I was lucky enough to be invited to a lunch given by Silas Mountsier and his friend and neighbor Graeme Hardie, a South African who lives across the street from Silas' home, in which he has lived since childhood (he is 80) in the town of Nutley.
The invitation came via Betty Scholtz (89), who is an old friend of theirs, and so on Saturday four New Yorkers crossed beneath the waters of the deep Hudson through the Holland Tunnel, and sped towards the wilds of New Jersey. Poor Vincent had to work.
On the way (much traffic in Chinatown) Betty told stories about lions and Leipoldt. She beat him at bridge when she was very young, and he made her cry. He asked her father to cook lion for him, as he'd never eaten it... I was struck dumb at the thought of being on friendly terms with the mythical figure of Afrikaans poetry and literature and cooking. How was the lion? I asked Betty. Gamey, she said.
Suzanne, a friend of Betty's, regaled us with stories about farm produce and sheep on Shelter Island, and wild boar in Italy. Glen, her husband, and a retired NYPD detective, drove; Nigel, his onboard computer, navigated. Betty and I sat safely seatbelted in the back.
I had no idea what lay ahead, but I was bok for sports.
There were twelve of us at lunch. A glass of Pimms and gingerale started things off as we sat in an old fashioned circle looking at each other. Why had I never had Pimms before? What was I thinking? I now own a bottle.
Lunch was on a patio at a long table under umbrellas, under trees - the tallest oak trees I have ever seen, truly beautiful beings, some apparently 200 years old.
Before we ate, we all held hands, and Silas gave thanks.
Graeme had cooked: chilled zucchini soup, then a single ear of corn for each of us, with butter (which spelled the end of my red lipstick) and salt, farmers' market tomatoes, a melting-from the-bone lamb chop, and for dessert white peaches a la mode.
And with the lamb a truly wonderful Malbec, from the Alexander Valley circa 2005. I must find it.
Mostly I listened. There was a lot to listen to. One of the guests was Manabu Saito, the charming Japanese botanical artist, who, after lunch, looked at me seriously and said, You must return to your art. Meaning singing - my circuitous route to garden designing had come up over lunch.
Why? I asked, him, smiling.
Because you are so beautiful, he said. And he bowed.
What do you say? This is the advantage of being in the company of persons significantly your elder. Perspective is thrown on your perceptions, and you are humbled by your own whining. Manabu's sincerity moved me.
He has heard Callas sing, in person, many times. He went to the Met when it was the old Met. Long, long before the Lincoln Center Met. He was at the Venice Opera before it burned down, and he heard Tebaldi sing there. We talked about what makes art. We agreed that it must absorb your soul.
And all they see is a pretty picture, he said, sighing.
After lunch Graeme led us around Silas' garden, and then to his, across the road (separate post). Both gardens were designed by Richard Hartlage. At some point I was besieged by mosquitoes, definitely a stronger breed out there, and I still bear the bites which I scratch at feverishly when I remember about them.
So what do you think? Silas asked me expectantly when we returned. I felt like a deer in the headlights, which always disconcerts the questioner. But this always happens to me. When I see new art, I can often not say what I think. And I often have no idea what I think. Time must pass.
I could only mutter about really liking the sculpted hornbeams.
Is that all? he spluttered, good naturedly. I said that I was rather overawed, hence mute.
Well, I really did like the hornbeam monoliths, as I think of them now. Cue Space Odyssey...I loved the concrete walls as a gateway. I thought the hidden tree house/lookout in a block of beeches was lovely. So too the mass of Japanese forest grass, surely some sort of record in the United States. So too the very strong lines of the place.
I was very happy to see so much Acidanthera (Abyssinian gladiolus, aka peacock flower). I loved the variegated dogwoods and imagine that the cherries must be like gossamer in the spring.
This garden is loved, really loved, by those who live in it.
It was a lunch that reminded me of our lunches under the tree in Cape Town, where guests think about moving on late, late in the afternoon, and where the greens above and around are as much part of the conversation as the wide ranging words we use to wed our experiences over a the period of a shared meal between friends and strangers.