Gardens of Love: Duncan Caldwell

He has dug a garden to share with the world.


After the 2023 Thanksgiving storm, Lucy Vincent Beach appeared transformed. Not only was there loss of sand, revealing more colored clay underfoot, it felt as though the surface of the cliffs had been shorn away to reveal a physical history thousands of years old, and made me think of Duncan Caldwell. I reached out to take a walk together; however, he invited me over to his Aquinnah home to see the garden he’d created during the pandemic. Duncan is a prehistorian who grew up on the Vineyard, besides interesting and faraway places like Cairo and Saigon, and has never lost his sense of wonder and exploration.

I last visited Duncan’s garden in 2018. I remember being dumbstruck by his handiwork creating a series of stone pools that all fed one another and made homes for a healthy stock of goldfish and frogs, besides the local wildlife. (You can read that story at

On this visit on the last day of November, Duncan met me by a patio he’d created between shipping containers. He explained, “During the pandemic, Juli Vanderhoop needed eggs.” So he traded eggs for scrap wood that she was going to burn in her outdoor oven, and used the planks to create a shed roof over the seating area. There’s an 1880s totem pole from Vancouver Island in the center, with an opening so the pole can stretch toward the sky. Back-to-back with the pole is “a statue from New Guinea representing the primeval creator of the Iatmul people, which debating men would take turns using as a lectern by flagellating its back with a bunch of sacred leaves whenever they wanted to claim its support.” Duncan mentioned that this wasn’t his first improvised shelter on the Island, since he and his cousins had built a shack out of driftwood on his parents’ property in Chilmark, which his family had lived in during summers (and he had once tried to live in year-round) until they built a house.

Looking out over Duncan’s handiwork brings to mind earthworks I love and admire, including Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and Opus 40 and Innisfree Garden, both in New York. All the material used to build his new garden, another series of stone-edged ponds of varying sizes, with an outdoor “dance floor,” was scavenged, from bricks washed up on our shores to bluestone off-cuts. Duncan lost his wife seven years ago, and spent a lot of the pandemic alone, so building the interlocking pools and patios helped keep him busy and sane.

I wondered what inspired him to focus on a water garden. Duncan says, “My first memory is of arriving in a car along a sidewalk covered with red blooms, and of my mother taking me into a park as my father crossed a busy road. What consolidated the memory of the flowers was probably the appearance of equally surprising red beings rising and falling through the algal emulsion of a pool. I asked my mother if it was a memory, and she said, ‘Yes, I think it is. We had driven out to Giza, and your father had to meet an informant [they were both in the CIA], so I took you into a park. There were flame trees, and a green pool with goldfish.’

“Later, when I was 6, we lived in Damascus. Our one-room schoolhouse was in an oasis, where it was surrounded by apricot trees and irrigation ditches inhabited by freshwater crabs. I spent hours trying to catch the creatures before they could scurry into their burrows in the banks, and came to love flowing water, and looking for marvels. One of the things my father did with us was seine for fish in desert pools (one of which was in a cave surrounded by flint flakes) and streams, including one in the Lebanese mountains, where the boulders were beribboned with tapeworms from the village upstream. I remember stooping and splashing with him in a drainage ditch, which was usually dry, netting sequined beauties that only popped into existence for a few weeks after seasonal rains — all those things fed into my imagination. The garden is inspired by nostalgia, but its pools are also like vessels that you hold up to something beautiful in homage. They’re a way of bearing witness by doubling the sky’s beauty and making it intimate.” Duncan sums up saying, “Giving the sky windows on the earth, so all the elements are drawn together.”

Just prior to the lockdown, Duncan raised chicks in a bathtub while he built a sizable chicken coop from “packing crates that [he’d] squirreled away” under the eye of a red-tailed hawk, “which spent much of the day perched by [his] head as if it were my spirit animal, or knew [he] was about to bring out chickens.” This, stocking up on canned goods, and his vegetable garden allowed him to avoid going to a grocery store for a year and a half.

As we walk around the pools, Duncan says, “There are five species of frogs, including bullfrogs, which aren’t native, living in these ponds, plus I don’t know how many species of tree frogs,” as he points out a school of tadpoles. Duncan admits, “Making these pools was really hard for lots of reasons, including the fact that the brush was so thick and thorny here.” One at a time he dug and wrenched out stands of Japanese knotweed and bull briars, until he had completed six terraced pools, and only the previous week had finished the “dance floor.”

As Duncan leads me through his new terraced ponds, he says, “There are things that still need to be tucked into place.” Once Duncan got going, he just needed to complete the loose design he had in mind, although he kept adjusting its details as it grew organically to fit the land. The dance floor reflects the shape of the upper pool. Duncan says, “When I look at them from above, they juxtapose as two ovals clasped between crescents.” The entirety of the garden was created by Duncan working alone and by hand, except for one day on the biggest pool, when he received invaluable help from his brother, Edward. The garden has benches and posts, with solar lights edging the dance floor, all of which came from the Dumptique or the side of the road. Duncan is the epitome of resourceful.

The planting will come in the spring. Duncan says, pointing, “There are peonies around there, and daffodils everywhere. There are irises around the pools, and tulips on that island so the deer can’t get them.” As we look around, he says, “I designed this part of the garden both for entertaining and to serve as a disarticulated performance space where you can position the audience and performers differently, depending on the event.” It turns out that this has been a long-term ambition for 20 years. Duncan says, “I was traveling through Switzerland seeing ethnographic and archeological museums, and started thinking about what I liked and disliked about them. As an intellectual exercise, I decided to design my ideal museum on Post-its by keeping what I’d liked, eliminating what I didn’t, and adding things I wished I’d seen.” A few weeks later, an American prehistorian came to see some art caves that Duncan had found in France: “After showing him the first batch of caves, I unrolled expanded versions of those drawings on the hood of the car.” By sheer coincidence, Duncan’s friend had “just been asked to advise a complex of colleges in North Carolina on the creation of a museum. When he saw my sketches, he announced that he was going to tell them to throw out the blueprints, which an architecture firm in Raleigh had drawn up, and use mine instead.” Duncan continues, “The result was that the administrators came to the Vineyard to see the drawings, and invited me to visit the main campus to show me the site and attend a meeting, where the board voted unanimously to build the complex.” But the Wellspring Museum, as Duncan called it, never got built. “This happened just before the economic meltdown in 2008, which sent their donors running for the hills. That was the end of that.” But the plans for the building, with its rock shelter façade and stream flowing down a transparent trough in the turf roof, and waterfall plummeting past huge windows into a pool, which Duncan had posted on his website, attracted the attention of the National School of Architecture in France, which asked him to teach a doctoral module about designing what Duncan called “time machines.”

“It was wonderful to be invited to compare and contrast archeological and ethnographic museums from around the world, and to participate in workshops with all the students, since many of their plans were actually going to be built due to France’s rich cultural subsidies.” Duncan never stopped thinking about his own space. He says he tried to buy abandoned banks and churches in various places, but everything fell through for lack of financial backing. “I finally said, I have a garden, and it can have sculpture, it can have performances.” Duncan has talented friends from around the world, and when they visit him, he says, “I’d like to share them.” And now he has “the cakestand” and surrounding patios on which to realize his dreams. He will decorate the garden with sculptures from around the world: “It will be a place for sharing.”

Learn more about Duncan Caldwell, his writings, designs, and more at