A Day Away
I planned my second annual escape from the amplified noise and crowds of the Tribeca street fair, packing food for three and books for a day away. Last year I’d brought Reverie of the Solitary Walker (Rousseau) and Wandering (Hesse). This year, I had in mind to take The Walk (Jeffrey Robinson), The Other Walk (Sven Birkerts), and A Walker in the City (Alfred Kazin), but had loaned these to another fan of peregrination writing. I considered Tamalpais Walking, by Gary Snyder, wonderfully illustrated by Tom Killion’s woodcuts, but it was too big to lug. I settled on two smaller volumes: Narrow Road to the Interior (Basho, 1644-94), and Pilgrim of the Clouds (Yüan Hung-tao, 1568-1610).
Having packed with the deliberation of a traveler to Europe, and with a carry-out coffee whose plastic sippy lid was embossed with the brand “Solo Traveler,” once again I set out with the dogs, cheerfully contra mundum. We strolled downriver and east, to Coenties slip at the seaport. Once an actual slip for ships to dock, it is now a quaint park, three blocks long, between Water and Pearl Streets, and is lined with 19th-century buildings. Herman Melville was born around the corner, at 6 Pearl. The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. says:
Coenties Slip, originally a boat slip at the end of Lower Manhattan when Pearl Street was the water’s edge, was the first extension of the Manhattan shoreline for commercial purposes. The north end of the slip, between Pearl and Water Streets, was filled in between 1754 and 1766…. The shortened slip was still used by vessels, and one of the most famous people to board a ship here was Herman Melville. Coenties Slip is mentioned on the first page of Melville’s legendary novel Moby-Dick.
In the center of the park is Bryan Hunt’s steel sculpture, “Coenties Ship,” which rises 20 feet in the air and looks like an upturned vessel, and also like a breaching whale.
Next we went to Battery Park, and ambled past the “Urban Farm,” an expanse of crops protected by big collapsed stick fences that look like a barn-raising gone awry. We settled across from “Honeybees At Work,” and the sign “No Dogs Allowed on Lawns.” I leaned against a big old tree with a trunk as soft as a punched pillow, and there we spent the afternoon.
I read Pilgrim of the Clouds, with travel poems and essays by Yüan Hung-tao and his brother, Yüan Tsung-tao. The poems are mostly short—pungent little insights that seem disarmingly transitory and spontaneous. One unusually long title: “I Went Out at Night With the Monk Liao. We Went to Wang’s for Drinks. When the Wine had been Served, a Great Thunderstorm Started Up. Everyone Else Flinched with Fright but I Felt Wonderful. The Storm Went on Until After Midnight.” Then the eight-line poem. In the essay “Raising Crickets,” Yüan writes, helpfully:
Names for crickets include: White Tooth, Green Puller, Yellow Belly, Red Head, Purple Dog, Yellow Rope, Embroidered Raincoat, Living Hoe, Golden Orient Sash, Straight Backbone Wings, Plum Blossom Wings, Lute Wings, Green-gold Wings, Purple-gold Wings, Crow-head Gold Wings, Oiled-paper Lamp, Three-piece Embroidery, Red Bell Moon, Fragrant Forehead, and Mottled Shoulder Bell….
Should your pet cricket get sick, here’s a catalogue of remedies:
For worn jaws, feed it mosquitoes that have some blood in them; for fever, use the pointed leaves of bean sprouts; for excretory disorders, use female shrimp; for dizziness, bathe it with tea made form the ch’iung herb of Szechwan; for bite wounds, daub the injured area with a mixture of boy’s urine and worm droppings.
Accompanying the writings are intimate ink drawings by various Ming artists. Jonathan Chaves, the translator, writes: “In China there is between poetry and painting a very close relationship that is not present in the West. Poems were often inscribed on paintings for the enhancement of both; in many instances the subject matter of the two is not directly related, but they work mutually to complement the imagery of each other. Often the poet and the painter are different people.” The visual imagery depicts solitary trudgers along riverbanks, and forest and mountain-gazers spectacularly dwarfed by nature. Scale is important in Chinese art and writing. Eternity and the moment are frequently juxtaposed, as are the smallness of the human struggle in the context of the immense workings of the natural world. Yuan writes, “In a tiny boat, we set out across huge spaces…” – which describes anyone’s life.
All afternoon the spring air was cool and sweet. Gazing up at puzzle-pieces of sky and fringy leaves subdued my thoughts. The park was round, the sounds were round. Periodically, ferryboats of tourists, speaking French, Dutch, Italian, German, and many other languages, emptied into the sward and milled around the monuments. Some teens chased a wild turkey, which they speculated was an eagle. The bird led them past the enormous bronze eagle that faces the Statue of Liberty, and appears to be swooping in for a landing. Holding a wreath over a wave, the eagle is part of the four-pylon monument that memorializes over 4,000 U.S. servicemen who died at sea during WWII.
The afternoon wore on. Now and then a squad car drifted by, but the cops ignored us ignoring the No-Dogs sign. I brushed out Caleb and Tracy’s thick undercoats, and buried bolls of white fur under sticks, for the birds to take for their nests. As we stood to leave, I brushed grass and dog hair off my jeans. The dogs shook themselves, as though after a rainstorm, but their long hair remained matted with wildflowers.