Finding Tranquility at Mytoi

After Hurricane Bob, a little Japanese-style garden on Chappy became the Mytoi of today.

As you drive off the On Time three-car ferry from Edgartown to Chappaquiddick island, you immediately sense you have entered a physical environment different from the one just across the harbor. Soon the road turns from blacktop to dirt; the trees are mostly scrub oak with tall pitch pines rising overhead. Birds are everywhere, swooping across the road and calling from the underbrush. Sunlight filtered through the dust raised by the car evokes a past time when most roads were unpaved and no cars were air-conditioned. Windows had to be open, and the only thing protecting you from the grit and heat were the small vents you could angle to direct the air away from your face. It was during the end of that era, the 1950s, that Mytoi came into being. But it wasn’t until after August 19, 1991, when Hurricane Bob swooped down with a series of twister-like gales, taking out 70 percent of the garden, that Mytoi really came into its own.

Little had been known about the history of the garden and its beginnings until Chappy resident Tom Tilghman started a research project for The Trustees of Reservations’ new management plan for the property. In 1954 Mary Wakeman, then Mary Storer, acquired land for a summer home on Chappaquiddick as well as the three-acre parcel across the road that is now Mytoi. She hired Edgartown architect Hugh Jones, who had summered on Chappaquiddick as a child and whose military service had taken him to Japan, where he developed an affinity for Japanese gardens. He designed her a Japanese-style house, and as payment, she sold him the three-acre parcel for $1, in 1958.

Hugh named the garden Mytoi, which he pronounced “my toy,” but Mary pronounced it “me toy.” (The former pronunciation is more prevalent these days, but it can be said either way.) There were few Japanese features at Mytoi in the beginning. It was a shady pitch pine forest with daffodils planted around a pond, created by scooping out earth, which became the hill opposite. The order and serenity of the space – along with a little red bridge – are what set it apart from the wilderness nearby.

After Hugh died while working in the garden in 1965, his heirs sold the property back to the Wakeman family – with the understanding that it would be kept as a public garden. Mary continued to oversee the plantings in Hugh’s style, and in 1976, she donated Mytoi to The Trustees of Reservations to ensure that it stayed open to the public. She continued to pay for maintenance and donated money for an endowment for future expenses; an additional eleven acres of land was given to the Trustees in 1981.

In 1984, Mary died, never dreaming this beloved garden would one day be battered and utterly changed by the force of nature. What was once a deep shady place became flooded with sunlight, a sandy ground with a scattering of shrubs and some remaining trees. “The storm produced microbursts, which twisted the trees in the garden,” says Edith Potter, who lives close by and had similar damage on her property, “but out of that disaster came such wonderful support for the garden.” After Hurricane Bob, the pond and the hill remained with some of the pitch pines and rhododendrons, but the question confronting the Trustees was “how to rebuild?”

The Trustees quickly hired Don Sibley, who became the master gardener for the project and remains so today. Don’s qualifications for the job were unconventional but ideal. He had lived in Japan in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, when he was a Russian-language expert for the military.

In 1998, he returned to Japan to study traditional and contemporary Japanese garden design through a grant from the Trustees and the School of the
Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he has been on the faculty for thirty-five years teaching painting.

Besides his interests in Japanese culture and gardening practices (including the art of bonsai), he is an artist whose own painting has been influenced by Japan, particularly the use of rocks in landscapes.

Shortly after arriving at Mytoi, Don discovered a shared aesthetic concerning the reconstruction of Mytoi with Lindsay Allison, a volunteer since 1986, who had regularly received modest amounts of money from the Trustees for buying stock for the garden and who was working alone as a volunteer when the hurricane struck. Lindsay had started coming to Chappaquiddick when she was five with her mother, Joanne Patterson, a friend of Mary Wakeman, and remembers going to Easter egg hunts at Mytoi as a child. Although neither Don nor Lindsay were trained horticulturists, professional landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy, then living in the Boston area, backed their ideas while working with the Trustees to come up with a master plan for reconstruction. She was the first Western woman to be apprenticed to a Japanese master gardener and has published numerous books, most recently Outside the Not So Big House: Creating the Landscape of Home with Sarah Susanka (Taunton, 2006).

