We plan to gather at Island Park. We’ll have a fire in a brazier and invite dance, performance, and conversation among friends. I will present a dance about a firebird emerging from the heart of a tree.
Just before the designated meeting time, there is a thunderstorm. Another is predicted later, and no one shows up but Jim and me.
But neither does the storm. Stars instead, patches of dreaming cloud, the air soft and fresh after the rain.
We light the fire, and Jim bangs a piece of wood against the brazier. It becomes a gong, a musical instrument of wondrously varied tones.
As I walk-run on the grass, I notice a leaping motion near my feet–little trajectories. There’s a tiny brown toad, jumping between the grass stems. Near dusk, I see a bright-green insect, like a bit of fallen foliage, clinging motionless to a root of the big beech tree.
Jim and I carry out the plan. The firebird, the tree’s guardian, dances from heartwood. We sit on the ground and lay our palms on the earth, listening for stories it might tell us.
At nightfall, we touch the tree and stand there for a long time in its living presence. I look down, and near my feet a firefly is pulsing: the third little earth-star of the night.
As we leave, a couple is dancing by candlelight in the pillared pavilion. I remember many nights of fireflies here, murmuring river and muted human voices seeming both near and distant.
Island Park was one of the earliest parks in Ann Arbor. For generations, people have been gravitating to it for both casual and ritual gatherings. The pavilion, with its white columns, serves as a romantic setting for events, and sometimes as shelter for people who have little else.
The river curls around the park and the nearby smaller islands. The forested hill beyond embraces the river, the high trees framing light in lacework of branches. The sandbanks, the trees, and their arched openings to the river create natural rooms and scenes. For some artists, these elements become codirectors and participants with a life of their own.
For one such event, the dance theater group moves from the pavilion to the big beech tree to the wide field to the platform and bench by the water and back to the field, each area cradling another page of an unfolding story. The views from one area to the next provide continuity reminiscent of medieval artwork containing miniature scenes in the far background. The audience moves with the group, feeling very much a part of the production, as indeed they are.
After dusk, the performers set out luminarias on the grass and light a fire in a brazier. People linger to tell stories and continue to dance. The pavilion shines, its walls seemingly constructed of moonlight. It is a good place to sit and read poetry written by one of the dancers, to talk quietly while revelers laugh around the fire.
The fireflies flash and flare, burning their tiny evanescent lanterns. The air has turned blue-gray and softens yet bristles with life. Blue deepens to indigo and black. The resident ducks begin to demand vociferously: Time for humans to go home.
I begin to walk across the arched bridge, carrying a bag of costumes. I meet a little furry mound walking straight toward me, imbued with purpose. I notice it is black with a white stripe. I concede the bridge for the moment.
The moon rides above a picnic shelter and street lights shine into it. Raccoons begin to slink about on its floor, looking for dropped remains of picnics. Their gait gives an impression of stepping down into some hidden underworld with each tread. Their eyes are curious and glittery, their presence vital.
Some nights the picnic grilles are lit like bright orange eyes, and a neglected community of humans gathers. The hill beyond, an old edge of the glacier, dreams in its mantle of new trees, eternal as a rock can be, forever watching over the island. It will be here when all of us are gone.
Aware that “utopia” translates as “no place,” I coin the word alithitopia–true place. This is one.