Monday 28 October 2013

Fifteen Lines For Winter

The hawk in the rain
Waiting for the mist to clear-
The poet waits for words to fall.

The river running to its destiny
Aching impatiences for reunion –
Mountains gathering the rain.

Slap slap the drum beats out
Shifting the air between here and there-
Shuffling feet along the road.

Growing within your belly
A child swimming towards the light -
Breathing underwater.

Spring, but a dream just now
Another cycle yet to begin -
An autumnal storm shaking the chesnut tree.

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Saturday 26 October 2013

Pruning And The Japanese Garden

In the Japanese garden much of the work that goes into the maintenance of the garden is concerned with pruning tree and shrub material, as well as maintaining the garden in a spotlessly tidy state. For a garden composition that relies heavily on the strengths of balance and proportion it is important that the relationship between forms be defined and maintained. It is the normal practice in Japan when constructing a garden, to create the garden with all the plant material at its optimum size. Therefore the work of developing the garden subsequent to the construction phase is principally concerned with maintaining and developing the plant forms, usually pretty much as they are when planted. This is achievable to a great extent because such developed and mature material is available in plant nurseries, albeit at a price. 

The practice of pruning is concerned with three main areas ; 

1. Maintaining the health of the tree.

The predominance of evergreens in the Japanese garden means that pruning will be an important consideration for the health of the plant. By far the preference is to maintain an open crown structure, this is particularly noticeable in tree pruning, though the same principal applies to some shrub pruning. The aim of this is to allow light and air to circulate freely around the plant. Maintaining an open crown will also mean that the lower branches will be retained as the plant grows older. Where the normal development of the crown is allowed, there is a natural tendency for the spreading crown to exclude enough light to lower limbs, thus resulting in limbs being shed, or atrophying. Weak limbs or diseased parts of a plant must be removed from the plant. It is important that as part of the overall presentation of the garden to the viewer that the plants should be seen  to be healthy and vigourous.

Regular pruning will encourage the development of new shoots on the plant, thus maintaining the vigour  and extending the longevity of the plant. A consequence of regular pruning at close quarters is the the bark of the tree or shrub will quicker take on an appearance of age which is deemed a desirable characteristic. Azaleas, which are a commonly used material, are pruned immediately after flowering which allows the plants the summer to regrow new shoots and set flower buds for the following spring. Sometimes different coloured varieties of Azalea japonica are planted together and clipped into single forms, thereby giving a mottling effect when in flower. The regular pruning which removes the dead flower heads encourages more buds to appear.

In trees and some specimen shrubs certain types of branches are pruned out. These are branches growing back toward the main stem or trunk. The plant form is encouraged to develop laterally, radiating out away from the centre, this helps in the creation of the characteristic ‘pads’ of foliage. The desired shape for a branch to take resembles the hand held out, palm upwards, with the fingers lifting slightly toward the tips, and the whole hand held just below the horizontal. This style of pruning is known as sashide . It is possible to achieve a rounded form in outline for large shrubs by this method, without simply resorting to clipping the ‘outside’ of the plant. The resulting form gives both a sense of solidity and lightness, which may be an advantage for a composition in  restricted spaces, in such a situation a solid form may appear too heavy, and overwhelming. In forming and maintaining pads of foliage attention needs to be given always to the underside of the pad, keeping a clear edge and thus open space to the top of the pad below.

In gardens where the garden creator has taken a more naturalistic approach, as opposed to say a more mannered style as in a karesansui ('dry landscape' garden)then pruning will also be necessary to allow variations in light and shade. Trees will need their canopies thinning to allow light to reach the floor of the garden, and so prevent the loss of lower limbs of trees which may be considered necessary. This also will help maintain the circulation of air which is important in maintaining the health of plant material generally.

2. Maintaining the  plant material in a suitable proportion to the garden composition.

The Japanese garden is a delicately balanced creation, where every consideration is given to harmonise the relationships between the elements of the garden. If the arrangement of stones in the garden forms the ‘skeleton’ of the garden then the planting will come as the ‘flesh on the bones’. Ideally neither one element or another should dominate, all the various components of the garden should be placed in such a way as to give equal status to each. 

