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Zemurray Gardens

Samuel Zemurray was the original banana republican. His Zemurray Fruit Company would later be folded into United Fruit, and Zemurray would race to United Fruit’s rescue when it was in danger; but even in the 20’s Huey Long could center his foreign policy on the principle that US soldiers should not be fighting in Central America at the behest of a “banana peddler.”

But then what are the Zemurray Gardens? Did this hard-edged businessman possess an inner domesticity, did he retreat to a flowery sanctuary to soften his heart? Alas, no; the gardens that bear Zemurray’s name were planted against his wishes. When he bought 150 acres of pine woods he reserved a certain portion for his home and assigned the rest to timberland. He thought gardening wasteful.

His wife, Sarah, did not agree. While he was away she hired a gardener and began to plant in secret. The soil (I know it well) was not friendly: thin soil, roots thick as carpets or hard and heavy as rocks, dirt so clayey – what was once the silt in the soil of the land above the Pontchartrain is now the land below the Pontchartrain – so clayey, so dense and heavy, that it holds shapes. (I once repaired a wall on an outbuilding by packing wet dirt over a framework of sticks; it was meant to be temporary, but it has lasted five years.) They cut paths through the pine woods and lined them with azaleas, thousands of azaleas of every color. She waited, I imagine, until the azaleas were blooming; then she told her husband. I would like to think that beauty moved him; whatever his reason, he spared the garden. Now above board, she enlarged and dramatized her garden: clearings with statuary, a hill, a mirror lake, an island, cypresses, camellias, a bamboo grove.

But even when I saw it the garden still had a sense of secrecy, layer after layer hidden from each other. From the highway without could be seen only pines behind pines; from the house (the gardens remained private, open only when the azaleas were blooming) and the bright garden and sward attached to it, dark paths led away into the woods. The paths were tunnels really, with dirt floors, excavated just wide enough for a jeep, stretching on and on in brilliant hypnotic monotony, color and shade, high interwoven pines swaying and admitting sunlight in waves as they swayed, sunlight on the azaleas.

Azaleas are too little celebrated in literature because they are difficult to evoke. Their flowers are of no particular size – on the order of pennies and buttons; their leaves and stem are plain and spare; and their colors are frustratingly pure – no glossiness, iridescence, variegation or sheen, just pure bright colors straight off the palette. If pigment was a stuff that fell like snow, if it had fallen on the paths here red, here yellow, here orange, and the paths had been cleared by a careless shoveler, who threw drifts of pigment over the bushes beside the path: that was how it looked. And in the shade of the azaleas sparks smoldered, the coral red berries of ardisia, and bits of broken mirror still full of sky, the sky blue of Canterbury bells.

You could – I did – go around and around this way; but you could also turn off towards the lake; or (since someone left the gate open) you could turn off on footpaths through the timberland, and, if you knew how to venture into unfamiliar woods without getting lost, rest your eyes on green and green for a time. But getting back, you could leave the paths for the lake; and stand on the bridges or sit on the island, or turn off into one of the sheltered clearings, and visit with the improbable figures of Actaeon and Diana, having long ago gotten over their bewilderment at finding themselves in so strange a land. Somewhere there was a grove of moso bamboo, thirty feet high. Somewhere there was the cemetery of the first settlers here, men of England.

This garden held gardens, gardens inside gardens, all mutually secret and enclosed. Gardeners speak lightly of rooms; Zemurray Gardens was a labyrinth – not a maze, not urgent or perplexing, but a labyrinth, long, slow, meditative and sacred.

And over everything, the trees swaying. Even when the air was still, the trees were swaying. On my first visit I looked up at the pines swaying and listened to their creaking and thought: If a real storm ever hits this place it will be a disaster. I was right. The storm came. (Yes, that one, I have heard and written the name often enough). The trees fell and broke, the paths collapsed – it happened to me, how strange that a path could just disappear – the storm came and Zemurray Gardens was destroyed. You can look at pictures of it online – it is worth doing – but these photographers pictured the wrong things; they gave the wrong idea. But I remember it, in my mind and in my garden. The ardisia is just starting to spread.