Photography by John Wrightenberry
It is somehow fitting that Columbia novelist Janna McMahan opens her book, The Ocean Inside, with a verse from Archer Huntington:
Come to the silver gardens of the South
Where whisper hath her monarchy, and winds,
Deftly devise live tapestries of shade,
In glades of stillness patterned.
McMahan shares her own silver gardens at her Forest Hills home with husband, landscape architect Mark Cotterill, and their daughter Madison. McMahan’s novels elicit emotions deep within her readers’ souls. They are cathartic and moving, most likely because the writer draws upon a deep well of inspiration, much of it provided by the art that surrounds her.
Walking into the Cotterill household is like stepping into a gallery. To say that the entire family is artistically inclined is faint praise indeed for the man who designed the Five Points fountain and the Gervais Street
streetscape; the teenage daughter whose paintings hang alongside works by not only her father, but also by Chris Bilton and Mike Williams; and the writer who so beautifully navigates the nuances of the human condition. Accordingly, their home reflects the infusion of their unique personalities.
For this family, life is a celebration, and for them few festivities top Halloween. “What attracted us to this house in the first place was this tree,” McMahan said pointing to a bifurcated and branchy live oak that looks like it could appear in the foreground of just about any horror movie. “For us, that’s the perfect Halloween tree,” she said. When the holiday comes around, the family hangs an assortment of goblins, ghouls, and ghosts from the branches and places a large carved jack-o-lantern in the tree’s crook to welcome wary trick-or-treaters.
The remainder of the year, huge elephant ears, ferns, gardenias, and hostas accent the tree. McMahan lets them grow free of the strictures of a formal garden. She prefers the shabby chic look. “The elephant ears grow so thick that you can’t even see the base of the tree. All of this under here,” she said gesturing to the bedding plants in front of the home, “is a shade garden.” In the places where rays of sunshine do make it through the tree’s canopy, they arrange annuals in decorative stoneware.
McMahan grew up on a farm in Kentucky, and while her street, just blocks from the urban core, is a far cry from the rolling blue hills of her youth, she does like to preserve many of her childhood traditions for her own family. Pointing to a plank suspended from a tree branch by two thick pieces of rough hemp rope, she said, “I put the swing in when we moved here. Our daughter was nine. I had a swing on the farm, and it was important to me that she have one. That swing has been used by almost every child in the neighborhood. I can be at work in my office and all of a sudden hear these giggly little voices. You just never know who’s going to be on it.”
The jewel in the crown of the McMahan-Cotterill home, however, is its backyard garden, a tapestry of color, texture, and—because it includes an herb garden—taste. An entire hedge of flowers covers a fence between McMahan’s yard and her neighbor’s. “These come up stunning and bright yellow. There are masses of blooms and butterflies everywhere.” Two large sago palms fan their fronds welcoming visitors. In the early spring, waking up from winter dormancy, the palms grow at an incredible pace—inches a day. Gerber daisies and flowering annuals mature into a perfect cutting garden. Against the back of the house are stands of bushy oleander and wisteria. The entire yard is infused with the smell of honeysuckle.
There is a world of difference between landscaper and landscape architect. Cotterill is used to designing greenways on college campuses, corporate offices, and golf courses. But he grudgingly admits that the tender shoots of his backyard fall within his household responsibilities. Pointing to flowers fresh with new growth after a good trimming, McMahan confessed for him. “He hates it, but he does it.” Like the front, they prefer the shaggy look in the back. It makes for little maintenance, thus more opportunities to observe, inhale, and enjoy.
Cooking is yet another art form in which the family immerses itself. Help comes from the outback herb garden, which provides fresh garlic, chocolate and lemon mint, dill, two varieties of chives, flat leaf parsley, thyme, and tarragon. The girl who grew up on a farm can’t resist the urge to cultivate a beefsteak tomato plant or two, either.
When the couple moved in the home, they replaced the kitchen floor with hardwoods, installed a new furnace, built a potting shed that matches the house, and converted the driveway gates so that now they open electronically. Outside they put in a fixed irrigation system and made additions to the landscape—once again infusing this house, this home, with their personalities.
Last year, McMahan planted six tomatoes of different varieties. She discovered through research that tomatoes like being surrounded only by tomato plants similar in type. “If you have different kinds, they fight for space and they won’t even bear fruit. They refuse to bloom unless they’re surrounded by plants just like them.”
It’s a metaphor the novelist couldn’t pass up. In her next book, tomatoes figure prominently; just more inspiration from the silver gardens and glades of stillness.