The arrangement of the planting will follow the same rules as the placement of stones, that is by asymmetrical triangular composition. Trees are generally the key planting elements, and for traditional gardens the pine tree reigns supreme in this role. Where the plant forms have been highly developed into intricate shapes, then these plants will be placed in prominent places in the landscape where they may be seen to best effect. Just below the summit of hills or mountains, near waterfalls, at the entry point of a river to a lake or sea, on islands and promontories, and so on.

The garden creator will need to use his/her discretion in finding the optimum height and spread for the plant specimens. This will depend upon the nature of the composition, the site itself and the scale of the garden. A balance will need to be struck between the use of plants for specimens and a secondary role for planting in supporting the arrangement of stones. In this latter mode one sees primarily azalea japonica  clipped into well defined shapes, flowing about and linking together passages of rock arrangement. The effect of planting used in this way is to soften the hard texture and nature of the stone by a close conjunction with the soft lushness of the plants. In karesansui  arrangements it is probably better to limit the number of different types of plant used in the arrangement, rather than relying on the uniformity of texture of the plant material to calm the eye. 

Finding the point where a balance exists between the elements of the composition will always be a matter for fine judgement and discretion. There is no substitute for experience in developing this faculty. It is therefore important to study the works of master gardeners to see how they have arranged plant material.

3. Developing an aesthetically pleasing form of the plants.

In some gardens particular plants have the role of being focal points within the composition. They will appear at key points in the garden where the eye of the viewer can rest on them. Think of the garden composition as being a series of sentences, in this way key features in the composition act as punctuation marks dividing the flow of words, introducing stops and rest points for the eye. It is usual to think of a garden composition being read sequentially by the eye of the viewer, therefore one needs to introduce rhythm and movement, and so pauses in the flow of the melody. In this sense it is important to see the garden as a whole, not simply as a series of tableaux somehow linked together.

In this sense some plants will stand out as specimen pieces (often being 'cloud pruned' in distinct layers of foliage), and other plant material will be used to create flowing forms that serve to link elements of the composition. Both are important, specimen pieces may draw more attention to themselves, but the linking swathes of foliage are equally important in that they allow the eye to move smoothly from one area of the garden towards the next. In Japan azaleas are often used to create the flowing shapes that may hug the rock placements, whereas pines are very often used as specimens standing out from the masses of foliage.

Japanese garden design is very much concerned with subtly exhibiting the idea of flow or movement. What appears to be static and settled is actually a moment of time caught as if in a photograph. Change is occurring in plant material all through the year, from season to season plants change; some may flower and create bright areas of colour in say spring or autumn, but it is also important to recognise the more subtle changes in leaf colour too. Young spring growth can have a wonderful vivid and fresh range of greens which lift the spirit of the viewer. The forms of plant material will vary too according to their patterns of growth, a stand of bamboos or grasses can be very sensitive to the movement of breezes, whereas the tight clipped masses of azalea or box plants, create smooth textural masses which seem to flow. The viewer reacts however subconsciously to all these variations, it enriches the visual response to the garden. Consider too introducing contrasts in leaf form and textures too to a composition. Placing large leaf plants in the foreground and contrasting that with smaller leaves in the background will enhance a sense of perspectival depth to a composition.

Plants are the mainstay of any garden and the many subtle uses of plant material will enhance the experience of the garden, always seek to create a unity of purpose to the plant material within a garden, else the garden space becomes a space where plants are simply displayed. The use of plant material beyond the confines of the garden itself (where this is relevant) will also link the garden to the wider landscape. Plants are  living growing and developing materials that offers the garden creator an amazing potentiality to create and experiment. Look carefully at the individual characteristics of the plant material and follow that potential, observe how the plants respond to the particular environment and work with that. It is as if the garden creator enters into a dance with the material he or she uses, it is a dance that has so many subtle nuances and aspects, part of the miracle of Nature itself.

