Bird-Watching With Nick Flynn and Lili Taylor
Bird-Watching With Nick Flynn and Lili Taylor
It took a few years for Nick Flynn to get comfortable at his girlfriend’s weekend home. “I wasn’t immediately taken with it,” said Mr. Flynn, 60, a poet and the author of four memoirs, including “This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire,” published late last month.
“It felt a little … you know, it didn’t feel like my place, especially. It felt like, you know, it was her place,” he said of the French-style farmhouse in Red Hook, N.Y., owned by his companion, now wife, the actor Lili Taylor. In fact, it wasn’t until the birth of the couple’s daughter, Maeve, in 2008, that Mr. Flynn found himself at home and at ease on the 100-acre property (most of which is leased to a local farmer).
The pandemic has provided him with ample opportunity to deepen the connection. This spring, he and his family left their co-op in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, to quarantine upstate; you’ll find them there still — Mr. Flynn doing chores and meditating, Maeve swinging in the hammock, Ms. Taylor, an avid birder and gardener, tending to the feeders and the birdbath bubbler, diligently clearing invasive plants and replacing them with native species.
“This is the most time that Lili and I have spent in one place since we’ve known each other,” said Mr. Flynn, who met Ms. Taylor in 2004 at a dinner party in Red Hook given by mutual friends. They married in 2009.
“When you’re just coming up for weekends or for a week here and there, it’s a different experience,” he continued. “But I’ve had the chance now to settle in and get to know the house much more intimately and to really appreciate it.”
Nick Flynn, 60, and Lili Taylor, 53
Occupations: He’s a poet and memoirist; she’s an actor
The other Twitter: “More people are bird-watching and just noticing birds because of Covid,” Ms. Taylor said. “But that’s partly because it’s quieter, and we have more time to sit and reflect and look out the window. And that is basically what life in the country is.”
Twenty years ago, when Ms. Taylor lived in the West Village, her landlord invited her and her then-boyfriend, Gerard Hurley, for lunch at his weekend house in Rhinebeck, N.Y. Among those sitting around the table was a real estate agent, who, in the manner of real estate agents everywhere, advised his fellow guests about available properties in the area.
Mr. Hurley, an Irish-born screenwriter and director who owns a pub in Tivoli, N.Y., “had worked in construction and was looking for a fixer-upper, and he liked the mid-Hudson Valley because it reminded him of Ireland,” Ms. Taylor said.
Unlike Mr. Hurley, she couldn’t envision the possibilities in the ramshackle house that was one of the prospects. And even if she was willing to buy into the “good foundation” and “good bones” line of reasoning, she was none too sure she wanted to take on the responsibilities of a weekend place.
“I was torn about splitting myself between a country house and the city,” she said. “I wanted it, but I also felt it would cause some stress, in that if I wasn’t up there a lot, would it be worth it?”
She continued: “I was very confused. And then I realized it could be whatever I wanted it to be. If I get to spend a week there and that week is great, then it’s worth it.”
Ultimately, she was won over by the quiet and the expansive space. “I didn’t know at the time how much I loved birds,” said Ms. Taylor, who has since become a member of the national board of directors of the Audubon Society. “But the property has been very important to me for the birds and the wildlife, and for understanding the rhythms of the natural world.”
Not long before buying the house, Ms. Taylor had shot the horror movie “The Haunting.” A hunk of the paycheck went to casement windows; she wanted lots of casement windows. And with those windows, she wanted window seats, lots of window seats. It was a desire fueled by careful reading of “A Pattern Language,” the classic treatise on architecture and urban design. Among other things, the book stresses the importance of window “places.”
There are several such places in the house. The first floor, essentially a single, large room (with a small, enclosed space for watching TV), has inviting cushioned window seats with a view of the garden and of the bird bubbler. “I learned that you should use the most comfortable chair you own to determine the measurement of the window seat,” Ms. Taylor said. “Gerard had to redo them all, because at first he didn’t pay attention.”
Such lapses notwithstanding, Ms. Taylor has been very fortunate in her choice of companions. Mr. Hurley gutted and restored the house — oak doors, oak floor, bead board and stone walls — and expanded it. His father, a mason, came from Ireland to do the stonework around the doorway. Since Mr. Flynn came on the scene, he has done a bit of wiring (he is an electrician as well as an author). Though not a plumber, he has done some basic tasks, like changing washers and hooking up the pump in the basement. The hardware on the casement windows requires lots of attention and oil. Mr. Flynn is on the case.
He cleared paths and cleaned out the pond, which, until his arrival, had trees growing in it. With the help of his brother, a carpenter, he renovated the barn, the site of an annual summer dance party (not this summer, of course), adding a kitchen and several bedrooms.
For a few years after Maeve’s birth, the family lived in the barn and rented out the house, “because having just had a baby, Lili didn’t work for a while,” Mr. Flynn said. “I loved it there. I was actually quite reluctant to go back to the house.”
The house is outfitted along the same rustic lines as the barn: two-sided fireplace, butcher-block counters, butcher-block-topped dining table, wood stove, farm sink and an antique pie safe, a gift from Ms. Taylor’s mother that arrived with the door askew.
Mr. Flynn fixed it and built several pieces of furniture — a bench, a desk, a coffee table and some shelves — using the planks of a sycamore tree he bought at a local lumber yard. Several of the couple’s friends are artists; their work is on view in the house. Another artist pal designed and built the metal railing that lines the stairway. But it was Ms. Taylor who applied the red paint to the TV room and the apple-green paint to the stairs.
Despite the charms of the house, Ms. Taylor and Mr. Flynn spend much of their time communing with nature and, as necessary, amending it. And when they’re indoors, the outdoors comes to them: A camera films the doings of the raccoons, coyotes, deer and wild turkey that share the acreage. Strategically placed baby monitors pipe birdsong into the great room.
“We’re five minutes from town, but you can’t see any other houses from here,” Ms. Taylor said. “Even the weather feels different at our place.”