Chisun Lee's New York Obsession (2008)

I know nothing of rock climbing or rapids shooting or cow tipping. I detest critters, dampness, and dirt. To a colleague who wonders about my aversion to "real" camping—tent, sleeping bag, and nothing else—I have put it simply: I will never crap in a hole in the ground.

I am a city mouse, through and through.

But I am human, descended like everyone from generations that lived closer to the earth. So, sometimes, even I am overcome by a profound, instinctual desire to commune with nature. Yet rather than whine like some—"Oh, I have to get out of the city!"—I happily look for satisfaction right here in the concrete jungle, where nature is, well, neater.

Museum folks do nature best. Their skills with artifice, presentation, and sterilization produce top-notch pseudonatural environments. For an afternoon of outdoor tranquility, I tote a book to the gardens of the Cloisters museum in Upper Manhattan's Fort Tryon Park (193rd Street and Fort Washington Avenue, 923-3700). There are plenty of stone ledges for perching, and the thick walls of the reconstructed medieval monastery block out the strains of city life. The period shrubs smell sweet, and there are far fewer tourists than in Central Park.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which oversees the Cloisters, also offers some choice open-air lounging at its main location (1000 Fifth Avenue, 535-7710). The seasonal rooftop sculpture area, which at the moment boasts a collection of David Smith creations, sports little greenery to offset the minimalist-concrete aesthetic. But peek over the side: to the west lies all of Central Park, and, in other directions, the grandest cityscape in the world. Just don't get carried away and kick off your shoes. Bare feet, according to one rather militaristic guard, are strictly forbidden.

Less hoity-toity, but still artsy, is the courtyard scene at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City (22-25 Jackson Avenue, 718-784-2084). Bare feet are hardly a concern where undergraduate and not-really-starving-artist types gather on summer Satur- days to hear DJs of diverse schools and cavort among the season's outdoor installations.

Tragically, one of the greatest outdoor hangouts in the city is closed for renovation. The Museum of Modern Art's Philip Johnson-designed sculpture garden (11 West 53rd Street, 708-9400), with its Zen-like scattering of trees, rectangular pond, and, of course, sculptures, provided soothing reprieve in absolutely not soothing Midtown.

Museum gardens are lovely, but sometimes it's not enough just to sit outdoors. The primal urge to do something—no doubt a throwback to our hunter-gatherer days—cannot always be stifled. That's when I take a brisk run around the Big Loop in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, an approximately three-mile stretch of asphalt that is nevertheless overhung with leafy branches and graced with a picturesque lake. It may not be as vast as Central Park, but, again, relatively few tourists make the outer-borough trek.

For the ultimate in non-nature nature, befriend someone who has a rooftop garden and go sit in it. Having once house-sat in one of thosecgorgeous Tribeca lofts we only see in movies, I know the glory of sipping a cocktail under the open sky, watching the sun rise and set over Manhattan, with a warm bed and cable TV waiting just a few feet away. (A more down-to-earth option: the city's numerous community gardens. Some wilder than others, they all provide a leafy refuge for pavement-weary pedestrians.)

And when even I just have to get out of the city, I take a day trip to a place like Storm King, the surreal wonderland of building-size sculptures in upstate Mountainville (Old Pleasant Hill Road, 914-534-3115). Taking in the whole collection is a 500-acres-wide workout, but it's worth it. Works by Nam June Paik, Alexander Calder, Andy Goldsworthy, and others jut at odd angles and in bold colors from the meticulous emerald-green turf. It's a magical, humbling experience—sort of a comfortable, carefully arranged version of California's redwood forests.


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