Down East of Eden

By Lawrence Biemiller

Orono, Me. -- Tom Gasaway has shaped a miniature Eden out of used granite curbstones, discarded steps, a couple of old concrete sewer pipes, and some trees that were once part of an agriculture-school research project here on the University of Maine campus. He has hauled in rocks from the campus woods, built a rustic fence from the branches of cedar trees sacrificed for a new building, and planted roses and shrubs that hide the parking lot beyond his earthly paradise. He's added daisies and day lilies, benches and birdhouses, trellises and turtles. Even in a state rich in beautiful places, this one stands out.

It's an enclosed, almost magical spot, hidden from the world by rustling branches and tangled vines. Inside you find a series of handsomely crafted landscapes -- rooms, really -- that mix sizes and colors and textures into a subtle, splendid architecture, with sprays of flowers here, dramatic rock outcroppings there, all set amid junipers and honeysuckle. Mr. Gasaway has sited benches and paths so that you can wander or relax, watching the bees that dance among the flowers or listening as a sparrow alights at the tiny entrance to a birdhouse filled with hungry nestlings. Dense foliage separates one part of the garden from another.

Mr. Gasaway's university title is landscape supervisor, but that sounds far too bureaucratic for a man who grows much of his own food, spurns pesticides, and has a relationship with authority that seems casual at best. The garden, in fact, was never high on anyone else's list of campus priorities; for the first several years, he says, people complained regularly that his time would be better spent elsewhere. He worked on the garden in spare moments, he says, gathering material from junk piles and building fences on rainy days.

"I've never followed the rules, huh?" Mr. Gasaway says, surveying the garden on a beautiful summer afternoon. His beard has been grayed by the passing years, and his skin is well weathered by outdoor work, and it is easy to imagine you're talking to some kind of old-time rural sage -- at least until he starts talking about how he likes making black-and-white pictures with high-speed film, using eight-minute exposures to photograph fireflies at night. He has been at the university "21, 22 years," he says, and he and his crew maintain several dozen flower beds in addition to looking after trees, shrubs, the odd vine, and a heritage garden devoted to old varieties of plants. "In the wintertime, till the snow gets deep, we prune the woody plants. Then everybody's got a plow route."

The first time he paid attention to this particular site, he says in his poetic way, "was for the opening of over there" -- meaning the Maine Center for the Arts, a concert hall whose lobby faces the garden across a campus road. For the 1986 festivities, which included an outdoor performance, he was asked to find a way to hide a small chicken barn that still stands behind the 50-by-100-foot garden. Later, Mr. Gasaway decided to plant a rose garden that people could walk through before concerts, and he managed to get a few hundred dollars from the university to make the idea a reality.

Roses still line the side of the garden facing the concert hall, but Mr. Gasaway started making additions early on. In one junk pile he found a circular stone emblem, carved with a pine tree, that became the centerpiece of a rectangular flower bed. Some old stone steps he rescued became benches in a cozy corner, where you can sit facing a giant planter without ever guessing that it was once a section of sewer pipe. A half-dozen cuttings from a forestry experiment grew into a vest-pocket pine forest at the back of the site, with a sandy path winding among them. "As it was growing, it was changing," Mr. Gasaway says.

As you come through the garden's rustic front gate, the bricks of the outside walk vanish beneath a tide of grass. You find yourself facing the flower bed, which is bordered by old curbs and has a surface almost as flat as a pond's. It serves as a visual anchor for the whole garden -- it's the one element you can glimpse from almost everywhere. Turn right and you come to the room with the stone benches. In the lushness of summer, it's the garden's most secluded space, and the place you're likely to find a shy young man staring at his shoes as he shares lunch with a young woman.

"This magnolia is dedicated to a guy who used to prune for me," Mr. Gasaway says, leaving the two students alone and pointing out a plaque at the base of a small tree nearby. "Harry Valencourt. And this rock looks like a chicken to me, huh?" he says. Lean to one side and you can see what he means -- the boulder looks a like a chick just out of its egg.

Past that is a room carpeted with grass. In the far corner, low branches of a small oak shelter a substantial wooden bench -- "an old pine tree on campus, cut in half," Mr. Gasaway says. Here the rustic cedar fence, covered with grape vines, is interrupted by a second gate, this one facing a sidewalk that leads to the student union. Mr. Gasaway's great hope is that the garden will distract people rushing from their classes to their cars -- "stop the hurry ones," as he puts it. "Everybody's that way. They've got a 9 o'clock class and they get here at five minutes to 9 -- they're flying." In the middle of the grass an old tub lies on its side, with a spray of flowers planted so that they appear to have spilled out of it.

Flagstones that appear out of the lawn lead past another boulder and into the little pine forest. "I make rock turtles," Mr. Gasaway says, ducking beneath one of the trees. "For the kids. This one has a little turtle next to it, see?" Indeed it does. The turtles' shells are large rocks, while smaller stones represent their legs, heads, and tails.

The garden has cost the university almost nothing, he says. "I scrounged all this stuff." The climbing hydrangeas came from the site of the new student-union addition, and most of the flowers he raises in the university greenhouse. "That weeping elm was supposed to go somewhere else, but it didn't fit in," he says. "I know most everything in my head, like the drainage," he adds, and after he does you look around and realize that the whole garden is expertly graded, though most visitors probably never notice.Two little girls run in from the side gate, followed by their mother. "You go that way. I'll go this way," one says to the other, and then they run off, delighted by the paths and hiding places.

On the other side of the miniature forest is a larger room with a floor of fine gravel around big rectangles of cut stone laid on the diagonal. Another pine-log bench nestles beneath a small stand of birch, and two trellises interrupt views of the parking lot. Sprays of day lilies rise here and there, and a birdbath stands near a bench of roughly hewn stone. Mr. Gasaway once hoped the university's art department would use the garden for small shows -- paintings could hang on the two trellises, and sculptures could stand on the paving stones -- but instead the garden is popular with people attending concerts in the arts center, and with young couples seeking a few moments alone.

"I'm almost thinking about putting a fountain in," Mr. Gasaway says. The splashing would be a nice addition, if he could just be sure that students on their way back from late-night parties wouldn't misbehave. On the other hand, he says, "nothing's ever been destroyed in here." He looks around. The morning glories are climbing the trellis in front of him, and the sparrow titters and chirps because he's standing so close to the birdhouse. A butterfly makes a wild, haphazard flight across the scene, appearing out of a cluster of rose hips, swooping drunkenly over a stand of day lilies, vanishing among the birch trees. "I've got a good job, you know?" he says. "I have no complaints about that."

Copyright © 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published 10 August 2001