Whale Bone Cove: Complete



Our friend George Trescher, long dead now (this is thirty years ago) had lost the house he rented in Quogue on Long Island, and we were losing ours in Bridgehampton, and like him we had not been able to find a house we wanted on the East End that we could possibly afford to buy or rent. One night at dinner, during a slightly martini-induced bout of moaning about our situation, I heard myself saying—meaning nothing by it—that “the Connecticut River Valley is very beautiful.” “The Connecticut River,” said George. “I’d forgotten about that.”  And with his usual due diligence, he went off, rented a house for the winter in Old Lyme to see what it was like and invited us to come visit.

We didn’t want to go. He invited us for Boxing Day, and the last thing we wanted was to leave a house we liked, and were losing, the day after our last Christmas there, to slog up I-95 into Connecticut. But we loved George dearly, and I felt sort of responsible for him being there, so we did go, whining and complaining all the way, and when we got there, finally, we were met at the door by George.

“Go away. You’re early,” said George. “Go have a look around and come back around sunset.” He shut the door. Not a very auspicious beginning, I thought. But I said to Christian, “let me at least show you where we are,” and we headed back the way we’d come, and onto the road that leads up the east side of the river.

“What are doing here anyway,” said Christian. I didn’t really know either. It had never entered our minds that we might want a house there. Connecticut was all very well, but my mother came from Hartford, and I had had enough of the state growing up, visiting ancient relatives in places like Litchfield and Salisbury, and then going to college there. And though it was beautiful, I had had my fill of the Connecticut River Valley as well during the years my parents rented a house for the summer in nearby Old Black Point. 

Christian was even less interested.  New England, with its hills and woods and rocky rivers had never meant much to him. They meant less now after having lived on the East End of Long Island. To someone like him, raised in the chilly, closed-in mountain valleys of Switzerland, the Hamptons with its vast sea and sky was a paradise.

A landscape painter – we are both painters, but he is a landscape painter – for the past few years he had been happily turning out big, colorful, semi-abstract images of endless Long Island beaches and the churning Atlantic. And the idea of moving to these often pretty but to him undramatic—unbloody, he would say—rural landscapes, held little interest for him. Lyme had none of the passion or drama of his native mountains, nor the unpredictable wind-sculpted beauties and dazzling colors of Sifnos, the island in Greece he had discovered when he was twenty-one, and where he had a house and painted much of the year.

The Author and his husband Christian Peltenburg-Brechneff during the 1980s

I was trying to be sort of upbeat and optimistic.  I had no interest in Lyme either, though I was trying to find something I could show him that he might like. But even after we reached Hamburg, turning off onto Joshuatown Road—one of the prettiest routes to the river, my destination—it was obvious he was unimpressed by the rocky fields and bleak wintry woods we were passing. Maybe it was the winter light, or the endless winding road, but I wasn’t finding it all that appealing either, until suddenly we sort of popped out of the woods, the land to our left dropped away sharply down across a big open field to a good-sized body of water, a cove, turning golden now in the afternoon light. Beyond it, a wide shining slice of Connecticut River gleamed, and beyond that, big and rolling wooded hills.  At last, I thought, and I felt him perk up and look around in the seat beside me. 

At the bottom of the hill we turned onto Ferry Road, and then as we came around a corner and over a rise, Whalebone Cove opened out in front of us. Mostly it was frozen, but there were still open channels crowded with busy, flapping ducks, numbers of geese landing, seagulls and a pair of swans, heads held high, gliding among them. 

Dazzled by a hundred birds flying up and the golden light spilling towards us across the ice and water, we stopped dead and together gasped, “Oh, My God.”

Eventually pulling ourselves away we moved on, down along the road, to the Hadlyme-Chester Ferry and the river.  Only two houses were visible from our side of the cove and none across the way, just woods.  The first was an old yellow house with multi-paned horizontal windows that were common to old Connecticut houses redone in the thirties and forties. The other was a newer house with dark-stained clapboarding made to look like the very old houses in places like Deerfield. 

The latter was for sale.

Curious, suddenly, about this road and this beautiful cove we got out and snooped around. Neither of us was that interested (less still later back at George’s, when we learned the house was for sale for a million dollars).  Driving on over a causeway that cut through the cove, we came to a beautiful old graveyard and discovered two pieces of land for sale next to it, but we couldn’t figure out how to build on them without buying both lots. 

