Finding Refuge, and a Snowy Owl, in Central Park

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It was a chilly Saturday night in February and there was more than a foot of snow in Central Park, along with slippery patches of black ice and slushy, calf-high puddles. But some 200 New Yorkers carefully made their way to the Reservoir in hopes of catching a glimpse of the magical snowy owl, who had touched down in the park the week before in what was reported as the first visit there by the species in more than 130 years.

Except for a few excited shrieks from children, people were quiet — reverently, passionately awaiting the owl’s arrival at the Reservoir’s North Gatehouse, where she had been spotted the night before on her evening hunting rounds. The snowy owl did not disappoint: to polite gasps of admiration, she swooped in from the darkness, alighting briefly on one of the gatehouse towers. She surveyed the water and the people holding aloft binoculars and phones and cameras, then bobbed her head regally before taking off into the night — to the applause of her many fans.

Some in the crowd that night were ardent and deeply knowledgeable birders. But there were also many New Yorkers who had only discovered bird-watching during the Covid shutdown, and others who simply wanted to see this lovely creature whose improbable appearance in this winter of our endless discontents seemed to signify hope or beauty or the possibility of change — or at least an excuse to leave their apartments and take part, however briefly, in one of those communal moments that had become so precious during the pandemic.

Central Park has long provided a refuge from the anxieties and stresses of daily life, perhaps never more so than during the coronavirus siege and four long years of increasingly toxic politics. New Yorkers who visited the park every day, as well as those who had long taken it for granted, felt a renewed love for this amazing rectangle of green in the heart of the big city: its startlingly lush woodlands and rolling lawns, its meandering trails and wide-open meadows, and, of course, its astonishing wildlife including owls, hawks, herons and a dizzying array of other birds and waterfowl who for generations have used Central Park as a vital rest stop in their migratory travels, knowing what many humans only came to fully appreciate during the uncertainties of the pandemic — that the park is a beautiful and essential sanctuary.

In offering an oasis for New Yorkers during Covid, Central Park is living up to its original mandate — to provide, as its chief architect Frederick Law Olmsted put it more than a century and a half ago, “tranquillity and rest to the mind,” an escape from the anxieties of the city.

In the 21st century, with some 40 million visitors a year, Central Park had become the third most popular tourist attraction in the world, and at the start of the pandemic, when out-of-towners departed the city, New Yorkers fortunate enough to live within walking distance from it suddenly felt like they had this Edenic retreat to themselves. Even when people started using the subway again to travel between the boroughs, Central Park continued to feel like a neighborhood park. Unable to go to their offices or the gym, people started using the Sheep Meadow and the Great Lawn as their all-purpose backyards.

As spring turned into summer, you saw people sitting on the grass or benches — not just catching some sun and having family picnics, but also tapping away on their laptops and iPads, and having socially distanced business meetings and what passed for cocktails during the pandemic — bottles of wine or Jack Daniels, carried in a backpack and poured into paper cups.

A handful of people sported fancy designer face masks, but the majority opted for disposable blue surgical masks and perhaps because those masks conferred a measure of anonymity (and most beauty salons, barbershops and clothing boutiques were closed), many folks seemed to shed their vanity: baggy sweatpants and T-shirts began to outnumber high-tech, fashion-forward gym outfits, and men and women alike sported longer, shaggier hair and baseball caps.

There were more and more people running the stairs at Bethesda Terrace and jumping rope in an intense boxing-training sort of way. And when the winter snow and ice arrived, children — and some grown-ups too — used whatever was at hand to go sledding: neon colored plastic toboggans and saucers, but also what looked like school cafeteria trays and heavy-duty trash bags wrapped around cookie sheets and dish-rack drainer trays.

Boomboxes — huge 1980s ones, probably retrieved from a closet or basement storage room — made a reappearance in the park, and instead of scowling at the noise, many park goers seemed happy to hear something other than their own meticulously curated Spotify and Pandora playlists. Musicians in the park — like the guitar player at Bethesda Terrace who took requests — played a lot of classics like “What a Wonderful World” and “Yesterday” that seemed to take on a new poignancy during Covid.

The park was planned and constructed at another difficult time — in the years before and during the Civil War, when both the nation and New York City were grappling with rising political and social tensions over slavery and class and immigration, and the fallout of rapid industrialization and technological change. Unlike many European parks that had originally been built for the rich or aristocratic, Central Park was designed as a democratic public space, in Olmsted’s words, where the poor and rich alike could “easily go after their day’s work is done” and “stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets.”

Indeed, Central Park has always been a testament to the Emersonian belief that nature could help human beings free themselves from the distractions of modern life, and renew their spiritual connection with the universe. Olmsted, who’d suffered from bouts of depression and nervousness, found solace in the natural world, and his instinct for public service made him want to share his faith in the therapeutic benefits of nature with as many people as possible through the parks he helped create. In 1861, a similar sense of duty led him to take a leave of absence from Central Park to head up the newly established United States Sanitary Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross that helped coordinate medical care for wounded Union soldiers and distribute smallpox vaccinations.

