When walking about in nature, I respond to the visual beauty of shapes and colors, the effects of light, and the motion of trees and water. The fresh scent after a rain or the call of a bird may add a grace note. The slower natural rhythms and quiet provide a soothing contrast to visually jarring aspects of the constructed world, tight schedules, and everyday stress. But on the other hand, when exploring in nature, one can suddenly come across a jutting cliff, or a rushing waterfall which has a sense of pure natural power which is anything but tranquil.
When I visited Japan to view a number of famous gardens, I was expecting to experience integrated compositions of beauty, tranquility and harmony. I found these in abundance. I learned for example, that massed contours of clipped azaleas can make one feel levitated – like floating on clouds – and that some gardens unfold horizontally, as one might view a scroll in a sequence of linked images.
With these gardens, a vision is being shared and yet each person experiences the garden from their own individual perspective. In a way, a living dialogue happens. I observe and respond to the garden moment by moment, and the garden moves and changes as I move my eyes and feet. This provides delight, energy, grounding, peace, comfort and wonder.
Upon reflecting back upon the many experiences of the trip, perhaps the least expected was the depth of my response to specific areas of Shinto shrines. These sites were not gardens but ancient sacred sites. Stone steps set in the earth led up a short way into the woods to a small square space marked off with a simple straw rope. Within this space was a low boulder.
Nearby was an enormous tree that curved up from a rectangular bed of gravel. The tree was circled by a rope from which hung white paper constructions. At yet another site, I saw a sacred spring that was noted with a sign.
For me, as a foreign tourist with no background in Shintoism, these ancient sites, with their trees and boulders, had a basic and primal quality which was very compelling. I responded to their simplicity, clarity of form, and relationship to the natural setting where dappled light through the leaves enhanced their ancient feeling. They had dignity and great power.
It is interesting to speculate whether these ancient sites have had an influence on the design of gardens created primarily for aesthetic purposes. In Japanese gardens, tress and other natural objects are used with great respect for their essential qualities, and boundaries are normally strong and clear.
When I returned to the United States, I went looking for places that had some of the natural power of these ancient sacred sites. I found that energy when viewing large boulders that had been jumbled together and left by the glaciers.
I began to wonder if some of that power could be brought into a designed garden and whether it would prove to be peaceful or unsettling. The additional question arises of whether being unsettled in such a way would be a good or bad thing. The answers may vary from person to person, but it is always good to remember that we have a fundamental relationship with the pure power of nature.
This article first appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.