LINCOLNVILLE, Maine — Millions of years ago, molten rock cooled into granite that would eventually become the bedrock— both real and metaphorical — of Maine.
Just 32 years ago — a long time for a man but just a blink in geologic time — love of this granite drew a Massachusetts native named Ken Cleaves to a tiny, long-closed quarry in Lincolnville. Over the last three decades, he’s worked to turn his 60-acre parcel on a Lincolnville hillside into a Japanese-inspired garden he calls “Schleppinghurst.”
The garden, whose name does indeed stem from the Yiddish word “schlep,” or to haul something tedious and awkward, draws visitors from all over to marvel at what Cleaves has done with stone, plants and time. And while spring, summer and fall might be the usual seasons people visit gardens in this part of the world, early winter at Schelppinghurst reveals something special: the spare, austere beauty that he has wrested from the bony ground.
“I love rock,” the slight, bearded 70-year-old said. “I’ve loved rock since I was a kid. Although we have glacial erratics where I grew up, we don’t have bedrock. This is great stuff. It has a sense of permanence.”
When Cleaves first came to the Heal Quarry more than three decades ago, the land around it had grown up into a spruce and pine forest punctuated by a couple of towering piles of discarded granite, remnants of the quarry’s active years. One of those piles was seven or eight feet tall, and home to 15 porcupines. Elsewhere on the property, exposed ledge rose up dramatically, providing a clue to the bounty of granite that still could be found under the soil.
Unlike some Maine quarries, which provided granite for monuments, courthouses, post offices and other grand structures all over the east coast, the black granite taken out of Heal Quarry between 1903 and 1935 stayed close to home. Almost all was used for gravestones found in local cemeteries.
“I’ve seen this granite for so long, I can identify it in graveyards,” Cleaves said.
The 60-acre parcel was for sale for just $16,000. Cleaves saw promise in it, though his vision then was far different than what it became. Before moving to Lincolnville, he lived on Mosquito Island, off Port Clyde, and become fascinated with the solid beauty of a granite house that was built there from stone quarried on the island. He wanted to build a granite house of his own.
“That was my thought when I moved here — to make that happen,” he said. “But that obviously did not happen.”
He spent his first few months building a “tar paper shack,” a simple building protected from the elements by heavy-duty paper, and by the time it was done, he was tired of carpentry. But he persevered on the property, cutting the forest and eventually using some of the lumber harvested there to build a series of small wooden buildings made notable by their simple lines and the decorative shingles he has used to adorn them. In the largest, where he lives, windows frame pristine views of a small pond and small evergreen trees that enhance, but don’t block, the scenery. The effect is of peace and tranquility, and that’s no accident, Cleaves said.
“You want people to come into the garden and forget about the bills they have to pay. Forget about taking care of the grandkids,” he said. “You want them to get away from the world.”
For a long time, Cleaves didn’t know much about Japanese gardening. He knew a little about growing flowers but didn’t consider the way that a landscape could become an integral part of a garden. But when he first saw books about Japanese gardens at a local bookstore, the different aesthetic resonated. Local expert Douglas Roth, the Rockport-based publisher of the Journal of Japanese Gardening, said that unlike most American gardens, Japanese gardens are like landscape paintings.
“But instead of oil paint on a two-dimensional canvas, we use real materials like rocks and trees to ‘paint’ the scene,” Roth said. “The goal is to evoke nature, not copy it. To evoke certain beautiful natural patterns and distill them in our living environment. In Ken’s case, he lives on a mountainside, so much of his property is real nature. But most Japanese gardens are carefully tended. They’re carefully created landscape paintings.”
Cleaves said that in some parts of the Maine coast, especially in places such as Acadia National Park, the exposed ledges and small, gnarled Pinus rigida trees that grow there naturally look as if “a Japanese gardener had been working for a thousand years.”
That’s not how it was at Schleppinghurst. There, Cleaves dispersed the remnant granite and cleared out the tiny quarry, shoveled topsoil off the ledges and planted seeds from pine cones he gathered on Mount Desert Island, among other plants. He built meandering granite paths and added some stone installations, such as a portion close to his house he calls the Archipelago that leads to the more remote areas of the garden. He is not done yet, but he’s getting closer, he said.
“When I was starting, I easily put in 30 or 40 hours a week,” Cleaves said. “Now, the maintenance during a growing season is maybe 15 hours a week … I feel like I’ve done pretty much everything I wanted to do. There are a couple of areas I’d still like to enhance, but you can’t be building a garden like this at 70. I’m pretty satisfied. I’m also running out of steam as a human being.”
When he was trying to think of a name for his garden, he considered other ideas, including “Black Rock Sisyphus.” But that seemed a little bleak, referring as it does to the Greek myth of a king punished by being forced to roll a large boulder up a hill and watch it come tumbling down again for all eternity. Schleppinghurst — signifying hard work but also its end results — is different, he said.
“Ken schlepped here, that’s my motto,” he joked.
The end result of all that labor has been pretty amazing, according to Roth.
“Schleppinghurst is quirky and fun,” Roth said. “He employs many Japanese garden principles throughout, especially when it comes to stone-setting and plant care, but in the end it’s his own unique creation. He’s spent most of his lifetime on this one art piece. I salute his dedication to this garden!”
Cleaves and his garden were the 2008 recipient of the New England Wildflower Society’s Kathryn S. Taylor Public Landscape Award, given for the transformation of the former quarry into a sanctuary that uses hardy native plants in traditional and unusual ways.
“I didn’t build this garden for recognition, but I must admit it’s been nice to get it,” Cleaves said.
Early winter can be quiet, even in a year-round garden. When the snow falls, it can transform the paths and rock installations into something serene and utterly different, he said. And in the spring, after the snow melts, he will return to the garden tasks at hand, much as he has done for the last three decades. When visitors come down his rutted, dead-end road, he will give them tours, explaining its winding paths and hidden pleasures, like the owl sculpture perched in a granite ledge near the quarry. He doesn’t make a lot of money on the tours. He’s not a rich man by any ordinary measure, but maybe that’s the trick to Schleppinghurst — it’s not ordinary.
Cleaves still works for his living, gardening for a local family. Then he comes back home to work for himself.
“It’s always been important to me to live in a nice environment,” he said. “I’m unusual in that I’ve sacrificed my economic future to make this my focus. I’ve worked here two or three days a week for 32 years. I’ve learned to live with very little money, by most people’s standards. But it doesn’t feel like a life of deprivation.”
For information about Schleppinghurst, call Ken Cleaves at 763-4019. Tour rates begin at $20 for the first two visitors in a group.