Finally, we went on down to the ferry landing where there were a couple of fine old 18th-century houses and a grand old stone house from the turn of the last century called “Highover” on a bluff above the landing.  On the hill on the other side of the road loomed Gillette Castle, an ugly but strangely loveable fantasy of a building. 

The ferry was closed for the season, the boat gone, and we walked out onto the sloping boat ramp and stood out on the end, looking up and down the river as it curved past us – a honey spot – I thought to myself – all this.  Finally, we figured it was late enough for us to go back to George’s.  Heading back up the way we had come, we passed the spot where we had stopped before and pulled over again for another look. 

Sitting there watching the birds in the late afternoon light, slowly I became aware of something on the other side of the road, the inland side, a clearly very old, gray clapboard house that, going the other direction as we had been before, sat high enough above the road and far enough back, that we couldn’t really have seen it and certainly wouldn’t have noticed it with that golden floor show opposite on the cove. 

“Where’d that come from?” I said.  And we both leaned forward and peered wide-eyed up through the windshield.  The house was quite long and set into the side of a steep hill.  The oldest part, the eastern end, was a classic cape built on top of a lower ground floor. The newer part, to the west, was a rather plain three-story wing.  Binding the two sections together, facing south across the water, was a long covered porch. With that porch, and the main living rooms upstairs – high enough to be above flood level – the whole thing reminded me of the old river houses along the Delaware River in New Jersey that, growing up, I had thought romantic when we went down there for summer picnics.

(Credit: Private collection)

“Love those,” I said pointing at the old stone walls going up the hill – retaining walls that formed terraces.  The house sat on the first, set back and above the road.  A lower wall to the east along the inside of the drive had steps leading up to a sloping lawn and a small kitchen wing. On the other end of the house, a high wall connected the house to a good-sized barn which we hadn’t really noticed before. 

Preoccupied by the house, we also hadn’t noticed that there was a sign on the slope below the house.  Hand painted and amateurish, it read, “House For Sale By Owner” and gave a phone number. We hadn’t seen it before because it hadn’t actually been there before. As we learned later, the neighbor had come home just before sunset, just before we got there, found the sign blown over and had just put it back up. 

“Hey!” I crowed, bopping Christian on the arm.  “The damn thing is for sale!  Let’s go look.”

We looped up and around, past the single post of an old stone gate, down a very short driveway, and then across in front to a parking area between the house and the barn.

Now out of the car, we went from window to window under the porch trying to see into the ground floor. A few windows and a door let out towards the barn, but there appeared to be no rooms, just a big space with a dirt floor and an old old furnace in the corner.   

From the porch windows upstairs, we could see a long room, a living room it looked like, formed from the old cape parlor, its fireplace almost in the corner. Through an opening where a wall had been removed, we could see an equally large space in the newer wing.

In what looked to have been the smaller front parlor, the fireplace had been bricked up, a toilet installed where the hearth had been, and a bathtub placed against the end wall. But we found it charming, or I did certainly with its old windows and mantels, splendid random-width oak floorboards. I even thought the old gnarly radiators were charming.

But it was the dining room that made me think I might really want this house.  Maybe even have to have it.

(Credit: Private collection of the author)

Where I came from in rural New Jersey it was all farmland, or certainly had been. But like most of the northeast, by the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, many of the local farms had begun to fail.  The farmers either sold their farms or abandoned them. Growing up after the Second World War a lot of them were still sitting there empty. As a kid on my pony, and later in my teens on horseback, I spent a lot of my time roaming around the old driveways and lanes, spooking around these old empty houses and barns, peering in windows, or sitting in the old farm gardens smoking cigarettes filched from cigarette boxes at home or from the jacket pockets of my much older brothers.

One of these houses I went back to again and again, with handsome doors and fanlights, carved mantelpieces and elegant stair rails. There was no furniture, nothing in the house, except in the big kitchen off the back where there was a large dutch oven fireplace, a four-legged stove with an oven to the side on the same level as the burners, an old white porcelain sink with two legs attached to the wall, a round dark-wood table and matching chair. Thrown over the back of the chair was a woman’s leopard-skin coat and a matching hat on the table top. I went back quite a few times and the hat and coat were always there.  

