When I was out taking photos of mushrooms, I came across two people who had an empty basket. I saw them again when I reached the far side of Hills Pond in Menotomy Rocks Park, Arlington Massachusetts, USA. This time the basket was full of hen of the woods mushrooms that they found at the base of oak trees. They also had honey mushrooms in a cloth bag.
They told me that the number of mushrooms you can collect at one time in Europe is limited so as to leave some for others. Here there are no such limits. They had never seen so many mushrooms. In fact, they would need to give away some of the bounty they had collected.
The woman, who told me she is a member of the Boston mycological society explained that while books and online resources (like this one) can be helpful, the best way to learn which mushrooms are safe to eat is to go out with a local expert acting as guide.
While I find fungi fascinating for their aesthetics and biological complexity, they also have cultural significance and have been used in art. The Maya carved wonderful mushroom stones. A jade pendant (below) bears witness to the Chinese appreciation for fungi which have long been an important part of traditional Chinese medicine.
Fungi have been found to support the health of forests while keeping them from filling up with dead wood. Historically, humans have used mushrooms as food, medicine, and for their psychotropic properties. More recently, fungi have been used to control insect pests and to clean up organic waste. No doubt additional uses will be found as we learn more about them and their roles in ecosystems.
Nature is constantly shifting and not just with the normal seasonal changes these days. I would certainly welcome the respite of fewer distractions on my morning walks in Menotomy Rocks Park (Arlington, Massachusetts, USA), but nature has its own ideas. After abundant rain all summer, amazing fungi were popping up everywhere and calling out for me to take their portraits.
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.
My garden is a haven more than ever now; a place to get away not only from too much togetherness but from the unsettling news that blasts from the radio and television. When a particular application required that I submit a garden photo with a “portrait” orientation, I found I had vertical shots of trees, leaves and lanterns, but not one that gave a sense for the garden as a place.
So I went out with my camera held up sideways. The first three shots are the result. They surprised me. Compared to the other shots I had taken in this orientation, these three revealed how what I planned and what nature provided worked together; how we had been working together in partnership for some time now.
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.
My town’s art association was holding a haiku contest. The haiku should refer to something the writer experienced in Arlington Heights, Massachusetts.
My feelings for this area where I live had deepened during the pandemic. I was more appreciative of kind neighbors and the caring friendliness of those working in local businesses. I spent more time in nearby parks enjoyed by children, families and dogs both on and off-leash.
As I walked along Massachusetts Avenue near its intersection with Park Avenue looking for haiku from the contest, I came across several in the process of being painted. I said to one of the painters, “Maybe this has started something. Maybe there will be more poetry displayed in Arlington Heights.” The woman doing the painting agreed that should happen.
I noticed that some of the signs shop owners had put up in their windows felt a bit like poems. Looking back along the street, I knew it had happened again. I felt a new appreciation for this particular corner of the world.
According to Don Mattheisen’s Menotomy Rocks Park; A Centennial History, this woodland park in the midst of a dense grid of small yards in Arlington, Massachusetts, USA 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.
It was particularly colorful when I began my frequent walks there last October. The ducks seemed to follow me. Perhaps they were only looking for handouts. I preferred to think they knew I cared about them. A few stayed through the winter as the paths became slick with compacted snow.
After the pond ice thawed, turtles seeking warmth gathered on a rock jutting out from a wetland area. Two swans probed for tender shoots for a few days. A pair of Canada geese acted as if the pond was their own private resort. A muskrat swam over to hide in plain view under foliage at the water’s edge. A bull frog’s loud voice startled a dog walking with its owner around the pond.
In late May, robins and red wing blackbirds were as plentiful as ever, but only a single duck slept atop a boulder. I wondered if the other ducks had left to raise their ducklings away from dogs and snapping turtles. I saw other animals in the park but not in the pond water. 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 the larger threat we all face, 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 in gentle tones wishing it (and all of us) well.
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.
