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Eddy Merle Watson Garden of the Senses

In the early dark hours of October 23, 1985, just days before 'Frets Magazine' named him the best finger-picking guiMerlesGardentarist of the year in folk, blues, or country music, Eddy Merle Watson rolled his farm tractor on a steep hillside near his home, ending the life of one of the world's great musicians in a tragedy worthy of the blues ballads he loved.

The Eddy Merle Watson Garden of the Senses is an enduring tribute to the memory of this great acoustic musician who forfeited his life in the prime of his artistic career. The visual beauty of a garden doesn't really have much to offer to a person who cannot see. The Eddy Merle Watson Garden for the Senses at Wilkes Community College, however, has changed all that. The garden has been designed and planted so that everyone, regardless of their visual ability, may enjoy it.

The garden is part of a large complex of multivariate botanical gardens located on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. This particular garden is named in memory of Eddy Merle Watson, the gifted musician son of legendary blind acoustic musician Arthel "Doc" Watson.  Merle was tragically killed in an improbable accident at the age of 36. The capital investment necessary to bring the Garden for the Senses to its current state of development has been funded by MerleFest, an annual acoustic music festival dedicated to the memory of Eddy Merle Watson which has become one of the largest, most popular events of its type in the world.

On the night of October 22, 1985, Merle was restless and unable to sleep. Some time after midnight, he went to the basement, tied on his nail apron, and proceeded to trim some red beech paneling that had been misgrooved, making it ready to panel his basement walls. The saw blade hit an undetected fault in the grain and a large piece of hardwood splintered off, embedding itself in the muscle of Merle's upper arm. He grabbed his all-weather jacket, fumbled around in the pocket for the key to his farm tractor, and left to seek help. Spotting a lighted house at the summit of a steep hill, he continued in that direction, praying he would not black out before he got there.

With the aid of the couple whose home he had come to, Merle successfully removed the huge splinter. His wound bandaged, but weak from the trauma and loss of blood, Merle left to return home. Tragically, on the way back down the steep incline of the couple's drive, the tractor brakes locked, leading it over a high embankment. Merle Watson was thrown off the large tractor which then landed on him, killing him instantly. The life of one of acoustic music's brightest and most beloved musicians was at a premature end. Eddy Merle Watson's earthly life may indeed be over, but his many fans are convinced that he is now a member in good standing of the highly acclaimed Band of Acoustically Inclined Angels and periodically peers down with great pride on his beautiful memorial garden.

The Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Garden for the Senses connects the Vernon and Louise Deal Native Garden, which is the primary entrance to the MerleFest site, and the WCC Gardens Visitors Center. The garden contains many ornate raised planters, a diversity of plants which were chosen for their strong fragrances and unusual textures, and braille identification plaques which identify each plant for the visually impaired. The entryway to the garden is composed of a beautifully crafted arbor of brick columns which remind one of Victorian architecture at its most eloquent. The sectioned walkway which wends its way through the garden creates many vantage points and angles from which to absorb the garden's beauty. Pole lighting, ground level path lighting, and flood lights highlight a complex lighting system which allows the visitors attention to be directed in a way that results in a visually pleasing assimilation of the garden's special features. A memorial plaque is prominently located at the entranceway of the garden, dedicating the park to Eddy Merle Watson in both in English and braille. The Garden also includes a circular area with benches known as the "Conversation Pit" and a spacious patio. On special occasions, colorful flags hang from overhead beams.

The most prominent element of the garden however, is a serpentine brick wall of approximately 150 feet which contains a series of elaborate brick sculptures called "Nature's Alphabet" and "The Tree of Memories." This inspiring work of art was designed and sculpted by noted Goldsboro, NC brick sculptor and artist, Patricia Turlington. "Nature's Alphabet" spans two panels, each 16 inches high and 27 feet long. Images on the panels represent letters in the English alphabet, from an armadillo for "A" to a zebra for "Z". The images exist in alphabetical order in an effort on the behalf of the artist to stimulate the visitor's intellect by creating incentive to guess what image is next in the sculpted panel. The design of the sculpture also assists non-English speaking visitors in familiarizing themselves with the English alphabet and language. A "pocket" outline of each image enables the visually impaired to insert their hand and follow the outline of whatever is pictured there. Other subjects carved into "Nature's Alphabet" include an armadillo, a butterfly, a crab, a dogwood flower, an elephant, a fish, grapes, a hippopotamus, an iguana, a jelly fish, a kiwi, a lobster, a moth, narcissus, an onion, peas in a pod, a quail, raspberries, a snake, a tulip, a umbrette, a volute, a walnut, a xylocopa, a yak, and a zebra. Since visually impaired people are able to distinguish between light and dark colors, the artist used seven different colors of clay to create the brick sculptures.

The Tree of Memories panel is 8 feet tall and 15 feet wide, and was done in four colors of clay - two shades of yellow clay for the leaves, and white and brown clays for the textured bark. The tree is carved into brown brick. This panel is shaped like the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills which surround Wilkesboro and forms a part of the elongated wall that adds such stimulating texture to the Garden of the Senses other features. The cost of the sculpted panels was underwritten by a donation by Dr. and Mrs. R. Ernest Cohn in honor of their children: Seth, Whitney, Ariel, and Grayson. The Cohns believe that Wilkes Community College is more than a college, that it is, in effect, a cultural lightening rod of sorts for the entire community. According to Dr. Cohn, "We chose 'Nature's Alphabet' and the 'Tree of Memories' to dedicate to our children because they serve as a grand entrance to the park and walking trails. The sculptures speak eloquently to all who will come in contact with them, not just the visually impaired."

Merle's Garden in its present state is both beautiful and an artistic triumph, but as existing plans for further development are implemented the Garden for the Senses will prove to be even more attractive for both visually impaired and sighted people. It is anticipated that in the next twelve to eighteen months the economic success of MerleFest will be such that adequate funding will be available to contract with a noted brick sculptor to create a 'musical instrument frieze' featuring Doc and Merle Watson on the MerleFest cabin stage. This brickwork will be located on the west side of the garden and will provide a beautiful complement to 'Nature's Alphabet' and 'The Tree of Memories'. In addition, an elaborate sectioned walkway consisting of many different textures such as cedar chips, glass marbles, and cobblestones connecting the Stanley 4-H Vegetable Garden to the Garden of the Senses is planned.