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CENTRAL PARK IN WINTER

BY RAYMOND S. SPEARS

NATURE AND HUMANITY IN NEW YORK'S GREAT PLAYGROUND WHEN SNOW COVERS ITS LAWNS AND DRIVES, AND ICE INVITES SKATERS TO ITS LAKES.

THE flurries of snow curling over the Palisades, sweeping across the broad Hudson, fleeing from the illuminated buildings and streets of Manhattan Island, find a soft bed on the lawns and under the black trees of Central Park. It is not such a resting place as a sturdy breasted, self respecting Adirondack snow storm would deign to seek, but to the weary, travel stained, smoke begrimed snow which gets so far south and so close to the sea as the mouth of the Hudson, Central Park is a far better resting place than the dirty pavements between the human dwellings. If any one thinks this a far fetched metaphor, let him wade through the slush of New York's streets to the quiet paths and snow laden trees of Central Park some day after a snowfall. If ever snow looked buoyant and cheerful it is that which escapes over the piles of brick and stone to the comparatively natural environment of the Park.

Not only will the snow be interesting to contemplate, but the people one meets, and all the surroundings, have a new charm; for the snow has a distinctive way of bringing out angles and curves, and there are many chances of making unexpected discoveries. Almost every sort of humanity goes to the Park at one time or another, and those who are kept away by a little snow are hardly worth considering. Besides, the snow attracts some who would not go there save that they wish to see again the festooned trees, and feel the cold, sweet breath of a snowy field, with which they were familiar in years and joys gone forever. These are most interesting of all.

It is said that the original idea of Central Park was that it should be a patch of real country amid a city, a place to which men could go and enjoy fresh air and country scenery, including the broad fields, the sugar bush, the pastures and farm buildings, which go to make up respectable country. With this object in mind, around the borders of the new park were set out trees whose thick tops would shut out all view of the two or three story buildings which it was presumed would one day be built around it.

"But," says the present board of Park Commissioners, "they (the founders) did not look forward to the day of fifteen story apartment house and hotel architecture, and their plans failed, for it is impossible nowadays to shut out all view of the city from those who are there to seek the aspect of the country."

There were some other things the founders did not contemplate—"keep off the grass" signs, for instance. The crowds that visit the Park, were they to receive full liberty, would wear and tear the lawns, shrubbery, and trees to pieces; so in every direction lead asphalt paths, wide enough for six, to which one must keep during most of the year. But a fall of snow opens the way to any place in the Park.

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WHEN THE BALL IS UP—A CROWD OP SKATERS ON THE LAKE, NEAR SEVENTY SECOND STREET

In the snow curious trails and signs may be found, evidence of the queer doings of visitors. Here is a place where a full grown man must have lain down and rolled over and over—perhaps he was the stately six footer who was seen to enter the Mariner's Gate, on the west side at Eighty Fifth Street. There is another place, near the reservoirs, where one can decipher how somebody with trailing skirts fled, pursued by a square toed individual, into high banks on which both floundered and jabbed their arms into the snow to the elbows, accounting for the gloves and rubbers picked up by the caretakers after the snow melts. Of course, these juvenile antics of grown people usually take place after the lights of night appear, but in the less frequented localities, daylight sometimes witnesses such spectacles.

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ON THE CENTRAL PARK LAKE—"THE CHINKING MUSIC OF THE SKATES SINGS AN UNFORGETTABLE CHANT"

But it is the children that glory most in the snow, and find in it temptations fit to make the nurses weary. Some little tots have their own way and waddle through it to their hearts' delight, packing uneven snowballs and throwing them at any one near by, screaming and rolling over for glee. They wrestle, race, and shake their heads, joyful and joy inspiring. But there is many a child so richly dressed that the nurse clings to it and chides lest the lovely garments get a little snow on them. These are found down near Fifty Ninth Street, as a rule, on the Fifth Avenue side of the Park, talking French with their guardians.

But to the credit of the children it must be said that most of them do succeed in getting into the snow, spite of nurses and fine clothes. There is no Park policeman who has not found a four or five year old boy or girl, all alone, exploring the forests "across lots" through the snow, and having adventures at every jump. One or two of the big, good natured men have been frightened to find a seemingly dead child in the snow—where it had lain down to sleep, as much alive as a furred Eskimo papoose.

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AT THE EDGE OF THE LAKE

The children bring bags of nuts and cookies to feed the gray squirrels, and as living is so easy the squirrels get very fat and lose much of their naturally alert and spry ways. Consequently the lean, half wild cats which make the Park their home are able to kill them from time to time. The scenes of these tragedies are to be found after every snow storm, especially along the edge of the lakes, where the shrubs are thick and low enough to resemble underbrush. The tragedies are real, and worthy of the observer's attention.

In the snow one sees where a cat sneaked along, sinking to its knees at every step, taking advantage of the little hollows, the thickest bushes, and the tree trunks, to conceal itself like its wild relatives of the big woods. Where it paused, the mark of its crouching form pressed in the snow is found, and the brushing of its switching tail marks the eagerness of the hunt. The end of the chase is still more plainly indicated, for the vigorous spring at a mouse or squirrel leaves a bit of deep molding. Success is shown by blood in the snow where the brief struggle took place. When the prey escapes, the disappointment of the hunter is noticeable in the way the trail turns aside from the track of the game, as if to say, "Well, you got away that time!"

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A CENTRAL PARK DRIVEWAY IN WINTER. "MOST OF THE HORSES DRIVEN IN THE PARK ARE THOROUGHBREDS."

