October is the month to visit New York. The sun is bright; the air is clear and relatively cool – though this year I was too early for the firing-up of fall. September was abnormally warm and dry, like ours. Then some rain; the general picture was still all green.
My favourite room in New York looks down from the 19th floor onto Central Park. The lake glints just below, embosomed in trees. The towers of Manhattan stretch out beyond. The bookcases filling the walls contain a glorious library of books on the history of gardening and landscape. This is the office of Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the person who revived the Park from its nadir in the 1970s. Now she is President of the Institute for Landscape Studies.This is where she edits Sitelines, its magazine.
We first met when I was touring radio studios to promote my wine atlas and she was on a parallel course, discussing her first book: The Forests and Wetlands of New York. It was as though she was the first person to notice that all the concrete lies in a spectacular landscape of woods and cliffs, marshes and islands. Look out of the window as your plane lands at JFK. Below you lies Jamaica Bay, a vast wildlife refuge that competes with Essex for its wandering muddy shoreline, home to (they say) 300 species of birds, not to mention horseshoe crabs, terrapin and mosquitos. In the distance are the Manhattan skyscrapers, beyond and around them the Hudson and the East River and Long Island Sound, Staten Island, the cliffs of the Palisades…. a dramatic natural context that city people easily forget.
Central Park is there to remind them. Forty years ago it was neglected, overgrown, filthy and dangerous. Then Betsy was appointed Administrator, the first in the role. She instilled order, found volunteers to clear up, plant up – and give money. She inaugurated the Central Park Conservancy, recruiting the great and good to support the park. Not long ago one Maecenas signed a cheque for a hundred thousand dollars.
So the park is looking good, perhaps as good as it ever looked since Mr Omsted and Mr Vaux set it all in motion in the 1850s. We walked over from Central Park West to the Boathouse on the tree-fringed lake, through the Rambles, a supremely romantic piece of woodland landscaping where paths, some paved, some natural, wind up and down among what seem to be wild woods, though suspiciously floriferous with flourishing native flowers. It was Michaelmas daisy time; their delicate pale flowers scattered under the trees in pools of light. Great whaleback rocks are a leitmotif of Central Park; indeed the dark grey schist, its surface often polished by schoolboys’ trousers, is the necessary bedrock of all Manhattan’s towers.
A gondola from Venice glided by on the lake; under the spreading, just yellowing, elms of the Mall a piper played by the monument to Sir Walter Scott; a faint whiff from the veldt wafts over from the zoo, fountains play among banks of chrysanthemums. It will soon be time for the sweetgums, the maples and the oaks to catch fire. Much as I love Kensington Gardens, there is nowhere on earth like Central Park.