How can you tell who’s a visitor to New York City right away?  They’re the ones gawking up at the skyscrapers. The city folks look down toward their feet to avoid eye contact, and to move even more rapidly. That’s one of the lessons I learned on my trip East over the holidays.

Fortunately, I could gawk away without tripping, while holding onto Wes’s arm who skillfully introduced me to the Big Apple on foot. We walked miles in the urban canyons, cold and dark in December with the blue sky tantalizingly high above. It felt strange to be far removed from nature and close to millions of people, yet exhilarating too.

I reveled in the sheer power, creative will, diversity of culture, and the frenetic energy.  I’d grip Wes’s hand  and tilt my head all the way back to take in the dizzying “peaks” and “summits” of the buildings, to marvel at colors, glass reflections, and the merging of ornate old architecture now overtaken by the ever higher buildings.

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I decided to embrace it all, including Central Park, the result of what has to be one of the most brilliant foresight of planning in the world and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. The New York Legislature, in 1853, set aside 750 acres of prime real estate in the city. Today, the park is 843 acres, or 6% of Manhattan.

We walked the whole length of Central Park, rambling on trails and gawking like I always do at the native birds, from white-throated sparrows scruffing in the crispy brown oak leaves ruffling the ground, to a flock of northern shoveler ducks glistening in sunshine on the Reservoir. They joined a lone, handsome hooded merganser, along with bufffleheads finding refuge in ice-free waters.

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A few other people studied the birds, too, yet most were running or walking fast in pairs or groups, chatting or listening to music in their headphones. Here, the sun warmed us –the rays finding their way unencumbered through the bare-limbed hardwoods.

A red-tailed hawk in a high tree perch gave its signature keee-eee-ar, a reminder of the bestseller book, Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park, by Marie Winn. The book is a celebration of wildness in the city, of people’s joy in nature, and of celebrities like Glenn Close and Woody Allen becoming just another birdwatcher in this quest to see the red-tail family through its nesting season and beyond.

The southern end of the park, south of the Wollman rink, and closest to the most bustling part of Manhattan, harbors a four-acre bird sanctuary with a clear mission of providing habitat in all its tangled, chaotic, multi-layered glory. The park is called the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, and is named for George Hallett—a civic leader, birder, and my great uncle.

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Pausing to honor my father’s uncle, I remembered him visiting our family with news of birds, of electoral reform and proportional representation that would become my brother Rob Richie’s passion as well (see Fairvote), and especially relevant today. Uncle George was a vegetarian who ate more eggs in a day than I’d ever seen. He lived to be 90.

Leaving Central Park for the narrow canyons of steel, concrete, of neon flashing, shifting signs, of traffic din, of the sweet smell of bakery and fresh roasted coffee mingling with exhaust, and even walking by the black, shiny, foreboding Trump Tower, I felt an overwhelming disorientation. Where do I belong? Somehow my uncle George had a foot in both worlds, at home in nature and in the city.

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I shook my head, smiled again, and returned to gawking up, my arm looped through Wes’s comforting arm, merging and mingling with the throbbing city. High above, clouds filtered over the sheltering sky we all share. Then, I turned my attention like I do with birds to eye-level, and ground level, and listened to snippets of conversation, and attended to the swirling divergence and convergence of people—wearing head scarves or wool stocking caps, pushing strollers, or singing on a street corner, while shaking a Salvation Army donation can.

As 2017 opens, I’m grateful I had the chance to be the Oregon country girl gawking her way through New York City with my man of city and country both.  Like the birds I love so much for the stunning array of colors, attire, timidity and chutzpah, I celebrate what makes America the “melting pot.”

Here’s to welcoming our neighbors, embracing our differences, and showing tolerance, love, and respect to all people, and to all creatures in this New Year.

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