I am sure you have heard the above quote very often – in my usual OCD fashion I needed to know what sage created this saying and discovered that its author was Charles Caleb Colton, a mid 18th -19th writer. While wildly popular in his era not only for his writings of epigrammatic aphorisms and essays on conduct but also for his love of wine collecting and gambling, he is now much forgotten. Thank you Mr. Colton for a perfect way to begin this week’s post.
Continuing on our journey through the grounds of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, my cousin and I came upon a Japanese “Hill and Pond” Garden which is right next to the Cherry Esplanade. It is one of the oldest and most visited “Japanese inspired” gardens outside of the Orient and was created by Japanese landscape designer Takeo Shiota (1881-1943) who had endeavored to create “a garden more beautiful than all others in the world.” I think he did a phenomenal job.
This garden has strong resonance for me, for while there is no one set of rules governing the creation of such a garden, certain recurring elements found in these landscapes mimic a miniature reproduction of natural scenery. I was also struck by the deep similarities to the magnificent gardens I visited during a trip to China – so much so that pictures I took of each are hard to distinguish from one another – see if you figure out which are which below as we look at some of the oft occurring components of these tranquil gardens.
Ponds, Streams and Waterfalls – Ponds are a central element of most gardens and often represent real or mythical lakes or seas:
Sometimes they provide a habitat for carp (koi) which introduce additional color and life to the garden:
Water is meant to evoke a tranquil sea, and can take many forms from still ponds to cascading waterfalls:
In some cases where space constraints prevent the existence of a pond, the water can be symbolized by upright stones, many of which were transported from the sea itself:
Stones – Stones can also symbolize mountains and hills, and are often used to line the ponds and streams in the garden:
Footbridges – Footbridges are another common feature used to connect islands and cross streams or ponds. They are built of stone or wood:
Vegetation – There is particular care in choosing this element as the garden must be beautiful in all seasons. For example, pine trees, bamboo and plum trees are selected as their foliage stays in winter while other plants go dormant. As mentioned in the previous BBG post, cherry trees are particularly revered for their spring glory. Moss is also included to add a soft velvet carpet.
The brilliant layout of these gardens allow them to be viewed externally through meandering walks:
Buildings – Or inside from pavilions, tea houses, guest houses or palaces:
Shrines – Many gardens have secluded hidden places that are ideal for private moments and contemplation. There are also occasions when a specific shrine is placed. The BBG had this lovely little shrine dedicated to Inari the God of the harvest and the protector of plants:
The shrine itself is protected by two statues – here is one:
I was rather surprised by this fox or wolf-like creature as I thought “fu” dogs, lions or dragons were the usual defenders. My cousin and I did some digging and discovered that these foxes are called “Kitsune” (which is really just the Japanese word for fox, but it does sound exotic). Japanese folklore describes the kitsune as intelligent beings and faithful guardians sometimes possessing magical abilities. Not a bad animal to have guarding your door.
I suppose the main appeal of these incredibly lush and beautiful landscapes for me is their apparent symmetry – imitating nature by recreating nature’s image using nature itself. However, the actual design preference of these Oriental themed gardens is a penchant for asymmetry, as the world is indeed, imperfect.
How can I then be so fascinated with these asymmetrical gardens which would seemingly fly in direct opposition to my obsessive-compulsive need to have order? Perhaps this shows the yin to my yang. These vistas do bring serenity and calm so in a sense that is providing some order to an otherwise chaotic world.
In any event they have such a profound effect on me that I have placed two images – one an enlarged framed photograph that I had taken while in such a garden in China and another an exquisite silk wall hanging I had purchased in China (with help from an interpreter as the weavers at the silkworm gardens spoke no English) that depicts an ancient Chinese Garden – on the wall beside my bed:
Perhaps it is just as Confucius said: ”
“Life is simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”