Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


With tomorrow being the first day of winter, our thoughts naturally turn to ...gardens. What follows is an excerpt from a newspaper article. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article.

Visiting Asia Without Crossing the Pacific in Portland, Ore.
IT’S a chilly Sunday in late autumn and a steady shower is falling on the Portland Classical Chinese Garden. Rain silvers the pebble mosaic in the Court of Tranquillity and dimples the surface of Zither Lake. Budding camellias shine, bamboo shoots nod and recover, the huge leaves of banana trees, already shredded by previous storms, tap out a few faint spattered notes.

“Too bad it’s not raining harder,” our smiling guide, Frances Chin, murmurs as we watch droplets slide off the roof tiles of the Hall of Brocaded Clouds near the garden entrance. “In a real downpour, rain streams off the roof and forms a curtain in front of the pavilion like strings of pearls.”

Everyone told me to come back in the rain when I first visited the Chinese Garden two days earlier during a rare burst of November sun, and they were right. All of the Portland gardens I saw in the course of a long weekend — Tanner Springs Park and Jamison Square, the new pocket parks in the trendy downtown Pearl District; the International Rose Test Garden perched high above the city in Washington Park; the display gardens of local specialty nurseries — looked lovely under low dripping skies. But the Chinese and Japanese gardens, the crown jewels of the City of Roses, were loveliest of all. Different as they are, these two Asian gardens both rely on pattern, structure and metaphor instead of the floral can-can of typical American gardens. Rain, especially the mild intermittent rain of the Pacific Northwest winter, is their varnish.

Usually I prefer to avoid the tours and wander around gardens on my own, but I’m glad I had a guide on both my visits to the Chinese Garden. Just one acre on a single city block in the midst of Portland’s funky Old Town Chinatown, this is a garden layered with hidden meaning.

On first glance, I see more architecture than garden: nine ornate pavilions clustered around a large, irregularly shaped shallow pond and linked by bridges and covered walkways; walled courtyards paved with patterned stones and studded with pale upright rocks that look like petrified chunks of Swiss cheese; columns, wooden panels and portals set with signs in Chinese characters. Yes, there are plants — lovely willows that weep into the pond, pines clipped into bristling asymmetrical pincushions, a persimmon with globes of big orange fruit — but they seem to decorate the hardscape rather than the other way around.

Gloria Lee Luebke, the executive director, explains that the garden, like the traditional Ming Dynasty scholar’s gardens in the ancient city of Suzhou on which it is patterned, incorporates five essential elements — poetry, rock, water, architecture and plants — with no one element taking pride of place. A Chinese scholar’s garden was not meant to be a distilled mountain landscape in the Japanese manner or a clipped green theater like Italy’s Renaissance gardens, but rather an intricate urban salon where a retired scholar gathered with friends to write poetry, sip wine, observe the water rippling in the moonlight and listen to the music of the rain.

“These gardens were designed to frame a view in each direction,” Ms. Luebke says as we duck through an unadorned rectangular aperture into the Fragrance Courtyard, the first of two courtyards leading to the scholar’s study. “Though the garden is small, people do get lost here.”

For a minute we just stand and let the elements compose themselves. Crisp, lush specimens of jasmine, gardenia and mock orange stand out in sharp relief against the blank canvas of the white wall — a study in dormant fragrance. In just a few weeks, the waxy yellow blossoms of the wintersweet — now a humble-looking mound of bare sticks — will spice up the entire courtyard with the first intoxicating fragrance of the new year.

A moon gate at the far end inscribes a circle around the trees and shrubs of the next courtyard, a view that I now realize is as carefully arranged as a scroll painting. Ms. Luebke translates the Chinese inscriptions over the gate: “Read the landscape,” it says on one side; “Listen to the fragrance,” on the other. For me, this is the “ah-ha” moment when I stop trying to impose my own tastes and assumptions and just let the garden speak to me.

Two days later, in the rain, its speech is even more eloquent. I’m inside the elegant scholar’s study, the heart of the place, admiring the penjing (or potted landscape, the Chinese version of bonsai) set on the delicate rosewood tables. The yellow leaves of a dwarf ginkgo tree lie scattered on the lacquered desktop beside three blue-and-white Ming-style vases. Rain beads the bamboo culms outside. A midnight blue Steller’s jay flashes by the window. Pure visual poetry just crying out for the light touch of a wise calligrapher.

AFTER the tight urban block of the Chinese Garden, Portland’s Japanese Garden is like a clearing in the forest, a glade that has been touched lightly and deftly by the hand of an artist. It’s not raining at the moment, but there is something indescribably fresh and damp and uplifting about this garden set several hundred feet above the city in the woods of 5,000-acre Forest Park.

“This is my favorite time of year,” says the veteran guide Sue Stegmiller as we stand listening to water trickling into the stone basin of the tsu-bai (hand-washing fountain) just inside the front gate. “As our former head gardener Mike Miller puts it: ‘In spring the garden shows its charisma, but in winter it shows its essence.’ ” The moss curling over the stone lanterns and fountains is as glossy as seaweed; the contorted black pines just inside the entry gate gleam as if made of glass. Every vista has a curtain hung at its end, a scrim of enormous Douglas fir and Western red cedar, the signature trees of the Pacific Northwest forest.

Even aficionados from Japan agree that this is the most authentic Japanese garden outside their country, except for that curtain of Northwest conifers. “These firs and cedars are too big,” says Ms. Stegmiller. “To Japanese they look overwhelming.” But they are also indispensable to the almost spiritual allure of the place.

Though it’s hard to imagine monkey cages and concession stands here, this was the site of the old Portland zoo before it was moved in 1959. The landscape architect Takuma Tono, brought over from Japan, magically transformed the forlorn 5.5 acres into five discreet gardens linked by paths and steps: a Strolling Pond Garden surrounding two small lakes, a Tea Garden, a Natural Garden of pruned trees and pools, a Zen-style Sand and Stone Garden, and a Flat Garden landscaped around a bed of raked sand. Part of Mr. Tono’s artistry is the way one garden flows subtly into the next, so that the scene shifts without ever breaking the spell.

Unlike a Chinese garden, which to Western eyes is so crusted with architecture, pavement and poetry as to hardly resemble a garden at all, Japanese gardens are familiar to the point of cliché with their lanterns, arched bridges, koi ponds and cherry trees. Or so I think until I take Ms. Stegmiller’s tour. She points out a hillside of azaleas that, come early spring, will cover itself in a snow of pure white blossoms that melts, figuratively, into the jade-green pond below. I learn that the pared-down style of the Tea Garden, with its moss-fringed stepping stones and simple evergreen shrubs, reflects the desire for refuge during the civil wars of the 16th century. The star magnolia near the entrance to the Natural Garden has had its crown pruned flat and low so the flowers appear to rest on a shelf of branches.


Anonymous said...


are where

Rick Matz said...

Something I want to do as an ongoing project when I'm retired, is to build a first rate garden.

ms_lili said...

When i went to the chicago botanical gardens last year, I had a strong urge to move near it and become a volunteer. It would be very enjoyable to work with a community of people on a work of art like this one and that one. I know when I'm working in the yard with someone else there's a deep feeling of satisfaction associated with it.