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Thursday 24 October 2013

The Dance Of Light And Shade

Oh, cover the ground in soft leaves
Let branches tent over our heads
With only stars’ ancient light to reveal
The passage of music running through the earth.

Never fear the swathe of silence
Its meaning rarely what we believe,
So circled by memory’s web
We rise and fall
Between this world and the other.

Just seeking Beauty’s call -
From the beat of swan flight overhead
To a mouse parting blades of grass,
Never quite silent, never quite still.

Beneath clouds I yearn to fly
Beneath water I yearn to walk,
Between shadows I fear to tread
Between reeds I fear to swim,
Spiralling from a single point
Everything and nothing in motion turns.

In the dance of light and shade
Branches on the woodland floor
Being absorbed back into the earth,
Did the fungi hear them fall?

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Sunday 20 October 2013

Pathways Of Memory

Drifting into open spaces
Dense as a dandelion spore
Borne by breeze, shaped by light -
Becoming and unbecoming
As day follows night follows day.

Searching out words
From their hidden places
Bringing them into the air –
As sea soft lapping the shore.

Drawing upon memory
The path follows the valley,
Its rise and fall
Pressing and releasing
Flesh, blood, sinew and bone,
Until the final release
Becoming an open view.

A chain of ants
Making their own way
Between moss hills –
Each in a world of our re-creation.

The song of the rock
Pulses in harmony with the quivering grasses,
The glassy glide of the river
Binding and releasing all known knowledge,
These intricate webs of senses unfold
Beyond the knowing of desire and mind.

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Sunday 13 October 2013

Music Of Light And Shade

In grace and tenuous Beauty
each moment a challenge of re-discovery -
Keeping faith in vision turning
about the still heart's bright beat.

 They come,
rolling on as if a late train 
a chain of heels tapping to city beat
the flutter of pigeon wings
in voices calling soft or loud -
poems falling as if dried leaves.

The Dreamcatcher called by:
 I supposed that is what 'it' was,
there is no way of knowing
He called again 
but I slept on.
Just a feather on the path
oblivious to the wind in the trees.

 Just frozen moments
something that barely existed
before it becomes something other.
In light and in shade,
the music of it all.

as new formed buds
through landscapes
of imagination; 
In thick woodland
the sound of river lost to sight,
its voice the valley itself
carving into mountain's ridge.

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Friday 11 October 2013

Soft Rain Falling

Falling rain
Soft opening the ground
Autumnal embrace.

Oh, scattered dreams
Flying shards cutting the air –
Clinging to threads
Following water always.

Beyond the muted trumpet
Beyond the cat dreaming
Beyond the hum of desire –
Rain drops on glass.

Quiet and deep running
Searching the edges of light and form,
Assembling views within views.
Not one form remaining
Only mountain shading into mountain,
Transformations at the very edges.

Breath falling
Breath rising-
Sometime deep draughts
Sometime shallow sips,
Always the same well.

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On Chinese Landscape Painting and Japanese Gardens. Part 5/5

Landscape As Essence

  According to Taoist cosmological thought the foundation of all life is the movement and generation of energy or chi (‘ki’, in Japanese), without this quality stagnation occurs and nothing can exist to procreate, evolve or flourish.  Taoism as a philosophy profoundly penetrated into the fabric of Chinese thought and was also to deeply influence both Buddhism and Confucianism; all three of these great systems were influential in Japan. In Taoist terms universal energy is generated by the interaction of yang and yin (J. and in), usually expressed as ‘high and low’, ‘male and female’, ‘hot and cold’ etc), their interaction is a process of constant transmutation of the one state into the other, They are not ‘pure’ elements in the relative sense as the one contains the seed of the other, the one being defined by the other, thus they exist as a whole. The result of their interaction is the generation of chi. This energy can only be grasped by an absolute identification with the object, to the point where the subject (the observer) and the object (the observed) fuse, or, more correctly are seen in a state devoid of a relativistic perception. The painters were seeking after more than a representational truth of that which they were seeing. As the painter Ching Hao (c. 855-915) put it, “One should not take outward beauty for reality. He who does not understand this mystery will not obtain truth, even though his pictures may contain likeness.” In this sentiment there is no difference between what the painters sought after and that which the garden creators pursued, both are seeking the exact same essence.

