Column: City park and country cousin

One of the greater glories of living in Manhattan is having Central Park as your neighbor. We live four blocks away to the east, and every time I enter it I feel something akin to low-grade exhilaration. Befitting a long rectangular 843-acre park bestride the spine of Manhattan, it offers just about everything a city dweller — or visitors from the world over — could possibly hope for.

You can run around it, bike around it, walk all over its miles of trails, be they in the woodlands, lakeside, stream-side or in meadows and promenades. You can ride a horse and take a horse-drawn carriage ride. You can rent a rowboat for a tour of The Lake. You can attend world-class Shakespeare in an open-air theater. You can visit a castle with a claustrophobic stairway to its turret. Ball fields, check; ice rinks, check; swimming pools, check; tennis courts; check. Attention boaters: you can sail there, albeit with remote-controlled scale models in the spacious pool at The Conservatory.

It has a fine zoo, with its melancholy, slightly yellowish polar bears plodding around their pit and all manner of other fauna. It is an urban birders’ paradise, particularly in The Ramble, a knot of trails and boulders north of The Lake, that in the very bad old days of the 1970s and ’80s was a den of great danger and decrepitude (as was most of the park).
Vendors dot the landscape, offering hot dogs, pretzels, ice cream sandwiches and drinks. During the 2003 blackout, we headed confidently to the 79th Street hot dog stand for nourishment when much of our neighborhood had little or no hot food to offer. There was a long line.

The park also can be a spontaneous memory-maker. As luck would have it, during the one sled-friendly snow day last winter, we had custody of the grandson. We staked out our own private slope by the massive south wall of the Metropolitan Museum, and for a few hours it was his “most awesome day,” until supplanted by, well, I don’t need to know.

Sir Isaiah Berlin, the British philosopher and historian of ideas, famously postulated that writers and thinkers could be divided into two categories: “Foxes” (Aristotle, Shakespeare and Montaigne, for instance), who know many things, and “hedgehogs” (Plato, Dostoevsky and Proust, for instance), who know the one big thing. That dictum is over-cited (but not stopping me), and Berlin said it wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously. But, for the moment, let’s be reckless and apply it to parkland. Central Park is a fox.

Its country cousin on Shelter Island, the grand expanse of Mashomack, is a hedgehog. No frills, no adornment, it reclines on the southeast third of the Island serenely confident in its power to attract and amaze. It simply makes itself available for deep appreciation in ways as numerous and varied as its visitors can conjure. It doesn’t need to try to be anything else.

On weekends, we favor the longer Green and Blue trails. The water vistas, the creeks and ponds, the Manor House, the Great Swamp never lose anything upon repeated visits. The golden “bluebird meadow” (as we call it) is notable for its simple beauty and, on the return trip, serves as a sobering reminder that my throbbing hammer toe has a ways to go before the patches of asphalt on the trail signal that the Visitor Center is over the next hill.

Whereas Central Park tends to promote conversation, Mashomack, for me, stills conversation. The quietude stirs up inner thoughts and dialogues, particularly when you hit a stretch of trail when every step kicks up a hypnotic rhythm of leaf crunch. The lack of social intercourse may have something to do with my habit of walking at an interval just out of conservational range. Accidentally, of course.

This is not to overlook the vibrancy of the preserve, with its activities, programs and guided hikes. And the volunteers at the Visitor Center are invariably welcoming, often chatty and, when called for, vigilant.

Case in point: Last fall, after returning from a Blue or Green trek, we glanced, as we always do, at the “sightings” on the white board, which invariably has several interesting entries. My wife, not known worldwide for her puckishness, added “crow” to the list. I don’t recall if we even saw a crow (probably we heard a crow), but that’s not the point. Okay, “crow” might stand out from the other listed sightings in its utter ordinariness. But after all these years, it seemed long overdue for us to put something on the board. We’re not naturalists. You were expecting a herniated dusky woodpecker? Sure enough, maybe 10 minutes later, after loitering inside the Visitor Center observing the riot at the bird feeder, we headed to the parking lot and noticed the “crow” had been erased. You must respect an organization that holds its “sightings” list to such high standards. It’s not like we put “poison ivy” on the board.

But we get the point. It won’t happen again.

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