Up and around to the back of the house, Christian and I found ourselves, each at his own window, looking in at the second floor. “This must be the dining room,” I said. We stood, hands pressed against the glass. Clearly, the room had once been the kitchen. There was a big fireplace with a beehive oven opposite us on the inside wall next to the door to the living room.  

It was harder to see in from the north side of the house with the afternoon light reflecting off the cove, shining through the living room door. I was so busy trying to make out the still-intact beehive oven – I had never actually seen one before – that it took me awhile to realize that the only other things in the room were a round table and a chair with a woman’s coat with a fur collar thrown over the back of the chair, and a matching hat on the table.   

Whoa, I thought, standing there not moving just staring into the room. “That is weird,” I said.  

“What?” Christian asked. As we stood there staring in, I told him about the old house in New Jersey with the coat thrown across the table. “That’s spooky,” he said.  “Yeah,” I answered. “It’s a little like it’s talking to me, this house.”

We stood there silently for a few more minutes, me especially, trying to take in this curious kind of echo, or musical repeat.  Finally Christian said, “Come on, let’s go,” and nudged me ahead of him as we climbed the hill behind the house.

At the top, there was a view down to the house and cove, and we found an old graveyard full of stones leaning every which way surrounded by dark brooding cedars and pines. “I love graveyards,” said Christian. He wandered among the stones.  “Let’s go down and have a look at the barn,” I said and we stumbled down the steep hill in the direction of the barn.

(Credit: Private collection of the author)

Like the house, the barn was built into the hill and coming down we could see that the front of it —  below the wall and facing the house — had just two open bays for cars. So we headed around to the back where there were steps to a deck with some big windows and a door.  Inside was a large room that filled the whole top of the barn, where someone had clearly tried to make a studio of sorts with the big windows either end, a skylight, and a potbelly stove.  

How serendipitous can you get?  

“I think I want to come back and really see this place. I’m not being weird about it, but I think I ought to pay attention here,” I said as we headed back to the car in the fading light. “Is that okay with you?”  “Sure,” said Christian. “I want to look around some more too. Especially that studio. Let’s call tonight.”

Back at George’s, we spilled excitedly out of the car into the house, each talking over the other about this amazing house we found, and this beautiful spot. “But that’s my house,” said George. We stopped dead, staring at him.  He went over to a table and hunted through some papers.  “I saw it last summer when I came up to look around,” he said, spreading a handful of Polaroids of ‘our’ house out in front of us.  “I never called about it because I thought ‘For Sale By Owner’ meant I was likely to be dealing with some nut case.”

“Well,  we’re gonna call,” I said.  “We want to see that house… I want to see that house.”  “I do too,” said Christian. “But you have to come with us,” he added to George. “And, if you really want it,” I said not too happily, “you probably should get first dibs since you saw it first.” George hesitated.  “No, we have to do it like that,” I said.

I dialed the number and found myself talking to the neighbor who had put the sign back up and who had the key. The owner it seemed lived in New York. We made an appointment for us all to go there the next morning.  

The next day, mercifully, George told us he didn’t want it. “I’m too old,” he said. “It’s too big a job to do alone.” After touring the house, I knew he was right. It was maybe even too big a job for us.

The ground floor alone was almost too much, and I was pretty sure that I wanted the house. The ancient stairs leading down weren’t much more than a ladder. There was no floor, just dirt. Nor was there a foundation that I could see, just dry-stone walls built up from the ground. There was no insulation. Instead there were old burlap sacks hung from the floors of the rooms above. Scattered around, at what seemed like random, fifty or sixty iron posts, jacks really, held up the sagging floors and beams of the house.

But I was pretty excited — we both were — and I was pretty sure we could make it work.  We told the neighbor, Mrs. Block, that we wanted to look around a bit more. And after George took off home to make lunch, we poked through the rooms, opening and closing doors, whispering excitedly about what we thought we would do, or thought we could do.

I was nudging Christian a bit, trying to convince him that, although I knew he was dreaming of a long driveway, come winter he would be glad to have that stump of a driveway. I reminded him that when we unbricked the fireplace in the little parlor and built the chimney at the end of the house, we would have six fireplaces  – he loved building fires in the winter. And I quite simply bribed him. He could have the barn as his studio. I would paint in the small room behind the dining room. But he said (shaming me a bit for arm twisting), “I think this could be the right thing… It’ll be good. I have a house in Greece that I love… maybe this will be your house, the house you love.”  

