Coming home late one evening, I found a message on my voice mail; an unusual garden was being demolished. I didn’t know the caller, Jan Peters, but the next morning I returned her call. We’d talked for several minutes before I learned that Peters is eighty and an artist herself. The garden was in Mariposa, she told me, not far from Yosemite—about a three-hour drive from the Bay Area. It had already been partially bulldozed, she explained, and the rest would be gone soon. “It sounds like I’d be getting there a little late,” I said. Still, I was curious to hear more about the situation. Her friend Jackie Airamé had built the garden over a period of thirty-five years, she told me. The more I heard, the more interesting the story became. Two friends of Airamé still lived in the area, she explained. “They can show you the place.” I called them. Ann Mendershausen answered. It turned out that the developers had given the Mendershausens one more week to salvage whatever they could from the Airamé garden.
Hearing that, I decided to make the drive up to Mariposa. The Mendershausens hoped some of the pieces could be placed in nearby Mariposa as public art, but the larger pieces—a griffin and a couple of horses and two large cats, among others—were too heavy to move without special equipment. They weren’t sure they’d be able to manage it, “and the blue mosaic hillside has already been bulldozed, most of it, anyway,” Ann told me.
The February morning I left, a steady drizzle was falling, but as I headed east on 580 the gray skies gave way to patches of blue. The open hills of Altamont Pass had already turned green and as I headed east I saw that a tentative green carpet was appearing beneath the empty trees rows of almond trees in the bare orchards along highway 132.
A few miles out of Merced, I noticed a sign “Fruit Basket” and pulled over to stretch my legs and buy an apple or orange. Getting out, I noticed a couple of utilitarian-looking buildings and a line of old farm equipment stretching along the edge of the parking area. Stepping through the door, I was surprised. "Where's the fruit?" I asked a middle-aged woman sitting behind a counter and keeping to herself.
“This time of year, there’s not much,” she said.
A sad little array of plastic bags were spread out across a tabletop: dried fruit and nuts. Looking around, I saw that the salesroom opened into a large warehouse. Looking more closely, I saw that I’d stumbled into a museum! I'd only noticed the "Fruit Basket" part of their outdoor sign: Ag Museum
and Fruit Basket. “Can I look around?” I asked. The woman nodded. Pushing my luck, I asked, “Can I take a few pictures?” The woman nodded again.
l couldn't resist taking some time to wander among this sea of antique home appliances, gasoline tractors and other eccentric relics—as odd a collection of gadgets and curious agricultural equipment as anyone could hope to find on short notice. It was the personal collection, as was discreetly posted, of one Charles Parish. Across the aisle from an old broom jig sat a big glass jar on top of an antiquated cabinet with a few vagrant dollar bills visible inside. “Please help pay for the light and heat for the museum,” the sign read, simply enough. I paused and then dropped a dollar in.
On the way out, a bag of pistachios in hand, I pulled back onto the highway, but I’d hardly gone a mile before I felt a pang of remorse. Why hadn't I left more? But there was no turning back. I needed to get to Mariposa while there was still daylight.
It’s only now, writing this, that I find myself wondering about my remorse. Even then, it seemed out of proportion. Was it the little sign that got to me? Or maybe it was because I took my pleasure without the slightest feeling of gratitude for the work another person had done. But after all, I’d left a dollar. Just one, though. The phrase, “a labor of love” comes up. It was Parish's labor of love. Is that too sentimental? But maybe there's a layer of connection among us all so that when I short the other, I short myself. Perhaps there are moments when a glimmer of this truth breaks through.
The Mendershausens’ place was well off the beaten path. When I finally found my way to their house, Ann met me. We’d been standing outside talking for several minutes when I spotted a man coming towards us from the woods. It was Ann’s husband Ralph. As we shook hands, I was a little alarmed. His face was scratched up and he looked like he might have been dragged through a long stretch of underbrush. But his grip was firm and he seemed in good spirits. “Give me a little time to clean up,” he said, disappearing into the house. “He’s got to wash the poison oak off,” Ann said matter-of-factly. Maintaining one’s own mountain retreat took some work. It might have been one of the things that contributed to the bond among this group of friends I was discovering on the way to Airamé’s garden.
Twenty minutes later Ralph reappeared, a new man. We all walked down to their studio. As I was looking at Ann’s ceramic work, I heard something like a howling animal coming through the walls. “It’s some kid on one of those quad-bikes,” Ralph said. “Their parents just let them run wild. There’s not much you can do about it.” There was some culture clash, he explained. “We never used to be able to see lights at night. Now it’s getting suburban out here. If you gave me the choice, I’d rather be surrounded by rednecks than suburbanites any day. At least they feel some connection to the land.”
Ralph Mendershausen had gotten his PhD in German History, but with the difficulties associated with finding a job in the university system, had decided he’d rather build a house in the Sierras and teach high school. Now, after twenty-one years, he’d retired. Ann had been a ceramics artist going way back, and Ralph had been drawn to sculpture himself. Their first house had burned to the ground in a forest fire, but they’d rebuilt. What I found when I arrived on their property was something of an artists’ retreat. Besides the new house and studio, there was a guesthouse and a couple of other small buildings. Sculptures and whimsical constructions were scattered across the grounds. I felt myself in the company of Airamé’s kindred spirits.
