On Thursday, two days before the end of our retreat, several of us made a trip to a place east of here near Millbrook, not far from the Connecticut line, called the Innisfree Garden.
Innisfree is a place I stumbled on one blazing hot day in August about 10 years ago, and have been visiting regularly ever since. It's a place of tranquility and loveliness and it's quite unlike any other place I have been. It's located on the grounds of a former private estate which is now owned by a foundation and opened to the public for most of the year. The design was conceived by the American artist Walter Beck, who ultimately gave up his artistic career to devote his life to the creation of the garden, together with his wife Marion, who had inherited enough money to make the project possible, and who was an enthusiastic botanist and provided the knowledge that made the plantings successful.
Innisfree Garden is based on Chinese garden design, though it is a unique concept, not a copy of a Chinese garden. it is loosely based on the concept of what is called a "Cup Garden". Innisfree itself is cupped by the surrounding hills. It is a large valley with a glacial lake of about 40 acres in the center and surrounded by hills on all sides. Within this large cup there are many small "cups" which compose the garden. You come upon them, sometimes by surprise, sometimes by seeing them from a distance and setting out to go to them, and then finding more cups on the way.
And what is a cup? It is a little piece of garden: an event, if you will. You turn a corner and find a small waterfall. When you trace its course it turns out to come from far up the hillside you are walking beside. On its way down the hill the water traces its paths through several different sorts of flowers and wild plants. Further along you come to a corner of the lake which is planted in lotuses, in full bloom at this time of the year.
Turn back and you come to a meadow which is cut by a meandering stream which curls and curves and embraces plantings of different flowers. Then you realize that you are standing on a stone which has a dragon carved into it. At the top of one hill is a "water sculpture" - a fountain that blows our a mist of water that blows and moves in the wind, going here and there depending on how the breeze moves. On hot days it is delicious to wander through the spray and let it cool you off, while you see the rainbows that the sun creates in the mist. Over to the side is an arrangement of huge rocks that look like hulking monsters or basking animals or just like an arrangement of some sort, waiting for you to make something out of it. On the lake are Canada Geese, paddling along, along with an Egret and a Heron, standing still, looking for fish, or gliding gracefully over the surface of the water. This, and many other little moments of discovery are the cups that make up the Cup Garden. The view changes every time you move and the place is full of surprises. You never know what is around the next tree.
In some ways the design is not unlike the concept of Japanese gardens, which are more familiar to Americans, but it doesn't have the compactness and intensity of Japanese style. The broad lawns and meadows and the large lake give it an openness and spacious feel that is unique to this style. It is truly one of the most lovely places that I know.
If you're intrigued, look at their web site - innisfreegarden.org. They have a wonderful collection of photographs that will give you a better idea of what it's like than my words can. Maybe it will even convince you to come to Millbrook sometime! (or perhaps to go over one afternoon, when you are at Holy Cross).
This time I discovered a little glade that I hadn't noticed before. It's off to one side of the water sculpture, and it's made up of a bit of lawn, and some hanging plants on an arbor, together with some Asian cedars and other evergreens, that you gradually notice are quite different from most evergreens that you are familiar with. The fountain is viewed through a planting of several tall and slender trees, which make a sort of wall that you look through to see the water spraying and drifting in the afternoon breeze. I don't know why I've never discovered this enchanted place before, but I had it all to myself, so apparently not many people do discover it. I sat there for a long time, in a comfortable wooden lawn chair thoughtfully provided for those who wander in, and let my soul relax. I don't know how long I was there. That's one of the gifts of a day at Innisfree; you don't have to know how long you linger at one of the cups.
We went for the day. We left after the Eucharist in the morning and came back in time for Vespers. Everyone took a sandwich and those of us who felt like company had a picnic together at lunch time. Others wanted more solitude and didn't show up for the community meal. We were perfectly free to make of the day what we wanted. Several of us who had never been to Innisfree before walked the path that goes all the way around the lake (that takes about an hour and a half if you're not in a hurry) so they could see everything. Since I've seen everything before I didn't feel the need for that walk. I just prowled the hillsides and meadows, and when I found something that called to me I settled down and stayed there as long as I wanted.
We had been in retreat for 8 days at that point and my experience was that this expedition was not a "break" from the retreat but a continuation of it. It relaxed body, mind and spirit. Prayer came naturally and wordlessly. Beauty was everywhere, within and without.
And it was August 6 - Transfiguration Day.
On the way home we stopped for ice cream (I had peanut butter cup and mint chocolate chip). We got home just in time for Vespers of the Feast of the Transfiguration and slipped seamlessly back into the silence of the retreat. What a blessing.
p.s. Our retreat is over now. Today we're having brunch at the local diner in Highland. Tomorrow about half the community leaves on their vacation. Those of us who remain will have lots to do, but there will be a sense of quiet and leisure about it. Guesthouse closed. Only a few of us are home. Nice conversation at the meals, which we will be fixing for each other. Time to explore the neighborhood or maybe the Catskill Mountains, go to a Sunday concert or sit by the river. The rest of August will carry on the spirit of our retreat. It's a wonderful time.