(Credit: Into the Garden by Christian Peltenburg-Brechneff copyright © 2019)

And so trying not to appear too obviously excited, we told Mrs Block that we were definitely coming back, but there were a couple of other houses we had seen and might want to see again — there weren’t — and there was an agent we wanted to talk to — there wasn’t — and of course we would have to have a contractor inspect it, and so on…

A few days later we made an offer and then waited for what seemed like forever for an answer, worried all the time that someone else would drive by, as we had, and snatch our house away. Finally, on the opening night of an exhibition we were having together in a gallery in Chicago, we got a call that we had the house.  

I had always wanted a house of my own. The grandchild of an architect — dead long before I was born — I had always thought I wanted to be an architect as well. All the time I drew houses. Houses down the road. Houses my parents’ friends lived in. Houses I saw in books or traveling. Houses I made up.  Many were houses I thought I wanted to own. They became, for a time anyway, my house, the house I would live in… until I saw something I liked better.  

I imagined everything, the size and arrangement of different rooms, the colors I painted them and the furniture, even the views from the windows and the landscaping outside.  I imagined my life there… what I did… how I lived… who I lived with.  I put myself to sleep nights imagining the house and garden, and the dream life that went with it.     

(Courtesy of the author)

Years later, I had a therapist who was — unsurprisingly I suppose — very curious about these houses. She referred to them collectively as “Tim’s House” and asked about them: What I did there, who I lived with, even who visited me there.  

“Did your parents visit you there?  Your mother?” 

“No.”

“Your brothers?”

“No.”

“Did you ever have a wife living with you, children?” 

“Only very early on, when I was young.”  

For her, “Tim’s House” was, I suppose, a sort of guide to what I wanted in life, who I wanted to be.  But by the time I started going to her, in my forties, I had actually long given it up – daydreams that had become almost an alternative life.

I remained fascinated, though, by houses. And in my early thirties, turned my love for them and for drawing them into a kind of profession I invented for myself of doing these drawings and watercolors of the interiors and exteriors of peoples’ houses on commission.  It started a gig that in time became a career as a travel painter, but I still hardly ever stepped into a house, or onto a piece of land, without thinking about what I would do to it if it were mine.

I still fiddled with the spaces and places I saw in my head, and definitely fiddled with the spaces I lived in; it came naturally and automatic for me.  All you had to do, I thought, was look at a space and imagine yourself in it.  And as much work as there was to do on this house, I thought it would be the same, and it basically was.   

I am not talking about designing anything according to any abstract idea or theory. I doubt that I would have been a fit at the Bauhaus. But I have always known how to work with what I was given.  In this case, right away, I knew there was no way I was ever going to want to sit by that fireplace in that corner in the living room by the dining room door. So, it seemed only logical to put another fireplace at the other end of the room. This would give us a fireplace at either end of the room, which I liked, and a new chimney running up all three floors of the west end of the house.

It was easy to come up with the idea of throwing the two rather crummy bedrooms (on the top floor of the newer wing) into a master bedroom with a fireplace. And of making a guest room with a fireplace on the ground floor with what — given the high wall between the house and the barn — easily be turned into a walled garden.  With everything we did then, it was almost as if the house told us what to do, and it has pretty much the been the same since.                            

The land itself needed a bit more thought and, unfortunately, a bit more knowledge, which we of course didn’t have. So, we had more problems and made more mistakes outdoors. It was an odd property, pretty much all hill, with so many walls and terraces, and for such a small property — only nine-tenths of an acre — an amazing number of trees.

Early on, I jokingly referred to it as “Gremlin Grove”, the fake name my parents had given the house they moved into in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where I was born, and where my father was posted before being sent overseas during World War II. My mother, ever the New Englander, imagined Arkansas as the Deep South, and fancied us living in a plantation house ringed with white porches and live oaks, only to find herself roached up in a damp and dreary house covered with splotchy mold buried in dark pines and cedars.   

