HED:The charm of Faulkner's undisturbed gardens
By Margaret Gratz
Special to the Daily Journal
Near Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner, a bluebird flies silently through the ancient cedars; a robin hops from behind a magnolia and cocks its head; timid rabbits watch from wisteria-shrouded trees; and, somewhere off in Bailey's Woods, a phoebe, that modest little bird of the forest, calls. This tranquil setting seems to invite reverie. For Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner, it was a sanctuary.
Rowan Oak is suffused with an aura of mystery and romance. Although Faulkner's spirit lurks in every room of the imposing house, it is beneath the old cedars, melancholy and stoic, that one most deeply feels his presence. This pastoral oasis in the heart of Oxford, evokes the eerie feeling that time is standing still.
Faulkner bought the house and four acres, then known as the Bailey Place, in 1930, renaming it Rowan Oak. He had read Sir James Frazer's "The Golden Bough,"
which included a recounting of the Celtic myth of the rowan tree. According to legend, a bough of this tree nailed over the door would bring tranquility and serenity to the household.
When Faulkner purchased the house, it was already old. Colonel Sheegog, a native of Loughbricland, County Down, Ireland, had been the original owner. He acquired the land south of Oxford that adjoined the Jacob Thompson estate and in approximately 1848 built the house. The architect was William Turner, who designed many other homes in the area, and the formal gardens were laid out by Jacob Thompson's gardener.
The grounds were modeled on a formal English garden. Cedars make an avenue leading to the house and a circle around it. In front of the house, old moss-covered bricks are laid out in concentric circles around a monolithic magnolia, and within these circles are the remains of a privet hedge maze. But what started as a formal English garden now has an Old South feel. Lush, overgrown sweet shrub stands where the privet hedge once was, and ponderous, languid muscadine vines hang from the trees. Wisteria runs rampant.
The flowers at Rowan Oak are typical of those found at a genteel southern home. Iris transplanted from Memory House, the home of Faulkner's brother, John, line the drive. Daylilies bloom by the paddock fence. There are a few old rose bushes and the obligatory gardenias, which are probably a necessity when it comes to southern literary inspiration. No showy splashes of annuals or manicured flower beds are in evidence. At Rowan Oak, such a display would seem indiscreet.
The Rowan Oak garden is so old that it seems to creak, and for the most part Faulkner chose to keep it that way, but he did make a few additions. The brick wall he built for privacy on the east side of the house looks as old as the rest of the place. In the courtyard created by the wall, the Faulkners planted hydrangeas, daylilies and more gardenias. Against the house in this area is a practical, though not very decorative, trellis made of iron pipe, on which the family grew pole beans. A short distance beyond the courtyard, Faulkner added a concrete patio that looked out on an overgrown ravine. Sitting in an Adirondack chair with his typewriter before him, he often wrote in the seclusion of this part of the garden.
Behind the courtyard is an English knot garden, designed by Faulkner himself, where Miss Estelle, his wife, grew roses. In the center of the knot garden, an iron bench is placed beneath wisteria pruned to tree form. Sitting beneath that fragrant bower when it was in bloom must have been intoxicating.
To the west of the house are the pasture and the paddock where Faulkner kept horses. Beyond the paddock there was once a tennis court. In such a peaceful and bucolic scene, it is easy to forget about the bustle of a busy university town not far away.
With assorted family, children and cousins usually around, Rowan Oak was not always tranquil. As with many southern homes at that time, there was a large vegetable garden to help feed the household. There were also fruit trees crabapple and pear and pecans. The Faulkners made jelly and wine from the grapes in their scuppernong arbor. (The fruit trees and grape arbor are still bearing.)
Although Faulkner loved the grounds of Rowan Oak, in actuality he was a less-than-enthusiastic gardener. It was the ever-courtly Uncle Ned Barnett, always dressed in tie and frock coat, who puttered about the yard, tending the garden and mowing or weeding as the spirit moved him. Faulkner's only directive was that the grounds of Rowan Oak remain undisturbed, and therein lies its charm.
Faulkner's presence in this place is so real that a visitor feels like a trespasser. Walking down the avenue of cedars, one wonders what stories those old gray denizens could tell, but they are silent. Faulkner told their story. Beyond the gate at Rowan Oak lies the fabled Yoknapatawpha County.
The Earth Lady by Margaret Gratz appears in the Daily Journal's Living section once a month.
See for yourself
Rowan Oak is open to visitors
Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-noon and 2-4 p.m.
Sundays 2-4 p.m.