When More Is More

Arranging rocks so shapes, colors and patterns complement can be an interesting and absorbing challenge. In times of dramatic change, that can take me beyond our limited human perspective on time.

All of the rocks in the arrangements below are agates. The first photo shows a bowl with small cut and polished agates from around the world. The next three show specific types of agate – bubblegum, Fairburn, and Lake Superior agates, respectively. For the most part, these agates were left as they were found with colorful patterns natural on the surface or revealed by abrasion. I find the matte finishes and rounded shapes of the natural stones to be particularly appealing.

Take your time with what can be a visual adventure. You can learn something about agates, of course, but also about your particular tastes. Perhaps you will catch a hint of the slower “life” in these stones that might provide a bit of calm in these turbulent times.

Mixed cut and polished agates

Bubblegum agates – you can see how they got that name

Fairburn agates

Lake Superior agates

A Virtual Concert with Quilt Eating Holes

No live Christmas concert this year. It was simply not safe.

Park Avenue Congregational Church’s (PACC’s) Christmas concert had been going on for 29 years now as a gift to the community. Even though contributions were voluntary, it always raised funds for the maintenance of our treasured Skinner pipe organ and music program.   Doing something now seemed all the more important. Christmas music could bring light to this particularly dark season during a global pandemic.

So we two coproducers put our heads together.  A virtual concert might work given we had a great archive of music from past Christmas concerts.  CDs and DVDs have a certain appeal.  They can be given as gifts.  Attending to them feels more grounded than clicking around in cyberspace, even though great music is certainly available that way.

We decided on “A Christmas Quilt” for this virtual concert’s theme; something you could wrap up in while social distancing at home, maybe with a favorite drink by a fire. The quilt image worked for the diversity we wanted and DVD images could be substituted for quilt squares. 

But would people send in enough photos?  We needn’t have worried. Photos poured in;  children making snow angels, pies being baked, Christmas trees and sheep (we needed sheep). There were photos of the church decorated for Christmas, of choir singing, of our music directors playing instruments.  Snowy landscape paintings by the father of a church member seemed perfect.  We also found charming public domain art, period Christmas cards and images of composers and their scores.

The practical logistics seemed to be coming together as well. Or so we thought.

The folks who do such a great job of printing posters and programs for our PACC Concert Series had ordered blanks to print stick-on disk labels for the CDs and DVDs.  The forms they ordered had a large hole that would land plunk in the middle of the square quilt “logo” that was centered on the disk labels. 

With orders still coming in and time slipping away, the coproducers declared the larger hole DVD labels to be fine. But the Concert Committee member who had designed the labels, responded (and I quote),  “We can use the wide, gaping, cavernous, quilt-eating, big-hole labels if you want ;-). I’ll Just close my eyes ;-).

A new supply of smaller hole disk label blanks arrived in time. We also had some of the large-hole labels printed just in case.  The DVDs were proving quite popular.  In the last few days before Christmas, we were still burning DVDs like crazy, and then Christmas eve was upon us. 

I was very touched by the two who volunteered to hand deliver CDs and DVDs around our town on Christmas eve in the middle of a pandemic when they could have been at home with family.  But I will also never forget that wonderful comment about the cavernous quilt-eating holes.

Listening to Place As A Winter Guide

I wondered what the beginnings of winter would look like on this crisp morning in early December. After several inches of snow followed by thawing and freezing, I expected snow on the pond banks.

As I entered the park, I noticed certain rocks were beginning to become familiar friends. But I fought against all such expectations, all such stories. Walking for my health here in these times of pandemic provides opportunities too precious to waste. Most of all now, I long to be open; to not even know where I am going.

I noticed the pond had a skim of ice, but only in certain places. Scattered ice fragments captured light. The few dog walkers I encountered understood the preciousness of solitude. Offering quick greetings in soft voices, they did not disturb the infinite sweetness of the melancholic luxuriance.

As the place, itself, took over as my guide, shifts in light and mood signaled when to stop and look deeper. I aimed my camera with awe and humility knowing I was a participant observer, not separate from such generous grace.

Silent Tea Music

I find music in the largely silent flowing motion of Japanese tea ceremony. It came as a surprise, however, when my involvement with that art played a role in a musical instrument finding its way to its rightful owner. After hearing the shakuhachi played by a master at a gathering at my tea teacher’s home, I obtained a student version of the bamboo flute, thinking I might learn to play it. However, the shakuhachi was relegated to a drawer when I had no luck finding a teacher.

Several years ago, I was introduced to a fellow student in my graduate mindfulness studies program who had a deep interest in Buddhism and an advanced meditation practice. He shared my passion for tea and wrote about the social dynamics of how tea is shared in China for one of his papers. When I learned he had never tried the powdered green matcha tea used for Japanese tea ceremony, I invited him to my tea hut so he could try it.

