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Innisfree: The Hudson Valley’s Own “Secret Garden” by Donatella de Rosa

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.

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.

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.

—W. B. Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Rarely advertised, yet open to the public, Innisfree Garden is a discovery one tends to happen upon serendipitously, a truly “secret garden.” Encompassing almost two hundred acres in Millbrook, NY, this seemingly “natural landscape” is actually the result of a very deliberate series of gardens built over a period of thirty years by the American painter Otto Walter Beck. Reflecting a fusion of Chinese and Japanese landscape design aesthetics, the result is a uniquely American garden that incorporates an Eastern sensibility, using natural elements to create a series of exquisite landscapes. Beck referred to these individual scenes as “cup gardens”.

Innisfree was named after the poem by William Butler Yeats, which uses imagery of an island in Ireland’s Lough Gill. Beck was inspired by the scroll paintings of the eighth-century Chinese artist Wang Wei, whose paintings depict a series of individual landscape or garden scenes. As he created each small garden, Beck tried to follow the Chinese philosophy that gardens are an art form, and the designer must consider balance, harmony, proportion and variety through the use of natural elements, such as rock and water, to achieve these essential elements. Walter Beck strove to attain these goals. Undoubtedly, his efforts were further enhanced by his vision as a painter and his understanding of Chinese garden design.

When Beck was befriended by Harvard educated Lester Collins—a landscape architect who was also a student of an ancient Japanese handbook called Sakuteiki or Sensai Hisho (Sacred Teachings)—the Innisfree of today began to take shape.

Innisfree is not technically one garden; rather it's a series of gardens set along a path that, as it meanders around Tyrrel Lake, allows the visitor to move gracefully from one vignette to the next. At each juncture, the lie of the land is used to give the viewer an enchanting, seemingly natural view of the unfolding landscape. Consideration of every point of view is given, either of the garden you’ve just passed through, or the scene to your left or right.

The path around the 40-acre glacial lake compels the visitor to linger in a particularly enticing setting, to take a detour to hear the rush of water from a falls, or the gurgling of a brook. There are terraces with chairs to sit on with beautiful stone sculptures placed about. There’s a bog garden, planters with peonies and alliums, a wonderful assortment of plants, some known to most, others that will be much less familiar. There are rock cliffs and pergolas, a retaining wall with climbing hydrangea tumbling down and everywhere, rock and water, water and rock; a lovely, living reflection on Eastern philosophy: upright stone/yang (masculine) in tandem with water/yin (feminine).

Most of the plant material is native, and the rocks—sandstone, limestone, granite and quartz—were brought in from the surrounding forest. There are water lilies and lotus in the lake, gray herons, an assortment of birds and wildlife including three-foot water turtles.

Innisfree, however visually beautiful, holds another much deeper enchantment; one of restorative contemplation. What better place to wander amongst native flora, relax alongside magnificent stone, to sit alongside a stream or fountain, to rest in a garden filled with visual delights, to gaze upon a landscape like no other and feel at peace.

Innisfree Garden is located at 362 Tyrrel Road, Millbrook,, 845.677.8000, open from May 7 to October 20. We/Th/Fr 10 AM- 4 PM, Sa/Su and legal holidays 11 AM- 5 PM. Closed Mo/Tu

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