Guo Xi, Autumn River
For the garden maker what this implies is that one does not seek after a reproduction of landscape per se. The manifestation of spirit in the garden composition demands that the creator seeks to express something of the essential quality of landscape. By its very nature this is an indefinable quality that may be grasped intuitively by the viewer, even responding subconsciously to it. As Merleau-Ponty[1] has pointed out we do not simply perceive the world through our senses, but having perceived the world (and ourselves relative to that world) we constantly construct and re-construct the world both within and without our self. Osvald Sirén expresses it this way: “Applied in the field of artistic activity this is a definition of the highest form of conception, the purest form of inspiration: the knower becomes the object of his knowledge, the artist the thing he visualises or conceives, and if he possesses the proper means of exteriorization, he will transmit in symbols of shapes and signs something which contains a spark of that eternal stream of life or consciousness which abides when forms decay.”[2]

The Chinese landscape paintings that the Japanese collected so avidly may be meticulously composed, yet to the eye they can appear as wildly sensual creations. The mountains thrust up towards the heavens, with rivers running as torrents cutting ravine-like folds through the mountains. They are not always gentile, tranquil or bucolic depictions of landscapes. They are at times ravenous in their writhing energy, mysterious and even forbidding places, perhaps fit only for contemplation, the abode of birds and hermits seeking isolation. These are awesome, inspiring places. To some extent the paintings were modelled after actual landscapes, one only has to get the merest glance of the Huangshan mountains in Anhui Province to realise the paintings are not wholly imaginative dream-like landscapes. There are several other mountain areas scattered across China with similar characteristics. In such elemental conditions man recognises his place in the world, that of being part of the world, not the dominant controlling force he becomes with the power of technology at his disposal. In such landscapes the landscape is like a mirror held in front of us reflecting back an picture of mankind as part of nature; as much as a tiny spider, an eagle or a tiger. 

Huangshan mountains, Anhui province
 “Shōtoku no sansui "(生得の山水): this most evocative phrase, from the eleventh-century text Sakuteiki (作庭記) cuts to the heart of the approach that the garden creator takes to the work. It may be translated as; “the garden should always follow after Nature”. It is a reminder that the ultimate source of inspiration to the garden creator and the artist is Nature itself. Nature is a process in constant evolution, cyclical and nuanced in its movements. The paintings reflect this as much as the gardens, whereas the painters very often would use the effect of clouds to indicate season, the garden creator uses plants to gain the same effect. Each season brings its own emotional weight and quality to a composition, be it a garden or a painting, the lightness and renewal of spring, the coming into fullness of summer, the turning inwards of autumn and the withdrawal of energy into the earth for winter, are all part of the cyclical process we know as being life itself.

That nature reflects so clearly the human condition meant that both painters and garden creators could imply symbolic values and moral conditions in landscapes being depicted. The painters were long used to seeing such values in the landscapes they depicted, and garden creators no doubt absorbed this from them however subconsciously. Specific plants held specific values, for example, the plum representing fortitude, the pine steadfastness and longevity, and bamboo resilience. These three plants in particular are frequently depicted in paintings, and together they were known as the ‘Three Friends of Winter’. 

