You could say Al Jaeger’s career as an artist started beside a shallow muddy pond in rural Rhode Island. As a child he spent all day — every day — building castles and even whole towns in the mud.
Years later, after he graduated from college, Jaeger would have gone back to the Rhode Island he knew as a boy, “but my town was swallowed up by a huge reservoir and the people who were displaced crowded into other areas.” This pivotal event left its imprint on the now-62-year-old chair of the ceramics and sculpture departments at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. “I think being an avid conservationist comes out of that experience of losing hundreds of acres of wild land at a time in my life when it meant a great deal.”
In 1968, Jaeger moved to New Hampshire for a one-year stint as an art teacher at Oyster River High School in Durham. “I really loved the seacoast and New Hampshire, and it was obvious to me in that one year, where I wanted to live.” On weekends, he pulled on his snowshoes and went out looking for land, making concentric circles out from the place where he was staying. “The circles got bigger and bigger,” he says. Finally, six miles out, he found his land in Deerfield. “I was entranced. It was sensuous land, voluptuous. The sweeps and valleys captured my heart.”
Over the years, he accumulated acreage. He now has 186 acres — a private sanctuary unusual in a rapidly growing part of the state.
Porcupines, moose, deer and woodchucks are regular visitors there. So is the gaggle of turkeys standing sentinel outside of his dining room window almost every morning. “Once in a while I hear of others seeing a bear. I’ve never seen one, but I’ve seen lots of evidence,” says Jaeger.
Jaeger has cleared eight acres — give or take — of his property. His garden (a modest-sounding word for such a lush oasis of vegetation) sits in a dell just below the house, protected from winds. “It’s like the top of a saddle, really,” says Jaeger. “The frost stays out, and it’s pretty warm.”
Surrounded by fences and stone walls, you’ll find about 50 or 60 kinds of flowers in Jaeger’s garden: hollyhocks, dahlias, marigolds, nasturtiums, to name a few, plus fruit and berry trees, as well as “every kind of vegetable you can think of.” There are arbors with grapes and roses and kiwis, he says.
Though it may look organic and free flowing, Jaeger’s plantings are actually meticulously organized. “Some people think it’s just obnoxious,” laughs Jaeger. One of his acquaintances even joked, “It’s just so German.” Jaeger admits that everything is in straight rows and patches, but says there’s a necessity to his neatnik ways. “When I’m organized, I can create rotation plans for the soil and bugs,” he says. Though some vegetation can’t be rotated (kiwi, asparagus, rhubarb are a few examples), he moves the annual vegetables and flowers every year.
The green thumb genes run in his family: both his parents and grandparents were gardeners. Usually Jaeger grows “whatever is interesting in the catalogs,” though some plants hold more meaning for him. There’s the gooseberry bush that came to this country with his grandmother. A relative of the currant, it’s a low plant — about knee high — with red oval fruit that, according to Jaeger, makes wonderful pie.
Then there’s the orange tithonia plant. It’s related to the sunflower, and was one of the painter Monet’s favorite flowers grown at his garden in Giverny, France. Standing six to seven feet high, the flowers resemble zinnias. On a trip to France in high school, Jaeger visited Monet’s garden. “At the time it wasn’t opened up to the public and it was kind of a mess,” says Jaeger. “But the keeper let me in and talked to me about the garden as best she could, and even allowed me to get seeds from that plant.” From those seeds, he’s been re-growing a little slice of Giverny ever since.
Like Monet, Jaeger’s garden inspires his artwork, which is earthy, rough and organic. “The woods inspire me just as much. I think of the woods as my winter garden, and the cultivated garden as the summer garden,” he says. Incredibly complex and at the same time simple forms provide fodder for ideas: Seed pods, blossoms, fruit and acorns are all worthy subjects in his eyes. “Imagine doing these things 10 times as large in porcelain and tan stoneware,” he says. “I would love to do that in clay.”
His artist studio sits 30 feet from the house, and is roughly the same size. Designed and built by Jaeger, it sits two stories high. One half of the first floor is a “messy showroom,” where Jaeger can assemble his work, hang it up on a wall and arrange it. The other half is a tool shop that holds the equipment it takes to run a big piece of property like Jaeger’s. The entire upstairs is the studio, which has 11-foot floor-to-ceiling windows on all sides. “It’s my dream studio,” he says.
Also in the workshop is a wood-fired kiln. He fires it only three times a year, with the help of his neighbors. The kiln takes 36 hours and one cord of wood to fire. Though it’s a lot of work, Jaeger says the results of the finished ceramic pieces are well worth it.
Seamlessly blending into the botanic backdrop of his garden is his house, which he designed and built in 1990 after a fire destroyed the original one. “I used to look out of my back windows 100 yards away [to the spot where the new house is] and think ‘Why didn’t I build there?’” Given this twist of fate, he decided to build the new house on that “nice little slope looking south.”
If you look really hard out his second-story window (or better yet, climb the ladder to the roof with a pair of binoculars), you can see the city of Portsmouth more than 35 miles away, and lighthouses twinkling in the distance. On a really good day, you can catch the glint of a sailboat as it turns and catches the sun — if you know what to look for. “It’s a flash and then a long space, and then another flash,” says Jaeger.
Most of the wood for the house came right off of Jaeger’s land, cut and hauled with the help of friends and neighbors who rallied around him after the disaster. “The N.H. Potters Guild had somebody there at 8:30 every Saturday morning with a hammer, saw and nailing apron. I never had to worry; I just knew that there would be someone there,” he says.
The house sits with its windowless north side in the ground. But the south and west side windows give plenty of sunlight. It’s just one example of the energy-saving devices Jaeger uses in and around his home.
Four solar power panels on the roof run the water pump, a dozen light bulbs and his refrigerator which is designed for solar application. Heat comes from his connected greenhouse, located below the cement floor-level slab. Whenever the temperature in the greenhouse reaches 71 degrees (as it often does), fans blow the heated air into tubes embedded into the cement floor to provide radiant heat above. On extra cold days, a wood stove also contributes its part, using wood from the land.
A Part of His Land
There are several watering holes on the property, including a three-acre pond that Jaeger and his brother dug in 1973. The north side of the pond has a 100-foot-high ledge that drops right into the water.
Jaeger swims here at least twice a day in the summer, gliding from the manmade dam at one end to the cliffs and back again, a distance of several hundred feet.
At times the land has had about 40 to 50 acres cleared. But in the natural progression of land left to itself, most of that has now grown back into wildness and woods. Part of the remaining land is very carefully managed woodlands with woods roads and footpaths that Jaeger has cleared. And what is not field or managed woodland is held in a conservation easement by the state’s Land Conservation Investment Program (LCIP).
“It’s my wish to leave it wild,” says Jaeger. NH
Jaeger’s work is shown at the Mill Brook Gallery in Concord, as well as in League of N.H. Craftsmen shops all over the state. The League’s Gallery 205 in Concord is showing one of his pieces in its exhibit, The Creative Hand III, from April 2-June 4. Check out his art in an exhibit of New England Ceramicists at the Currier Museum of Art, July 2-September 6. 1st Stock Art Gallery, 4 North Road, Route 107, Deerfield, also carries his work. (603) 463-5716
This article appears in the May 2004 issue of New Hampshire Magazine