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September 18, 2023

The Park

By Ken Dubuque

I love to walk in the park, especially in the autumn, particularly in the early fall when the leaves are just starting to turn colors; the air is a little crisp, with a gentle breeze and the animals are busily preparing for the coming of more inhospitable times ... or at least I thought so.

Central park has been called an oasis, an island, and a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. It is all those things, but for me, a newly returned New Yorker, it is also my yard; my place to get my hands dirty as a once-in-awhile volunteer gardener. I used to have my own yard with grass, bushes, and trees (and the maintenance that went with it) when I owned a house. I gave that up to retire to New York with its opportunities to expand my mind and pursue the arts. I love my apartment, yet I kind of miss that solitary puttering part. But I do have this wonderful park. I look at trees, bushes, and flowers -- I don't really know what they all are but I like the variety, how they blend together -- some more formally, others wildly.

I enjoy walking the paths, not always entirely sure where I'll end up. I relish looking at all the people; a few hurrying along in a very purposeful way, others strolling, jogging or bicycling. There are many couples enjoying each other's company and quite a number of families; pushing baby carriages, chasing toddlers, or just laughing. People are playing a variety of sports: baseball, football, frisbee, or pretending they're riding brooms while shouting in what sounds like Old English, a la Harry Potter. Others are eating al fresco, while sitting on one of the lawns or by a lake. They all seem to be having a good time, speaking many languages, while communing with this somewhat urbanized nature.

I also find pleasure in watching the animals; the birds, especially the raptors gliding on the air currents; butterflies flitting from flower to flower; or the turtles floating along with their heads out of the water and then abruptly diving and carrying on about their turtle lives. Occasionally, I even spot a less ordinary animal like a raccoon, who busily washes its paws, while keeping a wary eye on the surroundings. It may not be the country but it's still interesting. Yet it's the ubiquitous squirrels I especially get a kick out of. At first I laughed (quietly of course) when international tourists took pictures and spoke German, Italian, or whatever to them; they're just squirrels for goodness sake; not tigers or elephants.

While I've been around the world to see many kinds of animals, after a while even I started watching these furry rodents a little more intently. I observed them as they busily gathered nuts or berries or whatever they chose to dine upon. I liked how their bushy tales shook, as they popped up, cocked their heads and looked around, and then concentrated on their business of collecting.

One particularly interesting behavior I became fascinated with was watching them pile pinecones; little piles or larger towers in circular formations or in lines. I wondered what they were doing with the pinecones; stockpiling them to move to some secret hole in a tree, in the ground, or under a rock? Or were they just removing some morsel to eat now or store for the winter (do they hibernate?) I puzzled, what was the purpose of the piles. As I never really paid much attention before, I didn't know if the seeming precision had any significance, or was it just random luck?

But all these casual observations and questions occurred before I looked into their eyes -- those cute little, yet ever-vigilant eyes, that were looking around to ensure that there was enough room to escape if someone or something got too close. No, I was becoming increasingly convinced that there was something more.

I kept returning to the park, taking different paths, to study squirrel behavior. I began to notice that the intensity of their sideways glances increased as I moved deeper into the Ramble, the woodiest part of the park. There were still enough leaves remaining on the trees to create long shadows; particularly as the daylight waned toward dusk. Could they actually be staring at me? Why did it seem that these usually solitary animals would gather together, almost warning me as I walked more deeply into the forest? Now that I focused on it , why did the piles of pinecones seem to be almost exact circles or arrow-like lines? Being a trained engineer, I continued to ask questions and doing a bit of research on the internet. But I never really answered the question. I thought, was I the only person to ever notice this behavior? I concluded that I was just being paranoid, as a result of an overactive imagination.

That was until today. I am walking through the North Meadow, around the Turtle Pond, to the Castle and into the Ramble. I stop on the belvedere to look over the water at the increasingly brilliant reds and bright yellows of the trees. I wasn't intending to enter the forest, because it's getting colder and raw as a storm is brewing in the west. Clouds are billowing upward, wrapping around each other, turning grayer and grayer. The wind is picking up, blowing leaves off the trees and swirling dried up brown remains of formerly bright green tree growth around on the ground. But I just can't seem to help it. I'm being drawn in by some force or calling or something.

Was I being too curious? And the squirrels seem to be particularly active today, yet stopping to intently look at me. As I enter the gloomy pathways of the deeper, thicker forest I realize no one else (human that is) is around. I pick up my pace, thinking maybe this wasn't such a good idea; after all, it really does look like it's going to pour any minute. The squirrels are staring at me. No, it's my mind playing tricks.

There seems to be more squirrels, not so cute anymore, gathering on the rocks, in the trees, even on the bridge above the tunnel I must walk through to get to the clearing by the lake on the other side. I start to feel a growing chill crawling up my back.. The pinecone circles are larger, more frequent and better defined; the lines seeming to point the way (to where?) Stop it, I think, it can't be, they're just rodents, But no, they're everywhere; the piles and the now menacing creatures. They're chattering to each other and showing their teeth -- I hadn't realized how large those incisors were before.

Yet I find myself saying out loud now: "But I love animals, I wouldn't harm you, I don't like hunting, I help maintain this habitat for you"; like they understand ... or can they? I even try a little French and Spanish; maybe they're immigrant squirrels, I think, trying to ease the increasing tension.

The chattering rises to almost a screeching level now, their eyes long ago devoid of cuteness, seem to be peering into me now. I don't remember this particular path. I realize I'm panting, I've begun to jog, no, almost run, through the ever-darkening and now-wet woods. Where did the bridge go? The tunnel is still there, flickering with a very eerie glow; with what seems like a misty tendrils reaching out. Have I lost my mind? I'm downright terrified.

I'm trying to watch where I'm now running to, but I stare at the creatures; these malevolent beasts are now much larger. They are almost furless with razor-sharp claws and bloodshot eyes. The piles of pinecones aren't at all random anymore, they are extraordinarily exact. I think I see, no, it couldn't be: a pool of red? Is that a whitish rock, no, it's more like a skull. I know I cannot run fast or far enough; it is too late. I've crossed some kind of line. I suspect too much. No -- I know too much ; they cannot let me leave. I cannot reveal their secret. I fall down ...

Article © Ken Dubuque. All rights reserved.
Published on 2018-11-05
Image(s) are public domain.
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