Sunday, May 18, 2008

Hill Country Gardens, Part Three

After a picnic lunch at tables with white tablecloths amid the splendor of Dunaway Gardens, we caravanned north on Route 70 then east on the South Fulton Parkway to Wilkerson Mill Gardens, owned by Elizabeth (shown above) and Gene Griffith. Wilkerson Mill is a nursery open to the public, specializing in hydrangeas. Elizebeth joined us for an hour, talking about the history of her developing sense of place on the thirty acres where she and her husband live and work in the Chattahoochee Hill Country. She began by leading us into a sheltered corner of her garden sales area, to talk with us about creating inviting living spaces with plants.
Then she led us on a ramble along some of the mown paths on her property. We wandered past a host of intriguing shrubs, some in bloom, others with fascinating leaves or patterns of growth.
Elizabeth told us how she and her husband, around twenty years ago, first acquired the land and decided to move there to establish an orchard. As the land was cleared for planting, she began to feel terrible about all the destruction that was involved. She was told by a mentor that she should find the most stunning tree on the property, go to that tree, and ask for forgiveness for the desecration by pouring all the energy of the loss into that tree. She explained that one tree stood out by far as the one she had to visit. It was a white oak hundreds of years old, probably even older than the grist mill on the property that dates from the 1860s. Just the day before, she shared with us, the tree had fallen abruptly in a strong wind. The loss was not entirely surprising -- after the stress of severe drought last year, the storms of spring have done a tremendous amount of damage to trees, especially elder ones, in and around the Hill Country. Still, she explained, she feels the oak's demise deeply. Connection to place carries with it a susceptibility to the anguish of loss.

We came, at length, to where the great tree lay. The oak leaves were still green and fluttering in the light breeze. Amazingly enough, the tree fell in such a way as to block access to the mill, yet did not damage the historic structure in any way. It did relatively little damage in its fall, she explained, apart from flattening a pop-up camper belonging to a visitor who was doing some work on the property (who was not in it at the time, of course). We paused to admire the mill itself, with footings carefully shored up a few years back, by an Amish family from Michigan. Alongside the structure, the overshot wheel still stands in the millrace. This mill is the last of its kind, the only mill still standing relatively intact within the Chattahoochee Hill Country.
Our forward advance thwarted by the fallen oak, we retraced our path to some stone steps back up into the garden sales area. From there the group dispersed. Valerie and I were distracted by possible plants for our own three acres. We carried home in the back of our car a red buckeye, some Japanese painted ferns, and a Franklinia -- an understory tree that Valerie had been craving since our arrival in Georgia, named by William Bartram in honor of Benjamin Franklin, discovered in southern Georgia on his travels there, but now thought to be extinct in the wild. But that is another story, one that Mike Cunningham had shared with us nine days before....

Hill Country Gardens, Part Two

It was quite possibly perfect weather: temperature somewhere in the upper 60s, cloudless sky, gentle breeze. The date was Saturday, May 17th, the day of our outing to two local gardens: Dunaway and Wilkerson Mill. Eleven of us met at Hill Country Montessori School at 10 am to carpool to Dunaway Gardens, about fifteen minutes west and south of the school. To my surprise, I later learned that the Gardens are in the same watershed as our school: Cedar Creek, tributary to the Chattahoochee River. (The site borders on a spectacular 65 acre wetland, which I plan to visit again on our August outing featuring birds and flying insects.) Our tour guide was Josh, son of Jennifer Rae Bingham, garden owner. A realtor by profession, Josh spoke reverently and enthusiastically of the site, and told us many times about ongoing efforts to protect adjacent parcels of land from development.

In turn, I shared with Josh some of the "inside stories" I had learned from a member of our workshop group who was unable to attend our garden odyssey. He had sent me an email earlier that morning, sharing some of his memories of the historic gardens (particularly during its hayday in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s when it was a theatrical training center operated by Hetty Jane Dunaway and her husband, Wayne Sewell). Here are some of those stories:

" a child, from the age of 11 to about 14 or 15, I used to go to Dunnaway and help Ms. Hatchett cut back the hedges from the paths, mow the grass, and other things every summer, just so I could have access to the gardens, and spend time with Ms. Hatchett. She was the "beloved neice" that is pictured on the Dunnaway Gardens web site to which the gardens were left after the Sewells passed away. Being a teacher, she did not have the money to maintain the gardens in the way they should have been. However, she did have a wealth of memories she always shared with me. The gardens were originally designed as a series of outdoor rooms, with huge hedges seperating the view from one area to another, so going up a set of steps, or around a corner, always brought a new surprise. There were sculpture in the Roman gardens from one of the local art guilds, paintings in many of the buildings from other art guilds, etc. I think there were three or more art guilds showing their works in the gardens at one time, if my memory serves me correctly, so it was more than just a garden. It was the local center for all the arts, performace art, painting, sculpture, music, etc. Walking through the gardens, you would always see original art, hear live music being played in the background, smell steak and other meals being prepared in the different resturants, etc. (In addition to the Tea House, there was a steak house resturant in the bottom of the Honeymoon house...). There was also a series of cabins at the back of the property where the visiting actors and actresses would stay.

