Out of the Woods
An expansive, serene haven emerges from decades of taming a stony forest.
TEXT BY VIRGINIA M. WRIGHT
PHOTOGRAPHED BY SARAH RICE
ABOVE For nearly 40 years, Ken Cleaves has been cutting clearings, moving rocks, and making paths in the woods of Lincolnville. He calls his tranquil, rambling landscape “Shleppinghurst.”
Ken Cleaves spent a few years scouting coastal Maine for a place to create an outdoor sanctuary. He finally found it in 1982 in Lincolnville — 60 acres that he snapped up for $16,000, which was pretty much every cent he’d saved. “Even though the land was heavily forested, I saw its potential,” he recalls. “There was quite a lot of bedrock — I love bedrock — and it had three things I was looking for: river frontage, a pond, and a quarry.”
In the years since, Cleaves has not so much overhauled the land as uncovered its intrinsic beauty, applying the Japanese design principles of balance and restraint. That pond? It was just a mucky puddle, but he deepened it, and the cold, natural spring filled its banks, allowing him to plant water lilies and welcome the arrival of duckweed, whose tiny chartreuse leaves spangle the water’s surface. As for the abandoned quarry, it was piled high with black-granite tailings, but Cleaves removed them and encouraged plush moss to carpet the basin-like pit. He cleared several acres of trees and peeled the soil off bedrock, and the newly exposed terrain told him what to do next: “Here’s where you might have a path,” he’d think, “and here’s where you might have a stone wall holding up the lawn.”
A small man with a white walrus mustache and wire-frame glasses, Cleaves meets me by the pond late on a warm afternoon. He’s wearing a wide-brimmed canvas hat, his jeans are freshly stained with dirt, and a pair of pruning shears is holstered to his belt. We amble around the pond, past an umbrella-like Amur maple and corkscrew willows he planted decades ago. Now in his early 70s, he works as he always has — mostly alone and mostly with hand-powered tools, like the come-along winch he used to move the boulders that edge the pond’s shore, hold hillside terraces, and form paths inviting contemplative exploration. Rock moving, he says, is an “enjoyable process” that takes as long as eight hours depending on the size of the stone and the length of its journey. “A friend once asked me, ‘How’d you move that big rock?’ Cleaves recalls, “and I said, ‘I schlepped it over there.’” Hence the name of his meandering landscape: Shleppinghurst.
ABOVE Owner Ken Cleaves stores lumber in this building, which he built with wood milled from trees he cleared. He calls it “the chapel.” BELOW The pond edge is a Japanese stonework arrangement called goganishi-gumi.
LEFT TO RIGHT The gardener rests atop a humpbacked outcropping, its spine accented by small, round speckled stones. A quarry-tailings pile is the source of many of the rocks Cleaves used.
BELOW The gardener rests atop a humpbacked outcropping, its spine accented by small, round speckled stones. A quarry-tailings pile is the source of many of the rocks Cleaves used.
When he bought the property, Cleaves’s vision was simply “a nice environment to live in.” He built a house with boards milled from the first acre or two of trees he cut, and around it, he dug flowerbeds, applying lessons he learned as a nurseryman (he’s also been a sheep shearer, weaver, carpenter, warehouse manager, and, in California, a longshoreman). Soon, though, he was drawn to the Japanese garden aesthetic, whose emphasis on plant textures, water bodies, and stonework were “better suited to the strength of this place.” Out came the flowers and in went weeping Pendula junipers and cork trees. He rounded the tops off Montgomery spruces, pitch pines, and mugo pines, a pruning style called tamamono, and he cut away the lower branches of purple smoke bushes, so they appear to be drifting over the earth. “Japanese gardens mean almost endless pruning,” he says. “You always try to keep things human scale, so you don’t feel dwarfed by them.”
Symmetry is important too. When one of his corkscrew willows died, he took down a second healthy one to restore balance. “It’s like everything: when a relationship changes, you have to change something to get it back to what you want.”
These days, Shleppinghurst is growing more slowly as Cleaves’s aging muscles don’t care to move so many rocks, but in the woods, he stops to point out a hint of path scaling a steep ridge. “I’ve always loved that spot,” he says wistfully, suggesting he’s not finished yet, nor does he ever care to be.
To arrange a tour of Schleppinghurst, call Ken Cleaves at 207-763-4019.
ABOVE Cleaves originally intended the enigmatic paths in this clearing to be foundations for stone walls, but changed his mind because he likes them just as they are.