This screenwriter uses words and dirt to make a life
Photographs by Lisa Vollmer
If you want to find Maria Nation, start in the garden. Early morning, coffee cup in hand and partner Roberto Flores at her side, she’s surveying the garden. Before long, she’s fully immersed in the lushness spread before her, the couple’s three dogs in close range. Down in the paddock, their two rescued horses and three rescued miniature donkeys are waiting to be fed. Inside the house, the two ex-feral cats are snarling at each other.
By 10 a.m., her coffee has long been a thing of the past, perhaps left on a bench, or maybe on the garden table, or it could be balancing on a rock. Nation is somewhere else, glistening in sweat, her large-rimmed straw hat firmly in place to protect her from the sun, her loose-fitting white linen pants rolled up and dirt-smeared, as is her linen blue button-down shirt. She makes it a point to say that she gets a lot of this clothing on eBay; she can’t bear to spend extravagantly. The same can be said about her home: The cowboy boots, paintings, and furnishings are a mix of custom made, serious, and eBay finds. Conspicuous consumption is not her thing. And the house itself is not meant to be showy—the kitchen features pairs of muddy gardening gloves on the counter beneath a hanging array of oft-used copper pots and pans. The dogs languish on furniture. English Wellies and custom-made riding boots line up in the mud room.
Nation is equal parts screenwriter and gardener. She likens her garden to the blank page of a screenplay, struggling to find direction and meaning. Like her circa 1813 colonial house, garden additions were added to the original structure according to necessity and finances. Following the trajectory of many gardeners, she started with a desire for color and perennials—but after five years she ripped it all out and started over. And five years after that she ripped out her second garden, too, as she slowly found her gardening “voice.” Now, in its third incarnation, 15 years in the making, she has found peace with her work in the dirt.
“After many years of denial, I had to admit that gardening in the Berkshires is a five-month sprint—from the thaw after April to the senescence in September,” she says. “I wanted something that didn’t leave so soon. It’s no longer about the flowers; the joy is in the subtle colors of the foliage and the way the light bounces off the boxwoods. It’s a garden that is more about the reflective light than about the flowers.”
This garden is more than just boxwoods, and thought and placement of a variety of plants doesn’t go unnoticed. It recently drew more than 100 people during a Garden Conservancy tour, and on August 4 the Berkshire Botanical Garden hosts “Cocktails in the Garden” there.
“It is filled with mistakes, restarts, and quirkiness. It’s approachable, though,” says Nation. “It reflects me because it’s a tension between a need for order and a natural tendency for romantic chaos. Those two disparate elements probably define my life.”
Growing up in a chaotic childhood in 1960s Malibu, one of four children of a single, working mother, Nation found solace in animals. Down the lane from her mother’s funky beach house was a home with a riding ring and horses. Nation, 13, could only watch the other girls ride and, if lucky, pet the horses. One day, a horse with a flaxen mane and tail just showed up, as if dropped from the sky. Nobody knew where it came from, but it turned out that he belonged to an actor, the Brit Tony Rodgers, who had just appeared as Sir Lancelot in the film Camelot. When he came for his runaway horse, Rodgers asked if anyone would like to take care of the gelding, named Sport, while he was away.
For Nation, it was like something from a Hollywood movie. She begged him to let her take care of the horse, and he agreed. Eventually, the actor gave her the gelding. Her passion and commitment led her to years of riding, breaking and training horses, and success in the horse show circuit. “I think I was lucky to be poor,” says Nation. “Because if you’re rich, you just buy it. If you’re not, you have to use a different wealth, your character and determination. When I was 13, I just hung out in my dream, never leaving, never giving up, until it came true.”
That pattern has never left her. Nation went to school for journalism at UCLA then transferred to UC San Diego, where she began making student movies. After graduating, she took an unpaid job as the set photographer for the director Bobby Roth on one of his first films, the low-budget indi film, The Boss’ Son. From there, she became a story analyst, reading hundreds of screenplays for various studios and producers.
