A Collector’s Wonderland

Evocations of Other Cultures
Through a gate from an old Chinese castle on a 20-acre wooded property in East Hampton, a marsh boat can be seen on the shore of a koi pond. The homeowner likes to let structures age and develop a patina.

Collectors usually start small before letting loose their acquisitiveness. In an extreme example, one might begin with brick-size viewing stones — Japanese suiseki — that can look like tiny mountain ranges, perhaps paired with bonsai to make miniature landscapes, before moving on to larger stones, big enough to sit on, amid raked sand. Then one could set up a reduced-scale Stonehenge of 14 stones from an old barn’s foundation, 12 feet tall and 2 tons each, trucked in from Connecticut and sunk into mossy South Fork loam, and finally, but not really finally at all, drop a stone cistern from France into the ground and hook it up as a working well.

Shipped from the Old World, having hassled the logistics and cost of transporting it, like a crated boulder, the length of this long island, it now is somewhat earthed over, fairly inconspicuous, but at least appreciated by the collector himself.

“It wasn’t easy getting it out here, believe me,” the proud owner said on a recent morning. “Every shipper in the world knows me. They’re happy to help because they know what I do.”

What he does is travel the globe when things go badly to help governments and health and relief organizations in disaster response. This usually takes the form of strategies to organize information and disseminate it quickly, transparently, and seemingly with one focused voice, all the while anticipating questions from the press and those affected by the disaster.

“I freelance as a consultant,” he said, having left a career in academia. “There are a couple of people in theworld who do this kind of work.”

Most recently he has been working with the World Health Organization on the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. This particular day, Aug. 7, he alerted two visitors to the fact that the following morning there would be a major announcement, which turned out to be the W.H.O.’s declaration of an international public health emergency, a rare event, and the request that all countries affected start screening travelers.

And it’s not just contagion he’s concerned with. In another recent high-profile case, he was called in to help manage the aftereffects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

His job means he travels frequently, often to developing countries, which afford endless opportunities to enhance his collections. And the nature of the work — chasing death, disease, and destruction, attempting to make order out of chaos — means he needs respite, a place to think about something else, a sanctuary, and he has created one on 20 acres in the East Hampton woods, where he can cultivate his manicured worlds — 31 distinct gardens, large, small, and minuscule — to his heart’s content, dotting them with artifacts gathered on his peregrinations and using some as themes, from a one-person Chinese marsh boat to a Japanese stone temple lantern the size of a phone booth to ancient columns from Carthage. (The Star agreed not to use the collector’s name because of security concerns.)

Growing up in Westchester County, he spent a lot of time ina Japanese bonsai nursery and learned to love the artistry. “I wasn’t good with plants, but I was good with stones.” So good that he went on to become an expert and write a book about the Japanese art of stone appreciation. At the foot of his driveway he built a dry landscape garden inspired by the Zen temple Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, arranged with stones of symbolic meaning.

But then, he said, his wife complained, half joking, “You know, people would relate to plants.” So he brought some in, beginning an obsession that not only greened his thumb but transformed the acreage into a horticulturalists’ wonderland, where the sights include, for example, five acres of moss, a vast green carpet containing 80 varieties, one of the largest such gardens on the East Coast, all of it gathered nearby.

A reproduction of a Provence farmhouse with a working water wheel and gristmill and rows of grapevines are adjacent to undulating waves of a fern forest, “8,000 of them from just 2,” he said, the result of “splitting and splitting and splitting.”

He calls one portion of the property the 1491 meadow because it contains native plants that would have existed before the colonization of the New World. “The colonists were amazed to find that the Indians had cleared land and created these canopies in the forest so they could hunt. They found these park-like places with no people. I can tell you, as someone who has worked a lot on diseases, I’ve researched this, and in 100 years 90 percent of the native people died of disease.”

Throughout the acreage, the trees have been trimmed for this canopy effect, which he said both keeps down the  weeds and encourages the spread of moss and other desirable species.

“Half the plants here were invasive,” he said, when he and his wife bought the place 25 years ago. “We removed all of them.”

Never mind his caution about unexpected intruders, the homeowner is a gracious, patient tour guide, taking a full three hours of a Thursday morning to lead two visitors around the inner and outer gardens and through his house as well as a Japanese tea house. At 9 a.m. that day, he had been on a conference call with the World Health Organization on his cellphone, cutting it short but not cutting it off, leaving an earpiece dangling from his pants pocket from which disembodied voices could occasionally be heard — a crisis discussed half a world away.

As we continued into an area dubbed Jurassic Park, the property's newest, he stopped at an example of the gardens' role as conservator, a Wollemi pine, an alien-looking plant, its foliage like blades of grass, relatively sparse and evenly spaced down its slender branches. It was known only by fossil evidence, thought to be extinct and dating back 200 million years until it was discovered in the 1990s in a canyon of Australia's Blue Mountains. In all, 100 of them might exist there. "They sent out plants to make sure it survives," he said, "and one is here." The four-footer has a sibling maybe twice its height in a large pot.

Nearby, a garden called Beach Hampton rolls with mini dunes of genuine East Hampton sand, beyond which a "Stream of Life" runs as a small waterfall over rocks placed for the most pleasing sound, and a few yards farther into the woods sculpted gnomes from Italy arrayed in a circle hold musical instruments and, tradition has it, come to life at midnight to tend to all things green and growing.

All of which led his wife to encourage him to temper his collector's enthusiasm, to guard against an encroaching theme park air. He listened, to an extent, but on the path through his Jurassic garden he happily pointed out a four-inch plastic toy dinosaur clinging to a tree. "That's the closest she'll allow me to Disneyland."

 

A metal sculpture by Leon Allemon can be seen through the trees.
Mountain laurel squiggles up through some of the five acres of moss.
A suspended fish drum from southern China can boom loud enough when struck to bring a neighbor’s complaint.
A stone temple lantern from Japan became the centerpiece of one of the 31 gardens. And a Wollemi pine is a species dating back to the dinosaurs.
A foundation stone from a Connecticut barn rises like an obelisk.
A Japanese bamboo gate separates the inner and outer gardens.
Ancient columns from Carthage (what is now Tunisia) decorate a lawn near the main house, which is seen framed by trees. Steps from the house, a secret garden features an antique Italian statue.
Sun splashes a log bench in another garden.
A Japanese urn pitted with age collects water on top of smooth river stones. A mushroom is one of 80 different types throughout the grounds. A wheelbarrow and water wheel powering a small gristmill are in a garden with a farmhouse a la Provence.