Eye Training for Backyard Gardeners

Training in Japan to become a garden designer may involve a long apprenticeship to a master designer and years of traveling to view beautiful natural and manmade landscapes. Few of us desire (or can afford) to spend years doing that, but there are many ways we can train ourselves. For those in the Western world who wish to create their own Japanese gardens, it is possible to design a self-study program using ideas from the Japanese training process. Here are some ideas which I have used to train my own eyes in Japanese aesthetics.

  • Visit places of natural beauty: An early goal might be to simply observe nature in a totally open way. With practice, it is possible to understand what it is about a specific natural scene that produces a particular response. I visit places of natural beauty regularly and particularly value a park within walking distance which teaches me about local conditions. If I have a strong emotional response, I take a picture to assist me in determining why.
  • Look Inward: Aspects of places which had special meaning to me as a child can often be incorporated in a garden design. In my case, I have a special love for mossy woodsy places based on camping trips. The Inward Garden. by Julie Moir Messervy, provides excellent guidance in this process.

  • Experience Japanese gardens: Viewing Japanese gardens teaches how limited elements can suggest various places, moods and subtle natural relationships like the curve of a river bank. If possible develop a relationship with a Japanese garden within traveling distance and visit it at different times of day, in different weather conditions, and in all seasons. Of course, an actual trip to Japan would be wonderful.

  • Learn to sketch: I have found it very useful to make sketches of natural settings and of Japanese gardens. Sketching nature requires me to focus on the essential elements in a scene, and it also helps me focus on the most important details.

  • Study design principles: Many books as well as this Journal* describe principles which apply to Japanese gardens. The academic study of design principles won’t replace the experience of working under a master designer, but it is valuable nonetheless. As to learning from books, I have found it easier to relate to the more intimate and modest courtyard gardens and residential garden designs for practical ideas, but I also value the many spectacular images of larger Japanese gardens for all the various ways they teach me about beauty.

  • Learn by doing: The garden in your own yard can serve as a laboratory and teacher, and it can be a reflection of your own personal development. In the early stages, rocks and plants moved around a lot until ‘they found their homes.’ Once I had a clear idea of the topography of my garden and the effects I cared about achieving, I found that scale and composition were paramount.

  • Keep a garden album: An album with photographs, drawings and notes provides me with a record of how the garden has changed over time, and how it looks in different seasons. It is satisfying to see what has changed, and improved as a result of my efforts.

*This article was originally published in the November/December, 1998 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening, which has since been renamed Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.

Intelligent Adaptation

Spending more time observing nature has provided me with opportunities to observe examples of intelligent adaptation up close. When a yellow patch moved up the side of a small basin, I thought this must be a slime mold. These wonderful beings that are neither animals nor plants, make intelligent decisions. After a series of rainy days, this fuligo septica had found a suitable dry place to make a fruiting body and release spores.

Nonhuman intelligence is all over the place. I thought of the octopus in the award winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, and parrots with brains more similar to our own. These birds make tools, dance and tap out rhythms with small sticks up in trees, seemingly for the pure joy of it. Even mice turn out to be efficient learners with aha moments. And we humans continue to learn how to make natural disasters less disastrous.

Nature is still here teaching lessons. It feels like we might be gaining a new appreciation for how much we can and should care about that. There is a new interest in trees, fungi and how we, too, are dependent upon an interconnected network of life. Even as we grieve actual and imminent losses, many are reconsidering priorities, and leaving stressful jobs with long hours. Time to appreciate and ponder may be one of the most precious resources we have.

Pandemic Stories: Art in Nature, An Invitation

When I first came across the installation in Menotomy Rocks Park, early morning light streamed through the trees onto the translucent flags. A sign explained that Nilou Moochhala, the 2021 Artist in Residence in Arlington, Massachusetts had created this work, “Reflecting on Our Pandemic Experience.” As she describes, individual flags were designed in response to interviews she conducted with a diverse cross section of this town of 50,000.

Every other flag had a word embedded in its design. I found Freedom, Madness, Tolerance, Humanity, Denial, Inclusive, Collaborative, Wary, Grateful, Unreal, Healing, Cautious, Overwhelming, Devastating, Love, Comforting and Confusing among others. Patterns and colors out to the edges suggested that the stories that inspired the multi-media flag drawings are still going on.

The words, patterns and colors all seemed part of a lively conversation going on within and among the flags, and I was being invited to join in – literally, as I learned. There was an opportunity to add my own responses to the pandemic via an online questionnaire. All responses plus this art work would remain in an archive at the local library.

We are connected like the flags by this pandemic, I thought. None of us can escape being affected in one way or another. Nilou’s art asks us to bear witness to the diversity of experiences. While there are great challenges, grief and suffering, the flags remind us that supportive connection and even growth are also still possible in these dark times. This art asks us not to turn away but toward. It asks us to hold and honor all of it with kindness and care.

Closeup of section of a sign posted at the installation.

Closeup of section of a sign posted at the installation.

Closeup of section of a sign posted at the installation.

The Spirit of Wood

With its warmth and depth, wood can speak to us in ways that few other materials can. We make so many things from it, we can take wood’s existence for granted. Some cultures particularly value the beauty of wood. The Japanese (who also value “forest bathing ”) have developed tools to shave incredibly thin strips from wood leaving a satin-smooth surface.

