Above: Suzannah Wilcox Cox Barnebey welcomes Mia Johnson and Grace Housler to her garden. Mia's mother sometimes performs with the chamber music group.
I STUMBLE UPON SHADY PINES cabin just a few steps down the hill from Cloudcroft’s Lodge Resort & Spa. From the sloping corner of Fox and Wren Streets, I spy curving trellises made of woven sticks. Gazing past them into the garden, I see chandeliers constructed of oak galls and deer antlers illuminated with solar-powered lights. There’s more.
Branches crossed with twigs at odd angles soar toward the lowest limbs of towering ponderosa pines. Piñon canes fan across gaps, while gnarled lumps of wood add interest. Clematis vines ribbon up the framework, and white daisies shimmer at the base. Archways of varying sizes ignite my inner explorer as a rotund tearoom entices me to stay.
Suzannah Wilcox Cox Barnebey created all of this in her not-so-secret garden.
Always happy to chat with passersby, she leads me in, ducking through an entryway not four feet tall and guarded by a gnome. She fabricated the arch from straight pine poles capped with locust boughs and a plank engraved, TROLLS WELCOME. “If you qualify, you can be a troll. But sometimes,” Barnebey says as she squeezes through the narrow opening, “you have to really work to qualify.”
Inside, the trained Master Gardener points out native plants and showy annuals—a feat of the grower’s art, given Cloudcroft’s 8,668-foot elevation. From lobelia and lilies to hostas and hollyhocks, Barnebey sows a little of this here and a little of that there. She cultivates catnip, salvia, mint, and wild raspberries, scatters native columbines in her beds, and allows the volunteer sweet peas to thrive.
Her family acquired the rustic but thoroughly sturdy cabin in 1943; she inherited it in the nineties. Retired from her career as a computer systems programmer, she became one of Cloudcroft’s summer residents, driving up from her home in south Texas to this little town (pop. 693) in the Lincoln National Forest, near Alamogordo. She immediately terraced the garden, but she didn’t invent her eco-trellises until two decades later. The intent was to prevent neighbor kids from shortcutting through her yard. Eventually, a unique style of whimsical beauty took over as she crafted arches that evoke a sense of adventure, too. “I didn’t want to be offensive,” she says of her no-trespass goal. “I wanted it to look cute.”
After seven years of doing what she calls twig work, Barnebey has honed her technique and plans to redo earlier sections. “The twigs are skinnier in the first place that I built, but bold sticks last longer and make a visual impact that I like better.”
Her trellises bend and bow, coming to points up high and then tapering toward the ground. Some areas are thickly crosshatched. Some are airier. People anonymously leave her treasures—crystals, scraps of lumber, curvy sticks—to include in the designs. She waits for inspiration to strike before permanently installing anything, though. If a tangle of roots looks to her like an eye’s iris and pupil, Barnebey adds embellishments that twinkle it to life. “Can you tell that one is a wild boar? I put a marble in its eye socket and put an LED behind it so the eye glows at night,” she says.
Her son, John Cox, is an Austin-based cellist. He joins Barnebey at Shady Pines each summer and plays in a chamber music series organized by his mother, herself a closet musician. Several times a season, they invite audiences to listen from the garden, and the chance to wander among Barnebey’s twiggy canopies “makes people go cuckoo,” she says.
When not rehearsing, Cox fertilizes his mom’s plants and ensures her flowers don’t go thirsty. “The fact that he’s able to do this fills my heart. The garden wouldn’t exist without him, and the music wouldn’t exist without me,” Barnebey says.
They share a sentimental approach to their work at the cabin to preserve its defining elements. For example, SHADY PINES is stenciled in black on a board nailed to the front porch. “The sign is hideous,” Barneby says, “but my father made it, so, by damn, it’s gonna stay there.” Also tacked to the cabin are pieces of weathered wood and wire baskets filled with galls. The knotty objects were made by wasps, but to Barneby they’re art waiting to happen. On a scarlet table, a bouquet of zinnias perches near an old framed poster announcing a performance by the Shady Pines Chamber Players to benefit music programs in Cloudcroft schools. “Suggested donation $1 or $1,000,” it reads. “Mostly we’re glad to see you here.”
From a deck wrapped with a handmade lattice, the harmonies of a string quartet’s practice session filter through open windows. The garden below harbors trinkets, sculptures, and birdhouses with bark siding. Wanderers might find a set of wooden teacups, a basket of pine cones, sun-bleached coyote skulls, or a rainbow of tiles made by a relative.
Barnebey is building a second cabin on the site. Named Bertha, it’s designed to accommodate the chamber music group. “Acoustically, it’s exquisite,” she says. She plans to carve a path to it and spruce up the yard around the new venue, but at this point in the high country’s early spring, she’s simply eager to see her lilacs bloom and put a few annuals in the ground. “When we arrive each May, John and I will rush to jump-start early color,” she says. With that, her weaving season will once again commence, with music to follow.
GET ON THE GARDEN PATH
Visit the Shady Pines garden, at 200 Fox Street in Cloudcroft, while the chamber group practices inside the cabin the first weeks of June, July, and September. (Gawking from the sidewalk is okay, too.) A donation jar benefits the Cloudcroft Schools music programs and a small part of the group's expenses. A public performance, "Oh So Cello in the Round," will be at 3 p.m. on July 7 at the Cloudcroft High School Commons. For more information, as well as images of Barnebey’s twig work, go to the Shady Pines Chamber Players’ Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/shadypineschamberplayers/.