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.
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 issueof the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.
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.
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.
When I asked what she might like to contribute for a gathering to share tea and dialogue in my tea hut, Anita suggested blueberries. Blueberries are tough plants. They like the acidic gravelly soil with lots of sun exposure that is found on tops of mountains in New England and other places where they grow wild. They thrive when they are burned or eaten back by animals as this stimulates new growth underground.
Knowing they are good for you does not take anything away from their wonderful color and sweet-acid taste after a hike up a mountain.
Anita told me she has different memories of blueberries. In New England where she now lives, she buys them at farm stands. But in Central America, where she is from, they did not know about the fruit.
She has special memories of her American grandfather who loved pies made from blueberries. He had the fruit sent all the way from North America to Honduras by boat. Here she tells that story for a video made by Jeff Klein.
There is a theory that all humans prefer a particular type of open landscape with a vista of trees and water. These days, we are bombarded with devastating images of too little or too much water, but I hope we do not settle for mere survival as we work to compensate for this widespread and highly destructive disruption.
Landscapes with water can do more than that and it may not take as much water as you think.
It is true that I love taking photos of large bodies of water in nature…
But surprisingly, the small amount of water in my granite water basin has proven to be enough for me to feel a deep connection to nature’s flow. It captures light. Breezes move its surface as do rain drops. Creatures drink from it. On a hot day, a raccoon jumped right in. Leaves it reflects change shape and color, then fall in. After I clear them out, ice mounds up until it melts in spring. Then the caressing moss emerges once again.
On September 7, 2014, a unique event took place to celebrate a local landmark (below) that was turning 90 years old. The notice I saw spoke of images of local places by both youth and adults. Each art work would be briefly projected on the substantial Arlington, MA Reservoir structure before another took its place. Curious, I took my camera and portable canvas sling bench to the classical revival water tower.
The images can only hint at what it was like to walk up the road to the top of the hill as the glowing tower came into view. I joined the crowd that had gathered there as darkness descended and the Luminarium Dance Company interpreted the images to music issuing from two large loudspeakers.
As children, my brother and sister and I loved to catch fire flies and release them down by a falling-apart stone structure behind our camp site in New Hampshire. Dolly Copp, an early settler to this location in the White Mountains had constructed a well-like structure to capture the water of a stream and then pipe it to her homestead downhill. Over the years as we returned to the camp site, we watched as the structure became less recognizable as it tumbled apart.
I tried to capture that structure at one stage of its existence in my own garden. I stopped moving the stones about when they seemed to “disappear” – When they had blended into the universe comfortably with no need to speak individually for themselves.
Before I travelled to Japan to see its remarkable gardens, I had read about the famous Japanese garden Ryoanji with its stone groups set in raked sand that you can see in this video. I doubted that this garden would live up to all the hype, perhaps to save myself from disappointment.
We avoided the crowds by arriving at opening time, but there was no way to avoid a blaring broadcast in English. I tuned this out as best I could, until it ended with, “each person must find his or her own meaning.”
Although it was overcast, I noticed shadows on the sand cast by the surrounding wall and trees. One of my first impressions was the importance of the wall. I then became impressed by the large amount of open space; clearly, the point of this garden was not just the individual stones, although each was beautiful:
Gradually, I became aware of a low singing current passing from group to group and stone to stone. This grew in strength, zinging about. The key to this phenomenon seemed to be the specific arrangement. The intensity grew to unbelievable levels, and the stones ‘disappeared.’ It seemed like the configuration before me was a model of a vast, singing version out in space. It was full of immense power and it was beyond beautiful.
Although precious to me, my garden stone arrangement does not evoke the vast energy I experienced at Ryoanji. I sometimes think about Ryoanji’s designer and what price was paid to be able to get that particular arrangement just right.
Turning special places into radiant refuges requires more than understanding what creates welcome and peace. The owners who ran the Bufflehead Cove Inn supplied both in abundance with a sensitivity to the spirit of that particular place. In converting their family home on the tidal Kennebunk River into an inn, they made full use of generations of experience and memories. It was alive with what it means to be home in a way that was at once now and timeless.
Like my tea garden and tea hut, the inside and the outside were not a division but a collaboration. You could see the ducks gathering at dawn from the porch. There was the smell of wood burning in the fireplace in the evening. You would hear the slight creak of the old steps as you climbed up to your room to see reflections from the river dancing on the ceiling. Even the easy walk along the rustic road into town by ponds in the woods seemed just right.
One way to explore refuges is to create tiny ones. These can be made from shadow boxes, in a bookcase, by furnishing a doll house or even by tucking “fairy houses” made of natural materials into secret spots in the woods. The tiny rooms I made include an antique shop, a fall kitchen (I could not resist adding hoarded toilet paper), a room at an inn, a Chinese restaurant scene, a Japanese tea ceremony in progress, and a weaver’s workshop. For the last one, I experimented with placing various objects in an acrylic display cube and taking photos of the arrangement in my garden.