Edith Wharton moved into The Mount, her house in Lenox, Mass., in 1902; she put the now-famous house and garden up for sale only nine years later. Yet she wrote in 1934, just three years before her death: “The Mount was my first real home . . . and its blessed influence still lives in me.”
Leaving a beloved home and garden is saying good-bye, and never saying good-bye. It’s like taking the beloved child to college 3,000 miles away. Nothing will be the same but the steady unshakable heart.
This year I finally sold our house and garden in Northampton, Mass. We moved to Los Angeles in 2005, but we held onto our beloved homestead until August. We too had a nine-year custodianship of this home of my heart.
To leave a garden one has built oneself is to leave a husk of that self — gardens are, after all, defined by death and resurrection, chemistry and alchemy, physical and intellectual labor. All that fussing and thinking and crawling about on hands and knees. To leave a garden is to have a heart aflame.
The buyers of our house asked for a list of garden plants. But that’s just the crust of a garden. How to explain that my whole life is in it? I’d have to have the language of a geologist, paleontologist, archeologist, even a paleo-geologist, if there is such a thing, not to mention a good shrink, to talk about my garden.
A lifetime of training the eye; that’s in there too. Studying art, making art, looking at gardens, looking at texture, color, form. And reading. And trial-and-error. And place – oh yes, the foundation of experiencing place in the deepest sense.
Place is everything to me: New Mexico, England, France, Spain, Japan, Mexico, Iceland; Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Owens River Valley; the Connecticut River Valley; the Berkshires. All of these places are in my garden. A few things were directly translated — the front walkway, for example, an interpretation of a pathway at the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto.
Friends brought their own trained eyes to my garden — Carol Pope, garden designer; arborist John Berryhill; stonemason Kim Harwood; Master Gardener Marsha Humphrey. The years I spent walking through the gardens and landscapes of Smith College, kayaking on the Connecticut River (looking at loosestrife loosed on the landscape) hiking up Mt. Tom, seeing the last blooms of the year in November on a bewitching witch-hazel — I planted my own Hamamelis, a peachy-spring-blooming one, in tribute — all of it is right there, in the rich and giving ground.
The Berkshire Botanical Garden: I think of walking through it in early winter. I had to be taught to see winter beauty; my teacher was painter and gardener (now Berkshire resident) Nava Grunfeld, who showed me form and color when the world seemed frozen stiff. How could there be a greater gift?
Naumkeag: I walked through it at least twice a year. Nothing in Western Massachusetts has influenced or amazed me more than Fletcher Steele’s work in Stockbridge. He is the Gershwin of American landscape architecture, and the Blue Steps at Naumkeag — famous throughout the world — are his rhapsody. Steele’s combination of Salvia nemerosa and Nepeta remain in my (alas, former) garden.
During the cool summer of 2009, I edited the garden for the last time. By then I had studied Southern California gardens — I was a changed gardener. The Northampton garden, especially that front garden, planted in 2002 and thought about almost every day of those years, was what I wanted it to be. The small Japanese maples bore grace and exquisite color; the river birch, shaped by arborist Jeremiah Woolley, shook its beautiful tresses in a downpour. A village of friends and fellow gardeners — how can gardens be anything else but living tapestries of relationships among plants, people, landscape, climate, and culture?
We held on for five mostly-absent years with this three-thousand-mile garden. When it became clear we would not be able to return, well, it was time to leave. Leave that beautiful house, garden, street, town, people, a community we all love.
Will the new owners rip out the garden? Change it beyond recognition? Probably. That it will never be the same is a given. (Gardens are, after all, as Fletcher Steele once wrote, “the most ephemeral of the American arts.”)
I think of Wharton leaving The Mount behind as she struck out for a new life (and new gardens) in France. And that mad gardener Chekhov too – who, health failing, left his beloved small estate in Melikhovo, outside Moscow, after only a few years. There really was a cherry orchard, by the way, and he had to leave it behind. I think of their brave good-byes and on a good day, it helps.
Good-bye for now to the whole sweep and beauty of the Connecticut River Valley and that great American river, cradle for the imagination. (Don’t even get me started about the concrete-lined Los Angeles River.)
As I write this essay from our tiny Los Angeles house in an urban village, I am looking at a destroyed back-yard landscape about the size of a handkerchief — concrete blasted away, shrubs removed, grass killed, everything ready for next, and very different garden A new garden may help. I’m trying to count on it. I can have a smoke tree here. Imagine! I was never without one in Massachusetts. But so far there is nothing to take the place of seeing the 90-year-old mountain laurel in the Massachusetts garden burst into tea-pink in spring, or the blizzard of white in early autumn next door — a hydrangea-tree forest, lovingly and hopefully planted in the 1930s.
The late afternoon of August 19, 2010, was hot, and the air heavy. Even my bare feet echoed as I walked out of the living room for the last time, and into the dining room, light slanting through those beautiful windows, the cherry floors warm, shining, and soft. How could this be so final? I burst into tears. I hugged the walls. I asked our beloved house for forgiveness. I sailed through the kitchen looking neither right nor left, and closed the door, the feel of that doorknob still in my hand today. And the Japanese maples — I couldn’t. I couldn’t look at them. No gardener is that tough. In the driveway, still crying, I hugged my neighbor. I stepped into the car, pressed my foot to the clutch, and turned the key. I drove away, looking straight ahead.
Paula Panich writes, teaches, gardens, makes art, and speaks to groups about great gardeners who were also great writers, in Los Angeles She blogs at www.theliterarygardener.com and www.atplayinla.blogspot.com.
Paula Panich is author of Cultivating Words: The Guide to Writing about the Plants and Gardens You Love (Tryphon Press, 2005), and gardens (in containers) in Zone 9