Friday 27 December 2013

Water Permeating The Soil

The bank of bent ferns
Brilliant deep russet –
Saturation and dissolution
In aqueous flow,

Footfall on the muddy track
Clay flesh slippery underfoot,
The wind in the firs
The wind in the pines -
Different songs.

The path shapes my body
To its inward curve,
Enfolding silence
Awash with sound.

The swollen belly
Of mother to be -
Flowing also in water
The flowing of new flesh 
& consciousness.

Balanced in equity of being
The point of transformation,
Stealthy magick afoot
Single light in dark night
Burns of promised creations.

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Tuesday 24 December 2013

Winter Water Music

The bones of the earth
Covered in moss -
Silent breathing
Soil life still churning.

Slipping out of form
Dissolved in formlessness –
Naked in soft winter rain.

Amidst white birch stems –
Ahh, no, the leaf carpet alive.

Down here
At the bottom of the cycle,
The bell rings
Then again –
Everywhere water droplets
Hitting the glimmering leaf carpet.

Black branches
Against the inky sky,
Arrow heads of deep ivy
Mosses and wood spurge –
No bird sound, just wind for now.

Wind music
Water music,
In the woods, late December.

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Sunday 8 December 2013

Winter Gifts

Oh, how we crave answers
Responses to every shiver of desire-
Sitting still, finding no thing,
Just breath.

As if a falling shadow
The last crow reaches the roost –
Barely half past four.

Returning to the stream
Hoping to bathe in its music –
Clouds massing for rain.

Perhaps its winter’s gift
This lack of words for the world –
Empty pages and the poet.

Weaving our narratives
Into self-sustaining truths and beliefs,
So forgetting wind songs and leaf poems.
In this way we lose the path
Blind to the trees within the trees
And stumble over the rock strewn way.
Just breath, no mind required.

What of the dreams and aspirations
Of the earth itself,
Wherein its murmuring sigh of contentment,
Does it contract at our oncoming footfall?
Oh Beauty desiring to be known
To be placed in the light of awareness
No pushing for the river.

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A Brief History Of Japanese Gardens

Sento Gosho Imperial Palace, Kyoto
The Japanese garden tradition is one of the oldest continuous garden traditions in the world. The creation of gardens dates back to the time of the earliest official contacts between Japan and its continental neighbour China in the 7th century. In China the practice of landscape gardening was already highly developed and practised on a very sophisticated and extensive scale. Landscape gardens were created following the Paradise model. They were intended to recreate an idealised landscape, in effect creating a suitable abode for the deities on earth; in the anticipation by doing so that it would encourage the gods to reside on earth in closer proximity to human society.

The Heian period (784 - 1185), which began with the founding of a new capital, Kyoto, heralded a great flowering of the arts and culture in Japan. Culture remained the preserve of the minority, essentially the aristocracy. In particular, the garden tradition was to rise to prominence during this time, and a distinctly Japanese identity to gardens begins to emerge.

Illustration showing typical shindenzukuri layout
One of the characteristics of the period is the emergence of a particularly Japanese style of architecture, shindenzukuri. The shinden, or Main Hall, sat at the centre of the architectural complex, with roofed corridors extending out to the east and west sides, these in turn leading to pavilions. The area immediately to the south of the Main Hall was usually a flat gravelled courtyard (which was used on ceremonial occasions, in which two trees considered sacred - a mandarin orange and cherry - were planted). Beyond this, the garden was centred about a large pond, which was used for boating and situated in the pond would have been an island. The garden itself was landscaped in such a manner as to suggest a variety of different landscape settings, mountain landscapes, seascapes, riverine landscapes, marshes, and so on were created. A great variety of planting material was used specific to the type of landscapes being recreated in the garden.

It was popular to create sections of gardens which recalled or referred to scenic natural landscapes both in Japan as well as China. The aristocracy travelled rarely little beyond Kyoto itself, so these features in gardens became popular. The practice also indicates how important an ingredient the imagination of the viewer was in interpreting, understanding and appreciating the garden scenery.

In the early 11th century a manual of garden creation was complied, the Sakuteiki ('Records of Garden Making') is one of the earliest such books in the world. It covers many subjects in detail, from the different styles of gardens, use of stones and plants, to various taboos associated with gardens.

