I practice a philosophy called Taoism that focuses on the natural order of things, and instructs me both to live and to garden in accord with Nature. Lao Tsu, whose writings are at the core of this ancient philosophy, strikes me as a fellow Master Gardener. From the standpoint of ego or pragmatism, it doesn’t hurt that I am encouraged by the practice always to be a student, always to be in the process of learning. It keeps me sufficiently grounded that I don’t develop the inflated notion that Nature will bend to my will, and it keeps me rooted in a site-specific method of landscape design. It teaches me that if I study a site, if I find out how the land processes wind, water, light and sound, I can create a design that utilizes the property’s natural inclinations.
The methodology is part of a Taoist skill known as geomancy, which is an art akin to feng shui but, for my purposes, more practical than mystical. Geomancy deals with reading a property’s chi and employs a variety of systems, often arcane, to garner that knowledge. Considered at its most elemental, though, chi is energy; wind and water and light and sound are energy, too. If I find out where on the property those forces are strong or weak, I can design complementary features. This results in landscapes that are harmonious, which is great from the metaphysical aspect of the art, but also results in landscapes that are practical. Because practical landscapes save time, energy of the human variety and, usually, money, this method of design is appealing on multiple levels.
Large or small, city or country, every piece of land has tao, a way of being, a particular flow to the energy. Even a postage stamp surrounding a brownstone has tao; charting the way helps delineate everything from the form and direction of stonework to the selection of plant materials. There’s a great example of this at a tiny site in the West End of Portland, Maine, on which sits an historic home designed by the architect John Calvin Stevens.
Like many of his houses, the structure is built on a small rise which drains water away from the house. That water wants to go somewhere and, because there is also a slight grade to the street, all of it is inclined to go straight for the walkway. My redesign of that walkway needed to recognize the potential washout effect of strong rain in Spring and the ice that would pool in Winter. The design that addressed both of those issues incorporates five slabs of granite that float over a gravel bed eighteen inches deep, creating a reservoir for excess water. To the left and right of the granite slabs, I covered the gravel with channels of large and small river jacks, a design reference to the islands in Casco Bay. It’s an artful touch, but also serves to slow any rainwater that may be tempted to pick up speed. By understanding the energy of moving water, I was able to create a design that manages it physically, and plays on it visually.
On a much larger property outside the city, I actually used the line etched by drainage as the basis for a walkway design. I first saw the site just after a prolonged rain, and the water had swept alongside the house from porch to driveway in a long, elegant curve. That curve became the left side of the new walkway and established the imagery for all of the stonework. It also let me know instantly that any attempt to put plant material in the space between walk and foundation would fail, because the runoff from such a steeply-pitched roof would constantly erode the soil. The installation of another decorated drain, and a spectacular granite basin placed directly under the spot of strongest downpour, was an easy solution and a great bit of visual drama. In addition, the birds love it and the household’s two little boys love the birds, so it’s a winner all around.
Just as the power of moving water inspires creativity, the presence of still water informs my design sensibility as well. There are welcome places where water accumulates and remains, like small ponds, but there are also sites that have areas with such poor drainage that they become mini-bogs every Spring. Can you correct that mechanically? Sure; throw enough money at a landscape problem you can fix almost anything. Inevitably, though, that fix creates problems of its own. By recognizing the tao of the land and using it as the basis for my design I can also fix the problem, but without the expense and without the potential side-effects.
What’s my remedy? I add plants that like their feet wet, a category which holds more than just iris or reed grass; there are trees and shrubs that are at their best in boggy conditions. The introduction of water-loving plant material to those areas not only provides the right environment for the plants, but gives the water a purpose. Over time, the plants themselves serve the mechanical function of altering the condition of the space by taking up the excess water, and I haven’t needed to reconfigure the terrain in order to accomplish that goal. By understanding what the property is inclined to do in any given spot, I can make subtle adjustments that coax change rather than force change, which is the Taoist way. The fact that coaxing is usually more economical, in all forms of currency, is the bonus.
Want to learn the way of water? Watch the rain.