A tea hut in my backyard was my dream. I had become familiar with variations in layout, window style, and alcove placement from reading about the tea ceremony. One book that was particularly useful was Cha-no-yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony by A. L. Sadler.
I wanted quality in materials and workmanship although I could not afford authentic Japanese tea hut construction, and I did not have the skills to build one myself. Customizing a high-quality garden shed seemed to be a workable solution. Walpole Woodworkers advertised a salt box shed. I liked the idea of this shape with its ties to New England as well as to Japanese tea huts.
A window on the long side next to the door came with the shed. I decided to retain this minus the window box. I also requested two rectangular windows with three panes side by side; one low down behind the tea preparation area and one centered on the opposite wall. Natural lighting is very important in tea huts both for aesthetic and practical reasons.
On a summer morning, leaf shadows fall on the main window due to the angle of the light. During the course of a tea practice, the shadows change continually and the leaves move in the breeze creating a most peaceful effect. The window appears very different depending upon the time and season. It is well worth planning for such effects in a tea hut’s placement and design.
I chose a site for the hut that would allow it to be viewed on edge from my large kitchen window but would provide privacy for the garden. It would also allow the patio under my kitchen window to be used as a waiting area. The small area in front of the shed was well shaded and already had a tendency toward moss.
The hut was small enough to be constructed without a poured foundation. The workmen carefully prepared the sloped site. They had stained the walls and door as requested and raised the door threshold to accommodate tatami mats. It took very little time for them to assemble the flooring, walls and ceiling. The roof was finished with cedar shingles. The unfinished pine interior of the hut, while not authentic, had a nice rustic quality.
A bamboo sleeve fence was added to visually connect the hut to the garden and provide privacy for the area behind. Smaller vertical poles through the larger ones made for a very sturdy fence. I added dried hydrangea twigs to the lower section. There are many possible charming designs for sleeve fences or you can design your own as I did. See The Bamboo Fences of Japan by Osamu Suzuki and Isao Yoshikawa for ideas.
Inside at the narrow end away from the door, I added an oiled maple board to take the place of the more usual tokonoma alcove. It fits perfectly with the three tatami mats at the same height. I found a three panel unfinished pine grid screen to hold the scroll and had a cabinet with many shelves made for storing utensils. Two low benches along the back wall provide seating for those with bad knees. Pegs behind the door hold coats. For a while, an extension cord snaked out the low window behind the tea kettle. Now, the hut has been electrified so I can use it with a small heater in winter.
Since my hut does not have a hearth, I use a kettle set on a furo heater at all times of the year. I often place wood chip incense in the furo (think of the smell of cedar). The “wind in the pines” sound produced when water is heating is central to cha–no–yu. Delicate steam curls up contrasting with the solid iron.
Normally tea utensils would be brought in from another room by the host, but since my small hut has only one room, I designed a corner staging area. A “clam shell” shelf holds the tea bowl and tea container. A square basket on the floor holds the lidded water jar, waste water container with a lid rest, and bamboo scoop as well as a container of tea sweets. The hot water kettle is left in place where it will be used on the host’s mat.
In the garden, I added stepping stones and a low basin. Guests gather on the patio. They follow the stepping stones to the basin before proceeding to the hut door where they leave their shoes on the large stone before entering.
The hut has been in use for thirty years. The roof has been replaced, and the interior and exterior protected from the elements and insect damage. The garden grew and changed around it.
I named my tea hut, Ajisai-an which means Hydrangea Hut in Japanese. The humble building has gathered many wonderful memories. During its naming ceremony, the crickets began their song as we started at dusk. After tea, we brought in metal lanterns from the garden and wrote haiku by flickering candle light. A “flower arranging” tea started with various flowers and containers as options and each guest’s arrangement was displayed in turn during the practice.
Another unusual tea had a small American quilt instead of a scroll, pottery made at Sturbridge Village, and a Native American basket to hold maple sugar tea sweets.
The hut has also seen many gatherings with old and new friends that were simple, quiet, and restoring. These, together with the excitement of bringing the hut and garden into existence, are perhaps the best memories of all.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.
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.