The end of the Heian period was marked by the decline in influence of the aristocracy, and the rise of the military class (samurai), as the predominant social class. At first, the samurai sought to maintain and imitate the garden and architectural styles of the nobility. In the gardens of the 12th through to the 15th centuries we find gardens such as Tenryu-ji, Saiho-ji, Toji-in, Ginkaku-ji and Kinkaku-ji, which retain elements of the Heian styles while at the same time striving towards new ideas and means of expression.
Komyõ-ji, Kyoto
The samurai were attracted to Zen Buddhism for its directness of expression, and they encouraged the spread and establishment of Zen temples. In the Zen temples a new style of garden gained popularity, the ‘Dry landscape’ or karesansui garden. Several monks achieved renown for their skills in garden creation. Zen temples are composed of two parts, the south-facing element is the ‘public’ section with reception rooms and the main prayer hall, and the north side of the temple is the ‘private’ section, where monks live and study. On the south side of the main hall was a large courtyard, usually enclosed by a tile-topped wall, the ground level spread with sand or gravel, which was used as a ceremonial space, known as the yuniwa. It was in this space that the karesansui gardens characteristic of Zen temples were developed,  and may be seen today. The gardens were not created specifically for the purpose of meditation rather they were gardens which were intended to reinforce the quality of sacred space associated with the temple..
From the 16th century onward one finds the emergence of a new style of garden, the Tea garden or Cha niwa. Essentially the Tea garden was a path (roji) which led to the tea house, and became a means by which the participants could prepare themselves for the ceremony. The garden deliberately down plays extravagance, rocks are small (if used at all), and the planting is predominately evergreen. Particular emphasis is placed on the layout of the path itself, as a means of influencing the manner in which the viewer is conveyed through space. Such features as stepping-stones, stone water basins and lanterns, which are now widely accepted as part of the fabric of a Japanese garden were first used and developed in the context of the Tea garden.

Daishin-in (Myoshin-ji), Kyoto

At the beginning of the Edo period (1603 - 1867) the seat of government was relocated from Kyoto to the small fishing village of Yedo (now Tokyo), which rapidly developed into a major city. There was a resurgence of estate gardens around Imperial residences, and also in particular around the homes of the leading samurai. They were required to have by edict several residences in the Edo are, the purpose was to soak up as much of their cash as possible, so they would not spend money on fermenting political troubles! Later, with the rise of a wealthy mercantile class, private gardens began to develop, albeit in fewer numbers. During the rise of Japan as an industrial superpower, many fine gardens were created for wealthy industrialists. Some survive to the present day, but are unfortunately rarely accessible to the public.

The Imperial gardens of Katsura Detached Palace, and Shugaku-in Rikyu are outstanding examples of gardens of the mid to late Edo period. Though relatively large in scale, the gardens incorporated many influences from Tea gardens. Katsura which was created in the early 17th century is a masterpiece of architecture and garden making. In many ways it has come to encapsulate the notion of 'Japanese style'

Katsura Rikyu
In the Edo period pruning techniques became popular. Clipped hedges began to appear in gardens, sometimes making dominant features. Azaleas and other shrubs would be planted en masse and clipped into controlled shapes. Garden creators such as Kobori Enshu (1579 - 1647) created innovative gardens by this means. The variety of plant species in gardens gradually simplified in number, and evergreens form the bulk of plantings. Many gardens are simply planted only with azaleas and pines.

Joju-in, Kyoto

Towards the end of the nineteen century, as Japan opened its doors to the West, lawns began to appear, and plant species from outside Japan were imported and used in gardens. Ogawa Jihei, Shigemori Mirei, and Nakane Kinsaku were the leading garden creators of the 20th century. They both maintained and developed the garden tradition into the modern age. It is a remarkable feature of the garden tradition that there is this apparently seamless development of the garden tradition. In fact the garden tradition established its norms and conventions relatively early, and has maintained them with great consistency over the years. Young trainee gardeners today still study the SakuteikiKyoto remains the centre of garden culture in Japan, it also has the greatest concentration of historic gardens, and several temples have been designated as World Heritage sites.

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Wednesday 27 November 2013

Hakaze-an; Tea Pavilion Part 3

The building Hakaze-an is almost completed, just a very few minor details need to be finished. Originally the commission was to create the building with a small amount of landscaping around it. This has now been extended to add a large pond that will lap up close to the side of the building. The intention being that when the pond is filled with water the surface will catch a reflection of the building. The water surface will also add a air of mystery and calmness to the outlook from within the building. The pond will feature an island, which will be linked by stepping stones to the shoreline, allowing for a circular walk around the garden as a whole.

