Dog Walkers Rule the Dawn

It is quieter in the early morning these days with fewer cars starting up to drive to work. In my Arlington neighborhood in Massachusetts, dog walkers rule the dawn. These dog walkers provide a welcome sense of normalcy despite the masks we all wear.

The yards I pass are unusually colorful this October with the dry weather. The view of a soft pink sunrise over Cambridge and Boston from Robbins Farm Park is framed by a deep red tree. Dogs romp here as their owners call out to one another. Robbins Farm has flattened playing fields, and a playground. It also has a community garden which is appropriate for a park that was once a farm.

Continuing down the sidewalk by Robbins Farm, I come to Menotomy Rocks. This altogether wilder park has glacier-carved granite outcrops rising here and there on either side of a wide needle-strewn path leading to a pond. While all the trails are carefully maintained, fallen branches and logs are left to rot. Dog walkers abound as do families with young children getting out of the house.

The natural beauty all around fills my soul. But for me, the walkers and their dogs carry a most important message – Sustaining joy and contentment are still vitally alive and available in this increasingly troubled world.

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. Seven 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.

 

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.

Finding Joy in Details – Morrisonite Jasper

I find Morrisonite to be particularly rich in details. Both the jasper and the beautiful location where it is found stimulate the imagination. I can count on delightful surprises when I attempt to capture its endless patterns and colors in closeup photos.

The slabs shown below include an entire cross section of a jasper seam. The second photo shows a small section of a slab. Several examples exhibit the overlapping egg pattern that also occurs in several other types of jasper.

Lapidary artists find a great deal to select from. While the finished cabs can be set in jewelry, the best are often acquired by collectors who prefer to keep these little works of natural and lapidary art just as they are.

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Abalone Tide Lessons

As soon as I started the photo series, I was totally entranced. There were worlds of dazzling design in the abalone shells’ spiraling concave interiors. I might discover an area of delicate veiled dreams or bold drama. Taking closeups and seeing what the camera had captured became an addiction.

I began to sense how the shimmering designs carried the rhythm of the tides that the abalone depended upon for all their needs. There were encoded hints of whale song yearning and how our planet breathes as it dances with its companion moon.

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The Colors of Labradorite

Turn a piece of Labradorite and you can sometimes see flashes of bright color.  The crystal structure selectively reflects these colors to the eye in an effect called “labradorescence”. A valuable variety from Finland known as “Spectrolite” has colors that stand out against a darker background.

While this stone has been compared to the Northern Lights and some prescribe to it protective or visionary qualities, Labradorite’s colors alone are enough for me to want to spend time with it.

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Dappled Light

Now we are keeping to our homes, animals are coming closer. During solitary dawn walks to listen to the bird chorus, I come across rabbits just sitting there in the middle of the road. A neighborhood fox ran across adjoining backyards. Our generation has access to so much recorded history and information, and to so many things. Yet nature has her own inescapable ways and her own time table.

My most recent post was about what happened after I removed a fence I had allowed to decay naturally. The table in the photos below will likely be around much longer. Lichens will shun it. If we are indeed living in twilight times, I cannot help hoping that dappled light will still find the shiny objects humans leave behind.

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What Removing the Sleeve Fence Revealed

I did not use preservative on the bamboo sleeve fence, preferring to let it weather naturally. In 2010, it was still holding up, drawing the eye to the glacial scraped granite outcrop at the center of the backyard. In winter, the slats captured snow.

By 2017, the fence had begun to disintegrate while the lace leaf maple behind it was making a more substantial statement of its own. In 2019, I decided to give the fence one more year.

In May 2020, it was time. With the cool weather, the oaks had not fully leafed out and light streamed from behind the tea hut. Perhaps light always filters through like that in the spring. With the fence in place, I might not have noticed. Paying attention to what inspires wonder seems particularly important in these dire times.

I wanted the fence to separate the sunken area behind the hut – to keep it special. Now a magical light radiated from that corner as if the spirit of the place had grown so strong it could no longer be contained.

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Tea and Dialogue in an Older Adult’s Home

T&D at Sally's
Photo from video by Jeff Klein

The simple Chinese restaurant teacups and thermal carafe we used are visible as Sally shares her story about all that she noticed during a walk in the woods along a dirt road.

On June 21, 2019, I made decaffeinated green tea in a thermal carafe, checked that the temperature was between 160- and 165-degrees Fahrenheit, and packed it along with teacups and a singing bowl. Jeff Klein gathered his video equipment and we went together to visit my 97-year-old mother. We hoped to capture the adaptability of tea and dialogue practice while also showing how well it works to bring it to older adults who may find it difficult to travel. A few still photos were added to help viewers relate to the memories we shared.

Video of tea and dialogue in an older adult’s home

At first Sally was concerned that she might not know what to say, but when I explained we would be sharing about “Nature as Artist,” that seemed to put her at ease.

I chose the topic knowing that the beauty of nature is a passion for us both. I also planned to adapt tea and dialogue to what seemed most beneficial at the time. Videos of a full version of the basic practice were captured of a session that took place in my tea hut.

Sally’s comment “It’s a party!” acknowledged the positive cultural connotations of sharing tea. Drinking tea as a focus for mindful awareness seems to work for most people. This was noted by artist Lidia Kenig-Scher in a video made of a creative variation of tea and dialogue. Jeff used a slow-motion camera to capture Sally drinking tea. That footage highlights the embodied awareness that presumably flows into and supports the dialogue that follows.

Although I did not anticipate it, the dialogue focused on sharing cherished memories. I spoke of memories of taking photos of leaves and Sally described what she experienced during a walk along a dirt road. Her detailed narrative of all that she noticed was a testimony to her natural mindfulness. There is research evidence that older adults may be better at telling stories than younger people.

What a contrast our interaction was to the invisibility that older women can complain of due to ageism. There was a lingering sense of closeness from the experience, and satisfaction from the understanding that both of us felt understood – that our appreciation for nature mattered. Jeff told me the video required little editing. He described it as “low hanging fruit.”

I am most grateful to Sally and Jeff for helping with this video.

Sally Fink started camping in the New Hampshire woods as a child. She and I have shared countless walks in the woods in many settings. After the session, Sally told me she regrets she can no longer take such walks. I said we can go there by talking about it and she agreed.

Jeffrey Klein is a bilingual videographer with a 25-year career in multi-media production in Japan and the United States including podcasts and videos intended for retail, business, entertainment and educational contexts. Samples of his work are available at his website.

Just off the Road

Unlike many waterfalls, this place of water flowing over granite ledges is visible from the road with convenient parking spaces just off New Hampshire Route 16B. The dramatic tumbled ledges of Jackson Falls have been sculpted in places. It is worth following how the water flows over them, or just sitting and taking it all in. After many visits, I realized there is an entrance to a trail lower down that provides a different view of the falls as seen in the photos below.

That the United States still has many such places of wild beauty seems particularly poignant to me. Those who find this stream do not seem out of place enjoying nature rather than our unfortunately common practice of destroying natural beauty in the process of shaping it to our will.

Jackson Falls

Painters at Jackson Falls

Jackson Falls - org & grn

Couple at Jackson Falls