Walking home from work today I was lost in thought. It was hot (though not as hot as Seattle, where some friends live) and humid (though not as hot as Houston, where some family lives), yet if someone had run up to me and asked me what season it was I might not have been able to tell them. That is, until I crossed the winding path of Tompkins Square Park in New York's East Village, near where I live, and the dusk under the big elm trees lit up with fireflies.
I was immediately transported back to hot summer nights in years past, when I was pestered by mosquito bites instead of spam bytes, and the only work of the evening was to collect enough lightning bugs, as we called them, to try to read a book by. Of course I let them all go before bedtime, so I could watch them dance across the yard the next evening.
Sometimes living in the big city can lead one to forget the seasons. Of course I don't accidentally walk out in my snowboard gear in July -- not even Christmas in July -- but it's sometimes hard to remember to take more time to really enjoy that which makes each part of the year special, especially when it comes to our connection with nature. While the pesky thing known as work tends to get in the way of being like a kid, we can at least take a few moments to reconnect. Sometimes that's biting into a tree-ripened peach from the farmers' market, or listening to the muffled splashing and laughing of neighborhood kids at the municipal pool.
For me this evening it was getting lost for a few moments in the slow blinking of the fireflies. The sounds of the city fell away, drowned out by thousands of cicadas and tree frogs, echoing in the chambers of my memory from so many sweat-drenched summer nights.
The 10.5-acre Thompkins Square Park itself has a storied history, and fireflies certainly aren't the first urban squatters. August 6 will mark the 21st anniversary of the famous riots that threw the area into blood and chaos, as anarchists, activists and homeless people battled with police for the soul of the neighborhood. The park was closed for some time after, but increased policing and curfews made sure human squatters were never able to gain a foothold there again. In fact Thompkins Square has been the scene of several major riots over the past few hundred years, as well as countless demonstrations and countercultural activities. One of those spectacular elms, long protected from the scourge of Dutch elm disease, is also the site of the first Hare Krishna chant on U.S. soil.
I also just learned that the park's winding, at times confusing paths were specifically designed by Robert Moses to break up crowds and make it more difficult for gatherings and demonstrations. Today one is much more likely to see giggling teenagers, handball players or young upwardly mobile families than heroin addicts or bitter war vets. It's easy to see why old timers grumble about the changes, but all of gentrification isn't bad. Crime is much lower, there's a lovely farmers' market every Sunday, and children happily enjoy active play time.
Don't forget to enjoy this summer! There isn't that much left.
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