Looking Through Windows

Gazing out the window

All is stillness in the garden

What does my cat see?

When my Japanese tea ceremony teacher, Giselle Maya, told me that the poetic word for 2022 is “window,” I thought it might be time to revisit “Dream Window” by Peter Grilli. He had metaphorical reasons to choose that title for his poetic film about Japanese gardens. But it is also true that gardens are often viewed through actual windows – Such sight lines are an important consideration in garden design. What do you see through the windows where you live?

Whether another building, a field, undisturbed nature, an empty lot, busy sidewalk or a garden, looking through windows can bring out the poetry of this world. A limited view into space-time somehow makes the ever-changing wholeness of everything “out there” easier to relate to.

Ice Opportunities: Sounds & Images

Once I came across a child beating icy Hills pond with a stick. It made a most appealing bonging sound. Later I heard haunting chirps and zinging at the same pond. Since I was the only one there, I had to assume the ice was making those sounds all by itself.

Searching online, I found Jonna Jinton’s videos with the other worldly, yet peaceful sounds and the visual beauty of the crack patterns that ice can make as it first freezes. Fascinated, I decided to review Jonna’s numbered vlogs.

Such vivid aliveness, and joyful creativity! And with deep appreciation for the changing seasons in her unspoiled part of the world. At the same time, Jonna makes clear that living in northern Sweden with few other people around involves sacrifice, a great deal of hard work and a willingness to accept dark times – quite literally unavoidable in winter that far north.

Jonna’s online business selling silver jewelry, photo prints and paintings grew to support several family members and friends in a part of the world where jobs can be scarce. She started it as a means to allow her to live on land that her family has owned in northern Sweden for 400 years.

Her videos allow us to join her as she plays with her pets, renovates buildings, paints using pigments she makes from local materials, celebrates with family and friends, sings to the cows, and travels to various locations, along with breath-taking footage of nature in its many moods. Jonna says she hopes her videos can provide those living in apartments a measure of the beauty and inspiration of nature. Rather than causing envy as you might expect, how she shares invites us to figure out and go after what would be optimal to have in our own lives.

As for me, I am grateful to live near a pond where children make bonging sounds as the ice freezes. The pond was singing by itself again this morning as I went looking for ice photo opportunities inspired by Jonna’s passion for them. The photos below are some of my favorites taken this and last year winter:

Woodland Magic

It is natural to notice a muskrat chasing quacking ducks, but the woods can have a quieter energy – There is a lot going on, but it is easier to miss.

Trees with their roots wrapped around granite outcrops or buried beneath fallen leaves and mounding needles are the backbone here. Warm beams of sunlight suddenly illuminate the all-embracing living wonder while the woods in winter has its own kind of resting beauty.


Melting Art on Cars

In late November 2019, I noticed wonderful large ice crystal formations all over a car. This November, most interesting symmetrical patterns formed on car hoods after a light snow began to melt. The patterns varied quite a bit, probably reflecting the different engine and hood support designs within.

I had to wonder what other wonderful designs I might discover by getting out early after the first freeze of the year.

A Boulder Around the Seasons

A boulder perched at the edge of Hills Pond when I started the photo series. It became an island as the waters rose. Then ice linked it to land again. In spring, geese and ducks perched on its strong back. There were signs of trouble as algal bloom sullied the water and all the birds left.

Waiting unperturbed, the boulder bore silent witness to ducks returning as brilliant colors in shades of yellow, orange and red mixed with the greens. Though all of this, the boulder sat with perfect equanimity. It had me wondering whether I could be more like that. Probably not, but that I could appreciate (and hopefully remember) its still presence seemed to count for something.


A Bumper Crop of Edible Mushrooms

When I was out taking mushroom photos, I came across two people from Europe with a basket full of hen of the woods as well as a bag of honey mushrooms, both gathered from the bases of oaks. I learned the number of edible mushrooms each person can collect is limited where they come from, but here, where there are no such limits, they had gathered so many they would need to give some away.

They explained that the best way to learn which mushrooms safe to eat is to go out with an expert local guide. But books and online resources (like this one) can be helpful.

In addition to being eaten as food and medicine, mushrooms can have profound cultural significance. Those with psychotropic properties are used in healing rituals. The Maya carved wonderful anthropomorphic mushroom stones, and a jade pendant bears witness to the significance the Chinese place on mushrooms with their important role in traditional medicine.

Fungi support the health of forests and can survive fire. They have been used to control insect pests and to clean up plastic and organic waste. No doubt our appreciation for what they can do will increase as we learn more about them.

Mushrooms After Rain

Nature is constantly shifting and not just with the normal seasonal changes these days. This early fall, I would certainly welcome some quiet green time on my morning walks in Menotomy Rocks Park (Arlington, Massachusetts, USA), but nature had its own ideas. After abundant rain all summer, amazing fungi were popping up everywhere and calling out to have their portraits taken. In the last photo below, the light was just right to capture spores falling from a cluster in a dark stump.

For those interested in learning more, Merlin Sheldrake’s, Entangled Life; How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures seems destined to become a modern classic with its vivid descriptions and stories. His ability to take other life forms’ points of view and appreciation for the finely tuned relationships in the network of life that supports us all speak to a new awareness at a time when that kind of wisdom seems badly needed.

Eye Training for Backyard Gardeners

Training to become a garden designer in Japan may involve 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 helped me 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 becomes possible to understand what it is about a specific 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 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 be used to 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 web 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.