Tuesday, June 22, 2010
I am lucky enough to currently be working on a book that has afforded me a glimpse into two dozen or so spectacular gardens along the east coast. The book is tentatively entitled Private Edens and my intention is to try to identify the personal motivations and influences behind the choices each garden owner made in creating their “paradise”. It is my thesis that, while they undoubtedly share commonalities in defining “Eden”, to wit green-ness and blossom and a connection to nature’s calming, comforting embrace, each, individual view might be based on any manner of things. Where and how the owners grew up. Places they have visited or longed to visit. The beginning or end of relationships. Problems or traumas turned to new understanding and vision. Choices burnished by nostalgia or fired by the desire for change.
As I have traveled from Virginia up through Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, to as far north as Connecticut, New York state, and Massachusetts, what has struck me the most as I have toured and chatted is the resilience of the human spirit and the zeal with which these seekers of paradise pursue their dream. All have a personal story to tell. One, a garden designer, suffered a debilitating stroke some years ago so his garden has had to adapt to gardening from a motorized wheelchair and with a little help from his friends. His garden remains his greatest solace. Another suddenly found her garden of twenty years surrounded by a flotilla of MacMansions and it became all about screening what had been, in the past, a breathtaking rural view. Yet another, a widow and mother of eight, remarried in her 70’s and built a new house and garden to create and share with her new husband. And another, after gardening his property for thirty years, was so loathe to see all his passion for the task disappear after his demise that he has entered into an agreement to sustain it as a public garden in perpetuity.
I have visited everything from hilltop mansions in Virginia with fairy tale views of great horse farms and expansive, heart-stoppingly unspoiled acreage to quaint Connecticut farmhouses perched on the side of dirt roads, only revealing their cloistered green charms out the back door, to spare, new constructions where a minimalist hand paints a restrained and contemplative vision of harmony and contentment. All have understood and executed the intricate balance of hard structure to green sprawl to perfection, carving steps and terraces and pathways into the landscape with the precision and artistry of the most brilliant of surgeons. Most have introduced a feeling of water, be it intrinsically in their situation on the banks of a pond or stream, or as simple as the addition of a fountain or rill or reflecting pool. Many have included an edible idea in everything from a stand of berries to a small orchard to a real decorative and productive potager, as what would Eden be without a nod to nature’s bounty?
After exploring all these various and, to me, fascinating parsings of paradise, it seems that, in the end, the point is really to be with the land, not against it – to understand the unique soul and potential of that singular piece of property and seamlessly interpose your presence, even if you are the defining element. To forge a partnership with Mother Nature based on equal amounts respect and ardor, which, in their commingling, embody your unique vision of the beauties with which the natural world can surround you. To feel embraced, calmed, connected, contented, protected. To not only feel attached to, but, in your very essence, be as one with the living earth around you. To delight in the sun on your back, the song and sparkle of water in motion, and a thousand shades and shapes of green. Surely, then, all of us have the chance to dwell in Eden.