When we look at a garden such as Ryõan-ji , what we are actually looking at is a courtyard with fifteen stones scattered through a bed of raked gravel. Yet when we ‘see’ Ryõan-ji  and recognise its essential spirit, then our imagination leaps to re-create an entirely different scene. We can now imagine mountain peaks projecting above a cloud base filling the valleys, we can feel ourselves observing islands in a seascape. Or we can simply sit there and be held in thrall of being immersed in something so much greater than our self. A landscape is so much physically greater in scale than the human body, in comparison we shrink in scale as if we had become a perceiving cell relative to the whole body complex. Part of the sense of awe we may experience comes through the recognition of no longer being the dominant element in the world we perceive. We find ourselves identifying with something other than the simple evidence of our eyes, because we have become an integral element of that landscape spirit captured before us. The garden is no longer outside of ourselves but an extension of our self.

Ryoan-ji, Kyoto
When one looks at the writings of Chinese painters and critics the term ‘harmony’ (Ch. ) arises frequently as a condition or quality that is desirable in a painting. Harmony is not a condition of stasis, but a dynamic, interactive condition of identification and alignment, a dance where the perceiver and the perceived are bound by reciprocal becoming. This is also a quality that is very much in evidence when one experiences a Japanese garden, indeed it is one of the most endearing characteristics of this garden form. What this reveals is that it is necessary for the painter and the garden creator to carry this quality within themselves, if it is going to be expressed within the work. Our ‘inner state’ is as important to the way the work will be perceived as the technique applied to its creation. All that is brought to the process of creation remains as part of the work and reflects back in some subtle way. In this sense it is pertinent that the painter or garden creator be aware of his or her own ‘inner state’, as the garden, likewise the painting, is ultimately a reflection of not simply the materials used in its composition, nor the technique by which they are brought together. What the viewer receives is the totality of all the energies implanted into the work.

Chinese landscape paintings have undoubtedly influenced and aided the development of the Japanese garden tradition pushing it beyond mere representation to become an art form in its own right. There were many factors that have gone into the development of the gardens, but perhaps it was the absorption of concepts from the paintings that pushed the gardens into the position they were able to achieve. Without the stimulus of the garden creators looking at the paintings, the gardens would likely have remained more mundane creations. Of course one can identify several other important influences, poetry, climate, geography, and cultural inclination for example but in terms of the gardens that we are able to look back on through a historical perspective, the landscape paintings hanging in dimly lit temple complexes and the residences of the ruling elite were probably the most important and complete factors of all.

Kyoto, Japan

[1] Merleau Ponty. The Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge, 1962.
[2] Osvald Sirén. ‘The Chinese On The Art Of Painting’. 1936, republished Dover 2005

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Wednesday 9 October 2013

On Chinese Landscape Painting and Japanese Gardens. Part 4/5

Yohaku, and the use of ‘empty space’

Li Shi (李氏)12thC Imaginary tour through Xiao-xiang
Composition in Chinese painting is pre-eminently a problem of placing objects in relationship to each other, so that the intermediate spaces become eloquent and aesthetically significant. It is the same with gardens except as noted above the creator is utilising three dimensions rather than two. Thus the space (‘emptiness’) that lies between the various elements becomes of great importance. For it is in the separation of elements, the space that constitutes the distance between them, that also serves to give definition to the forms themselves. François Cheng writes[1]: “Far from being a kind of no-man’s land that would imply neutralization or compromise, emptiness makes possible the process of interiorization and transformation through which each thing actualises its sameness and otherness and, in so doing, attains totality.”
Loquats and Mountain Bird
Southern Song Dynasty 1127-1279
Emptiness is a concept at the very heart of Chinese painting, and is of supreme importance to painters, it is also a philosophical notion that has very deep roots in Chinese Taoism[2], as well as in Buddhism. The use of emptiness allows transformation and change into a composition thereby enhancing the concept of movement and the transcendence of stasis in a composition. In landscape terms, fullness can be expressed as mountains, and emptiness as valleys. Without the valleys there would be no mountains, and without the mountains there would be no valleys, the two are wholly interdependent. In painting terms the empty spaces are immeasurable, born of spirit and dream. Emptiness is not a negation, rather it brings definition and clarity, it also allows change and transition to unfold.