In our case we didn’t know much. Christian was raised in a city apartment and knew next to nothing. I had grown up on a farm in the country, but didn’t know a lot more. Still we didn’t hesitate.  In the first six or eight years we must have cut down eighty trees or more — most of them large weedy trees that had self-sewn up the hill and behind the house over the course of the almost two-hundred-and-fifty years it had stood there.  

In fairness, forty or fifty of the trees formed a row of hemlocks clearly planted as a hedge along the back of the property to hide a neighboring house and an old road to the graveyard that no longer existed.  They blocked not only the view of the graveyard, but also the sky, and they required spraying at vast expense every year. Like most of the hemlocks in Connecticut, they were dying from a wooly adelgid.

(Courtesy of the author)

We also planted like crazy… lots of dogwoods — one of our favorite plants — mostly white but some pink, a couple of crab apples, and apples, a sycamore, and quite a few pines to fill gaps left by the hemlocks.  In our often-misplaced enthusiasm, we planted trees and bushes too close together which quite soon we had to cut down, a not uncommon beginner’s mistake, a couple of dreamy birches – a nod to Christian’s Russian heritage, a pear, and a much-loved star magnolia.

We got rid of weigelas and clumps of lilac that the deer kept eating to the ground. We eventually cut down another whole row of hemlocks which we rather stupidly planted ourselves. Hemlocks we not only had to spray every year and cover with netting against the deer, but which had gotten so big they appeared ready to bring down the retaining wall where they were planted along the road. And they did, right after we cut them down.   

I suppose I had wanted a garden for some time. But gardening wasn’t a childhood obsession like my yearning for a house.  I mean, there is an old black and white photograph of me, age six, planting pansies in our garden with my mother. I love the look and especially the smells of gardens. But it wasn’t until I put in my first garden, in the Peace Corps, in Tanzania in the late 1960s, that I developed any real for passion for gardening itself.

There are plants I love of course from childhood… daffodils, waves of them a laWordsworth. Peonies like the ones my mother grew along the driveway…  in June she had big bowls of them around the house. Hollyhocks, almost any kind of hollyhock.

Years ago I was making a documentary about peoples’ obsession with horses. I went to see someone named Frolic “I kid you not” Weymouth to see if he would be in the film and maybe invest in it — he was. He didn’t. Weymouth was a painter and a conservationist. He owned a splendid eighteenth-century stone manor house on the Brandywine River, surrounded by various gardens — my favorite a  field filled with nothing but hollyhocks, hundreds of them.

(Credit: Courtesy of the author)

My favorite plant, though, was, and is, boxwood.  I remember as a kid wandering in the wintered-over gardens of Hamilton Farm, an enormous nineteenth-century property near where I grew up where the original owner had built a kind of sportplatz consisting of an indoor tennis court, a squash court and huge pool.  By then it was a little club where I and a lot kids had tennis lessons.  Whoever picked me up after was often late and, if there was no snow on the ground, I would wander the old gardens.  

My favorite spot was a walled garden off the end of the house where boxwood, no doubt planted as dwarf box around the beds, was by then at least six feet high — the beds long disappeared under them and the paths covered by layers of fallen boxwood leaves soft as moss underfoot. In the fall and early spring, even on a sunny day in February, the smell in that confined space was intense. Some people say it smells of dog pee.  I never understand that and I always say to Christian we can never have too much.

As a child our neighbor’s house, an old farmhouse that had been added onto again and again on top of a hill, had box planted all the way round up against the house, and about twenty feet out a whole stand of box that ran all the way around again.  It was true box, English box, and so old that it was probably at least ten feet tall and had to have a frame covered with burlap all around it, top and sides, to protect it from our American winters. My mother would take me there for tea, and I would love to shake the bushes with the palm of my hand, to make them wiggle like a fat dog.  

(Credit: Courtesy of the author)

Boxwood was instant architecture.  Instant structure in the garden. An over thirty years we have probably planted three hundred bushes as punctuation, borders, screens,  perspectives and walls that make rooms. We purchased a big stone eighteenth-century Japanese lantern about a decade ago at Treillage, Bunny Williams’ and John Rosselli’s former garden store in New York.  We placed it out beyond the barn and surrounded it with a sea of different-sized box bushes, twenty or thirty of them.

