Nearly 30 years ago when Thom Chiofalo first saw this plot of land in Rowe it was nothing but woods and an impossible slope. Now the approach is a green wall of hemlock set on a mossy carpet.
When the sunburst gate flies open it reveals a vista of water and a grove of trees. A few more steps and I was enthralled by the vastness of the sky and the welcoming walks that lead down the broad steepness.
Chiofalo, a practicing Buddhist, found this area years ago when the hitchhiker he picked up on Route 2 turned out to be Eishan, a Buddhist monk at the Valley Zendo. Driving and talking their way up the hill they found many shared connections. That was his introduction to the area, but it took another three years of wandering and studying in Asia, and other work before he returned in 1983 to work at the Hawley Buddhist temple that had burned down.
Eventually he found his way to this hill. The labor it must have taken to clear, leaving notable trees, taming springs and run-off into pools, and building the broad paths that are cut into the hillside, must have been staggering, and yet I was not struck by the effort, but by the inevitability of the design.
Although the view down and across the slope is expansive, Chiofalo said he has worked to “create the illusion of grand distance.”
He has done this in part by making use of the ‘Venetian perspective’ technique, pruning distant trees to keep them low, and thus making them appear farther away than they are.
Chiofalo pointed out that he has worked with the Five Elements, fire, water, earth, wood, and air. It is easy to see the ways he has used fire in the southern slope, water in the stream and several spring fed ponds, earth in the carving of the rocky soil, and wood in the forested land.
How he has worked with air is not as obvious. He has cut down trees, and limbed up remaining trees to keep the air moving and reveal the sky. Limbing up the trees has other benefits. It has cut down on insect populations because the air is moving. In front of the house he has limbed up the trees to provide the right amount of light to keep the moss lawn healthy.
We stood at the top of the slope where Chiofalo explained the alignments that create the views, as from the door of the house down the slope and into the Fern Room. There are other interesting views like that across the stream of his “Escher paths” which switchback across a very steep section.
As we continued down the paths Chiofalo said, “My idea is that I want a garden, a landscape that I can maintain when I am 80 years old. One of my latest projects is to plant shrubs that will take over large areas of ground and need little maintenance.”
Already smoke bush (cotinus) and forsythia as well as both highbush and low bush blueberries are thriving. Chiofalo said his blueberries never showed very much vigor until he started spreading coffee grounds around them. That pushed them into bloom and production. I had never heard this advice before, but I do have some sulky highbush blueberries that have coffee grounds coming their way.
The hundreds of daylilies planted on the steepest slopes near the house and the shrubs planted between the wide paths all act to stabilize the slope.
Chiofalo designed the width of those paths so that he could mow them with three swipes of his riding mower.
The soil here is hardpan. Chiofalo planted grass seed and ajuga and sprinkled compost over the seed and that was sufficient. These paths are not fine turf, but they are sustainable and manageable, needing only a few mowings during the season. No poisons are used against grubs or voles. The voles eat the grubs and the red tailed hawks eat the voles. Nature, red in tooth and claw, provides the balance.
We walked down the sunny slope past two spring fed pools of water and into deep shade where there is a mossy ‘pothole’ ledge similar to the stones in Shelburne Falls. Here the ‘potholes’ have not been made by glaciers but by granite that has been forced out of the stone.
By the time we reached the bottom of the hill we had also brought ourselves to the edge of the stream that meanders down the slope, splashing over little waterfalls.
Chiofalo explained that originally the stream had been broader and shallower. When he began moving stones, of which there are many on this property, to the sides of the stream the narrowed flow began moving faster, fast enough to dig a deeper channel. Chiofalo used more stone to construct the small waterfalls which add life and amplify the stream’s song as it tumbles along.
“A stone is a treasure,” Chiofalo said when I first arrived and admired the elegant boulders near his drive.
When I left I had a new appreciation of what I had learned during our years in China where the words for garden are ‘stone and water.’ At first that was hard to understand. I was used to thinking an ornamental garden meant a flower garden.
Here in Chiofalo’s garden stone and water, air and earth have been artlessly arranged to provide a tranquil resting place, not a permanent retreat, but a place to refresh strength and purpose.
August 1, 2009 Between the Rows (belatedly posted)