She tried her hand at writing a couple of scripts and along the way met Harry Kleiner, the writer who wrote Le Mans and Bulitt for Steve McQueen, among other classics. He told her she should be a writer. “In Hollywood, older men don’t often take young girls under their wings without ulterior motives,” she says. “Harry was the first man who ever believed in me. He changed my life.”
Still too insecure to call herself a writer, she did programming for subscription TV companies, negotiating film rights, and was hired to move to New York City. “It was a great opportunity,” she says, “and I loved the energy of the East Coast. After a childhood in California, it felt like it was the center of the universe.” But negotiating film rights was far from what was in her heart. She began developing and rewriting scripts and eventually got an agent. In 1994, Nation was hired to write her own screenplay for CBS, and she hasn’t stopped writing since. She has written for the likes of Barbra Streisand, Susan Sarandon, Darryl Hannah, Shirley MacLaine, Alan Bates, Sir Peter Ustinov, Gabriel Byrne, and has adapted the works of Emily Bronte, Ethan Canin and Louisa May Alcott, among many others. Her recent feature, A Street Cat Named Bob, won Best British Film at the UK National Film Awards in March.
In 1984, she visited the Berkshires after coming across a book called On the Road With Man’s Best Friend which recommended a dog-friendly hotel in Alford. And it was her beloved Standard Poodle, Alice, that later inspired her first thought of moving full time to the Berkshires.
The house she found, located on the banks of the Housatonic in Ashley Falls, was sold to her by Wanda Horowitz, the widow of Vladimir Horowitz and the daughter of Arturo Toscanini. It was named “Pinci’s Acres” at the time (Wanda’s term of endearment for Vladimir).
“The idea that I had enough money to buy a house was so abstract for me,” Nation says, sitting in their screened-in porch. “But it was another dream come true, like having an actor in Malibu give me a horse out of the blue.”
Within a few years of moving into her home, she met Flores, a transplanted Texan. At the time, he owned the Gilded Age Lenox mansion-turned-hotel called Seven Hills Inn. They met on Match.com. “His photo had this adorable golden-retriever puppy. I asked if he rented the dog for his profile.” That was 17 years ago.
Flores sold Seven Hills and brought the defunct farmland of their property back to life as a vibrant market farm. For four years, he grew organic vegetables from lettuces and tomatoes to pumpkins and apples and sold them to local restaurants and at farmers markets in Sheffield and Millerton. Today he works with Mike and Paul Harney promoting and opening accounts for Harney Teas—a job he continues to enjoy—and they still keep a thriving vegetable garden.
Flores and Nation now call their eight acres “Good Dogs Farm.” Their Irish Water Spaniel, Dash, is nine years old. Tilda, their Standard Poodle, is six; and Bixio, a mixed-breed mutt named after a producer Nation worked for in Rome, is two. The horse Nation rides most is Polly, and Grace Kelley is a rescue Amish farm horse. And so their lives in the Berkshires harken back to their native homes in Malibu and McAllen, Texas. “We realize how essential the earth is, growing up with dogs and horses and being barefoot,” Nation says. “This is a close as we can get.”
The couple is surrounded by generous friends who have helped them to create their home—like Mark Mendel, who made the wood-fired bake oven, and Jesse Bunce, who built the paddock fences and the pea-stone succulent garden. Ritch Holben designed the screened porch and the sleeping porch they call “the yurt.” And Dabney McAvoy, David Whitman, and Peter Stiglin of Pergola, whose design touches are visible through the home. “These friends are my dream partners,” Nation says.
Nation is now working on a film for Andie MacDowell that will soon go to production for Hallmark Hall of Fame, called The Beach House, set on the beach of South Carolina, using as a metaphor the lifespan of turtles. Another screenplay in the works will take her to Bhutan to write for international distribution, about a little girl who rescues a tiger cub and returns her to the mother. Still, despite all that glamour, Nation says, “I’d rather be in my garden.”