Birds, Words, Weeds, and Zen

Work on my Karesansui (Japanese Rock Garden, 枯山水) has resumed. I could list the reasons it was on hold for so long, but why? It seems counter to the whole idea of creating, tending, and enjoying such a garden.

Karesansui are also referred to as Zen Gardens, or Japanese Dry Gardens. Typically small and surrounded by a wall, they are composed of sand and/or pebbles raked to represent ripples in water, and can contain rocks, moss, pruned trees, and bushes. They are small representations of nature and considered places of meditation and contemplation.

When we first looked at our house almost four years ago, this corner of the back yard was primarily a dog playground and contained some paving stones, some gravel which has since sunk into oblivion, two large rocks, and an overgrown shrub that was being subsumed by a Napoleonic wisteria. Said wisteria was also taking over a large tree outside our property and eating our fence. This space felt good to me, like it was a Zen Garden waiting to be recognized and tended—a proto-Karesansui.

Setsuko, Itoh Peony, my first with yellow bloom
Setsuko’s (Itoh Peony) first year in the proto-Karesansui

We’ve now lived here for a little over three years. Work on the Karesansui has been sporadic. 2018 May I added a large pot and my first Itoh Peony (a hybrid of herbaceous and tree peony created by Japanese horticulturist, Dr. Toichi Itoh in 1948). 

I named her Setsuko after the renowned Japanese actress Setsuko Hara. Those of you familiar with Yasujiro Ozu’s films will remember her. She also starred in a few Akira Kurosawa films.

June 2018 I added two more Itoh Peonies, Yu Shu Lien, named after our late beloved cat Shu Lien, who was named after Yu Shu Lien, played by Michelle Yeoh in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000; and Bashō, named after Edo period Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō.

Two additional Itoh Peonies, Yu She Lien and Bashō added to proto-Karesansui
Yu Shu Lien and Bashō

Earlier this year we added cinder to the back of the garden adjacent to the garage under an existing Japanese Maple and red rhododendron. (We also surrounded much of the rest of the house with cinder in line with local Firewise Program recommendations.)

Cinder bordering back of garage under Japanese Maple and rhododendron
Cinder, Japanese Maple, and rhododendron form Firewise back border of proto-Karesansui.

Then, stuff just happened, or more to the point didn’t happen with the Karesansui except an attempt to keep up with the weeds. Upon our return from a rather long vacation we found a sadly overgrown Karesansui.

Post vacation weeds and overgrown shrubs
Post vacation weedfest

Close up of Peonies surrounded by weeds and overgrowth
Post vacation weedfest showing peonies surrounded by weeds and overgrowth.

I was overwhelmed. The Karesansui sat idle except for the robust weeds which were more than happy to further engulf the garden. Two things were going on. Prior to this lengthy vacation I was having a stubborn streak with weeding, day after day I felt I was slogging away doing yard work, my hands, wrists, and right knee getting more painful each day. I was not weeding in the Karesansui yet either. I was bartering with myself I can tend to that after X and Y and Z are completed. I began to resent yard work, it was keeping me away from bicycling on The Bear Creek Greenway, and it sent me to the hand ortho for cortisone shots and splints. Then I saw a bumper sticker reminding me “Don’t postpone joy.” Of course I knew that, but wasn’t practicing it. Shortly after that, on vacation lunching at Cheeseburger in Paradise I looked up and saw a sign, “Attitude is everything. Pick a good one.” I knew that too, but needed reminding.

I returned from vacation with the beginnings of a new plan. First, when I caught myself thinking yard work, I made a mental edit, scratching that out and thought instead, gardening. Second, Klee and I started alternating days between cycling and gardening. Riding my bike was one of the things I love doing so the days on the bike brought me joy and it turns out gave my hands and knee just enough time to recover. Still, I was working in other areas of the garden, feeling overwhelmed and guilty each time I looked in on the Karesansui. 

Parallel to all this, I was a bit stalled in my writing. I went back to my mental bag of tricks I’ve learned. They are all good, but the one I start with is the one I first learned years ago when I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, 1994. If you’ve not read it, I highly recommend it, even if you haven’t the slightest interest in writing, this is a good read. It is human and real and heartbreaking and hilariously funny. I saw myself in some of her insecurities and was able to laugh at myself kindly. Here is the relevant quote from the book (and it helps to know her father was a writer of novels, non-fiction, and screenplays).

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

Bird by bird : some instructions on writing and life
Anne Lamott
New York : Anchor Books, 1995. ©1994

This is the first thing I fall back on. It comes almost automatically now when I sit down to write and nothing happens. It always works for me.

One day, it struck me Why not take the Karesansui “bird by bird”?  Indeed, why not? So, I broke it out, shrub by shrub, limb by limb, weed by weed. It turned things around for me. One day we went cycling, the next day I walked out into the Karesansui, looked at all those “birds” and smiled. I walked up to the most overgrown shrub, selected a branch and snipped it off, then another and soon I was snipping the wisteria which had choked off half the shrub I was working on and taking over the yard, a neighboring tree and the fence. In a few days’ time I began on the weeds. As I continued to trim and weed “bird by bird” I realized I was enjoying myself and it seem right, that working gardening this way was meditative. The tending and raking of a completed Karesansui is considered a form of walking meditation. Why not enjoy creating this garden in the same way? The heart of the Karesansui is already there.

Future Karesansui showing progress after some pruning and a little weeding

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