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Carley Hill's Forest Garden at Griffis Sculpture Park

Carley Hill

Nature is my paint brush

The Larry Griffis Sculpture Park and general cultural facility in Cattaraugus County, near Ellicottville, is going permaculture. A 50-acre portion of the more than 400-acre property is being transformed by nature and the efforts and vision of artist and landscape architect and heavy construction work project manager Carley Hill into a forest garden.

A little bit of Eden, a little bit of Arden. Extensive woods hillsides comprising meandering gullies carrying precipitation and groundwater springs runoff to a series of permanent small ponds/vernal seasonal pools, creating along the way small wetland areas supporting mosses and lichens and mushrooms, and at one point, just prior to the main pond, a little geological materials sorting plateau, a more or less level area where the hillside runoff segregates distinct zones of gravel, sand, and finer matter before emptying into the pond.

The mushrooms and forest floor carpet of ferns and grasses aren’t established yet, amid the freshly redistributed mud and newly formed water channels and hiker pathways, nor the multitudes of amphibians that will populate the ponds/vernal pools, attracting larger avian and other animal life. Gardens take time. A few months should make a big difference.

How this project came about is a complicated story that largely boils down to Carley’s determination that “when I want to accomplish something, I don’t let anything stop me.” A practicing artist—a recent major work was her huge sculptural mural, based on the old Michigan Street lift bridge, on the south outside wall of the Hi-Temp building in the cobblestone district, viewable from Illinois Street—and project manager for her family firm, Union Concrete Construction Corporation in West Seneca, with experience also in landscape architecture projects, last year she proposed to the Ashford Hollow Foundation, which operates the Griffis Sculpture Park, a limited-scope landscape art project at the park. It didn’t happen, for reasons that would have had something to do with the inability of the foundation just then to fund such a project.

Meanwhile, the foundation was in need of reconstruction/rehabilitation of a main roadway through its woods, a project the foundation also ill afford. They approached Union Concrete about the road project, and a deal was worked out that Union Concrete would do the road project at a favorable price for the foundation—Carley was assigned as project manager—and the foundation would dedicate some acreage for the landscape art project, as well as allow Carley to form a sub-entity under the non-profit foundation umbrella, to be called Griffis Hill Gardens, as a way to garner funding for the landscape project.

To actually secure funding—an art form about which Carley claims no special expertise—she contacted an artist friend with extensive experience in such work for a sculpture park in Michigan and an M.A. degree in arts management, Thomas Vanatter, who is now working full-time on the Griffis Hill site, living in one of a handful of rustic cabins on the site. Carley lives in the similarly rustic main house on the property, formerly the residence of Simon Griffis, one of Larry Griffis’ sons and also an artist, who died tragically several years ago on a hiking accident fall into the Zoar Valley gorge.

So the two projects got going simultaneously—the road reconstruction project and the landscape art project—and as she worked on the road project, she said, the art project grew in scope. “I kept discovering new things about the property. Several underground streams, and an old apple grove right in the middle of the woods. And solutions that worked for both the road project and the landscape project.” The constant surface water drainage, that created erosion problems with respect to the roadway, suggested the retaining ponds that became main features of the landscape plan.

Her vision for the landscape art project grew, too. She said she had always wanted to teach kids, only not in a traditional classroom. “I began to see Griffis Hill Gardens as a huge outdoor classroom—in the outdoors, about the outdoors. For kids to come and learn about art and science and nature all at the same time. How the natural world works, and is beautiful, and is sustainable. The bottom line is permaculture.”

Permaculture is the theory and practice of sustainability of all vital systems and living communities, basically just by letting nature do its work, with minimal assistance and direction from the human community.

She’s been studying up on wild foods as well. One of her teaching ideas is about schoolchildren coming out and hiking and exploring and gathering wild edible foods, and at the end of the day making a kind of communal feast out of what they have gathered.

Meanwhile, she said, there’s plenty of work to do on the project and site to keep her and her co-worker busy. Refurbishing the house and cabins, for example, which have been somewhat neglected since Simon’s untimely death.

And she said she has plans for a medicinal or kitchen garden—herbs and spices—in conjunction with the forest garden. (And apart from the forest garden is putting in a sizable vegetable garden—tomatoes, beans, corn, spinach, squash, etc.)

And seeding and planting and tending the forest garden, as required and appropriate, in accord with permaculture principles and protocols. She gets a little ecstatic contemplating and talking about what she’s creating. Like a painter in front of a still largely blank canvas, with just an outline drawing so far of the prospective finished work. But the outline drawing bodes well. And “nature is my paintbrush,” she says.

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