Years ago in another world, Alan Jay Lerner wrote a song about trees that gave him the brush-off: "I talk to the trees, but they don't listen to me." The lyrics always made me smile, but now I know that Lerner simply talked to the wrong trees. He should have tried Stately, the huge elm that towers over the East 90th Street entrance to Central Park. My wife Gloria and I walk the park in the early mornings. We pass Stately around 6:15, and she often has a few words to share.
A small example: walking by one deep-freeze February morning, we wondered aloud how it felt to be out there leafless and chilled all through the night. "That's a dumb question," Stately snipped, "It's what I do. I'm not like you, whining every time there's a little cold snap."
Usually of course she's friendlier. She gets almost giddy the day of the New York City Marathon. Thousands of runners enter the park at 90th Street, and Stately can hardly wait to say hello (helped out, in her greeter's role, by the welcoming banner that's unfurled just in front of her). "Did you see all those people?" she'll say the next day, "I always wonder where they're going, but I can't just pull up roots and tag along."
Just beyond Stately is a bronze statue of the Marathon founder Fred Lebow. Fred not only knows where everybody's going, he gets to go himself. A couple of days before the race, Lebow is lifted off his pedestal and transported to the Marathon finish line. There he presides every year, rooting home the winners and also-rans alike. A couple of days later he's back on his pedestal, a Marathon medal around his neck and a bouquet of flowers at his feet. He's always happy to be home, up there where he belongs.
Fred also talks, but he's a man of fewer words than Stately. My wife thinks he's just preoccupied: constantly looking at his watch, checking his pace, maybe remembering his famous last Marathon. Diagnosed with brain cancer, Lebow walked and ran the distance in 1992 with his friend and nine-time women's champion Grete Waitz. "We both ran the last two miles crying," she later said.
Stately and Fred often make our mornings, but they only hint at the magic of Central Park: 843 acres, roughly 26,000 trees, a glorious piece of country glorifying the middle of a big city. Except for its rock outcroppings the park is entirely man-made, the realized vision of the architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. It's hard to imagine a lovelier result (though it wasn't so lovely for those whose homes were razed to make way for the park, including the first community of black landholders in New York).
It's a constant joy to walk there, to see and feel the seasons change, to watch the ground metamorphose and a million flowers bloom. Stately and Fred happen to live on Rhododendron Mile, a stretch from 86th to 94th Streets where, mixed in with peonies, the rhododendrons open in profusion in the early spring. We celebrate the sight for days on end.
The park has a sound of its own. In the program notes to a New York performance of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony ("Pastoral"), the composer put it this way: "For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear." They do, and it echoes all through Central Park.
Since we're out early we often get a special surprise, a sighting of the raccoons that forage Central Park in the dark and return to their nests as dawn breaks. We've seen as many as five in a single morning, but even solos give us a small jolt. I grew up in the country and never saw raccoons; here in Manhattan, all I have to do is roll out at 5:30 and walk across the street into the park.
There's one more tree we talk to: a tall London plane at the northeast end of the reservoir, the oldest tree in the park, planted just after the start of the Civil War. We call her Too Tall, and always pay our respects when we walk the reservoir instead of the park drive. There's an endless number of routes for walkers and joggers, and everybody has their favorites.
It would be hugely ungrateful to write about Central Park without a bow to the Central Park Conservancy. At the time it was created, in 1980, New York City's financial crisis had allowed a public treasure to become a public embarrassment: the park was neglected, in sorry disrepair. The Conservancy brought it back and keeps it there, forever maintaining, restoring and improving.
Thanks also of course to Stately and Fred, who add their own delights to the Central Park mornings of one lucky couple.