After declaring the flavor to be “very silent,” he asked if I knew of any shakuhachi teachers. His flute was broken and he greatly missed playing it.

I asked him to help himself to more tea while I went to get my long-neglected flute. I found it where I had placed it in a lovely small chest of drawers. When I returned, my guest told me he had drunk three bowls of tea. Evidently he really liked that matcha!

Fortunately, the long dormant student flute was still playable. When I presented it to him as a gift, he seemed delighted. He asked if I really meant for him to have it. I told him, “Of course the flute is yours.” In fact, I told him that this match gave me great joy. It seemed wonderful that the flute’s voice would be heard in the world after all this time. My new acquaintance later informed me that he played the flute on a daily basis.

My suspicion that the shakuhachi was used for meditation was confirmed by a little research. In fact, it is associated with particular Zen monks where playing the flute serves as a spiritual practice. Shakuhachi playing can be remarkably haunting and expressive with qualities unlike any other kind of flute music.

So my tea hut gathered to it another wonderful memory and a hint of distant shakuhachi playing from a flute that had found its rightful owner.

Pond Reflections

Now that the peak leaf colors and our election in the United States have passed, there is a softer, not so urgent feeling. The burnished colors have their own appeal as does not knowing yet what will happen. Come with me on my walk. Everything can change with just one small foot step.

It is hushed and quiet by the pond at this early hour. You can hear the ducks’ small sounds. And perhaps notice that reflecting on reflections is nothing new.

Dog Walkers Rule the Dawn

As I start my early morning walk, I notice it is quieter with fewer cars starting up. In my Arlington MA neighborhood, dog walkers have always been out and about at dawn. Seeing them now provides a most welcome sense of normalcy.

As I approach, Robbins Farm Park has a view of soft pinks over Boston framed by deep red leaves. Dogs romp as their owners call out greetings, recognizing each other despite their masks. A playground attracts a few children with its long slide and harvesters in the community garden seem most appropriate for a park that was once a farm.

Continuing down the sidewalk, I come to Menotomy Rocks with its glacier-carved granite outcrops rising here and there. Fallen logs molder on either side of a wide path as yellow leaves glow on the living trees. Dogs seem to love it here and families come down to watch ducks swimming through vivid reflections.

Despite all of this radiance, the dogs and their owners are what speak most to my heart. Even from a safe “social distance,” there is no mistaking their contagious joy and contentment. They know how to live in the moment.

Sometimes, and especially now, I find it helpful to get back to basics. Remembering what is still here for us in this most troubled world has been helpful when there is so much to be worried about

Landscapes in a Tea Bowl

A tea bowl, especially one containing a pool of frothy bright green tea is full of landscapes. This is literally true as well as being true on a more poetic spiritual level. In thinking about this concept, and comparing tea bowls and Japanese gardens, I found I was better able to appreciate both. 

My favorite type of tea bowl speaks of the earth. Such bowls are honest about the malleable clay from which they are made. One can see the soft bowl from the potter’s hands in the final product just as one can see evidence of geological processes in a landscape. When bowls are fired, color “blooms” and rough textures may result. Such “kiln events” cannot be planned in advance, but only appreciated when they do occur. Even when dramatic kiln events are not present, the process of firing adds depth to the natural feel of the bowl. In the garden, time, mosses, lichens and weathering do the same thing. 

Tea bowl shapes remind me of valleys or deep canyons. The shapes are functional to be sure. The sloping sides of the summer bowl are designed to cool the tea faster, while the more vertical sides of a winter bowl retain warmth. The curves and shapes of individual bowls vary. To raise one while holding it in both hands is to bring a valley pool to one’s lips.  

Tea ceremony tea is actually finely ground green tea leaves. Hot water is added and then whisked to form an emulsion. The color is like sunlight through leaves. One guest, upon tasting it for the first time said, “It is like drinking a meadow.” Simple, pure details of nature matter in Tea, as well as in the garden. 

During the formal ceremony, there is a pause to think with gratitude about all that went into creating the tea. This includes all contributions including the fertile earth, the sun, and those who planted, plucked, dried and ground the tea. Drinking tea is to drink in the landscape with an expanded awareness of what that means. I also try to hold that attitude of expanded appreciation when walking in a beautiful garden. 

It is possible to create a tea bowl using materials readily available from the countryside. Clay deposits are not rare. A primitive kiln may be made by piling up rocks or bricks to form a low cylinder with gaps and chinks in its walls. Into this cylinder is layered sawdust or straw and leaves with the bone dry bowls. The top of the pile is lit, and covered with a lid. Once the smoke rises steadily, the kiln is simply left to fire at a low temperature over night. The resulting gray pieces will have shades of many colors and perhaps patterns of leaves on them. In a class I attended, we made tea bowls this way, cleaned them and immediately drank tea from them. In the same way, the elements of a Japanese garden are often available locally and when combined in the right way create a magical transformation. 

