“The path follows an old path which a hundred years ago was used for sleds to bring cordwood down the hill. I found that along both sides of it small hemlocks were predominant. Twenty-five years ago I started cutting out almost all of the deciduous trees edging the path…. It has gradually developed into a majestic alle of these dark evergreens.
Most of this path is at the base of two embankments so that there is always a deep deposit of leaves underfoot—soft and quiet for walking. At the beginning of the path the sides are so high that one has a worm’s eye view of the trees from both sides. As you ascend the hill, the sides diminish so that they become eye level, and you look at the base of the trees in the woods. You pass through a forest which I purposely leave untouched. It is rather like looking at the bottom of the sea through a glass window. Here you witness the dramatic cruelty of the forests. The corpses of fallen trees are being devoured by decay or are caught in the arms of younger ones. Roots attack the boulders. Often you hear the flutter of the wings of partridge and see them flying away deep in the woods. In the early summer many Indian pipes push their way through the leaves of this path and after every rain there is a great crop of mushrooms.
…At the next bend in the path, I have widened it to encourage the natural carpet of white violets that grown here, and to reveal a small waterfall, a large area of flat rock, and a small clear, clean pool just large enough for one person to bather in. This opening is an ideal setting for a picnic. Overhead I have cut a large grapevine so that you can grab it and swing out over the brook. In the next portion I have removed the hemlocks to reveal on both sides my tallest trees, which tower eighty feet. This is the best place to see and hear the birds. Here we have on three occasions found the skeletons of deer in the snow, and picked up the tail feathers of vultures….”
These are the words of the industrial designer, Russel Wright (1904-1976). You or your parents may know his designs best by the simple, earth-colored dinnerware that revolutionized entertaining at home and were the everyday dishes of newlyweds in the mid-20th century. He was born on a farm in Ohio, but spent most of his life immersed in urban settings in the East, particularly New York City. When he bought second-home property north in Garrison, NY in 1942, he looked on his 75 acres of rocky hillside with regenerating woodland as a jumble. Wright named his property Manitoga, meaning “Place of the Great Spirit” in the Algonquin language, and called his house and studio Dragon Rock. Over the years, as he opened subtle views to the Hudson River and spent his weekend hours walking on deer paths and the old quarry and logging roads, he came to awareness of the Nature of his land. He loved the evidence of changing seasons, noticed layers in woodland vegetation, paid attention to the qualities of light, and celebrated the dramatic results of natural events.
“In the course of this slow process of thinning [views], I grew to know and to love my land. I felt that it was unappreciated, and I wanted my wife and weekend visitors to see the beauties I had discovered. Thus began weekend projects of making paths. It is the story of the making of these paths which I would like to share with others. The protective land which many of us have acquired around our weekend places need not be an unloved, unenjoyable tangle. It can be much more than a wall separating you from your neighbors. With small effort, it can become a wonderland for your children or a revitalizing stroll for your guests.”
Wright considered himself a truly American designer, and this concept set his woodland garden apart from most of the other magnificent Hudson River estates whose landscapes were modeled on English, European, or Japanese gardens. His design intent was to showcase the wonders of the local landscape in a way that they could speak for themselves and bring visitors to his own level of appreciation. His path system was a series of loops, each one a little farther from the house and a little more wild. In fact, a small quarry remnant called Lost Pond is at the highest point on the site is meant to display how Nature repairs a disturbed landscape and originally had no marked or obvious path.
Not a landscape architect nor wildlife biologist, Wright was, in my opinion, a model of restraint, low-impact change, beautiful landscape design, and environmental appreciation for students, practitioners and homeowners. When he noticed ferns and wanted them to dominate the ground flora in a particular area, for example, he did not order in several hundred plants that a nursery in those days would have very likely collected from the wild. He simply worked patiently (as did his weekend guests), edited out the tree seedlings, and let the ferns increase.
“Today , my land contains two miles of paths, many vistas of the river and the mountains beyond a large natural pool with a waterfall. Friends and neighbors consider it a fascinating and unusual piece of land, and I am amused and pleased to often be asked, ‘How did you ever find such an unusually beautiful site?’ – pleased because these friends think that I found it this way and therefore I know that it looks natural. Actually, a very small percentage of it has been thinned, and no formal landscaping has been done, and only indigenous growth is allowed here.”
“Indigenous growth” meant to Wright both native and naturalized. Just as he and his wife were known for their book, Guide to Easy Living, so did Wright aim for what we might now call ecological management of his landscape. He noticed the plants in the local landscape that would cover the ground freely and survive without much fuss. You can guess that some of these plants were escaped garden species like daylily, coltsfoot, Japanese honeysuckle, bittersweet, and Japanese knotweed. What he knew and appreciated was that these plants could easily fill up space, provide for birds (he remarks particularly on bittersweet) and not require traditional gardening input of fossil fuel, soil amendments, watering, or weeding. Remember that invasive non-native species weren’t really a subject of general discussion until after the mid-70s.*
Eastern hemlock was an extremely important design element in Wright’s landscape. They were the naturally occurring dominant canopy species across much of his acreage and particularly important to the qualities of light and shadow on the paths nearest the house because of their shade-tolerant lower branches. An introduced invasive insect pest, hemlock woolly adelgid, has ravaged the Manitoga landscape and left us with a serious restoration problem. There are no native conifer substitutes for the shade tolerance of hemlock in our uplands—we can perhaps use a small amount of balsam fir in our moist habitats— and we will need to look to the design intent along Wright’s paths instead of the design species for woodland restoration.
The story of Wright’s personal development of Manitoga and his garden of woodland paths, its various ownership and management after his death, and its present status as one of the very few landscapes to be included with its structures as a National Historic Landmark is a long and interesting story and way more than I can include in this post. Call and sign up for a tour of the house, studio, and adjacent landscape May through October. The shop on site sells copies of the booklet from which all of the quotes here are taken, plus other books by and about Wright and mid-century modern design.
Look in the archive of published articles to find a pdf of the Design and Management Guide prepared in 1982 by Andropogon Associates (co-founder Carol Franklin was a cousin of RW), containing descriptions and images of the important features of Wright’s landscape (and in which most of these photos appear).
Look on the website for the calendar of Volunteer Landscape Days when you can help with some of the management and restoration work. There is a similar program just starting for corporate community service projects if you are within reach of the Hudson Highlands.
* As Landscape Curator at Manitoga for over 10 years, I have instituted a policy that allows perpetuation of a few of these species where they can be easily contained and elimination of those that will spread to the detriment of the woodland garden.
© 2012, Ruth Parnall. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.