ceiling with layer after layer of white paint, stacked my books on the shelves on the left and arranged M’s pop culture sculptures on the shelves on the right, hung some art on the walls and a new roman shade on the window. It’s beautiful and sturdy and we are still swollen with pride because we created this space with our own hands.

An old painting of my mother’s hung in this room when it was still brown-ceilinged and wallpapered. She painted it when she was in high school– two blonde-haired fairies standing atop a huge spotted mushroom. The grass is vividly green, the fairies’ dresses are pink and blue and sweeping, their facial features vague. I don’t know how I came to own it. It hung in the kitchen at my old house, and it’s in the attic now, and for a brief moment I considered gifting it to my brother or one of my sisters or maybe giving it back to my mother for Christmas. I thought it might be funny to start a tradition between us now that we are grown; perhaps we could rotate it. Every Christmas it would get wrapped and passed along, the receiver would display it for a year, and then give it to another one of us. Then I thought about how my mother would laugh, but probably secretly hate it.

Before school let out for winter break, S finished an art project he’d been working on for weeks. He nearly burst through the front door of the school with it clutched tightly in his gloved hand. His eyes were shining as he carried it to the car. The way he confidently yet delicately placed it into my ungloved hand reminded me of how a nurse hands surgical tools to a doctor. I examined it closely, the glaze still a little tacky, as he explained to me every step of his artistic process.

img_1158

It’s an incense holder in the shape of a hotdog. I have it displayed on the coffee table, protected from the new kitten by two large, heavy vases. Every time I look at it I get a little teary. It fills me with pride. Love. And reminds me of the beauty in creation.

My mother and her boyfriend came over for dinner on Tuesday night. It was odd and wonderful to have her as a guest, because so often it’s just her and S and me, a quick dinner of spaghetti while watching cartoons. But this night, with the holiday air still spinning magically, we set out a cheese plate and had wine, played music, lit candles. I made homemade split pea soup, M made salad with marinated artichokes and sliced olives, and we baked the kind of buttermilk biscuits that have to be popped out of a cardboard tube by pressing on the seam with the back of a spoon.

When we finished dinner, my mom helped us clear the table. She stood next to me at the sink, flushed from her second glass of pinot, and put her head on my shoulder.

“I wanted to have dinner like this for a reason. And there’s no easy way to say this, so I am just going to say it. My mammogram came back abnormal. I have Stage One breast cancer. I am going to see the surgeon on the third. Frank is taking good care of me. I am going to be fine.”

And then she hugged me around my waist and we blinked away the wells in our eyes.

After the table was cleared, we set up Apples to Apples and played with S until almost ten o’clock. We laughed, hard and often, and I never wanted them to leave. But S had to get to bed and the kitchen was still a mess and I needed to talk to my husband and I wanted to cry huge tears into the sink, so I waved them away into the cold December night.

As I write this out now, hushed, like a secret, I wonder if art and motherhood and love and fear and life and death and creation and destruction are always this tangled, simultaneously beautiful and grotesque, concrete and ephemeral, and delivered in a silent punch from a gnarled and knotty fist.