Julie Moir Messervy changed the circulation pattern of the garden and created discrete areas, or “rooms,” that are Japanese in inspiration – although you are never allowed to forget that you are on Chappaquiddick, with its particular ecology and history of preservation. (Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury also provided inspiration, although the aesthetic of the arboretum and the Japanese garden are very different.)

The entry gate at Mytoi is modeled after one you would find at a Japanese temple. Black locust trees were cut down, then seasoned to provide the wood – the same wood farmers on the island use for fence posts. Once through the gate, you leave wild nature behind as you come to a tsukubai, “a place one has to bend down,” near the beginning of a birch walkway. This water feature is commonly placed at the entrance to Japanese gardens. In the Shinto religion, water is part of nature and is provided for drinking or hand washing before entering a garden. This tsukubai was designed by Don Sibley and funded by Chappaquiddick residents. Here is no traditional kneeling stone or cup, but a small room, framed by embedded stones from nearby.

At the end of the birch walk, a Japanese feature of stones is carefully arranged in a predictable but varied checkerboard pattern. Beyond this, you are drawn through a narrow space flanked by Japanese stewartias where there is an inner gate and a stocky Scotch pine seems to welcome you. The path leads down toward the stream where blue iris and the “borrowed scenery” of the forest beyond provide an intimate moment that is very Japanese. Behind is a stone garden of large rocks set into the hillside. Once again, the inspiration is Japanese, but the material and resolution are Chappaquiddick.

Crossing a small bridge, a view of the pond opens up with a newly constructed bridge in the distance. The old red bridge – an icon of the original garden – survived Hurricane Bob but eventually became unsafe and was replaced a couple of years ago. The new bridge, with a zigzag design and Asian motif, was designed by Don Sibley and built by Steve Ewing of Aquamarine in Edgartown to incorporate modern safety and accessibility features. Near the bridge, there is native winterberry and beach plum. Looking across the pond, there is a pleasing view of a wild habitat that includes blueberry and clethra. A high fence behind the habitat was part of the redesign to prevent visitors from parking on the road and entering the garden there. Rocks have also been placed in front of the fence with a moss garden, hellebores, mountain laurel, and native beetlebung.

On the first hill opposite the pond, a path leads to the azumaya, traditionally a shelter where one would wait before entering a teahouse. Like the entrance gate, it is constructed of native black locust. Here the low-growing bearberry surrounds the rocks: a hot and sunny spot in the summer, where the view of the pond is framed on either side by spruce. Down the hill from the azumaya, following the path toward Juniper Hill, there is an original stand of rhododendrons that survived the hurricane. The outside of the park is close by, with its natural background of European and fernleaf beech.

Juniper Hill was designed to provide a view of the pond. The original white pines have gone, replaced by cedars. The bench (one of Julie Messervy’s contributions) was placed in front of the cedars to provide privacy and a feeling of security. At the bottom of the hill, a stand of bamboo is towered over by three old pitch pines, which feel like intruders here from the wild world outside the garden. On the way to rejoin the birch walk, you pass a large azalea planted by Mary Wakeman and continue on the path, which is lined with Japanese primroses bordering the stream next to a stone wall. To the left of the path, as it veers over the stream, is a storage area for compost. This and organic fertilizer, if needed, are the only enrichments used on new plants. For the first three years, plants are fertilized, watered, and mulched, then nature takes over. At the head of the stream is a bench, set in the shade, a place for contemplation.

On a visit last spring, I spotted one Koi, a type of eastern Asian carp, darting between the lily pads in the pond. In 1990, about a thousand Koi disappeared from the pond. There seemed no explanation until one day an otter was identified as the culprit. Should the Trustees restock the pond knowing they were feeding the wildlife? At $24.95 per Koi, this seemed expensive food. So, in July 1991, it was decided to throw a picnic and ask participants to help restock the pond. I was pleased to see that Koi remain – if not in great numbers – and I’m told an annual picnic continues as a restocking tradition. Even if only the wily ones survive, the others feed the otters and osprey, another reminder of the wilderness beyond the garden.

At the end of my visit, I strolled down the primrose path, where one camellia was already past its peak of bloom, and sat by the head of the stream, immersed in the serenity of the garden. How reassuring was the bird song, how joyous the croak of the bullfrog. What a gift Mary Wakeman gave to all who come to this garden, embedded in the wilderness of Chappaquiddick and improved by those who tend to its care.

Editorial assistant Susan Catling contributed to this story.