Steven Murphy, a professional potter who studies the tea ceremony, explains that tea bowls must be quiet, but interesting. They cannot shout. An untrained person might find a tea bowl boring. Tea bowls are best appreciated by those with an eye for nature. 

He reminded me that more than just shape is considered in selecting a tea bowl appropriate to the season. A bowl the color of new leaves in the rain might be used in early spring. A bowl with a deep glowing brown glaze might be chosen to contribute a feeling of warmth on a cold winter morning. Seasonal changes with their many moods are consciously planned for in Japanese garden design. 

Like walking in a natural landscape, turning the bowl in one’s hands brings new views and surprises. The light, mood, and evolving taste can teach us to appreciate a familiar bowl in a new way. In some cases, a tea bowl literally changes with use as cracks in the glaze turn brown. A broken tea bowl may be mended with gold. The mended bowl continues to be prized all the more. It is only with use that a tea bowl becomes a real tea bowl. Just as it is only with tending and time that a Japanese garden becomes truly itself. 

Tea bowls have faces called shomen which are turned toward the guest. The same word can be used to refer to the side of a tree or rock which is placed toward the the viewer of a garden. The shomen of a tea bowl may be obvious when a new bowl is taken from the kiln, or it may take some time to appreciate which side is the “face” of the bowl. 

When making a tea bowl, Steven mixes one type of clay with another so that the color is not exact. He might even mix in something potentially destructive like tiny chunks of stone. The clay is made very wet which allows the clay and potter to work together. I have heard some garden designers talk about the importance of working with a sense of freedom.  

After making twenty bowls, Steven waits a day and feels the bowls all over to determine which might become cereal bowls and which might become tea bowls. He smashes any rejects. This is like the gardener who never hesitates to remove a plant that does not fit in the garden. 

Making ash glazes involves a number of steps. First wood or leaves are burned to produce ash. This is sifted, feldspar added and the mixture is ground to a fine powder. Lye is leached out, and the glaze is sieved. When Steven dips a bowl in his finished glaze, drips or streaks may happen adding a feeling of spontaneity. 

Volcanic ash produces pale green or yellow; oak wood, lichen colors; oak leaves, a transparent spring green. Browns come from mixed leaves of maple, oak, sycamore, poplar, white pine needles and “mystery” leaves thrown in for good measure. Spruce and fir needles produce pewter tones. The reddish-orange heart wood of Balm of Gilead Poplar results in yellow, blue, pink or white, but there is no way to predict which color will result. The remarkable Poplar glaze can also produce gold flecks if the bowl is cooled very slowly so that iron in the glaze crystallizes. 

It was a great joy to visit Steven’s studio to view the variety of landscapes in his finished work. There were bowls with sky images, wind images, and the moon viewed through streaked branches. The inside of one bowl had the feeling of looking up under a weeping beech tree. Pieces had very tactile satin and rough finishes in great variety. Some had bits of feldspar creating tiny light bumps on the surface. Colors were all ranges of gray and blue greens, browns, blues, creams and others with gradations and mixtures. Nothing was jarring or artificial. Some bowls had feet with bumps and fissures in the glaze which gave a very ancient feeling. 

Both tea bowls and Japanese gardens use human perception and distillation to create highly refined art forms using natural materials. Both accept and joyfully use qualities that are not entirely under human control. Steven Murphy writes, “My teacher, Keiichiroh Satoh of Nagano, Japan once said, ‘You and the clay have to agree on what it will become. Forcing it only makes pottery with no inner beauty.’” In the same way, a deep understanding of the site is required to create a beautiful garden. 

If I had to spend some time in an ugly part of a city doing stressful things and could not visit a Japanese garden or beautiful natural landscape, drinking tea from a lovely bowl would be my choice of compensation. 

This article first appeared in the March/April 2000 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.

 

Signs of Our Times

Signs are sprouting up everywhere in my neighborhood near Boston. The presidential election is coming up soon and that would certainly inspire signs. However many serious issues concern us these days. I have never seen so many signs on my morning walks.

This noble and often charming clamoring includes statements of appreciation. It reminds me to never take for granted our precious right to speak what is on our minds.

Shinto Sacred Sites: Musings on Natural Beauty and Power

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.

Whimsy Has Its Place

Many of us are attracted to the playful, quaint and fanciful.  Children take to it naturally, of course, but you can also find it in New Yorker cartoons and a satirical print of a calligraphy class – see detail below. I think that is a good thing. A taste for whimsy is one of the more appealing human traits.

The gentle art of whimsy can provide an appreciated point of light in these dark times of pandemic.  During a virtual church service, two children vigorously “played” a large organ displayed behind them in their little Zoom rectangle.

When is the last time you engaged in banter or added a whimsical touch where it could bring you and others who come across it a moment of joy?

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Cat calligraphy class print copy