There are other pot hunters besides cats in the Park, and they are far more interesting, because they are not mere outcasts and runaways, but genuine freebooters, who always were and always will be on the lookout for a chance to kill before eating, and wouldn't eat off a plate if they starved for it. These are birds of prey, fierce hawks which swoop down upon the careless Park birds, bringing sudden death to robins and sparrows; and owls which fly by night—winged destruction to sleeping birds among the branches of the trees. These fierce visitors appear with the storms which cause the small mammals of their own haunts to hibernate and the birds to seek warmer latitudes.

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CURLING, THE SCOTTISH WINTER GAME—THERE IS BOOM FOR MANY SPORTS IN CENTRAL PARK, AND A CORNER IS GIVEN OVER TO THE ENTHUSIASTS OP THE "STANES" AND "BESOMS."

The birds wintering in Central Park are its most remarkable feature to the minds of those who like to study the ways of nature. There, in the heart of the greatest American city, one may see things which naturalists in vast forests have tried to see in vain. A mere catalogue of the species of birds seen in the Park would number hundreds, and the winter residents and visitors count up by the score. But New Yorkers go to Central Park for many things besides the study of bird nature. Thousands of them are proud of their muscle, and take such good care of it as to surprise the stranger—especially the belligerent one; and many of these muscular men train in the Park. They are not allowed to wrestle or box, or even throw snowballs, but

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A WINTER MORNING DRIVE IN CENTRAL PARK

up and down its hills with the stone steps, asphalt walks, and miles of picturesque territory there are runways fit to train the cross country runner. Here many prize winners have developed, notably the long distance runners. They come along in pairs and by the half dozen, at a dog trot, and pass every one. They travel at night, usually, or very early in the morning, from early fall to late spring. They are members of clubs, as a rule, and often run a mile or more to get to the Park. Neither rain nor snow deters them, and the lonely Park policemen like to see their black clad figures rustle along the silent paths. Of course, if there is very cold weather, skaters become buoyant with the hope of good glary ice; but of late years—for three seasons at least—there has been but little skating in Central Park. The ice quickly honeycombs, for some mysterious reason, presumably salt, and the skating rinks do a thriving business. It is too bad, because the Harlem Mere is a beautiful place, and at night, illuminated by white and colored lights, the figures on the ice make a spectacle not easily forgotten, while the chinking music of the skates sings an unforgetable chant.

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SKATERS ON THE LAKE, NEAR THE FLOWER BRIDGE

The clouds promising snow are watched closely by scores of men who love their horses, for every year the first sleigh to arrive at Case's, up the East Drive, gets a bottle of rare old wine. There is often an informal race of the most exciting character, after the first inch of snow whitens the ground. Not the fastest horse wins, but the one with the strongest muscle and the longest wind. Half of the time the sharp cutter runners wear through the thin snow and rasp on the gravel. Every time the horses' hoofs land they leave black marks. On they go, with only a stray policeman or pedestrian to watch them for long stretches, though groups waiting to see and cheer the racers are generally to be found here and there along the course. The finish may or may not be exciting from the sporting man's standpoint, but in one sense the end of the ride is only a commencement of the fun.

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THE EAST DRIVE'S ENDLESS PROCESSION OF VEHICLES ON RUNNERS AND ON WHEELS


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SLEIGHS BUILT FOR TWO, THE VEHICLES MOST POPULAR WITH MANY IN CENTRAL PARK.

Most of the horses driven in the Park are thoroughbreds, and some are so nervous and high strung that runaways occur frequently. Last November, for instance, there were eighteen serious enough to come to the attention of the police. Some of them resulted in no damage, but carriages or sleighs are often wrecked and the occupants badly injured. The police risk their necks every week stopping the mad dashes of uncontrolled horses, and more than one of them has lost his life in the work.

In one respect Central Park is very disappointing. Eyes that have seen a real brush heap, a dead tree lying prostrate, a genuine axe chopped stump, seek vainly for these reminders of the wild woods. Nowhere in the eight hundred odd acres is a place that is truly wild. The trees stand straight, and the branches are trimmed off symmetrically. The snow lies flat on the ground. It would be such a relief to find one acre, if not as nature made if, at least grown to untamed bushes and dense with the dead limbs of fallen trees.

Of the winter sights in the Park, perhaps the most unique is that of the gulls in the main reservoir. These scavengers of the sea, who on their native beaches are so timid that they go gyrating away at sight of a man, come to the Park, at sundown, by the thousands, and drop into the reservoir to rest for the night—a great mannerly assemblage, beautiful and instructive to contemplate. Who told them that shooting in the Park is forbidden? Even wild ducks have grown tame in the lakes, and will feed from the fingers of the little tots.

The old watchman at the reservoir says that one night the reservoir froze, and caught the gulls in the nip. There was a great commotion in the morning, when the birds awakened and found themselves frozen fast. They quieted down after a while; then one of them uttered a cry, whereat the whole flock flapped its wings and flew, lifting the thick ice in a solid sheet with them. How they thawed out, the old man did not know; but the birds were all back that night as usual. Ever since then, my veracious informant adds, the cries of the bird sentinels have been heard at intervals during the night, presumably calling "All's well, and the water's warm enough!"

People who do things in the Park are the exception. In proportion to the mere saunterers, the breathers of the good air and the observers of the life about them, the runners, riders, and naturalists are in a very small minority. The seats are constantly in demand. The ones along the drive, winter and summer, are almost always full, but through the Ramble, where quiet reigns, self contented sweethearts may be found morning, noon, or night. The usual pace of the Park pedestrian is a slow, very slow walk. The average visitor never has an adventure. Possibly he may see a runaway, but that is all.

Central Park is not a place for action, but observation. It is a spot where one may rest.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1950, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.