In the article, Translating the Concept Garden, I talked about a woman on a little island off the coast of Maine who’d installed a Japanese tea garden only to be disappointed when it fell short of her expectations. It fell short because she had co-opted the style whole; removed from its cultural reference, the garden was lost. She had been looking for a peaceful, serene space, but had failed to translate that concept into her own language. There are two primary ways to execute that translation: restricted use of color and restricted use of material. Okay, one way. But restricted use doesn’t mean bland and boring, and peaceful, usually construed as soothing tones of blue, can also be interpreted as monochromatic, even monocultural, design.
In that same article, I talked about the canyonlands of the desert Southwest, and the phenomenal red of the rimrock walls. Red is normally a ‘jazzy’ color, but as I watched the sun set over Rattlesnake Canyon I was infused with as great as sense of peace as ever I had known. How was this possible in the face of such strong, vibrant color? Unity. Unity of visual space, unity of design, unity of color. For endless stretches above or below, my visual realm was an ocean of red. From the palest band of crimson at the place where sun met earth to the darkest vermilion in the deep recesses of the canyon, my eye was unassailed by contrast. The view was seamless, and tranquil.
Out of the metaphor of tranquil waters, we take the blue but ignore the principal reason the sea is so calming: its expanse. Apart from the sound, which is like a heartbeat in its constancy; apart from the scent, which carries nearly a mile inland, there is the sheer size. It is the scale of it that keeps us balanced, that lets us know where we are in the order of things. Innately, we respond to that vastness, to the length and breadth and depth of it. We use ocean-based phrases to describe our feelings (we are ‘at sea’ when we are lost emotionally), or to illustrate vast quantities (a ‘sea’ of daffodils). We experience ‘waves’ of sensation, and we ‘drift’ when our minds escape the confines of ordered thought. If we use just the color of the image, we lose the full meaning.
Look at a field of lavender and tell me that wandering in the midst of it wouldn’t cause you to abandon your cares for a few hours. How about ripples of reed grass along an estuary? Deep green pools of pine trees? These materials may not express the color, but they convey the message. The message is restful because the visual line is unbroken; an unbroken line is restful because it requires no effort. No effort from our eyes to take in all the details of the picture, no effort from our brains to process the information. They relax, so we relax.
The other facet we find so appealing about Japanese gardens is the carefully ordered design; order is peace, order is harmony. One of the great laws of the universe, though, is that all things tend toward chaos, and nowhere is this more evident than in the natural world of the garden. Absent diligent tending, order is destroyed within days, and a garden whose identity depends upon order will seem all the more chaotic. If the objective is serenity, do we achieve that if we enslave ourselves to the garden? It will come as no surprise that my answer is no. Actually, my answer is no at the top of my lungs, but that’s another article altogether.
The reason my answer is no is that nature is not rigid, nature is fluid. If the goal is the creation of a serene space, I stand a better chance of achieving that goal if I work in concert with the natural dynamic. If fluidity is the natural dynamic, I stand a better chance if I abandon designs that require rigid adherence to form. So here’s the final piece — c’mon, you knew I’d do it — of the peaceful garden: mimic nature.
Nature has an ease and an elegance; in combination, those qualities form art without artifice. It’s the difference between having a lifestyle and an actual life; for the garden to have life, it doesn’t require style so much as substance. If I take the substantial elements of nature — the lush, round heads of peonies bent to the morning dew, the plumes of ornamental grass caramelized by Autumn sun and shimmering in November frost — it seems to me that I have a style.
The architectural maxim is ‘form follows function.’ When we allow style to dictate what follows, we stand that maxim on its head. The function of this garden is to inspire serenity; the form that serenity takes is up to you. By all means, study the style of Japanese gardens, but study as well the country’s art and architecture. Treat yourself to a book on the sculptures of Isamu Noguchi, whose works were magnificent simplicity. Study the careful placement of stones in a Zen garden; for that matter, study the pooling of rocks along a river bed or a pebbled beach. No stones? Study sand patterns, instead. It’s the same material, just in miniature.
The objective is to watch what water does. The objective is to become intrigued by the patterns laid in the sand by receding waves, by the patterns the water itself makes as it runs a craggy course. The objective is to collect all of these images, and to use them in designing your own garden, in designing your own style.
That style might be rich complexity, a paean to tone and texture; it might be magnificent simplicity, a path through a ribbon of white birch gone gold in the waning summer days. Whatever its style, the garden will be an expression of you, an interpretation of ‘peaceful’ through your eyes and your hands.
It might even be blue.