The tokonoma or alcove is for displaying a flower arrangement, a piece of pottery or a scroll painting.  The floor of the alcove is of cherry wood, and the white lime washed wall catches natural light from above. One last detail is to be added to complete the tokonoma, which will be shown in the next blog instalment.
Walls being rendered with lime plaster . The drainage gully filled with polished black pebbles has not been installed in this photograph.
Projects, be they gardens or buildings, the best of projects evolve in their own right. One can as the designer, visualise and conceive of a concept for a building or garden, but what happens in the best of circumstances is that the building or garden is recognised as having an independent life or being of it's own. This demands a leap of faith by the client, the designer and the builder, also a level of sensitivity in how to manage the 'inner' expression of the building or garden. It is ultimate a fine balance, as the work requires guidance, yet equally sufficient space to establish its own sense of being. 

The shaped roof was covered with a 150mm (6") deep layer of free draining material and then sheets of pre-grown sedum matting was laid over. The green roof absorbs and retains water, it also allows the building with its curved roof to blend elegantly into the surrounding landscape.

The roof is covered with Sedum matting, retained by a copper edging. Also visible is the window inserted to allow natural day-light to illuminate the tokonoma alcove.

                               The drainage gully can be seen, it catches water dripping from the roof.
The level of love, care and attention that has gone into the building has been a measure of developing its own identity. Respecting the qualities of the materials is also an important aspect. All material have their own 'life', and when approaching the creation of a building as a work of art, then these qualities need to be respected and incorporated into the unfolding of the finished form. The rendering of the walls is done with lime plaster, a traditional material that has been used in buildings in England for centuries. Lime plaster breathes, that is it allows the passage of water through the material. It hardens in time through a process of carbonification. Once the two coats of render have been applied and have dried  then a colour wash is applied. On the walls of Hakaze-an four coats of a neutral colour lime wash were applied to colour the walls. All the timbers have been treated with oil to bring out their colour and the detail of the grain of the timber.

All the main structural beams are held together with oak pegs.
Detail of roof supports
A hallmark of the whole ethos of the building has been to create a simple structure of fine natural materials, allowing as far as possible to allow the materials to reveal their own qualities. To enrich the eye and heart of the visitor by their presence and individual qualities. In approaching the landscape treatment of the exterior of the building it was conceived that here there would be more in the way of detail. Hence the detailed stonework of flat black and white pebbles have been set on edge to create the notion of flow. This detail actually starts within the entrance (genkan) 'flows' out to meet the path leading up to the entrance. The dry stream of pebbles then splits to the right and left; to the right it meets two large boulders set as guardian spirits, and to the left the stream flows towards the water basin arrangement, a traditional feature of the Japanese Teahouse architecture, where guests would perform a ritual ablution of hands and mouth.

The completed landscaping of the entrance to the building. The drainage gully can also be seen

Detail of the completed 'hard' landscaping immediately to the front of the building.

A water-basin arrangement to one side of the building. The basin (centre) is carved from a glaciated boulder.
 The approach to the building is calm and measured, principally laid with York stone flags of various sizes as stepping stones. The entire design of building and garden draws upon both Eastern and Western sources for inspiration. The whole is intended to find a meeting of Eastern and Western conceptions.
A stepping stone path of flagstones leads the visitor to the main entrance. Sagina subulate has been planted between the stones. The water-basin arrangement is to the right side behind the planting of dwarf rhododendrons

In the next blog post further details of the pond construction will be shown. The pond will have an island and a 3waterfall. The pond is intended to be a shallow pond, used mainly for its reflective surface, but with the inclusion of two deep areas. A specimen pine has been sourced to be planted on the island.

The pond will come quite close to the building. The island is the area where the surveyor's tripod is stood.(centre left). The concrete shelves will support stonework once the liner has been laid into the pond.

Looking out from the main space towards the pond and island being excavated. 

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Saturday 23 November 2013

Wind Stories

Arcing into light
Soft footfall at daybreak,
Pushing on the open door.

Arcing into dark
Searching for fuel for warmth,
Closing the door

The last of the crab-apple leaves
Spinning wildly on their stems -
A sudden gust of wind.

Slipping into the cave for winter
Withdrawing the roots
Withdrawing the stems
Silence lit by a single flame.

Wind crossing open space
Bending grasses
Scattering the frost –
Receiving the gift of change.

How long ago it seems
That distance was closed
Corporeal tenderness unbound
Memory’s binding blessing -
Song of the birds at first light.

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Sunday 17 November 2013

This Breathing Earth

This breathing earth
The medium by which we exist
This transient mind
The medium by which we perceive –
Dry leaves rustle underfoot.

Night falls early these days,
The sun folds its light into night
Withdrawing into the cave
Into the self of being.
A quarter moon shrouded by milky clouds,
Ahh, dreaming of wind on naked skin.

