For those who didn’t grow up in the area, one of the many appealing aspects of living in Gardiner is the fact that it’s a place where one can keep a low profile. Most Gardinerites are vaguely aware of certain famous or semi-famous people who own homes in the area, but they’re not troubled by noisy Hollywood-style bus tours for folks who want to gawk at celebrities. One low-key neighbor with a long and distinguished career in acting and directing, from soaps to Shakespeare, really appreciates the town’s quiet, rural lifestyle, and has just done something significant to protect it: Greg Abels of Seven Meadows Farm.
Abels and his wife Janet, who also has a theatre background, recently donated a conservation easement on 65 acres of their property to the Wallkill Valley Land Trust. The parcel, which the Abelses have owned for three decades, lies very close to the hamlet, abutting the Gardiner Airport on the west and Route 44/55 on the north. Thus, their forethought and generosity will ensure the preservation of a large tract of undeveloped farmland right in the center of town in perpetuity.
“We both have a visceral fondness for fields and forests and wildlife,” says Greg Abels, looking back on the couple’s decision to “look for a place in the country” in 1983. Their daughter Caroline was 10 at the time, and the family lived in Greenwich Village, where they still keep a pied-à-terre. They drew a circle on a map to indicate all the places where they could seek a country hideaway within a two-hour drive of the City, and an ad in The New York Times pointed them to the property that they ended up naming Seven Meadows Farm. “We knew we wanted a place with lots of land,” Greg recalls. “What attracted us was the space — the combination of meadows and forest.”
The place was originally a dairy farm, says Greg, and cheese was still being made on the premises as late as the 1920s. Strolling around the property today, with its rolling terrain, fine old trees, inviting pond, surprise views of the Shawangunk Ridge and expansive meadows grazed by Marty Kiernan’s grass-fed beef cattle, the visitor is hard-pressed to believe that she is still within walking distance of Town Hall or Ireland Corners. The only sign of encroaching civilization is the occasional buzz of a small plane coming in low overhead for a landing, after dropping off its load of skydivers.
In the center of the Seven Meadows stands a rustic, well-weathered barn — known to predate the Civil War by the pit-saw cut marks on its timbers — and a farmhouse whose central section was built in 1880. It was expanded with wings circa 1937 and 1948, and has been “nicely restored” by the Abelses since their arrival, preserving the original pine-plank flooring. Surrounding the house are Janet’s wildflower, perennial and herb gardens and enough birdbaths and feeders to ensure a continual summer serenade of birdsong. It’s nice to know that this peaceful haven won’t ever be carved up into wall-to-wall condos, thanks to the conservation easement.
Although Greg says that “Janet and I are at ease both in the City and in the country,” it took a while — and considerable effort — for the Abelses to put down roots in Gardiner. “There was quite a bit of work to do on the house,” says Greg. “There was quite a bit of humility involved. I had a lot of questions to ask — a lot to learn about working the land, about farm machinery. It is not written down; it is handed down.” He reminisces about inviting local farmers over to the place; although he found them more than willing to share their knowledge, “They would never come in the house. They would just park their pickups in the driveway and stand there with their foot up on the fender while we talked.”
Like many rural towns, Gardiner has a reputation as a place where old local families and more recent arrivals regard one another with some suspicion. While the Abelses encountered “no outright hostility” upon their arrival, Greg says, “I did find that it was parochial, in their way of thinking about newcomers. There’s a certain stereotyping — which of course goes both ways. I do find that’s changing in recent years.”
There was a bit of a dust-up when the Gardiner Airport changed ownership in 1986 and expanded its skydiving operation to use larger and noisier aircraft. The Abelses were among a group of neighboring landowners who lobbied the Town Board to pass a law regulating the use of the airport, but a subsequent appeal to the State Supreme Court resulted in a ruling that restricted local jurisdiction over airport operations in general. Greg, who has experienced one skydiver fatality on his property, describes his current relationship with the airport as “vigilant tolerance.”
Amidst the woods that border the Seven Meadows lies a tiny grove that Greg has designed as a secluded spot for meditation. There’s a place to sit, a pathway of smooth river stones and a serene Buddha statue that was carved in the Philippines from lava stone left by the catastrophic 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo. Greg and Janet are both senseis or teachers in the Buddhist tradition of Soto Zen Roshi, from the White Plum Lineage of Maezumi. Their original teacher, interestingly, was a Jesuit priest named Robert Jinsen Kennedy, SJ. “We chant in English,” Greg notes.
The couple began to study the Zen tradition around 1993, and today they run the Still Mind Zendo in Manhattan, which currently has 65 members. “I’m a born teacher,” says Greg, whose career in acting turned toward teaching the craft to others early on. Born in Jersey City, he began his study of acting at the Stella Adler Conservatory in 1961, and later taught at that prestigious school for four years.
He got his first big professional nibble when famed director Elia Kazan needed someone to overdub the heavily accented voice of a young Greek actor in his film America, America. He sent an assistant to audition some of Adler’s students, and Abels was chosen to read for Kazan. “I was still in acting school — imagine! My first audition was for Elia Kazan.” Ultimately, the original actor learned English well enough to overdub his own lines and Greg Abels was not used. But that small early success marked the beginning of a career that never required him to wait on tables to keep body and soul together.
Greg had big dreams as a young actor. “I was crazy about classical theatre. I really thought that I was going to be the American Olivier,” he says. “I don’t take myself as seriously now — you can’t, and still be Zen. And as it turns out, there is no American Olivier.”