The harvest of conscience

A carriage -- horse grazed over the cobblestones by Fifth Avenue while the driver began a peasant lunch of dried beef, apples and cheese. "I'd like to rest in the shadow of an ancient wall," she sighed.

"There are no ancient walls," her companion replied. "There's nothing but us."

We lived with the moods of drift and dissent still lingering in the country. An impulse toward autonomy had motivated the young carriage drivers communing in Central Park since the early '70s. The ultimate despair became the ultimate choice. We identified by withdrawing, seeking regeneration through voluntary downward mobility. Earning a subsistence living at labor, without making concessions or compromises, was a final outcry. Our carriages were not a discovery. They were a rediscovery. A metaphor for all evolutions. Our work was as old as time but we were living it like a new thought. The carriages would no longer be hazy relics within the mystic veil; they had become the surreal ornament of employment.

Hardy Ruggles was carving a leg of lamb on the footboard of his victoria and there was sun on the pomegranates. A vendor displayed baskets of grapes and boughs of apples. He set up a press and began pressing cider. A crowd gathered. Two vagrants, observing this, ran into the park. Soon they were selling boughs of autumn leaves to office workers who embodied the modern ambivalence toward work, while it seemed as though we had ceased to live in their nervous century.

There had been little morning business. We passed the time raking leaves and planting bulbs. Drinking mulled cider from a thermos, we were as tranquil as 19 th -- century villagers. Wagons pulled in and encampments sprang up near the rear wheels.

"This looks like Van Gogh's 'Gypsy Camp,'" said Courtney. She cast off her black shawl, rode her horse bareback out of the shafts and galloped into the woods.

It was an irrepressible greeting of fall. Such ebullience was prompted by something deeper than the imperative vitality of early autumn. The ancient rites and festivals of autumn seemed to have their parallel here.

There was no honored deity, no victor of contest. We had no such definition. There was no harvest, no flutes and horns. No chambers adorned with wreaths, no strewing of seeds and rose petals, no offerings. But in the people gathering there was a deep longing. All the haphazard, refracted elements of festival began to assemble and converge. Wind and light held them in consonance. Fragrance from the fruit became heavier as the sun warmed it. The carriage was festooned with boughs. I mounted the platform and began moving through the crowd. An incredulous mob became, for the moment, bound by a communal impulse. They cheered.

The waters were radiant, bounded by trees rejoicing in Renaissance colors, a harmony of reds and browns in Venetian light. An old Irishman returned from the streets, his carriage full of jack-o-lanterns. He took the most expressive ones home and baked pies and pumpkin bread to sell in the street the next day. A black horse ran into the square. The driver stood like a charioteer, his cape flaring.

A woman paused to admire the boughs that decked my carriage. She picked them like wildflowers, wound them into a wreath as she entered the Plaza, and hung it on an upper-story window over Central Park. A procession of hod carriers passed , their picks over their shoulders like the seven dwarfs. Indian Tim was cooking on the floodlights and we all went over to have a taste of acorn squash. We ate with our hands, ritualizing the first fruit of the season.

A pale quarter moon rose over the eastern skyline. The late sun gilded the mansards and we waited for rides in the topaz glow. A young driver burned white candles in his lamps. His face was handsome, luminous. he was the first to get away. He ran his horse past the philosopher's stone, his carriage brown and gold in camouflage against the foliage. Suspended above the void of trees before the city, he seemed to float in the harvest sun. His youthful spirit pas concentrated in images of light. The price of gold was broadcast from a speeding limousine.

I felt no connection to the ubanity at the center of which we stood. Such alienation within a public area was the phenomenon of an intense sense of place. We were ensconced in the heart of a perfectly unified city space. Architecture and monument offered an enduring historical presence against a landscape in glorious transition, as we were.

A new American dynasty is maturing in what may be the autumn of humanity. Our century is ending and we don't want to go forward. We want to go back. We are escaping for everyone who can't. The work often had connotations of degradation, but our independence modified the drudgery. Is it for our ancestry , or posterity, that we have revived a life force of the 19th century? It is a harvest of conscience and we are making an autumnal sacrifice of ourselves.

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