In The Garden With Sue Felsher - 27 East

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In The Garden With Sue Felsher

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Susan Felsher in the

Susan Felsher in the "Labyrinth." DANA SHAW

Pollinating insects enjoy the fruits of Susan Felsher's garden.

Pollinating insects enjoy the fruits of Susan Felsher's garden. DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden.  DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden. DANA SHAW

Pollinating insects enjoy the fruits of Susan Felsher's garden.  DANA SHAW

Pollinating insects enjoy the fruits of Susan Felsher's garden. DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden.  DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden. DANA SHAW

Pollinating insects enjoy the fruits of Susan Felsher's garden.  DANA SHAW

Pollinating insects enjoy the fruits of Susan Felsher's garden. DANA SHAW

The be hives in Susan Felsher's garden.  DANA SHAW

The be hives in Susan Felsher's garden. DANA SHAW

The Ubuntu.  DANA SHAW

The Ubuntu. DANA SHAW

The Ubuntu.  DANA SHAW

The Ubuntu. DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden.  DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden. DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden.  DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden. DANA SHAW

Susan Felsher in her Ubuntu.  DANA SHAW

Susan Felsher in her Ubuntu. DANA SHAW

The

The "Labyrinth." DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden.  DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden. DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden.  DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden. DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden.  DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden. DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden.  DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden. DANA SHAW

The Ubuntu.  DANA SHAW

The Ubuntu. DANA SHAW

The

The "Labyrinth." DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden.  DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden. DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden.  DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden. DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden.  DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden. DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden.  DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden. DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden.  DANA SHAW

Details of Susan Felsher's Water Mill garden. DANA SHAW

April Gonzales on Oct 19, 2021

Sue and Steve Felsher wanted a remote spot to settle in on the East End 18 years ago.

GPS will not take you to their address. Instead, it directs drivers somewhere to the north indicating a mythic footpath through the woods on the moraine in the hills north of Water Mill. The real driveway is an adventure over hill and dale. It winds through a forest of oaks, Sassafras, hickories and blueberries, around corners, through tall grasses, and is more reminiscent of forest footpaths or an outback trail.

On top of the final southern ascent to the house is a Japanese torii gate. Its form is based on those found at Shinto shrines. Cinnabar red in color, the gate contrasts brilliantly against the blue October sky, welcoming intrepid friends who come to visit. The soaring gate frames the views of the woods and the garden, contrapuntal to the unpainted wooden “om” gate to the north of the house in the Japanese garden. It is the beginning of a circular garden exploration that surrounds their home.

A grouping of tall stone, humanistic figures are located in between the two gates. Greeting you on arrival, their stone faces look toward the main entrance to the house. Sue Felsher considers them the ancestors that maintain watch over all who enter. “These sculptures symbolize that we live, and we live and we die,” she said. “I love how they now protect our garden.”

These three strong structural elements — the torii and om gates and the stone ancestral figures — are not visibly assembled. They are obscured from being seen together by the change in elevations and the lush and varied plant life, and yet they seem to enclose and embrace the house. They are strong visual materializations of Felsher’s intertwined examination of the spiritual in nature, the circle of life and the processes of the natural world that she inhabits.

African art, plants and architecture, faux bois, vrai bois, garden benches and wooden sculpture, bamboo and little monkey statues beckon you down one path after another, around the house and into the woods. Buddhas and infinity signs are located throughout the 5 acres of garden. An additional 3 acres are undeveloped woods to leave space for the deer and let the land be wild. These ancient symbols are integrated into the landscape as focal points and passages from one area to another. Felsher is drawn to Buddha sculptures simply for reminders to relax, sit, lie, be. They are for protection of the garden, pool, pond, life and health.

Through a combination of these architectural and sculptural arts and a vast array of different kinds of plants, Felsher has surrounded herself with a living illustration of her own personal history, which began in South Africa, and her evolving philosophy about the circle of life over the last 18 years. She explains her perspective on the circle of life: “Birth, life, death, on and on to the next existence, so no end.” Like plants becoming compost and feeding another generation of plants.

Friends are shown around the landscape with her characteristically delightful warmth and a desire to share her understanding of nature and the interrelated ties of all life. She welcomes all who enter: the birds, the bugs. A cicada killer rests on a dogwood flower undisturbed and nonthreatening. The ivy is in bloom this fall and is abuzz with different types of insects, mushrooms line the paths, the moles dig under them.

The garden has layer upon layer of meaning for Felsher. The complex underground life of fungi and plant roots, and the symbiosis of plants and insects fascinate her. She has her finger on the pulse of how we are now perceiving nature. Slow down and be here now, allow yourself the time to investigate and explore and learn. Don’t forget to sit down and enjoy.

However, she had to learn about gardening and nature first, and then she proceeded to take out the lawn. “When we first came here we joined EECO farm and we knew nothing,” she recalled. “I did not know what anything was. We went to Quail Hill and dug up potatoes. You get 50 potatoes from one plant, and it’s magic. And that is what gardening is all about: magic and learning.” So the grass became a vegetable plot and continued to disappear as she collected plants, read books and developed the spaces around the house.

