This week I am viewing the world from a different window, this one in Oneonta, New York, at a conference in honor of John Burroughs. This part of New York is superficially similar to the mid-Ohio Valley—Victorian towns, rolling hills, small farms, lot of trees—but it’s the differences that have stood out for me. The air has a crispness that we lack (perhaps because the air here is cleaner), and the light is different; Thomas Cole and the other Hudson River School painters had it right, or maybe Washington Irving in the opening of “Rip Van Winkle,” when he wrote of the “fairy mountains” with their ever-changing appearance.
Vegetation differences are striking. The most apparent roadside tree is birch, rare in southern Ohio and west central West Virginia. The white birch bark shines when seen from the interstate, but up close the bark of the gray birches (or whatever birch has smooth gray bark) is perhaps more beautiful. It’s so much like skin that I had to touch the tree on the parking lot trail around the campus pond; it’s easy to forget that bark is alive. The evergreens are different as well: spruce and fir that don’t do well in our hot, humid summers are common here, and the white pines are different somehow, perhaps fewer low branches.
The season is less advanced here. Enormous lilacs are still blooming in a few places, and peonies and poppies are still in full bloom, while at home they’ve been finished for weeks. But there are anachronisms—roses are everywhere here, though they’re rugosas and old shrub roses.
I stumbled across a magic garden today, Brookwood outside of Cooperstown, that was full of just such anachronisms. It was part of an historic estate, now in ruins, but a group of volunteers is attempting to maintain and restore the garden. Things that shouldn’t be blooming at the same time were, and the experience came close to bringing a sensory overload. Entering through a stone gate with a medieval-looking wooden door, the traveler finds a lawn flanked by weedy but spectacular perennial borders. Peonies of all types dominated on three sides, interspersed with pale foxgloves, amsonia, and purple alliums, with daisies interspersed and ragged orange poppies for spice. At the end of the lawn was a hedge of rosa alba and a tall pink rose that may have been Maiden’s Blush (or as the French called it, “Thigh of a Passionate Nymph”). Protected as the garden was by walls, the scents of the flowers stayed close and mingled—almost intoxicating. Passing beyond the rose hedge requires stepping down into a small garden with a pool surrounded by lady’s mantle and billowing catmint. Hidden behind ostrich ferns in a secret garden next to an old fountain, tiny pink primroses were blooming. But the real surprise was on the stone porch of the old school building that houses the group responsible for the garden today—nicotiana in full, heady, tropical-scented bloom. Pure magic.
I have a meeting to go to, so I won’t get started on the wild swamp walk to which the garden path leads.