Respite, refuge

Last night, first time I heard the tree crickets’ din blossoming in darkness; cicadas’ daytime clatter began last week, and the lantern fly nymphs are in their last stage before morphing into winged tree-pests. The heat’s oppressive, which seems to suit the general mood. I have not been writing poems, but this morning wakened early to surrounding birdsong and felt a moment of beauty amidst the tension.

As usual, my garden has offered respite. I harvest beans in evening’s humid warmth, pulling pods from the resilient stems. I marvel at the squash blossoms–bright bells amid enormous green leaves–and gather cucumbers and zucchini, and wait for tomatoes to ripen as I tie up the vines heavy with green globes. The scent of lemon basil pervades dusk as the last fireflies start to wink. Yes, there are disappointments and bugs and there will be yet more weeding and work. It is, however, labor of the body for the nurture of the body. A body in the world.


Twenty-odd years ago, we planted an American beech and a stellata magnolia 15 feet apart in the yard. For years, the magnolia–an understory tree (more of a shrub)–grew taller than the beech. Beeches are slow growers in their early years, but it caught up. Now the magnolia flourishes happily under the spreading beech, and in the space between them there’s a mossy, shady refuge where I sometimes sit to escape the heat or the stress and worry of life. I’m not the only one who seeks the protective room beneath the spreading trees, as that’s where the snapping turtle buried her eggs, and there’s a sandy spot in the mosses where another creature has made a place to lie.

I sought the place last evening after watering the garden. Wandered there over the brittle grass and spent clover blossoms of our meadowy yard. Felt the things of the earth beneath my feet. Still a barefoot girl. Still in need, now and then, of refuge.


Oh yes–my book of poems, Barefoot Girls, is still available. It is a limited run, though. $8.95 from Prolific Press. Reading poetry: another type of refuge.


Untermyer Park


My enthusiasm for gardens of all kinds seems inextinguishable, and my tastes are wide-ranging. I love cottage gardens, wilderness-style native gardens, garden rooms, rooftop gardens and multi-acre gardens (ah, the Biltmore Estate...), sculpture gardens, vegetable gardens, potager and herb knots and medicinal plots, historic gardens (Monticello, Bartram’s...) and my grandma’s truck patch, may my grandma rest in peace. Also Asian gardens, European gardens, alpine gardens, undersea gardens (I have yet to visit one, but I would love to do so)–and I’m intrigued by trick gardens like the one at Hellbrunn in Salzburg and themed gardens and miniature railway gardens (there’s a fun one near me at Morris Arboretum). Oh, and I adore arboretums. Or should that be arboreta?

Gardens, like art and literature, reflect unique visions and aesthetics. And they are completely process-oriented: the results, if you can call them that, are fleeting and changeable. Maybe that’s one reason they appeal to me.


Recently, I had a garden adventure that was part nostalgia, part history, part aesthetic–and a lovely day out with my sister, as well. We decided to return to a park that had been important to us when we were very young, for the three years we lived in Yonkers, NY (see my post on the Grinton Will Public Library).

My family lived in houses that had almost non-existent backyards, which is not uncommon in Yonkers–a city built on hills and cliffsides, dwellings crowded practically on top of one another in some parts of town. Our parents took us to nearby Untermyer Park for picnics, exploration, and play. Situated above the Hudson River, the park was like The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland, ancient Greece, and Narnia, all rolled up into one mysterious and lovely, part-wild, part-formal place. The walled garden and the grotto beneath the Temple of Love were favorite places.

When we lived there, the park was reasonably well-kept, though not planted with many blooming flowers: lawns mowed, shrubs and trees somewhat pruned, no graffiti, a few paths cleared. The park belongs to the City of Yonkers, deeded to the public by Samuel Untermyer–a civic-minded gentleman who for some reason did not also endow the place. As a result, maintenance of the original 150 acres quickly became untenable and the city sold off much of the land. The 1862 mansion was razed, a hospital began to expand on some of the property, and the former glory rapidly decayed, overgrown by trees and weeds.

Which made it all the more exciting to people who are very young. It was entirely possible to believe there might be lions or mountain goats or fairies in the fringes of the woodland. The columns evoked stories and myths. The long reflecting pools, though not entirely full of water, were exotic canals or dangerous rivers or chasms. There were stairs and doors in surprising places, and overhanging vines, and grand old trees.

My sister and I share happy memories of the park. We had heard that it went through ups and downs depending upon the economy, the health of the city, grants, taxes, etc. Apparently the early 70s saw considerable graffiti on the walls we loved and on the grotto rocks. We heard indigent young people liked to hang out there and get stoned. We heard the woods had become littered and full of vermin. In the 1980s, some clean-up occurred; the park had made it onto the federal Historic Register. The walled garden was kept clean, and most of the graffiti tags erased. Deer roamed the place, eating everything but the mugwort, phragmites, and Japanese knotweed. The city still had trouble funding maintenance on the park, let alone restoration.

My sister went searching for Untermyer recently and learned that the city of Yonkers has hired two full-time gardeners and has partnered with a non-profit organization in an attempt to get more serious about restoration of this special place. And last weekend, she and I went on a tour with the enthusiastic gardeners and their young and enthusiastic apprentices.

And fell in love with the park all over again.

Even in its partially-wild, partially-decayed state, Untermyer Park compels the visitor. People genuinely gasp as they enter the walled Persian-style garden through the Artemis gate (the walled garden has been largely restored and looks pretty fabulous). The website offers an overview of the amazing history behind the place and includes some photos from the Roaring 20s, when Greystone Estate was the place to attend a party.

The “Persian” garden symbolizes Eden; indeed, the word “Paradise” has its etymological roots in Persia (Iran) as a compound of the word pairi- “around” and the word diz “to make, as in a wall.” Here’s a photo I took with my sister’s phone. The snapshot doesn’t do the place justice, of course; nor can it capture the thrill we felt at returning to find an old, old friend in the full bloom of health.

Inside the walled garden, looking north at the amphitheater

Inside the walled garden, looking north at the amphitheater

Click here for Untermyer website.