(Credit: Courtesy of the author)

When you prune box correctly (which we really don’t; very few people do) you are supposed to reach all the way down in them and cut out whole stems so that the bushes grow back in clumps instead of tight balls, a bit like puffy clouds and, happily, the different sized bushes we planted are growing together that way.

I am sure that Christian and I planted too much of everything. The rule of thumb, I was told by Everett Fahy, an ex-partner and a pretty serious gardener, was to have a garden you could actually take care of properly, i.e. not too big.  My rule of thumb appears to have been that I wanted a garden I could basically see from every window and from early on ours rambled all over the place. What I didn’t want was a go-to garden — a garden like our friend Peter Wooster, a brilliant gardener and plants man — a garden that sat “over there.

(Credit: Courtesy of the author)

In his case the garden was an amazing, dazzling world entered through a little gate but, that when you left, was sort of gone.  You really couldn’t even see back in. I wanted all of his plants, of course, and wanted my garden to thrive the way his did — his plants were gigantic, magnificent, and the beds perfectly weeded and cared for. But I also wanted to see my garden (or some of it anyway) from my studio when I paused at work, from the kitchen window when I washed dishes, from the end of the porch where we had drinks every evening from May until the end of September.

I had no idea what was involved in all of it, planting it, caring for it, even just keeping it alive.  I knew deer ate yew bushes, cedar trees, prickly holly and, in rough winters, even really prickly roses, but it never occurred to me that they ate tulips or lilacs or the buds off the hundreds of day lilies I would plant along the road, just as they were about to flower.   

It took me a couple of seasons of never having the berries my mother had in August, to learn that the racoons were waiting for them to ripen — just like I was. Standing, empty basket in hand, I could almost hear them giggling and slurping down my berries in the bushes behind the barn. 

We always had gypsy moths in white cocoons in the mulberry trees, even when I was a kid, but I had never seen them in the millions, or billions, in their caterpillar stage – as I have this last year – climbing the oak and fruit trees, stripping and killing them by the hundreds. It’s worse in Rhode Island.  

I had heard of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, but only as a term of abuse among kids. “You yellow bellied sap-sucker!” Well, they are real, and there is at least one yellow-bellied sapsucker who makes row after row of neat holes in our apple tree in the walled garden and sucks the life out of it.  Hopefully I stopped him in time last year.  

From the get-go, I loved the stone walls of the place. But I had no idea that the chipmunks and the moles and the voles that loved them too. The chipmunks eat everything planted in or behind the walls, digging away at them and destabilizing them. The moles, chasing grubs, tunnel through the lawns and flower beds while the voles follow along eating everything, the roots of the grass, my roses, even young holly and box bushes. They also, indeed especially, eat bulbs — all kinds of bulbs — making it impossible for me to grow any kind of plant from a bulb anywhere here except daffodils. I have planted lily bulbs in gravel, under wire or in wire balls, even in pots, and the moles and voles still got them.    

(Credit: Courtesy of the author)

For years, I would not give in.  I insisted on planting casa blanca lilies, clumps of crocosmia, and waves of acidanthera again and again only to watch the beds treated as a salad bar.  I would be sitting in the kitchen having lunch, hear a crunching sound and look out the window to see first one acidenthra waver and shake and disappear into the ground, and then another.  

(Credit: Courtesy of the author)

Once in a rage, after losing sixty or eighty in two beds of a hundred by the beginning of July, I raced out with a kitchen knife, a real kitchen knife, and began stabbing at the bedagain and againwithout ever getting anywhere near him, I’m sure.

The next year the moles and voles took out almost the bed I had planted between the end of the house and the barn.  One day, I was setting up a sprinkler to water when I realized that the plants looked a little…funny, droopy and stepping into the bed to see what was going on, sank in right up to my ankles. Almost everything was gone — only the nepeta border, a couple of rose shrubs, my baptisia and the thalictrum were left, and a few big oak-leafed yellow hollyhocks – all blue except the roses and hollyhocks.

