Feeling a bit cooped up earlier today, I took myself for a longish walk in Prospect Park, which begins right at the end of my block here in Brooklyn. It was was just what the doctor ordered; few prescriptions can rival in therapeutic value the simple act of getting outside.
I realize that there are those of you who live in areas known for outdoorsy splendor, and you might not think of New York City as having much to offer in terms of natural beauty. And I’ll admit that my daily routine — out the door, along the sidewalk, down the steps into the city’s bowels, onto the crowded and clattering subway, up onto the street at 40th and 6th, through the jostling throng and the revolving door of a glass-and-metal skyscraper, and up to my climate-controlled and fluorescently-lit office — bears few salient resemblances to a hike in the Superstition Wilderness, or a canoe excursion in the Adirondacks. But you’d be surprised what the city has to offer, when the conditions — both inner and outer — are right.
Prospect Park is widely regarded as one of the more beautiful city parks anywhere, and is considered perhaps the crowning masterpiece of the team of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead. Its 526 acres straddle the glacial ridge, called a terminal moraine, that was left behind by the great ice sheets of the Pleistocene, and its complex geography inspired the park’s designers to defy 19th-century European landscaping traditions and to make it, rather than a meticulously manicured garden, a showcase for the area’s rugged natural beauty. The architecture of the park left much of the glaciated knob-and-kettle terrain untouched, and its many great meadows and thoroughfares elegantly frame the preexisting ravines, watercourses, and woodlands.
The park can be a very busy place in the summer, but as the weather gets colder in the autumn, the crowds thin, and during a crisp weekday in the fall and winter one can almost have the place to oneself. Today was a Saturday, and usually the park would be quite crowded, but it rained hard until midafternoon, and as the skies cleared a big cold front pushed through from the northwest, with strong chilly winds. This isn’t everyone’s idea of perfect weather, but it suits me just fine.
I’ve always loved the fall — at six feet and 225 pounds I generate more heat than I can easily discard, and I suffer horribly in the hot weather. For me the arrival of cool (cold, to some) weather in the autumn is blessed deliverance. But there is more to it than that; what I enjoy so much about October weather is the awakening feeling of change, of a great accelerating motion as the pendulum of the seasons reaches its maximum velocity.
The seasons move in a cycle, and one might graph them using the familiar sine curve that is pressed into service to depict so many other cyclical phenomena. At the “peak” of the curve is the summer, when the Sun makes its maximum excursion northward, and at the trough is the winter, when the sun shines most directly on the lands south of the Equator. At these extremes we have a stultifying sense of stasis — the “dog days” of summer, and the “dead of winter” — when time seems almost to stand still. If you were to draw a tangent to the sine curve at those points, marking what in calculus is called the “derivative”, or the instantaneous rate of change, its slope would be nil. But at the midpoints of the curve, the places where the line is neither at peak or trough, but is at what is known as a “zero crossing”, the rate of change is at a maximum, and this is where we find ourselves in the fall and spring. Of the two, many prefer the spring, but give me the autumn — I love the beautiful colors, the crisp snap in the air, the rich bounty of the harvest, and the return to serious and purposeful work after the torpor brought on by the summer’s ghastly heat.
Today’s stroll in Prospect Park was a perfect taste of October. Tattered clouds, remnants of this morning’s deluge, scudded across the sky before a blustery northwest wind; the oaks and maples, their trunks black with rain and leaves alight with color, seemed to glow from within in the slanting rays of the setting sun. The air was fresh and scrubbed, and carried a rich aroma of fallen leaves, damp earth, and the faintest tang of wood smoke. And above all, stirring a poignant and ancient emotion, was the rushing flow of change, timeless and constant.