Circling counterclockwise through the garden is like walking through her life. “Coming from Africa we see lots of sky,” Felsher noted. The oaks needed to be pruned and elevated, but the house is almost at the crest of the hill and so sunlight streams in through the arches and branches onto a small collection of African plants to the left of the front door. Kniphofia, Gaura, Agapanthus, heather and a South African thistle are accented by undulating fish sculptures. Further down the path an ironwood bench from the Venda section of Africa leads you to the bananas that grace the south face of the house. Giant callas grow nearby; in Africa this exotic plant grows in ditches. Felsher remembers picking huge bunches of their flowers when she was a young woman in Africa.

A small monkey by the side of the steps leading into the oak woods beckons but we veer off to the beehives. Felsher wants to focus on all the pollinators and insects on her property, and not just the honeybees. Caterpillars now have her interest. She found a bunch of them and put them in the bird feeder to see if the birds would eat them. “One clutch of chickadees needs 60,000 feedings according to Doug Tallamy,” she explained. “And caterpillars are easy for fledglings to eat.”

Tallamy, the author of “Bringing Nature Home” and “Nature’s Best Hope,” spoke to the Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons in 2019 on “A Chickadees Guide to Gardening.” His writings and talks, which focus on native plants and bringing wildlife back into the garden, have inspired millions of people like Felsher who are taking a slightly different turn down the garden path. His main point being that we can save the planet quite easily if we simply change our gardens from being just pretty to feeding the pollinators and allowing the bugs to roam, minimizing the grass and planting keystone species.

Taking out the lawn was well underway chez Felsher before she heard Tallamy’s talks, and the enormous variety of plants provide plenty of fodder for winged and wild foragers of all types.

“This year I am observing which bird and which insect are going to which plants and which plants are a bit of a waste,” she said.

By a bit of a waste, she means the plant has only an aesthetic value and perhaps not enough of the interconnectedness of the flora and fauna that she has read about in “Entangled Life” by Merlin Sheldrake. Sheldrake’s book explains mycorrhizal fungi and how they connect roots underground to make a community of trees. However, Felsher has clearly taken the philosophy of interconnectedness much further throughout her gardening experiments.

The American chestnut was once so abundant it was rumored that a squirrel could travel from Maine to Georgia and never touch the ground. The oak has filled in the gap in the forest canopy where the chestnut died out due to a blight and is now considered one of the main keystone species that supports wildlife in many forms. The oak is blessed with a plethora of insects that feed on it, and those bugs, in turn, are fed on by songbirds. Outside the more developed gardens, Felsher is surrounded by red and black oaks on the moraine, and underneath them are the beehives, the Ubuntu and a labyrinth that honor the natural environment in different ways.

The hives house 60,000 to 80,000 bees and are maintained by Chris Kelly from the North Fork. Felsher feeds them regularly now going into the winter. The boxed combs produced 60 pounds of clear soft golden honey from the hives this July. Having the bees, she explained, means “you learn an awful lot about the trees. Black locust has a lot of flowers.” All the trees around her have flowers.

Faustine, her gardener from Rwanda and the Ivory Coast, helped her build the Ubuntu. Under the canopy of oaks the open framework of bamboo creates a barely solid place to sit and take in the view of the woods, the bees, the labyrinth, and the blueberries turning scarlet as they cascade down the hill. Sitting on a carved wooden chair that was a fabulous roadside find, contemplation and observation of the forest is one way to share her positive optimism. This was her COVID project. Ubuntu, in her perspective, is very much an African philosophy. It means “I am because you are,” and some Africans greet each other that way. A small sign clarifies the word farther: Means Love Truth Peace Happiness, Eternal Optimism, Inner Goodness, Essence of a Human Being.

A door and windows of the Ubuntu frame views of the gorgeous interaction of stone circles and vertical oak trunks of the labyrinth, which could be enough to transport one into a meditative state. It is not necessary to traverse the small circular paths to the Buddha opposite which surveys the gilded autumn light falling through the trees at an angle. This is Felsher’s thanks to nature, enshrining it but not altering it, glorifying the lichens and bark, the falling leaves, the round stones. She is inviting all who enter to enjoy it with her. Bamboo lies around in piles waiting for inspiration to begin the next project.

This is not the end point of the garden by any means. A path of old grindstones leads through a circular steel arch or doorway into the untouched forest beyond.

“Like the English I believe that you have to have critter piles, always have a wild patch that you never touch,” Felsher said. “That’s where my tortoises and my rabbits live.”

Purple cream and red mushrooms dot the way down to the tennis court. Felsher tried a mushroom log of lion’s mane mushrooms once. Puffballs lie around the court rather than tennis balls. Her husband, Steve, now plays elsewhere. Blackberries, raspberries, grapes and blueberries grow on or around the fencing. Although the faux bois pavilion still holds up an old wisteria, it may soon overlook a farm or a moss and rock garden rather than a match of tennis.

The plain wooden om gate lies just beyond the tennis court, on the north side of the house. It leads into the Japanese garden, a canvas of green and textures, the stone paths make you slow down. COVID also brought her back to this extraordinary garden that she built and into the moment. “It has been so special for me to just have this time to walk around and see what is going on,” she said. “What is the mole eating? Oh, another hosta is gone! Never mind, never mind.”

The Zen garden shows that she knows how to get around the moles though. An enormous hosta Sum and Substance, still yellow and bold leaved, is planted in a large elevated round stone bowl. Free from rodent predation, it crowns this section of the garden. It is a centerpiece to circumnavigate meditatively or admire from a distance. You must hesitate on the uneven stone path, you cannot hurry. Taking her time and observing all living things in her garden, how they interact without any input, is what these past few years have meant to her.

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