Almost bare of leaves
Stripped back to its essential frame
Black against the sky,
Shivering in its apprehension of winter
The chestnut tree patient
Roots reaching deep for spring.

How is it that words, patterns of words,
Bear within them meaning
Feelings of love and hurt,
Sense and lost-ness.
River flowing without mind
Or am I mistaken in that too?

Shifting to position and rhythm
Seeking out pauses between the notes
The silences that define
Words curving into emptiness
Echoes shape shift in return,
Day dissolving seamless into night
Autumn in to winter.

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A Work In Progress

Coming Soon!

A current project I am working on is to write an e-book on the art of arranging stones in a Japanese style gardem. I am trying to distill over 30 years of experience of being involved in the creation of this type of gardem. The selection and placement of stones is one of the most crucial aspects of creating such gardens, and the manner in which it is done is key. It is a fascinating subject, and throws a lot of light on the whole aesthetic of such gardens. The book will be a manual for anyone interested in creating a Japanese style garden, and also for any one with a passing interest in the subject. 

At present the text is still being laid out, and then will come the work of illustrating the text with photos and diagrams. So far so good, but there is some way to go yet. The book will be made available in a variety of formats. Look out here for further announcements. I will keep you posted when it becomes available.

In the meanwhile keep checking out the blog, and please enjoy a taste....


Arranging Stones In A Japanese Style Garden

Stones are a paradox, they appear inert and unyielding, yet they are capable of expressing movement and so they can move us, and we can move with them. Their weight and mass connects powerfully with the earth, yet they seem to soar towards the heavens. They are capable of expressing distance, depth and seem to stir memory of deepest time, and make connections within own minds. A stone will occupy and dominate, even define space, become a point marked, as if punctuation mark in a sentence. A centre, and so according to Mircea Eliade, becoming something sacred, a voice with something to say. Rock arrangements suggest something primal, mysterious, yet redolent with continuance. A voice coming to us borne by the wind, even if the words are indistinct to our ears. Yet, when we learn to hear those words, what wonderful songs, what wonderful music it makes.

In Japan the skill of a garden creator has traditionally been measured by their ability in setting stones. Master the setting of stones, then the garden will master itself, that seems to be the line of thought involved with creating gardens in Japan. It is certainly a characteristic of the Japanese gardens that one notices almost immediately; the way and manner with which stones are used is very different to the way they are used in the Western garden. For one thing, stones are not used to simply create rockery features in gardens, but seem to be integral to the concept of what a garden is in Japan.  The stones arranged in the garden carry meaning as well as being compositional elements. It is often remarked that the arrangement of stones form the ‘skeleton’, the underlying infrastructure of the garden arrangement, and the planting (the more familiar aspect of a garden in Western eyes) is overlain on top of this structure. Where the planting forms the ‘flesh over the bones’. There are many garden arrangements in Japan that dispense with planting altogether, these gardens are usually found in Zen temples, where it is a characteristic of that particular aesthetic to pare down the design to its fundamentals, dispensing with anything other than the absolute essential elements. The world famous garden at Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto is an example of this approach, where in the courtyard garden it is composed of fifteen stones and raked garden, there is no planting apart from a pool of moss at the base of the stone groups. There are other even more extreme examples one could cite, where even the stones have been omitted and the garden is simply composed of raked gravel alone, Tokai-an (Myoshin-ji temple), and Ryugin-an (sub-temple of the Tofuku-ji complex), both in Kyoto are examples of this approach. In this work the intention is to examine the role of stone arrangement and see how it performs in this role of creating a basic structure from which the garden emerges in its totality. The manner and principles with which stones are arranged are common to design principles as exhibited in a number of the Japanese arts, and may also be found in painting, flower arrangement and so on.

In traditional Japanese gardens what the viewer is presented with is a composed and framed view, or a series of interlocking views. A critical aspect to the make up a garden view is the placement of stones within the garden space. The pattern of their interrelationships creates a variety of 'physiological' structures, which are presented in a logical and sequential order that in turn aids to order the view; so structuring a view, making it authentic, visually logical and so harmonious to the perception of the viewer. The garden is rarely revealed in the whole, rather it is presented in such a way as to allow the viewer to re-create the totality in his or her own imagination. A view is built up, by the play of layer upon layer of scenery, adding depth and visual complexity each time. The mind though, seems to fall into a sense of equilibrium, perceiving movement yet stillness, 'equal play'. What the mind signals is that it's perceiving is something balanced, something where all the forms are in harmony. This opens the door for the viewer, now he or she can become a part of the garden. All manner of landscapes and gardens will have a similar effect on the experiencing viewer, but the Japanese garden uses this aspect with a particularly deliberate effect. 