The way Jan Peters had talked earlier about Airamé and her garden and, as my introduction to the Mendershausens continued to unfold, my sense grew that whoever the mysterious garden maker was, something significant set her apart. She'd been very close to Jean Varda, I was told. I recalled Henry Miller’s enthusiastic account of the man, “Varda: The Master Builder” (Remember to Remember
, New Directions 1941). Of Varda, Miller writes, “No wonder that people love to visit his place. I have never met a man so plagued with visitors. They come like locusts, people from all walks of life.... They come in search of that mysterious elixir which no vitamin seems able to supply our people with: the joy of creation.”
“Jackie had married a Frenchman and their place was very unusual,” Ann explained. She also told me that Airamé had worked on another project for years, one that never came to fruition. “Wait a minute,” she said and disappeared into the house. She came back with a twelve-page brochure entitled Magic Kingdoms—A Search for Bewitching Environments
. It was a preview of a book Airamé had envisioned. In a brochure Airamé writes, “I used to ask people everywhere I went if there were any really strange creations around— houses built out of bottles or junk or shells. Any castles? Glass tree houses? People’s fairy-tale-like recollections were enough in themselves to keep me fascinated—rumors of underground fruit orchards, mountains carved in eagles and gods, ‘mistletoe heads,’ an old lady who lived in a redwood stump—would I like to see the place where white clay pours out of the mountain? Six thousand sculptures in one garage? But these were no rumors. They were all true.”
Her search, she writes, was inspired by the French book Les Inspires et Leurs Demeures
[The Inspired Ones and Their Dwellings] by Gilles Ehrmann, Paris 1962. Airamé writes, “Ever since seeing this spell-casting book I have been haunted more and more by a torrent of visions and intangible longings. In hope of exorcising these chimera, I took to going on trips to search out American counterparts to the European inspired ones.”
As much as I was enjoying the Mendershausens, I realized the daylight hours were fast disappearing. “Maybe we better head over to the garden,” I said, and we all got into their Subaru. Our destination wasn’t far, a few miles. And on the way over I heard more about Airamé and about some of the good times this group of friends had spent together when Jackie and her husband and daughter still lived there. There was a faux fox hunt, for instance, complete with a faux fox played by Ralph. They were creative in lots of ways I could see.
Two months have passed since my visit to the Airamé property that afternoon. Pondering what to write about my experience, I’m reminded of something Richard Berger said a few years back. Reflecting about his life as an artist he said, “I find myself questioning what seems to be a pretty arcane cul-de-sac within which I find myself." It is the problem many an artist must feel. He continues, "In a moment of transient bitterness yesterday, I described it to myself as squandering my imagination—working in this corner making these things that virtually nobody sees.”
Maybe what’s left afterwards is only the evidence of something that took place, something present in the form of an absence. There was “the joy of creation,” as Miller writes of Varda. It was there. It was truly there. Sometimes the pieces that remain carry that echo. That afternoon, it was easy to feel that.
I felt at home, seeing Airamé’s garden, what was left of it. It reminded me of parts of my own life, of people I’d known and places I’d lived, of the taste of hidden possibilities that life offered if only one could stop and turn towards the moment. I remember the startling joy I felt one day when I gave in to an impulse and opened a can of blue enamel paint and inscribed a quotation from T.S. Elliot on the bathtub of my small student apartment. It’s hard to convey how this little transgression could have produced such an inner effect. But it was not a trivial thing. The act was a creative leap, an opening through the web of our invisible barriers.
Airamé’s garden was a feast of the breakthroughs in this inner territory of constraint. What is the joy of creation if not a taste of sudden freedom? Look at the cat rolling on its back. But not every piece in her garden conveyed the same joy. The empty torso of the horse lying at the entrance to the property was like a dark fragment left over from an epic tragedy. And there was the horse with its neck stretched out in a scream. All was not roses, is not roses. What do these abandoned artifacts express if not the words I found in Airamé’s own brochure, “I have been haunted more and more by a torrent of visions and intangible longings.”
My visit to Mariposa took place thanks to the friends of this unknown garden maker. As for the garden maker herself, I was to understand her privacy was to be respected. She should remain, would even wish to remain, anonymous. Perhaps one day she might tell me some stories, but I would have to wait to see. This was not to become a “magic kingdom” of media exposure. Yet, something should be known! Here was something original, something genuine. There was the joy of creation, plainly, but also the evidence of a search, of struggle. All this could be felt, and therefore I was called back toward myself. What is original, I was reminded, bears little relationship to novelty. It is what returns me to myself. It's the opposite of closing a book. This return is to come back to a place where the questions have not been answered.
Postscript: The Mendershausens succeeded in rescuing most of the large pieces from Airamé’s garden. As of this writing it isn’t clear yet where they will end up.…