Friday, November 04, 2005

Charles Kennedy's birthday

Regina casts a silver spoonful at the "Owl Tree" -- Upper Lobe

Lee, Noreen and Regina

Photo by Regina Alvarez
Me, Jimmy, Lee [with the container] and Noreen
at Charles' bench -- Evodia Field feeding station--
where the plaque, by Charles Francis Kennedy, reads:

empty milkweed pods
weeks since a butterfly
maybe there'll be owls

* * * * * * *

maybe there'll be owls

October 19th, 2005 would have been Charles Kennedy's 68th birthday. A small group of his friends met in Central Park that afternoon to keep a promise we had made long ago.

Though Charles was a cheerful person, he often brought up a subject that seemed gloomy to me: the different places he wanted his ashes scattered after his death. They were all in Central Park, of course.

The list of scattering locations changed as the years went by; a few lost their magic and were replaced by others. Mostly the list just expanded-- wherever something happened that delighted him or moved him he'd add that location to his list.

Somehow I never took the ashes business seriously: I considered it it one of his many lovable eccentricities. But during the last months of his life when Charles, cheerful even then, continued refining the list, I came to realize that death was a natural a part of the scheme of things for him, something to be incorporated into daily life. He died on October 20th, 2004, a day after his 67th birthday. Now a new thought occurs to me: Could he have known all along that scattering his ashes in Central Park would be a gift for his friends?

There were five of us there at the east side of Balcony Bridge that day. Lee, Noreen, Jimmy and I had spent many happy hours with Charles over the years--hawk-watching, owl-hunting, slug-snooping, birding, mothing, spidering, --I could go on and on. Regina was the fifth.

Charles endlessly admired Regina and pulled her into his orbit from the first year we all met her. That was in 1993, when she was the zone gardener at the Model-boat Pond. That was also the year Pale Male first built a nest at 927 Fifth Avenue. Regina went on to make a stellar career at the Central Park Conservancy. We meet her every month at the Woodlands Advisory Board meetings which she runs in her role as the park's Woodlands Manager.

On the afternoon of October 19th, as we stood in a little huddle on Balcony Bridge waiting to begin our task, Regina told us a story about Charles. It seems that many years ago, as they were chatting about a park friend who had just gotten engaged, Regina mentioned cheerfully [she is just as cheerful a person as Charles was] that she had never been proposed to. Without a moment's hesitation, she recalled with a grin, Charles dropped to his knee and begged for her hand in marriage.

"Regina!" we exclaimed, "the most eligible bachelor in Central Park proposed to you and you refused?" She gave another mischievous grin. "Oh no, she assured us, "I accepted." A pause as that sank in. Then we all began to laugh, Regina perhaps hardest of all. I guess they never quite settled on a date.

It was almost four and time to begin, though clearly we would not complete our task in one day; the list was too long. Lee carried the ashes in a container unceremoniously resting in a plastic bag. She also had a beautiful silver tablespoon.

Down the steep incline from Balcony Bridge to the Lake's edge we scrambled. It was on this very shore that Charles had seen his first Prothonotary Warbler . He'd been on a quest for this beautiful, golden-colored bird for more than 10 years and was determined to see it. Somehow, year after year, it kept eluding him. Finally the bird and the man intersected at the west side of the Lake near Balcony Bridge. The Prothonotary spot soared to first place on Charles's list; it continued to be his favorite bird. In fact, as some of you may remember, Charles' e-mail address was Prothonotary @

One by one we cast silver spoonfuls of Charles's ashes along the shore at the Prothonotary Warbler spot . It's odd --- we didn't feel sad at all. We joked around. We enjoyed the beautiful fall day.

Our next scattering spot was nearby-- the south side of the Upper Lobe, just below Bank Rock Bridge. That's where the 2003 Screech Owl family had nested and where at evening fly-out time we watched the owl parents teach the niceties of screech-owl manners to their three fledglings before setting out for their night marauding. We hadn't been there for quite a few months --somehow nobody quite felt like owling without Charles. Now we scattered our spoonfuls at the base of the owls' favorite roost tree, and also around the log nearby where we used to sit and watch the owl show.

Then the eerie thing happened. We heard a couple of blue-jays screaming --- a signal that made us raise our binoculars to the treetop. Noreen, of course, was the one who first spotted the little Screech Owl sitting on a branch almost at the top of the big willow. Noreen has an uncanny way of finding owls. Hardly a minute later Regina exclaimed "Look. There's another one. " It was sitting completely still just a few branches away from the first one.

I suppose it's possible that owls arrive at the Upper Lobe willow tree every evening at dusk. But that wasn't at all what we thought. We knew that one of those owls -- or both because who knows how things work up there-- was Charles. We decided to resume regular owling at the Upper Lobe.

That same evening a question popped into my head: What ever became of Charles's e-mail address? So I sent it message saying "Are you there?" Within minutes a response arrived from the well-named Daemon Mailer: "Mailbox Not Found," it read. I guess we'll have to communicate with Charles by Owl instead of AOL.