Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Innisfree Garden

When I scheduled an Adirondack Mountain Club trip to Innisfree Gardens in Millbrook, New York, I had written, "July can be hot, so let's not exert ourselves."  In fact, we had the coolest day all month after a long heat wave.  Innisfree is a relaxing and calming place to go whatever the temperature. Eleven of us set out for a unique experience at a unique location.

Water has a prominent place at Innisfree Gardens.  Except for the lake, all of the water features are man-made. In the photo above, small trickles of water fall into green foliage; below, spouting water creates mist. While visual elements, these cascades also have a natural sound, and a spray may touch the skin with a gentle coolness.  Going to Innisfree is a sensory experience.

In the 1920s, Walter and Marion Beck began to plan a garden at their country estate which they had named Innisfree after W.B.Yeats' famous poem. Walter's fascination with Asian art led him to study the work of 8th-century Chinese garden maker, Wang Wei.  Wang created "inwardly focused gardens and garden vignettes," which Beck thought of as "cup gardens" in his native American landscape.

As we strolled through the 185-acre property, we stopped at the various formations.  I encouraged our group to spread out and to take some quiet time here.  The property was small enough that no one would get lost. Some of us stayed together, and others went off by themselves.

Rock is also central to Innisfree.  Much of it, such as the hillside below, is part of the small glacial lake on the property.  Other rocks have been brought in and arranged either alone or in formation; all of the rock comes from the immediate forest.  In contrast to the rough stone, planted elements are groomed, as the trees are in the photo to the left, shaped into their own grouping.  The archway on the right is beneath a stone bridge and above a small stream.  A bench nearby awaits those who want to rest, while listening to the water bounce over the rocks.

I love the many stone stairways that lead to a series of brick terraces, resplendent with plants both native and exotic, that offer views across the garden to the lake. I went up and down the steps in the photo on the left. The stairways always lead to new discoveries.

Lester Collins, a landscape architect and student of Japanese gardens, joined the Becks in 1938.  He presented them with the idea of "creating an essence of nature and gardening."  Each area would be a space unto itself, yet part of the whole, in a combined natural and created environment.

Taking time in these environments was one of the fundamental ideas of Mr. Collins and the Becks. Chairs abound in a variety of meditative locations, offering respite to those who prefer sitting on a chair to a rock. A row of eight chairs lines up under a live-oak tree, a stone sitting-wall overlooks the lake under blooming trumpet vine on a brick terrace, while, in the lower photo, a chair is placed on a rock slab patio with a view to the lake.

I saw members of our group in one space or another, either in groups or alone. Later, one man told me that he had spent a half-hour on a bench, quietly overlooking the lake; two women had chatted while relaxing on the bridge across the lily pads; one woman lagged behind and I later saw her alone, stepping down stone stairways around carefully placed rocks near the water.  I was pleased that our ADK members, usually out on more strenuous hikes, were absorbing the gentle spirit of Innisfree.

The lake is, by far, the garden's largest feature, and the backdrop to the many of the "cups" or vignettes. After wandering in the highly-designed garden area, taking a walk on the dirt path into the woods surrounding the lake adds a rusticity to the Innisfree experience.  The entire walk is less than three miles.

The trail around the lake, although more natural, still has unusual artistically-planned features, such as these maple trees trimmed to a narrow shape.

We met a few of the garden's volunteers as they worked on the day's projects.  One man had been coming here for sixty years and now, in his 80s, devotes many volunteer hours to the garden's maintenance.

Mid-July is not this garden's high season for flowering plants.  I had been here previously in June, when flowers bloomed in abundance.  At that time, I had seen an entire cove filled with large lotus flowers.  This day, I was thrilled to find a few.  An abundance of botanical variety remains, however, making a terrific show of texture and color in an endless array of trees, shrubs, ground covers, vines, and more.

If one view of the garden seems to contain everything, it is this one, below.  With the lake stretched out in the background, a terrace leads from stone steps to large rocks placed in artistic symmetry.  A tree overhangs the scene and places to sit are numerous.  A small stream flows behind the area into the cove of water lilies.  One time when I came here, a woman sat on one of the rocks, playing a large Celtic harp.  Ethereal music floated across the lake.

We spent two hours wandering through the gardens and walking the trail around the lake and we were hungry.  Near the parking area are a few picnic tables on a hill, the perfect place for our lunch.  Typical of ADK, we had become instant friends and had much to talk about now that we had all come back together.  Eventually, it was time to head for home.

Many of the group's participants mentioned returning with friends or family who would enjoy the garden's mood.  This was my fourth time here. The first time, friends had introduced Bill and me to Innisfree, and each time since I have introduced it to others. It is always a serene place to spend some quiet time.