This post focuses on two old wooden objects from Nepal – see the first photo below. The wonderful five inch box with wheels has a cherry blossom carved in its swivel lid. Some kinds of cherry trees are native to Nepal but this chunky box seems quite a contrast to the delicacy of those blossoms.

Anthropomorphic figures like the one to the right are found outside temples, near springs, guarding bridge entrances and on rooftops in western Nepal. In Wood Sculpture in Nepal, Jokers and Talismans, Bertrand Goy and Max Itzikovitz write, “very few serious and thorough scientific works (are) available to help us make sense of the scattered, fragmented and often conflicting information on these sculptures” (p 49). Scholarly works tend to discuss religious objects from the Kathmandu valley like the idealized donor lamp in the second photo.

Knowing almost nothing about them only increases the appeal of these two wooden objects – I am free to imagine all kinds of meanings and uses. Whatever the original intention, the makers deep feeling for the spirit of wood is clear in a vivid aliveness that transcends cultures and time.

These two old wooden objects from Nepal captured my heart

An idealized donor oil lamp that would have been given to a temple

Trouble at Menotomy Rocks Park

According to Don Mattheisen’s Menotomy Rocks Park; A Centennial History, this woodland park in the midst of a dense grid of small yards was once called “Devils Den.” Transforming its tangled woods with looming granite outcrops and a swamp into a usable park required considerable will, expense and effort. When muck and leaves began to fill the pond, the town once again secured funds to dredge it out and installed aeration devices.

When I began my frequent walks here last October, it was particularly colorful. The ducks seemed to follow me. Perhaps they were only looking for handouts. I preferred to think they recognized me and knew I cared about them. A few stayed through the winter as the paths became slick with compacted snow.

As pond ice thawed, turtles sought warmth on a rock jutting out from a wetland area. Two swans probed for tender shoots for a few days. A pair of Canada geese treated the pond like it was their private resort and a muskrat swam over to hide in plain view under foliage at the water’s edge.

In late May, the robins and red wing blackbirds are as plentiful as ever, but only a single duck slept on a boulder. I wondered if the ducks left to raise their ducklings away from dogs and snapping turtles. Then I saw a notice in a plastic sleeve – Sixteen fish had died and water testing had been requested.

As if to ensure I had gotten the message about there being a larger threat, as I left the park, I saw a squirrel lying by the side of the road next to a rock. it was still breathing. I spoke to it in gentle tones wishing it (and all of us) well.

Updates: On August 14, 2021 I heard testing found that the water was not toxic. Perhaps the fish had died as a result of fireworks based on residue that was found nearby. But as of September 1, 2021 toxic algae growth was confirmed and warnings issued to stay out and keep dogs out of Hills Pond.

Only a single duck sleeping high on a boulder in the pond in late May

Many ducks of various species frequented the pond last October

A pair of Canada geese came in early March and stayed for several weeks

Turtles sunning themselves on a rock jutting into the pond on one of the first warm days

Swans probing for tender young shoots in the wetland at the side of the pond

Looking a bit like a small beaver, this muskrat has a narrow tail

The muskrat with its head poking up looks like a rock or log by the edge of the pond

This park is lucky – people care and have the will and resources to work at preserving its health
This is not the only body of water to have this problem in Arlington – Sept. 2021.

Moments in words and images

Sometimes I encounter moments that feel like poems. There is a clarity to them that has me stopping to notice. They can be small and quiet, easily missed. Nonetheless, every once in a while, such a moment can leave me breathless.

The first two spoke volumes without words but others inspired me to write haiku.

Heads up, dog coming

Grazing geese splashdown

Safe on Hills Pond

Taped to the arm of

A Menotomy Rock’s bench,

Mother’s Day balloon


Warm fall evening


Water tower lantern lit


People drawn like flies

You can see more images of this water tower event, and read about it here.

Spring Transformation

Puffy white clouds made lovely images in the pond this time of year. Now on warm days in late April, turtles gather on a rock that juts into the pond beyond a marshy area (see below).

In early March, when the branches were bare, ducks walked out on the ice heading toward open water. A bit later, tiny buds spangled branches by the pond before the pastel haze moved up the bank and blooms began to appear along the woodland trails.

Weathering the Storm

Recently, I came across an abalone shell that called out to me. At first I looked for abstract patterns in its colorful interior. Then, a wind-blown tree came into view. There was no mistaking the tree that both stood strong and bent with the wind. It feels a bit like that now, I thought. We began to see patterns with COVID 19 that we did not understand. Now we find we are in a storm with no place to hide from the global wind. Is this tree in a storm a warning, hope for resilience in the face of threat, or perhaps both?

Fallen Branches in Snow

The pond was covered with snow during my last few walks. It was popular now that the ice was thick enough to be safe. But the path around the pond had been compacted to ice which made for slippery walking. It was the fallen branches that caused me to pause. There was something about the contrast with the textured white snow that made these complex objects stand out so I could notice them and see that their beauty deserved my attention.

Beauty on Both Sides

I have always been attracted to abalone’s iridescent interiors, but I had no idea about the range of patterns and colors that nature creates on their outsides until I started collecting these shells. Although there are commonalities among the suborders of the Haliotidae family, each individual shell is unique. And the outsides of the shells can change color based on the types of algae the abalone has been eating.

There is often a beauty to both sides of natural objects. In these days of deep divisions, I find that to be a most refreshing idea to keep in mind.