Home & Garden

The Swanson garden in SLO: Symphony set in stone

'Clif’s Folly' is a castle ruin which he built himself from area stones, using techniques picked up during visits to the English countryside while he directed the Cal Poly London studies program.
'Clif’s Folly' is a castle ruin which he built himself from area stones, using techniques picked up during visits to the English countryside while he directed the Cal Poly London studies program. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Clif Swanson’s name is synonymous with music in San Luis Obispo, and his contributions are boundless: The founder and music director of Festival Mozaic (originally the Mozart Festival) spent more than a decade as the San Luis Obispo Symphony conductor and music director, and 37 years as a music professor at Cal Poly — including 19 as department chair. He also was president of the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center board, and plays string bass in the Symphony.

During his Cal Poly tenure, Swanson also served as resident director of the Cal Poly London Study Program for 12 years. It was there, exploring the countryside of England, that he found a new passion: the stacked stone walls separating the fields and the remnants of old castles, abbeys and medieval monasteries that evoked reflection on a former time. He spent weekends exploring the ruins and learning the techniques of building castles by hand. The rocks in the walls told him the story of how they were put together long ago.

In 2003, as Clif and his wife, Jane, also a musician, approached retirement, their five-year plan was to clear the brush from their remote hillside home on 6.8 mostly unusable acres, spruce it up, sell it and downsize.

They never downsized, however. As Clif started to work on the property, his vivid imagination and creativity took hold as he remembered those stone walls of England. He became a frequent fixture at Air Vol Block in San Luis Obispo as he began to construct walls, walkways and terraces down the hillside as the dense chaparral was removed.

“I let the project grow organically, thinking a lot about it as I went along,” he said.

As a lateral thinker, one who lets the creation itself dictate the next steps, rather than working from a master plan, Swanson didn’t know at the beginning where the process would lead. Friends were amazed that he would plunge into a project with only a vague idea of how it would work, but for him, that was the adventurous part that attracted and motivated him.

And then he saw it, in his mind’s eye. He saw on his hillside the ruins of a small castle tower, with cragged edges and remnants of arrow slits and arched doorways. In England, a garden ornament such as a castle ruin or quirky clock tower that has no purpose is called a “folly.” Many British gardens feature a folly just for the fun of looking at it.

“If a folly has a useful purpose, then it is no longer a folly,” he says.

With seemingly impossible challenges, like getting the stone and cement down the 40-foot hillside, Clif set to work on what would become “Clif’s Folly.”

His friends, the Righettis, offered large rounded stones from their ranch that he needed for the double walls, reinforced with rebar.

Swanson built a flume-like slide for transporting rocks, bags of cement and tools. He used his Skidsteer loader, which he calls his “best friend,” to get the stones from the distant driveway to the top of the slide. When some of the stones broke, he carried many down the hill along his paver pathways.

“I love the feel of hefting a real stone,” he said.

He acknowledges that he became obsessed with the project, often working until after dark during spring and summer months.

Then the day came when the castle ruins, his folly, let him know that it was finished. The round tower with a secret purposelessness, like the old stone remnants of England dotting the hilltops, now had its own story to tell, with the fascinating part being that the story would be perceived differently in the mind of each viewer.

Swanson explains that behind his creative flow is a theory that he learned from famous composer Stravinsky, who said that a blank piece of music — complete freedom — isn’t creativity, but chaos. The creativity only comes when there is a set of parameters, rules or boundaries from within which to work.

All through his life, Stravinsky set up new criteria that resulted in limitations, or inspiration, for a creative solution. Transferring this theory to stonework and gardening, Clif said it was the geographical limitations of his property that inspired the creation.

“Clif’s Folly” elicits a similar type of visceral response from the viewer or the listener as the symphony, where the creative work provokes contemplation, evokes images of a former time or simply quiets the mind of the audience. In symphony and in stone, “Play on, Clif!”