(Credit: Courtesy of the author)

I tried everything.  I found vibrators you stick in the ground that knock all day and all night and are supposed to drive the moles away — all they did was keep us awake at night, I am sure the moles slept next to them. I bought little guillotines with a spring-held blade, but it never nailed any of them. I put Irish soap and juicy fruit chewing gum into their tunnels. I poured bobcat urine down the holes, and urinated into the holes myself.  I thought I had finally found a solution when I stumbled over some long tubes at the Shagbark, our hardware store. They were smoke bombs you were supposed to put in the tunnels and light.  “Do these really work?” I asked the guy behind the counter.  “I don’t know,” he said, scratching his neck, “but first time I put ’em down in one of the tunnels, I heard this little heh heh heh under the ground.” 

I knew he was making it up, but the image was too good, and I bought about fifty of them. I still set out a few of the things every year. At least I have the satisfaction of smoke everywhere and the awful smell.    

(Credit: Courtesy of the author)

What sounded like the best solution I heard from Christian when he returned from a garden painting trip to Nashville.  He told me how the owners of the garden, old friends of his, and indeed everyone in Nashville, hired this really old man who would sit in their gardens at night with a shotgun and shoot them. “How could he shoot them in the dark?” I asked. “They said he could hear them,” Christian answered.  I thought maybe we should have him come north, but he died the following year. 

(Credit: Courtesy of the author)

For a time I was pretty desperate about the near-total destruction of the biggest and best bed in the garden.  I even considered plowing it under, but then I realized I still had all these blue flowers and ten or twelve yellow hollyhocks, and I decided I would work from that and just make it a yellow and blue garden.

I planted more thalictrum — a plant I love — added aconitum carmachaelii, a big mauve-y- blue stunner that blooms at the beginning of October. I added a pair of golden-leafed spireaea with blue flowers. I added a few more yellow hollyhocks and, as it were, sat back and waited.  

The following year, the bed was beautiful, really spectacular. Sitting up on the porch one day over drinks, looking down at this reborn bed, Ruth Lord — the daughter of Winterthur’s owner, Henry Dupont — said her father always told her that all a garden needs is blue and yellow. I sat there flush, almost hot, with pride.

A week or two later, weeding in the same bed, I noticed that some of the hollyhocks seemed to be wilting and turning brown. The leaves were covered with ugly, almost orange spots, little lumps, like the measles.  I called the nursey we use, Ballek’s. I described what was happening to my beloved hollyhocks.

“That’s rust,” she said.

“Rust?” I asked hopelessly, hardly daring to say the word. 

“Yes,” she said, “it’s a fungus.”

“Oh, great.  Another fungus.  What do I do about it?”

 “There isn’t much of anything you can do about it,” she said, “except remove the sick leaves and pick up any that are on the ground, put them in a black plastic bag, tie it at the top and take it to the town dump. Do not leave them around.”  

“Oh, wonderful,”

For the next seven or eight years, I did just that, and for the next seven or eight years my hollyhocks all sickened and most died. Within ten years, all of my hollyhocks, seventy-five or a  hundred of them, were gone.

Mother Nature is a bitch.  

The good news is that a few of the yellow ones hung on enough to self-sew a little here and there and, though they still got sick after a couple of years, two finally came up behind the barn that were free of rust. After a year or two, I moved them back into their old bed where it seems they will self-sew and survive.  Maybe.

A happy ending? Not really. We are now worried about a fungus attacking the boxwood. It’s not “the blight” as everyone calls the really bad boxwood disease, which is lethal, but this is our second fungus and the jury is still out. Also, for some reason, my baptisia, all four plants, died. My nepeta border is gone. The buds on the magnolia were hit by a frost.  But despite all the problems you can have with a garden, and ours are legion, neither of us have ever really thought of giving it up and plowing it under.  

(Credit: Courtesy of the author)

It’s not the “life style”, the lovely home and garden shtick – it’s that caring for a garden enters your life in ways you can’t imagine.  Convinced city rat that I was, I actually live here full time,  both of us do.  But more than that, having a garden changes your sense of time, gives you something to look forward to, and wait for, maybe even stay alive for.  It heightens your sense of the weather and the seasons. You become conscious of frost, drought, when certain bugs or birds appear every year. It teaches you how to get rid of garden plagues and pests without poisoning your household pets and children.  

On a more personal level, this is where I started using pastels, now my favorite medium.  And Christian, the person who couldn’t imagine painting here, couldn’t imagine being inspired by nature here, started painting in our garden as well and has gone on to painting flowers and gardens all over America, indeed all over the world.

(Credit: Courtesy of the author)

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