The Sacred Rustic
Elizabeth Murray’s garden is a work of spirit and art.
Thursday, February 24, 2005
It’s a late Sunday afternoon in Elizabeth Murray’s own private Eden, a one-acre hilltop spread tucked in a sleepy neighborhood above Munras Avenue. A small sign perched on a worn wooden gate, ‘Entrée Les Artistes,’ makes the place feel like the inner sanctum of a Bohemian dream. Smooth stones scrawled with words like ‘beauty,’ ‘trust,’ and ‘love’ line the walkways. Colorful Balinese peace flags and Tibetan prayer flags sway flimsily from the trees. Bells and chimes dance in harmony with the gentle breeze. Even in the depths of winter dormancy, Murray’s gardens are abundant and filled with evidence of her imagination and creativity.
The historic property is the former home of the impressionist painter Charles Rollo Peters, who created a famous artists’ colony here in the early 1900’s, and for whom the neighborhood (Peters Gate) was named. When Liz Murray, artist, photographer, author, teacher and avid gardener, bought the property five years ago, it was hardly a picture of perfection. It was double what she wanted to spend, the city had an agenda about what they wanted to do with the land, and everywhere she looked, there was something in need of immediate improvement or repair. The 100-year-old rustic red main dwelling was structurally unsound, and the two small cottages that once housed displaced artists needed entirely new foundations and an architectural makeover. But Murray has a remarkable way of seeing possibility and intrinsic beauty in the flawed. Instead of focusing on achieving manicured perfection, she established a rapport with her surroundings. In replacing gas and water lines, she respectfully worked around existing trees and structures, careful not to disrupt the soil and “spirits” of the property. She bestowed “blessings” on the land and buildings by placing coins and crystals in the foundations and writing inspirational words on the walls.
Murray created several outdoor environments with different purposes—gardens to catch sunlight, to gather people, to attract butterflies and birds, and to relax and meditate.
The spaces are surprisingly simple and low-maintenance in design, given that Murray has spent considerable time working in and photographing Claude Monet’s elaborate gardens in Giverny, France.
Murray pays homage to many things—both seen and unseen. But after spending a short time with the soft-spoken, 50-something blonde, it’s obvious that this labor of love is an intentional reflection of her personal values and various cultures and traditions. According to the 25-year Monterey resident, her gardens and home are sacred spaces carved out for contemplation, transformation and growth—a place to sit, and awaken the senses.
Murray says she is attempting to compose a balance within her natural surroundings to cultivate her inner life and find connectedness with the earth—pointing out that the Celtic mystic Father John O’Donahue says that our senses are “the gateway to the soul.’”
“Spending time in nature with the elements outside allows me to be present in my body and be meditative,” Murray says. “It’s an opportunity to be creative and reflective.”
Although Murray is an accomplished gardener and landscape artist—she was the original designer of the landscapes at the Del Monte Center—her ever-evolving gardens have been a collaborative effort. As we slowly navigate the paths around the property, there are eclectic reminders that add to the aura of mysticism.
In her peace garden, a pole reads “May Peace Prevail On Earth” in Swahili, Japanese, French and English. Twenty-seven rare varieties of her late husband Gerald’s collection of bamboo represent, she says, a connection from heaven to earth. A hole in a majestic chestnut tree flanked by a wooden bench and swing, serves as a “flower fairy mailbox” (a place where children can leave notes and gifts for the flower fairies). An archway woven from branches is from a friend’s wedding.
Milagros—Mexican charms known as “miracles”—as well as “wind wishes” and 200 heart-shaped cutouts dangle from the trees. Five young birch trees were 50th birthday gifts. The potted succulents came from her old lady friends. Another friend piled rock formations to represent various goddesses. The patio is surrounded by rosemary for remembrance. Everywhere you look, there are plants and relics imbued with symbolic meaning and pure love.
There is a feeling of hope and anticipation in Murray’s garden, as tender green buds kiss the branches of the dormant trees, gathering strength for spring. “The light we all long for, seek, and need, especially at this time of year, is more than sunlight—it is the illumination and warmth of love,” she says.
Like most relationships, that between a gardener and her gardens require T.L.C.: pruning, raking, weeding and cultivating. Caring for the garden can be a sacred metaphor for transforming spiritual, physical and emotional selves.
Murray shows us that the garden can be a sanctuary to get in touch with ourselves, learn lessons and experience laughter and reflective moments, and heal from wounds. And as the clear sky darkens, I deeply breathe the scented air, and I find solace and a sense of connectedness, like I truly belong.