Some of the more humorous, and somewhat scandalous, memories Ms. Hatchett shared were tales about the rock mason who laid most of the garden walls and steps. Evidently he was somewhat of a lush, and Hetty Jane would often find him passed out on the job, or asleep somewhere in the gardens, as she was hosting guest or events. He did good work, and Ms. Dunaway would always forgive him.

Another reason the gardens were once more popular than they are now, according to Ms. Hatchett, was the Japanese Tea House. She showed me a menu once, explaining to me the significance of many of the items. It seems, especially during the Prohibition, that the socially elite ladies of Newnan would come to the gardens on a daily basis for "theraputic teas". It was a daily thing, much as the English have their tea time. The difference was that there was a tea for neuralsia, which included coca extract (cocaine). Another for body aches and pains which had a bit of morphine in it. On for "dropsy", or depression, which had extract of cannabis, etc. All of these medications were over the counter at the time. Ms. Hatchett told me that it was a hoot for her as a young lady to see all these socialites come together in their gowns, white gloves, and lace hats, get their "tea on" (as she called it), the entire time complaining about their h usbands attending the local speakeasies or catching their husbands bringing in the latest batch of shine from the local moonshiner, etc."

I appreciate tales like these for the window they offer on how the gardens truly were -- not simply the picture-postcard views of smiling movie stars amid flowing pools and blooming roses.

Below are a number of photographs from our walk. I was taken, in particular, with all the shady pools and channels of flowing water edged with ferns and mosses. We stopped at a number of large pools, some murky and others with tadpoles or small fish swimming in the shallows. At the base of the Great Pool, under the shade of an enormous beech tree, Josh told us another marvelous story. That stony terrace, which overlooks the wetlands of Cedar Creek, was a favorite haunt of a local fortuneteller who made a living as a soothsayer. She had one good eye, with the other made of red marble, and she dressed in military clothes. Ms. Dunaway's son wanted her to leave; before she left, she told him his fortune, mentioning that he would wreck his Model T Ford by accidentally driving it into the creek; that very thing happened two weeks later. Shortly afterward, the fortuneteller returned to ply her trade at the Great Pool. Another favorite spot of mine was the Wedding Tree, a white oak approximately 200 to 250 years old. Finally, the geologist in me was taken with Little Stone Mountain, an exposure of gneiss that, according to the Dunaway Gardens brochure, was "often described as the favorite campsite of Chief William McIntosh." In my mind, I travel full-circle, to January's field trip to McIntosh Reserve. The more I learn of this region's stories, the more I am haunted by them.

Hill Country Gardens, Part One

For the month of May, our Sense of Place workshop theme was gardens and gardening in the Chattahoochee Hill Country. The Thursday evening talk was given by Mike Cunningham, co-owner (along with his wife, Judy) of Country Gardens Nursery in Newnan, Georgia. Meeting in The Studio, a new space in Serenbe Community with doors opening into a courtyard with a fountain and lovely plantings. Eight of us attended the talk, in which Mike shared information on about thirty native plants, including histories of their discovery in the wild, uses by wild animals, and site characteristics for optimum growth. Mike also brought along several of the plants he was discussing, including a stately red buckeye (in bloom), sweet shrub, and native wisteria. I am grateful for Mike's advocacy of growing native plants; I welcome the prospect that a homeowner could enhance conditions for wildlife, particularly birds and pollinator insects. Mike himself is an exceedingly kind and considerate person, who not only agreed readily to speak in our workshop series, but also showed up at Hill Country Montessori on short notice (and feeling unwell) to consult with the school on a garden grant application. His depth of knowledge is stunning. As fate would have it, our car was in the shop, so Mike drove Valerie and me back to our house. We took advantage of his stop to ask a few questions about planting native species on our property (particularly with an eye toward replacing the boxwoods and nandina that I abhor). I bought one of his "demonstration plants", a native wisteria, and planted it the next day in front of a decorative well house in our front yard. I can't wait for it to cover the structure in a late-spring blanket of sweet purple blooms a few years from now.