Central Park in the Dark

NATURALIST Robert Michael Pyle often laments what he refers to as the “extinction of experience.” He writes, “A populace less familiar with its nonhuman neighbors is one whose own impacts are unlikely to be noticed and moderated by choice. What we know, we may choose to care for . . . what we fail to recognize, we certainly won’t.” For her part, Marie Winn has taken up this banner in a small, but essential way. And she waves it in the best of all places — her backyard. It just so happens that her “yard” is in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities.

Central Park in the Dark is a fine follow-up to Winn’s popular Red-Tails in Love, which chronicled the human and avian dramas surrounding the activities of a now-famous pair of New York City raptors. Her new book focuses on the nocturnal habits of Central Park’s nonhuman residents, and the flashlight-wielding community of nature enthusiasts who venture out after sunset in search of the next natural phenomenon. Winn saunters through a wealth of natural history on owls and moths, bats and stars; she writes with contagious excitement, in a jovial, even giddy, tone. Her devotion to these pursuits is fierce. No question is left unasked, no species left unkeyed, and no natural process is denied its proper attention and reverence.

Central Park has cast a deep and resonating spell on this community of urban naturalists. People of all ages (some of the “regulars” are children under eight years old) and backgrounds are bound by the experiences they share here. They celebrate holidays in the park. They enter it in search of solace, and to grieve. They fight to conserve it. Their love of place is so strong that when Winn’s good friend Charles Kennedy is dying of lymphoma, he begins detailing instructions on where his ashes should be scattered. This is no general request, but a long, loving list of specific locations: the lake where he finally saw his first prothonotary warbler, the Moth Tree where the group gathered at night to watch moths feed on oozing sap, the small peninsula where the park’s first screech owl pair in half a century successfully nested, bred, and fledged three owlets.

Whether it is watching owls rise, slugs mate, moths feed, or hawks hunt, the park is constantly providing these paramount opportunities for “quasi-religious exhilaration.” And so in the end, it is the park itself, rather than any of the many creatures in it, that provides Winn with her most essential relationship. Central Park in the Dark reminds us of what it feels like to love and depend on a place, a home. If you want to experience some sense of this communion, head over to Central Park at sunset. Look for a group gathered under an owl’s tree. “Your binoculars are all the credentials you need.”