Although the park fell into dangerous disrepair during the 1960s and 70s (when the grass turned to dust, and buildings were defaced with graffiti), the tireless efforts of the Central Park Conservancy to repair and maintain the 843-acre site have meticulously restored it. Today, the park is what the Audubon Society calls “an island of forest and wetland habitat in the midst of a sea of nearly complete urbanization,” where more than 280 bird species have been recorded.

Seeing a great blue heron yards from the Plaza Hotel (not in a zoo, but competing with a great egret for fish in the pond) makes it easy to understand why Christo — who used the park in 2005 for his dazzling work of art “The Gates” — described Central Park as the most “surrealistic place in New York City.” The looping, curvilinear lines of the park’s roads and footpaths and streams, and the pleasingly irregular shapes of its lakes and lawns stand in willful opposition to the city’s relentlessly regular grid and right-angled symmetries. Even the park’s one straight walkway, the Mall, has been constructed at a slight diagonal — another reminder that when we are in the park, we have entered another world, adjacent to the asphalt streets and steel and glass skyscrapers that frame it, but separate and apart.

For that matter, during the early months of the Covid quarantine, it was the parts of the city outside Central Park that felt the most surreal to many New Yorkers: the streets suddenly emptied of cars and people, whole neighborhoods transformed overnight into ghost towns or haunted spaces from a de Chirico or Edward Hopper painting — lonely and desolate and apprehensive.

In Central Park, at least the illusion of normal life could be sustained: people running and biking and walking their dogs, birds going about their birdy lives — hunting for food, building nests, taking flight over the lake or the reservoir. The beautiful Mandarin duck (whom I photographed for Bette Midler’s new children’s book, “The Tale of the Mandarin Duck: A Modern Fable”) didn’t return during the Covid quarantine, but lots of other wildlife did — including at least five owls, a coyote, a rabbit, a bald eagle, a peregrine falcon, a variety of herons and hawks, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, thrushes, adorable titmice who will eat peanuts from people’s hands, a confusingly large assortment of warblers, flotillas of Canada geese and ducks of many sorts (including wood ducks, buffleheads, northern shovelers, mergansers, green-winged teals and ruddy ducks).

Two mallard families grew up on the Sailboat Pond during the summer, and the young raccoon who lived in a tree trunk near the pond had four adorable babies, who quickly grew accustomed to the mask-wearing humans who stopped by nearly every day to take their picture. Later in the year, a soulful-eyed barred owl — whom fans named Barry — came to visit the park and has stayed on for more than four months. A second barred owl, as well as a great horned owl and a long eared owl also stopped by, and in 2021, the snowy owl miraculously flew in — the harbinger, people hoped, of a new era.

It’s been nearly a year since the start of the pandemic, and while we’ve all grown weary of the isolation, the changing seasons in Central Park are soothing reminders of the eternal cycles of nature: the tulips and cherry trees giving way to the electric greenery of summer; the brilliant red and gold leaves of autumn, replaced by snow and ice, and soon now, crocuses and hyacinths, the first flowers of spring. There is a sense of timelessness in the park. During the summer or over the Christmas holidays, childhood friends hold reunions in Sheep Meadow or by the East 90th street entrance to the reservoir. And children still wonder, as Holden Caulfield did in “The Catcher in the Rye,” where the ducks in the pond near Central Park South go when the water freezes over in the winter.

Last April, six-foot-long red signs were posted in the park that said “KEEP THIS FAR APART.” Most of those signs have disappeared — it’s unclear whether they were stolen or removed by the city — and the police patrols warning people to social distance have also abated. Carriage horse rides returned to the park in October, and ice skating returned as well. Freezing temperatures and a foot and a half of snow failed to deter the park’s many visitors, who quickly set about making snow angels, having snowball fights, and building snowmen, snow women, snow horses, snow forts and one gigantic snow octopus. All of which seemed like infinitely healthier activities than sitting in an outdoor restaurant, zipped into a plastic dining bubble.

During the pandemic, just being in vague proximity with other people in Central Park gave us a sense of community — the sense that we were all in this together, and that together, we would somehow persevere. Over a century ago, Olmsted wrote about the many arguments advanced for parks, including their value as “breathing places” — where city dwellers might escape the fetid air of crowded streets. But to think of parks merely as “airing grounds,” he added, would be simplistic, ignoring the profound social and spiritual dimensions these green spaces furnish.

Watching people in Central Park come together “in pure air and under the light of heaven,” Olmsted argued, it was impossible to ignore the “evident glee” many felt in the experience: “all classes largely represented, with a common purpose,” each individual “adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of all others, all helping to the greater happiness of each”: People taking time off from work and workaday worries to engage in what he called “healthful recreation” — strolling, boating, ice skating, listening to music, contemplating the beauty of the meadows and woods, communing with all that was sublime in Nature.

Or, he might have added, looking for the elusive snowy owl.

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