The Language of Land

An understanding of architecture plays a critical role in how Carter integrates the landscape. Carter’s great-grandfather was architect James Paterson Jamieson, the designer behind buildings at Bryn Mawr, Princeton University, and Washington University, among others.

A quiet, peaceful corner in the meditation garden. “Land is a living thing,” says Carter. “It’s not an inert material or a dead surface; it is alive and it has energies. I really try to connect the spirit of the land with the spirit of the person.”

The sublime serenity of this lush meditation garden in Ogunquit is the work of Carter Design Group, in collaboration with Masa Seko of Seko’s Creative Garden Designs and stonemason Scott Palmer. A curved mahogany bridge spans a waterfall, while granite stones nestled in green moss create a path to a stone Buddha.

Ted Carter is deeply connected to the land. It’s not unheard of for the landscape designer to invite clients to get down on their hands and knees next to him, so they can have the experience of planting something in their own soil. “I want my clients to be part of the process so they take ownership of it. It has much more meaning that way. I’m not just here to create something for them; there’s a very reciprocal thing happening here, a co-creative experience.”

PROFILE-May 2011


Landscape designer Ted Carter’s connection with nature has deep roots

Ted Carter was 35,000 feet in the air when it happened. He was gazing out the airplane window at the ground below when something—a feeling, a voice—overtook him and filled his consciousness. No one hears me anymore, it said. No one understands me. He grew deeply moved. Tears drenched his face. A woman across the aisle stared at him. “She’s talking to you, isn’t she?” the woman asked. Carter turned to her, startled. The woman spoke again. “It’s Mother Earth. She’s talking to you, isn’t she?” In that moment Carter’s life changed forever.
Because, Carter believes, she was.
It takes an open mind to hear Carter’s story. But even the most skeptical cynics are stirred when he tells it. Since that moment on the plane, Carter’s life has been filled with a new spiritual vocabulary—archetypal forces, energies, sacred contracts, shamans, mystics, meditation. Carter is equally fluent in the language of the land, and his landscape designs are profoundly informed and inspired by both vernaculars. In Carter’s world, nothing is pure coincidence, and he is here—we all are—to be stewards of the earth, to ask permission of nature, to heal the land. Most importantly, we are all here to follow our callings.
Carter has grown adept at listening to callings. His first came at age eight when he was playing in a sandbox. “One Saturday morning, my dad had a huge truckload of sand and bricks dumped in our backyard. For months, I did nothing but build villages. I sculpted the sand into hills, roads, walkways, and lawns. I’d take little twigs off trees and landscape the little brick houses. I’d really try to understand the space.” Like many teenagers, Carter mowed lawns for extra cash when he was in high school. But he quickly turned this casual side job into a serious, blossoming business. During his senior year, his landscaping company grossed $100,000.
With dollar signs in his young eyes, Carter moved to Texas after he graduated, got married, and continued landscaping. He soon had another lucrative business. “We drove nice cars. I put my wife through school. But something was missing. I realized I wasn’t being true to myself.” Within five years, Carter got divorced, liquidated his assets, and returned to Maine looking to rebuild his life. He met his life partner, Greg, at the age of thirty. “I thought I was a great businessman, but what I discovered was that I was really a great artist.”

It wasn’t long after Carter discovered his inner artist that he found spirituality, and the two have become so intertwined that it’s impossible to separate them. And when you hear Carter talk about landscaping, you realize there’s no need. With the help of friend and mentor Caroline Myss, a medical intuitive and well-known author, and after spending some time in the desert under the tutelage of a shaman, Carter came to understand that everything is connected on a much deeper level. Yet this dimension of his life should not be confused with institutional religion. “I don’t subscribe to any one belief system over another,” Carter says. “Instead, I like to incorporate all of them into my daily life. I think if you subscribe too strictly to one way of seeing, you discard so much. I really just go where I’m called.” And over and over again, throughout his life, Carter has been called to the land.
Carter applies the same holistic approach to his landscape designs, which is why his Buxton-based company, Carter Design Group, is so successful. Carter and his team believe in wholly integrating interior and exterior living spaces, and merging the inner life with the external. Intention is another principle in Carter’s designs. “The first question I ask clients is how long they plan to stay on the property. If their intention is to move in three years, I’m going to treat this project differently than if they plan to stay there for a lifetime.” It’s also why clients usually end up engaged in a much deeper conversation whenever they call Carter to discuss landscape design. “I ask all kinds of questions—what do they like to eat, do they love to cook, what are their patterns as they move through their house. I always start my appointments from the inside out.” Ultimately, Carter’s goal is to design a landscape not only that reflects a client’s needs, but that honors who they are as a person—their spirit. That’s who he is.
Genetics are at least partly to credit for Carter’s passion for the land. When he was fifteen, his father lost his job and moved the family from Chicago to Maine where they started Downeast Sun Sprouts and Fresh Samantha. His parents were organic gardeners before it was fashionable. Carter was raised on unpasteurized whole milk, and his mother would skim the cream off the top to make butter. She was also active in the civil rights movement—she marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and participated in a Fresh Air Fund program that brought inner-city kids to their suburban Chicago home. “My mother always fought for the underdog, against the establishment,” says Carter. “When you’re brought up like that it’s in your DNA. You can’t just ignore things going on around you that aren’t right.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that as the world’s environmental crises became more severe in recent years, the activist gene in Carter could not be suppressed. “It started to eat away at me. When you have something that is burning inside you, you have to answer the call.” Carter again followed the call and decided to write a book. A few years before, he had met writer, spiritualist, and environmental advocate Ellen Gunter. The two teamed up on the book, and for two years they conducted research, traveling the country interviewing farmers and other stewards of the land. “People would say, ‘Why don’t you do a beautiful picture book featuring your landscaping over the last few decades?’” recalls Carter. “But the Earth doesn’t need another pretty picture book right now. It needs healing.” Carter and Gunter’s book, Reunion: How We Heal Our Broken Connection to the Earth, was published in 2010. “The book taught me to walk the walk,” Carter says. “You cannot publish something like this and not walk the walk.” As a result, Carter has switched his nursery entirely to organic sprays and practices. “I wrote the book not just to share information, but to hold myself accountable. I believe my ultimate reason for being here in this body at this time is to help people understand how to relate to nature, to honor nature, and to honor their landscapes.”
In many ways, Carter’s life is like the land. The more you dig into it, the more you want to learn.

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