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.