Gardens of Love: Duncan Caldwell

All things indigenous to the Vineyard.


Updated Sept. 14

Thirty years ago, Duncan Caldwell purchased an Aquinnah property and began designing a home and garden for himself and his wife Nancy. “I had a general idea, but it grew organically,” Duncan said. “I wanted it to be terraced like rice patties with paths between them — like in the Philippines or Bali.”

Duncan grew up in Damascus, the capital of Syria, “the edge of the oasis,” he said. Damascan aesthetic also inspired his home and garden design.

“I don’t actually like walls, and there are no walls here,” he said of his garden. “No fences. I have always loved the presence of water.”

There are about 15 basins in Duncan’s garden, all of which he dug himself. “You need time and cool weather,” he said. “Some are quite large, and I put in little islands because I wanted places for birds to nest,” he said. “My dream has been to attract a pair of wild ducks.”

He pointed to a basin nearest to where we sat: “Yes, those are frogs. At one time, there were so many frogs in the world. I can get them going by going, ‘Ribbit, ribbit, ribbit.’” Duncan loves that his garden offers refuge to many amphibians.

Before bringing me deeper into his magical garden, Duncan reminisced about a book he’d read at age 10, “Man-Eaters of Kumaon,” by naturalist and hunter Jim Corbett, who built the first eco-lodge in the world — Treetops in Kenya.

“The upper floor of the house is a little bit of a treehouse,” Duncan said. “We could be looking down on the water holes.”

With no fences and a lot of water, the garden tends to attract deer. Duncan finds it strange that the number of ticks in his yard is so low, despite the constant presence of deer. “Over 20 years living here, I think I’ve found three, maybe four [deer ticks],” Duncan said. “We’re in the wetlands, and I added to the wetlands.”

Many fish inhabit Duncan’s basins, most of which came from Little Leona’s pet shop on State Road. Duncan likes the feeder fish. “They’re dirt-cheap, and then I sprinkle them like rice in all the ponds,” he said. “The mosquitos come here and think, this is a garden of Eden. Then they put their tails in the water and get gobbled up. I think there are fewer mosquitos here than anywhere else in Aquinnah, even though there’s so much water.”

A long basin sits parallel to the back wall of Duncan’s house. He reflected on how he’s watched ospreys dive in and come out with large fish.

“I get to see basically a fishing eagle take these things from about 10 feet away,” Duncan said. “The osprey never misses.”

Duncan said he not only wanted this basin located beside the house, but needed it. Due to the way the foundation was built, the house’s basement is susceptible to flooding. The pool catches the rainwater so the soil can dry out. “No more flooding in the basement,” Duncan said. He reflected on occasions where liners of his ponds were punctured.

“One was a hunter who shot through two liners,” Duncan said. Another, according to Duncan, was due to a fawn crossing a log over one of the ponds, “[The deer] fell, and its stiletto heel went right through the liner.” The last hole was from a heron catching a fish. “His bill went right through,” Duncan said.

Though none of the ponds are meant for soaking, Duncan said he occasionally wades through “like a Neanderthal” to collect lily rhizomes. He puts them in new places so they can grow into full plants.

The garden has mowed paths rather than a clean-cut lawn. Duncan uses a rechargeable electric mower to create paths around his terraced ponds. He loves Queen Anne’s lace and wild flowers. Porcelain berry grows over one side of a small gazebo next to the house. They have a thick, bright shading of orange flower trumpet vine. Nancy, Duncan’s wife and the love of his life, passed away last year. She loved dogwoods, and Duncan has four of them planted in her honor. Their colors are both pink and white.

I passed a large white bone structure near the entrance of the garden. It’s the remains of a finback whale skull off the Hornblower beach near Zach’s Cliffs. According to Duncan, they were collected by the then young men of his family in the late 1950s.

“It was one of my very first memories,” he said. “The men going down there, pulling it with ropes, up ramps, and into the back of a Jeep. It was in such solid condition that there’s a photograph of the eight of them raising cocktail glasses and standing on the thing. You can see now, it’s basically turned to chalk because of the acidity of modern rain. But it’s still so heavy that the last time we lifted it, we needed eight people.”

We walked around his home, up the stairs, and to the front door. We passed Duncan’s rock collections and Nancy’s colorful potted plants — her favorite way to greet friends and guests.

Duncan has also gathered driftwood for a number of years. He picked up a piece from his deck, “This is about 1,000 years old, and is from a now submerged forest off of Squibnocket Point.” He held up another: “I’m building deep history for the ancestral Vineyard … There’s not a single thing here that isn’t indigenous [to the Vineyard].”

He has a variety of fossils including sharks’ teeth, a collection of Miocene vertebrae, and the back of a skull. “They’re all literally just found in tide pools,” Duncan said.

He took me upstairs for the view he relishes. “The garden is beautiful in all seasons,” he said. “Even winter, with ice on the surface of each pond.”

The house has a vegetable garden on the other side of the house. Duncan admits it needs work — it’s on his list. Another future project calls for a couple of new ponds above the vegetable garden. These will help provide watering for produce. Duncan has also adorned the garden with finds like the inner metal piece of a piano that leans against a tree. The only time he found an arrowhead on his property was while planting dogwood for Nancy on its own island in the middle of a basin.

“The garden doesn’t stop — it just changes,” Duncan said. “Everything moves in circles in the garden and in the house. Loops hanging off loops, looping fractals.”

*Updated to correct Duncan’s reference to frogs and deer ticks, the year in which his wife Nancy passed away, and the men who found the whale skull in the 1950’s.