To garden creators, empty space (yohaku, in Japanese) is of equal importance, especially in karesansui gardens, but it is also extensively used in all the garden forms. One could go as far to say that it is a defining characteristic of composition in a Japanese garden. Kitayama Yasuo, a contemporary garden creator in Japan, in conversation with the author explained that creating a garden was a process of beginning with a ‘solid space’ and ‘by carving into this block, I release the various elements, so that they may be alive and express their individuality.”[3] Yohaku creates the conditions for movement to occur and energy to circulate in the composition.

Yohaku is related to the fundamental notions of yin and yang, which will be further gone into later in the discussion of essence and the landscape. In paintings yin and yang is most obviously expressed in the depiction of light in the composition, and as most paintings were created using India ink, this means the varying of tonality with which the ink was used to express distance. When one looks into a Japanese garden it becomes evident that there is great play made of using contrasting opposites. The hardness of stone contrasted against the fluidity of water, light and dark leaf textures, architectural space and garden space, enclosure and openness. In the paintings emphasis is placed on edges of objects, the outlines of mountains, rocks or trees are defined by a darkening of the ink. This contrast serves to sharpen the form, giving it greater definition and a visual ‘bite’. All these are examples of yin and yang in action in a garden composition. The movement from one to another, the contrasting of textures, all create rhythm and flow in a garden composition, also a visual richness for the eye to be constantly engaging with and moving between. This ensures a deepening of engagement of the viewer with what he or she is observing.

There is a style of painting in Japan, that originated in China in the hands of artists such as Wang Wei ( 王維  ca.699 - ca.759), and was brought to a peak in Japan by Sesshū Tōyō, which is known as habokuga (破墨). In these paintings the ink was literally at times splashed or thrown across the surface creating a ‘broken’ effect, which captured great vigour and spontaneity, often with large areas of empty space represented. These paintings would seem to herald the development of the karesansui garden in the Zen temples of Kyoto in particular. The garden of Ryõan-ji  is an example of this, and the style has endured into the modern day. Habokuga also influenced the creation of bonkei (trayscapes, 盆景), which were very popular in Japan in the 14th and 15th centuries. For the monks of the Five Mountain Zen temples in Kyoto liked to play with the notion of illusion in art as a means of breaking the bonds of attachment to an object or idea. In this sense to create a landscape or represent mountains and water in a tiny space was as natural to them as seeing landscape scenery represented in Nature. All artistic creations were seen as being “a subjective projection into the world of an artificial reality.”[4]

Sesshu- Autumn Landscape.

This latter aspect is exploited most fully in the karesansui form of garden, as very often in the karesansui garden the components of the garden scenery are pared down to the minimum required. The garden of Ryõan-ji with its fifteen stones set in a courtyard bare of anything other than raked gravel, is a garden realised as if a habokuga painting. The landscape is sketched in with fewest possible brush strokes, this deliberate abstention of form, allows the maximum degree of engagement of the imagination of the viewer. It is also the case that many karesansui garden arrangements are ‘read’ sequentially, most usually from right to the left side, as if one were ‘reading’ a scroll painting, unwinding with one hand and rewinding with the other.[5]
Norwich Cathedral, England
Ryoan-ji, Kyoto
Kaetsu Centre, Cambridge, England

[1] Empty and Full, The Language of Chinese Painting. François Cheng, Shambala1994
[2] Lao Tzu writes in the Tao Te Ching: “I do my utmost to attain emptiness; I hold firmly to stillness. The myriad creatures all rise together and I watch their return. The teeming creatures all return to their separate roots. Returning to one’s roots is known as stillness. This is what is meant by returning to one’s destiny.” ‘Tao Te Ching’, Lao Tsu. Translated by D.C. Lau. Penguin Classics 1963
[3] In conversation with the author. Kyoto 2004.
[4] Joseph D. Parker, ‘Zen Buddhist Landscape Arts of Early Muromachi Japan’.
[5] In the case of Ryõan-ji, it must be said that the author finds a more coherent reading of the garden by scanning from left to right.

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