A Masterpiece of Landscape Design
Story by Clifford Hart
Photos: Courtesy of Innisfree Garden
Painters and poets have been extolling the beauty of utopian landscapes for as long as painters and poets have existed. The romantic period saw these idealized places as a platform for love, as often embodied in Thomas Cole’s majestic oils and Lord Byron’s florid verses.
But a verse by another poet, William Butler Yeats, in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” is one of the more poignant expressions of a utopian setting, when he writes “midnight’s all a glimmer and noon a purple glow” and when he hears “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.”
In the modern era, painting and poetry have given way to cinematic reflections of utopia, where Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings and other epics have held sway, capturing the modern imagination with landscapes featuring cloud-splitting crags and great waterfalls spilling down to crystal lakes.
Perhaps a similar kind of utopia is what Walter Beck had in mind back in the mid twentieth century when he and his wife, Marion, envisioned Innisfree, their expansive private garden outside Millbrook, and the closest thing to a dream landscape you might ever see within a few thousand miles of here.
That may sound crazy to someone living in the Hudson Valley, where the rolling farmland and mountain vistas make for some pretty spectacular vistas of their own (they certainly were for the Hudson River School painters), but the Becks had a different idea of a utopian garden—one that had its origins in a place about as far away from the Hudson Valley as you can get—namely, China.
Unlike a traditional Western or European garden, which is often meant to be appreciated in its entirety, the Chinese garden can never be seen in one piece; it can only be experienced by journeying through it.
Innisfree Garden is a perfect manifestation of that idea. It involves a circular trail around a long, serene lake. This trail takes the walker on a journey up and over rocky knolls, beside leafy woodlands and across grassy plateaus—a winding and beautiful trip that ultimately takes you around the great central lake and back along the opposite shore to where you began (a trip of roughly 90 minutes for the average walker).
As beautiful and peaceful as it all is, what is perhaps the most striking thing about Innisfree is the subtle way in which the landscape draws you in. What might appear from a distance to be little more than a hidden valley tucked amid the larger hills outside Millbrook, on closer inspection transforms into a true work of art—one that quietly but purposefully invites you inside to have a closer look.
A bubbling stream slowly reveals itself to be a water sculpture, with carved stepping stones placed carefully within it. Giant boulders perfectly frame a small grass-covered knoll. A rocky outcropping comes to life with a constant spray of water fanning over it. And at the far end of the lake, an elegant geyser lures the walker onward, its refreshing spray cooling the air as you pass by.
In short, Innisfree Garden is a masterpiece of landscape design—a work of art that completely surrounds you with its natural beauty. On a brilliant summer afternoon, you might just think you were in utopia. For directions, entry fees and times, and other information, visit innisfreegarden.org.