When the stegodile was born in 2001 at a nursery in New City, NY, he was a traffic stopper. His massive body and gaping maw were made of 20 taxis plants, his splayed feet of four junipers. But he wasn’t yet a stegodile. Back then he was only a crocodile.
It wasn’t until the next year, when the nursery closed and the shrubbery sculpture was transplanted at the corner of Route 44/55 and Route 208 in Gardiner, NY, that the creature got his body armor: three arbor vitae spikes running down his back. That’s when Keith Buesing, 55, started calling his creation a stegodile.
The stegodile has grown more mythological with each passing year. At each annual (or semi-annual, in fast-growing years like this one) pruning, Buesing lets natural growth dictate how the creature will evolve: spikes on his tail, teeth, a forked tongue. But most of nature’s suggestions get vetoed. The morning we met, Buesing wasted no time in pulling the morning glory that had begun to climb – rather dramatically, I thought – up the stegodile’s leg. He yanked a dead portion of a taxis plant. “This part got run over by snowmobiles this winter,” he said.
Buesing began sculpting when, manicuring the grounds of the family nursery, he noticed that a conical hemlock had sprouted new growth that suggested a bird. Buesing “directed” it into a rooster. He still does regular nursery work, but with 60 creations around town, he’s become “the guy that does the topiary.” A yoga studio commissioned a sculpture of a person in prayer position on one side of the entrance, and Buesing is working on an ocean scene for the other side, with dolphin fins and mermaids jumping out of the water.
Outside a used car dealership, a wispy man made of weeping white pine looks like he’s about to body slam his prone juniper victim. Down the road at the Gardiner library, Buesing’s boxwood lizard – named Dewey by the local kids – reads a stone book, which Buesing also sculpted using a diamond blade.
“He’s fuzzier than he should be,” Buesing said, contemplating Dewey. “That’s the nature of the beast.” Maybe Dewey’s fuzz should become eye bulges, he reflected. Or horns.