The trouble with living in a place like New Paltz, with the glorious Gunks practically at one’s doorstep and unending opportunities to explore amazing new spots in amongst their cliffs and cloves just about every weekend, is that it becomes all too easy not to follow up on tips about other places worth discovering in the surrounding region. So it was that this reporter somehow managed to avoid visiting Innisfree Garden in Millbrook until very recently, despite having heard its praise sung with fervor by friends since the 1970s. As the youngsters are fond of saying these days, Big Fail on my part. Don’t make the same mistake that I did; do go, any time of year that it’s open, and do bring your camera.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
Open to the public through a charitable trust since 1960, Innisfree Garden used to be a very wealthy couple’s extraordinary backyard. Heir to a Minnesota iron-mining fortune, Marion Beck had already acquired the 950-acre glacial bowl surrounding Tyrrel Lake in Millbrook when she married Walter Beck in 1922. The couple built a house on the site: no wattle-and-daub “small cabin,” but a fine Queen Anne structure that only rich folks would describe as a “country cottage.” It was demolished in the 1960s, after the Becks’ demise, largely because the style no longer meshed with the vision that grew up around it over the ensuing decades.
Walter Beck was a self-taught amateur landscaper, and the couple set out to surround their new home with gardens worthy of the bucolic site. The choice of name — after the early lyric poem by William Butler Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” about a place in County Sligo, Ireland — hints at the Becks’ original intent: to create a formal, symmetrical English-style border garden showcasing an encyclopedic horticultural collection surrounded by a landscape park. But destiny had broader horizons in mind for Marion and Walter. Dissatisfied with the work-in-progress, the couple tore out the garden beds, then set off for a year abroad to see what other approaches the world had to offer.
Walter found the answer to his quest in a book of illustrations by an influential eighth-century Chinese garden designer named Wang Wei, regarded by modern landscape architects as the inventor — or at least the popularizer — of a technique known today as “cup gardens.” The concept is that a stroll through a garden should be an unfolding, episodic journey of discovery, moving from one contained scene to another, framed within the context of a larger landscape. Each “cup” has subtle borders or screens that direct the eye to some particularly sublime viewpoint, such as a beautifully weathered and strategically positioned stone; a water element like a fountain, cascade, lotus pool or bend in a stream; a perfect specimen plant, aisle of shrubs or cluster of trees; or an architectural element such as a wall, archway, window or bridge. In a traditional Japanese garden, by contrast, the viewer is provided one optimal still-point at which to stand and take in the desired visual effect, as if it were a painting. The Chinese approach differs in that every turn in the path is meant to create new angles of view that elicit surprise and delight, whether looking ahead or back from whence you came.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
Inspired by the experiments of Wang Wei, from 1930 to 1950 the Becks labored to transform the grounds of Innisfree into a series of cup gardens that followed the Asian aesthetic but incorporated European influences. In 1938 they found an invaluable ally in Lester Collins, then a graduate student in landscape architecture who had studied in China. Collins undertook the development of Innisfree Garden as his life’s work, and carried it on beyond Walter’s death in 1954 and Marion’s in 1959. Upon the formation of the Innisfree Foundation in 1960, peripheral acreage was spun off to the ownership of a neighboring environmental institute, and Collins focused all his attention on the core 160 acres that remain open to the public today, creating trails that link the separate “cups” into a continuous ramble and building a bridge that makes it possible to circumambulate most of the lake. His wife Petronella continued Lester’s work after his death in 1993, emphasizing greater usage of native species and transitioning the gardens to the surrounding woodlands through plantings of naturalized perennials.
All these decades of successive stewardship have yielded spectacular results, especially among the stone terraces that extend uphill from Lake Tyrrel’s northwest shore. Linnets are not native to the New World, but hummingbirds abound here, zooming among the trumpet vines, along with plenty of butterflies and Yeats’s requisite loud bees and singing crickets. The terraced design seamlessly incorporates Nature’s beauty with human artifice: A naturally occurring thread of water cascades down the valley’s steep side, passes under a stone bridge that defines the edge of the gardens and wends its way through a circular grotto reminiscent of a moongate, studded with rocks artistically carved by no human hand. After watering a clump of lotuses, eventually the stream passes out of the terraces over an artificial waterfall consisting of a series of large horizontal rock shelves set into the face of a stone retaining wall, and it trickles at last into an oxbow meandering through a meadow. In fact, water elements are everywhere, including a variety of different types of fountains; one of them simply sprays mist over the face of a natural rock outcrop, while another emanates from the top of a simple geometric sculpture.
Everything at Innisfree is meant to be experienced with fluidity in three dimensions — not just as a static pretty picture. Texture here is at least as important as color, so that the garden retains its beauty in every season regardless of what plants are in bloom. The Asian design influence is clearly apparent, and echoed in the style of carvings inset into walls and patios, but not followed with slavish orthodoxy; there is no question that this garden is set in North America. Yeats’s Celtic mysticism gets its due as well: There are stone dolmens that could have been set in the ground by Druids, and a crumbling archway-to-nowhere — seemingly held together only by grapevines — that can evoke any vanished stone working culture that you’d care to imagine. Indeed, my friends who first told me about this place compared it to a gateway to Middle Earth, and it’s easy to see how a visitor could discern scenes from the Elven strongholds of Rivendell or Lothlorien if so inclined (or if under the influence of hallucinogenic substances, as many 1970s-era visitors doubtless were). There’s a snoozing dragon carved into the capstone of one wall, and on the lake shore is a stone table that will instantly remind Narnia fans of the one on which Aslan was sacrificed in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; there’s even a curious reddish stain (of vegetable origin, I’m sure) in the concavity at one end.
If this sounds like a fairyland for kids with big imaginations, take heed: It’s also a formal garden whose need for constant, laborious maintenance deserves ample respect – not a wilderness park like Minnewaska where rock-climbing is widely invited. Leave the young ’uns home if you don’t think that you can deter them from charging noisily off on their own, ignoring the occasional off-limits signs and chucking stones (or themselves) into the Lake. That being said, there is plenty here to engage the attention of children who are capable of understanding and abiding by the rules of decorum of such a special, magical place.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
A two-hour visit will allow you to tour the highlights of Innisfree Garden at a strolling pace, although you could easily spend a full day here if you want to take advantage of the many seats poised at outstanding viewpoints throughout the grounds. The basic circuit of Lake Tyrrel is less than a mile in length, but elevations change constantly and the path is sometimes a bit rough, so come prepared with sensible shoes and a water bottle. Nothing here is truly handicapped-accessible. There are picnic tables, but no gift shop or snack bar at Innisfree – only a couple of Porta-Potties at the parking lot and a foot-pumped sink whose water is suitable for washing your hands but not for drinking. Nor is this a botanical garden with interpretive panels and identification labels on every plant; so if you really need to know what kind of conifer has papery bark or which variety of willow has curly leaves or what those weird dangly things that look like hops climbing the stone wall might be, I’d recommend bringing along a horticultural handbook.
Innisfree Garden is located on Tyrrel Road, about one mile south of Route 44, 1.7 miles east of the Taconic Parkway’s Millbrook exit — less than a 45-minute drive from the eastern edges of Ulster County. It’s open from May through October; hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with $4 admission on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. with $5 admission on Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays. It’s closed Mondays (except for holiday weekends) and Tuesdays. Kids under age 4 get in free. Pets are not allowed on the grounds, but can be left in well-ventilated cars in the parking lot. For details visit www.innisfreegarden.org, where you can also download a brochure, or call (845) 677-8000.