A Walk in the Ramble

For those who enjoy a long walk in nature but who also like their creature comforts not far away, a visit to The Ramble in Central Park should fit the bill. This 38-acre site of wild woods, outcroppings of rock, man-made rustic features, and confusing trails, all set to the tune of birds and sometimes screaming children, sits roughly between 78th St. on the north and 73rd St. on the south. The Lake is to the south. A walk through this intentionally contrived wild northern shore affords great views of the water, its seasonal recreational boaters, and beyond, the formalities of Bethesda Terrace. New York Central Park's landscape designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, designed the Ramble this way as a counterpoint to the nearby formal elements of the park.
Entering the Ramble from Bank Rock Bridge on the west side of the park

From the days of its construction in the late 1850s, when scores of workers moved the earth, constructed masonry, built artificial hills and streams, carved out paths, and planted a diversity of trees and plants, the Ramble has interested many visitors for its elaborate mimicry of nature.

View of boaters on the Lake from Bank Rock Bridge

From the 1869 book, A description of the New York Central park by Clarence Cook:
"Nature having done almost nothing, art had to do all. And yet art, trying to contradict nature in nothing, but only to follow her hints, improve her slight suggestions, and take advantage of her help, however stingily it may sometimes seem to have been proferred, has been able to produce a result, which, on the whole, so closely resembles nature, that it is no wonder if the superficial observer does not clearly see how vast is the amount of work that had to be performed before the Park could reach its present perfection." (A description of the New York Central park, Princeton University, 1869, p. 115)
Below, a page from A description of the New York Central park, Princeton University, 1869:

The Ramble Arch

George Haven Putnam, a cousin of Olmsted, remembers working on the park during the summer of 1859. His cousin assigned him to the staff of an Austrian landscape gardener in charge of the Ramble. In his memoirs, he writes,
"I remember taking a good deal of pride in the success of the curves of one of the paths in the ramble, for the shaping of which I was responsible, but I have never been able since to identify that path with any degree of certainty. I received the daily wage of $1.10; the dollar being for my work and the ten cents for the payment of my fare back to town."(Memoirs of my youth, 1884-1865. Putnam, 1912, p. 87)
Deep into the Ramble, with paths in different directions and a lamp post to mark the way.

A humorous account from 1868 describes a country visitor encountering the big city Ramble:
"It is curious to see how folks' minds work. Here in the country, the great object seems to be to get rid of water, rocks, and brush. You see, I spent considerable in draining the horse-pond, and Uncle Jotham made dry land where the muskrats built their nests. But Fred Olmsted has got things turned tother end foremost, and gone and filled up a valley of well-nigh twenty acres with water, and made all the shores of the pond as crooked as a ram's horn. I shouldn't think there was a rod of it any where in a straight line."(The Tim Bunker papers: or, Yankee farming by Willam Clift, 1868, pps. 136-137)

The irregular shoreline

"Nature in her own moods" is how Daniel Van Pelt described the Ramble in Leslie's History of the Greater New York:
"In 1858 a plan for laying out the park, submitted by Messrs. Olmstead (sic) and Vaux, landscape gardeners, was adopted, and the park became what it is now in general features, somewhat artistically, perhaps artificially, arranged in the southern portions, below the main lake; but on the east side of the lake, and north of it, left studiously and comparatively wild, the paths, almost labyrinthine, allowing the most perfect enjoyment of nature in her own moods." (Leslie's History of the Greater New York, 1898, p. 387)
For those worn out by the dainty and picturesque pleasures of the artificial wilderness, stroll over to the nearby Boathouse for some refreshment.

In our day, some might conceptualize the Ramble as a sort of virtual reality, a theme park based on 19th constructions of nature, but contemporary caretakers of the park view these acres as an "ecosystem." Hence, signs in the Ramble urge visitors to not trample away from the paths and to not leave anything behind. A great variety of birds in the park have long taken to the Ramble for its combination of tree canopies, understory, and water, so the area often teems with birders quietly tracking them. Because of this, the best detailed descriptions of the Ramble may be found on sites and in books devoted to birds.

Aside from birding, the Ramble is a good place to sketch nature, sunbathe, picnic, exercise or to make scenic images with photographic or digital equipment. Individuals also enjoy the area for their own preferred social amusements, and so one might stumble upon couples in the woods engaged in various forms and stages of bliss. The Ramble, though hardly an untouched wilderness, continues to provide a pleasurable intersection of nature and art.

Another view of boaters on the Lake from Bank Rock Bridge. Created with the Hipstmatic app for the iPhone.

Visualizing the Ramble can also include the use of Google maps, but the maps won't help in the likely event of getting turned around in the woods. Still, cellphone coverage in the wilds of Central Park is excellent, and as soon as the lost visitor starts to panic, an oasis appears in the form of the Loeb Boathouse. Getting lost in the woods and then ordering a glass of Sauvignon Blanc can all happen in the space of a few minutes. The map notes a few of the landmarks and bridges and other ways of stumbling into the wild side of New York City.

View The Ramble, Central Park in a larger map

Read the related post, For the Flâneurs: After the Museums, A Walk in Central Park.

Read the April 2012 post about Azalea Pond in The Ramble here.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from Friday, May 7, 2010. Click on images to enlarge them.  Many more conventional images of the walk at Flickr WOTBA. The artier iPhone images are in this set. Quotations above come from sources in the public domain. Follow links in the post to read more.


FantasticBabblings said...

I like the diplomatic way you mentioned "couples in the woods engaged in various forms and stages of bliss." Several years ago on a Sunday morning I was walking through the Ramble and encountered two guys in compromising positions (actually pretty uncompromising) and not ten feet away were two elderly ladies with binoculars admiring the birds. The ladies seemed to be experienced birders, but they chose to be oblivious to their neighbors - as long as they weren't disturbing the birds. I thought it was a wonderful example of New York tolerance at its best. Both couples were engaged in their own form of bliss.

I love your blog.


Teri Tynes said...

That's hilarious, Phil. And really exemplary behavior by these bird-friendly NYers. Many thanks for the great anecdote of nature at work in the Ramble.