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Wabi; Spirit Unbound


Wabi (usually written in hirigana as above, but also sometimes written with the character   ) is one of the crucial aesthetic terms in Japanese culture, and fundamental to an understanding of any of the arts, including gardens. It may be particularly applied to the world of the Tea garden, though its scope is clearly wider than being restricted to a single expression of garden art. The form of Tea ceremony developed by the master Sen no Rikyu is often referred to as 'wabi cha', the tea of wabi. It is a term that is closely associated with another term, sabi (さび). Sabi refers to the quality of been worn or well used, the 'not newness' of something, and is particularly associated with patina and the feeling of that comes from something that is well used. The term sabi will be explored in another blog post later.

Wabi may be translated as 'loneliness', 'poverty', 'subdued taste', or 'simplicity'. All of these terms offer some guide to the meaning of the concept without actually defining it absolutely. All of these tentative definitions must be understood in the spiritual or metaphysical sense.  The 'loneliness' that is referred to, is a sense of detachment from the everyday world, both in the manner of a physical separation, as well as a separation that is brought about by a conscious act of intention. It is not a detachment of unsociability, rather a conscious withdrawing from the hustle and bustle, in order to seek out a space wherein the mind and spirit may achieve a sense of peace, through a lessening of distraction. Tea is after all a social occasion that will be shared with others. Likewise the appreciation of the garden is not by definition a solitary activity, but one that may be shared and enriched by the presence of others of a like mind. There is a long tradition of the 'hermit-poet' in Japanese culture, though these were not by any means people who were driven to such a state by a feeling of malice toward their fellow men, rather people who sought out quiet places in order to sharpen their perception and thereby be capable of seeing and understanding deeper the human condition. Thus the garden may be seen to be a place that offers refuge, and the material composition of the garden a path toward that quiet space, which ultimately lies within. The poet Ryokan expresses it this way;

    "Truly, I love this life of seclusion.
     Carrying my staff, I walk toward a friend's cottage.
     The trees in his garden, soaked by the evening rain,
     reflect the cool, clear autumnal sky.
     The owners dog comes to greet me:
     Chrysanthemums bloom along the fence.
     These people have the same spirit as the ancients;
     An earthen wall marks their separation from the world.
     In the house volumes of poetry are piled on the floor.
     Abandoning worldliness, I often come to this tranquil place-
     The spirit here is the spirit of Zen."  

Likewise the 'poverty' that is spoken of is not the poverty of destitution, rather is is a deliberate turning away from the world of ostentation and glamour. It is a recognition that the generation and accumulation of wealth in this world is a temporary experience that has no depth in the metaphysical sense. To the Buddhist or Taoist, reality lies in the recognition of the non-absolute ( 'emptiness' ) as the only constant. When everything is in a state of constant change then the path toward enlightenment lies in detachment from acquisition and accumulation of material objects, as these ultimately have no true reality.  This has a bearing on the form of the garden, whereby the intention is to present the garden free of ostentation ( ego ) and glamour, the 'hands of the garden-creator' are hidden. Nature itself remains the prime source of inspiration of motif and the ultimate model for garden builders, the garden-creator is simply the facilitator, working as a medium through which the garden form will emerge.

Likewise the interpretation of wabi as 'subdued taste' or 'simplicity' may be understood in the light of what has been set out above. The materials chosen for the garden are of the simplest kind, earth, stone, plants and water, presented in a manner that resolves to express something of the spirit of the landscape, rather than being a detailed reconstruction of  landscape scenery. Naturally we see here an influence of Zen Buddhism, in particular the concept of presenting those elements that are deemed absolutely essential and avoiding all extraneous material. By this process of reduction there is an allowance made for the imagination of the garden viewer to have maximum scope for involvement in recreating within his own heart the landscape scene that is being presented. The potential for distraction from this course is thereby minimised, through the discipline of 'subdued taste' that a greater freedom of expression may be acquired.

It is in these ways that the concept of wabi may be understood to have a strong bearing on the creation and appreciation of the garden as a whole. Though wabi is associated in particular with the world of Tea, its resonance goes far beyond that particular aspect of the Japanese garden tradition. There is a poem by  that is much beloved by the Tea masters for its capacity to capture the essence of wabi

All around, no flowers in bloom are seen,

Nor blazing maple leaves I see,
Only a solitary fisherman's hut
On the sea beach, in the twilight of this autumn eve. 

Lord Teika  1162-1241

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