This third and final installment of Asia in the Hudson River Valley brings us into a Chinese-inspired American garden nestled in a remote village halfway between the Hudson River and the Connecticut border.
Encounters with Asia in the Hudson River Valley (Part 3)
North Lawn and Meadow
Serendipity led me to the Innisfree Garden. After strolling from one side of the Walkway Over the Hudson to the other in Poughkeepsie, I picked up a tourist brochure entitled, "Landscapes and Gardens in the Hudson River Valley." A small photograph of a vibrant, pink-blossomed tree in full bloom caught my eye. The caption read "Innisfree, a blending of graceful Asian art forms, Millbrook.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Two days later, I took the scenic route home from my reunion. My children will be proud to hear that I needed (and used) Google Maps to find this off-the-beaten-track spot. Entering between two almost century-old stone pillars, my tires crunched along the long, winding, one-lane road.
This land was the mid-twentieth century country estate of the then married couple Walter Beck, a widowed artist, and Marion Burt Stone, a divorced heiress. The English-style mansion they built in the late 1920’s is long since gone, but the Asian-infused garden which began its journey in 1930 remains under the care and direction of the nonprofit Innisfree Foundation.
The Garden “…merges the essence of Modernist and Romantic ideas with traditional Chinese and Japanese garden design principles in a form that evolved through subtle handling of the site and slow manipulation of its ecology. The result is a distinctly American stroll garden — a sublime composition of rock, water, wood, and sky achieved with remarkable economy and grace.”1
The name, Innisfree (made famous by William Butler Yeats), is the third for this natural oasis. It was once known as Garden of the Seven Gates and later as Way to the Clouds. The now 150-acre garden surrounds and cocoons Tyrell Lake nestled at its heart and is itself secluded within a sylvan basin.
In the words of its longtime landscape architect, Lester Collins (d. 1993), the man who shaped, expanded, and nurtured the garden for half a century (the first two decades alongside the Becks),
“[n]ature is regarded as inanimate by much of the Western world; in Eastern philosophy the earth, like man, is a living organism. The rivers are the arteries of the earth; the mountains are the earth’s skeleton.”2
This is the energy permeating the sheltered landscape of Innisfree.
Wang Wei, Eighth Century
Walter Beck’s inspiration for this meandering panorama was Tang Dynasty poet and painter, Wang Wei (d. circa 759 CE). Beck studied a copy of Wang’s famous scroll painting of his Wangchuan Garden in Shaanxi Province, and he
“…observed that Wang created carefully defined, inwardly focused gardens and garden vignettes within a larger, naturalistic landscape. Wang’s place-making technique — christened “cup gardens,” by Beck — influenced centuries of Chinese and Japanese garden design. It is also the principal design motif in the Innisfree landscape. Like his Chinese predecessor, Beck created three-dimensional pictures in the garden, incorporating both rocks from the site and horticultural advice from his wife.”3
Though it is a challenge to find a surviving Wang painting, his poetry is abundant:
To reach the Yellow-Flowered River Go by the Green-Water Stream. A thousand twists and turns of mountain But the way there can’t be many miles. The sound of water falling over rocks And deep colour among pines. Gently green floating water-plants. Bright the mirrored reeds and rushes. I am a lover of true quietness. Watching the flow of clear water I dream of sitting on the uncarved rock casting a line on the endless stream.4
I sauntered. rested. roamed. As a result, I did not ultimately experience the entire Garden. Yet I have no regrets. I climbed rolling hills and rock stairs to hidden passages and shady corners. I traversed meadows and lawns and scooted over bridges of wood and rock. I explored the cool darkness of a stone building built into a terraced hill and a stone arch.
“Western gardens are usually designed to embrace a view of the whole. Little is hidden. The garden, like a stage set, is there in its entirety, its overall design revealed in a glance….The traditional Chinese garden is usually designed so that a view of the whole is impossible. The Chinese garden requires a stroll over serpentine, seemingly aimless, garden arteries. The observer walks into a series of episodes, like Alice through the looking glass;….”5
Beck’s cup garden thus provides different experiences, different sensations, and different revelations at each corner, bend, rise, and glade.
The Wisteria Arch welcomed me to the Guanyin Path. Dawn redwoods and the Mist Waterfall overlook Willow Island. I visited East Rock Garden and North Meadow. I walked under and then across the cobblestone bridge to the Gingko Grove, the Buddha Cave, and beyond. The Turtle, Dragon, and Owl Rocks invited me onto The Point, while the weaving Yarimizu Stream bisects the landscape below the Brick Terrace.
I had arrived early, so there were fewer people about. Two little boys excitedly ran up, down, and around the Brick Terrace calling for their mothers to join them. Another even younger lad scampered just out of reach as his mother chased after him over stone and wooden bridges below the Middle Terrace. Later, two young women spread a blanket in preparation for a picnic on the gentle slope of Dumpling Hill overlooking the lake.
Innisfree is environmentally as well as aesthetically innovative. “There are no wells on site. All water used for the many water features and limited irrigation is rainwater collected in the natural bowl that defines Innisfree and drawn from a loop that includes the 40-acre glacial lake at the center of the site and a 7-acre reservoir on a ridge above the garden.”6
Tadpoles swim in the pool at the base of the Buddha Cave waterfall, while a short shell stone bridge not far away crosses a bone-dry stream now barren from its ascending hill.
A group of birds burst from a tree, startling me. Other birds flit about from branch to branch and tree to tree. An ensemble of avian symphony--calls, melodies, and chatter, rises through the garden to the sky above. To this place, I hope to return.
2 Lester Collins, Innisfree: An American Garden, 1994, Page 17
5 Lester Collins, Innisfree: An American Garden, 1994, Page 16