Happy Birthday, Henry Loomis
Nevis captured my eyes and heart when I first visited in 1996 and has drawn me back each year since. During one of those early visits, I had the good fortune to meet Henry and Kay Loomis, who later became our landlords and friends. They had rescued a wooden chattel house, an antique Nevis structure dating from the days when local people owned homes but not the land under them and tiny houses that could be easily moved were common. The Loomises, both talented in many forms of design and Henry an accomplished painter, orchid expert and gardener, placed their cottage in their lower garden, hidden in a glade below the main house. It has been our Nevis home for about 15 years.
In my novel, my protagonist Els becomes obsessed with owning and restoring an abandoned property. The outbuilding she turns into her guest cottage is one of those chattel houses and the garden built by Jack, the property’s former owner, was inspired by Henry’s. Though neglected and mashed by several hurricanes when Els first sees it, the landscape’s bones and eruptions of color and exotic foliage are as magical to her as Henry’s creation remains to me.
Henry would have turned 72 today. He died in April, 2008 after a prolonged fight with cancer. We were in Nevis for what turned out to be his last birthday. I recently found the note I emailed him that day, feeling the need to thank him for nurturing his little paradise and sharing it with us. He had just returned from a trip to the VA hospital in Puerto Rico where he received a grim prognosis that made him elect hospice care and settle in to wait it out. My note said, in part:
“While you were in Puerto Rico…when it was a sandblasting day at the beach, we took up [your invitation to hang out by the pool]. It was so lovely there that we lingered and, as the sun descended, I moved to the table in the corner and sat facing the sea while I finished [Paul Harding’s book, Tinkers, which I subsequently gave to Henry]. The sky was cloudless and the late afternoon sun was boring straight into me with that bone-penetrating, healing warmth it can have at that time of day. With the pool gurgling behind me and the wind rattling the palms overhead, I had a stunning view of St. Kitts to the right and the garden before me. From that vantage point (perhaps one of your favorites, but certainly by design) I was looking down the garden in a way I never had done before. The sun was picking out the tips of the grasses so that the lawn looked like a river of yellow light with the leaves of the plants bending at its banks. Everywhere I looked there were signs of your handiwork and eye and I felt so…lucky to be there. Later, the sun fell out of the bottom of a cloud and seemed squeezed and flattened as it sank into the sea, complete with an unexpected and extended green flash. A bonus ending to a day full of sights worth contemplating.”
I went on to mention a British gardening saying that he who plants trees gardens for the third generation. I quipped that those gardeners weren’t working in the tropics, where one can almost watch a palm tree grow and where the cycles of germination, bloom and decay take place in weeks rather than generations. I thanked Henry then, and thank him still, for the oasis he built and tended.
Happy Birthday, Henry Loomis. You are deeply missed but your legacy lives on.