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Between the Rows

Between the rows: Tony Palumbo and the gifts of Irene

Two years ago, Tropical Storm Irene came rampaging through the area, turning the rivers into torrents overleaping their banks, washing away roads and buildings, breaking hearts and pocketbooks.

Tony Palumbo, artist, owner of the Green Emporium and gardener, was at his easel watching the rain pour down. Neighbors came urging them to leave. Palumbo’s partner, chef Michael Collins, said they would wait it out. Their house had survived the storms of ’38 and ’87. It would survive this one, too.

Soon, Palumbo and Collins were watching fish swim past their kitchen windows in the swirling waters. Suddenly, the door burst open and in came the flood. The two ran upstairs to wait out the storm. In the morning, the water had all disappeared from the garden, although not the kitchen, leaving behind deep mud and sand. The secret garden, with its trickling fountain, was buried and the vegetable and flower gardens were washed away. Also washed away was the undergrowth in the woodland at the far end of the garden.

As with all those who suffered losses, at first there was just shock. But soon Palumbo became weary of people commiserating with him on the loss of his beautiful garden. “Wait till you see the next one!” became his spirited response. “My palette was cleared by the storm, I had a whole new canvas to work with.” But the question was what to do and where to begin.

One day, Palumbo’s Colrain neighbor Paul Forth, artist and stonemason, walked by and saw the destruction of Palumbo’s garden. “I knew Tony from the Green Emporium, where I had eaten and chatted with him, but we didn’t really know each other. When I saw the garden, I had to ask if I could help,” he said.

Palumbo replied that he needed so much help he didn’t know where to start. The starting place appeared when Palumbo woke up in the middle of the night and. in a frenzy, sketched out a very different kind of garden from that which had existed. “I didn’t want to recreate what had been lost. I wanted to create something new,” he said.

“He was great to collaborate with,” Forth said. “He had the idea, and then totally trusted me as I worked from his crazy sketch.”

The Palumbo-Collins house is located between the West Branch of the North River on one side, and a stream on the other, that ultimately makes its way to the river. The first project Palumbo and Forth worked on was a dam that turned the stream into a small pond with a stone spillway. The water cascades through the large stones Forth placed in the spillway into the old streambed where watercress grows once again.

The second project was a curving stone wall holding up a steep flower-filled bank. Forth said that when he is choosing stones for his projects, he is looking for unique stones, ones that have different color veins, or quartz or some other feature.

The final project was the small stonehenge, a circle, 100 feet in diameter, of standing stones around a fire pit. In his business, Stone Creations, Forth is usually working with flat stones, building steps, walkways, walls and patios, sometimes adding metal railings because he is also a blacksmith. But for the circle of standing stones, he was looking for ones that were tall enough and strong enough to stand, as well as be aesthetically interesting. All the stones he used are individually chosen, which means time spent walking through the Goshen Stone Co. quarry or Hillman and Sons in Shelburne, quickly eliminating many stones and then making his distinctive choices.

“I design as I go,” Forth said. “One of the stones for the smaller arch was too short so I stacked three stones.” This is an element that adds interest as well as stability.

Beyond the standing stones in the woodland, where underbrush was washed away all sorts of metal and automotive debris was unearthed. Palumbo, who enjoys turning found objects into art, saw immense potential in those bits of rusty car doors and hoods. For the moment, he has begun this new garden by planting a shiitake mushroom pyramid that is fruiting, and created an unusual array of old windows illumined with Palumbo’s trademark neon.

When Palumbo proudly gave me a tour of the new of the new garden he said, “These are the gifts of Irene.”

As we come up to the second anniversary of Irene’s rampage, Tony Palumbo and Michael Collins are opening their garden to the public on Saturday, Aug. 24 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. to celebrate the gifts of Irene. There is no charge. Visitors will be able to admire the arresting stone work, Palumbo’s latest neon work in the new woodland garden, as well as the secret garden that has been resurrected from its burial in sand and clay. The magnificent trees survived, and there is a hot sauce garden filled with tomatoes and hot peppers of every kind and color bordering the surviving peonies. Palumbo’s garden sculpture series of Garden Hands (www.gardenhands.com) will be available for sale.

An exhibit of his paintings, Pets and Flowers, will be on display at the Leverett Arts and Crafts Center Barnes Gallery though Sept. 1. A portion of the proceeds from sales will go to benefit the Dakin Animal Shelter.

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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