Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Careless Perfection of Nature

#4 The Careless Perfection of Nature

“I don’t imitate nature; nature is so far superior. I try to imitate the process of nature.” So reveals Fu-Tung Cheng, our keynote speaker and cleanup slot seminar presenter, of the methodology that guides his designs.

I carried that philosophy with me on a hike to the Portland Japanese Garden. The city fell as the land rose, walking through canyons between riverside hotels and 40 story towers, up the gentle rise past the University, and laboring up steeper switchbacking paths and residential lanes, then winding ever upward through Washington Park, the Rose Garden, and finally along the nearly shear wooded slopes crowned by the Portland Japanese Garden.

The garden is an extraordinarily ambitious exhibit, an encyclopedia of features drawn from a diverse range of classical Japanese landscape styles. From a hypernaturalized waterfall, to wood architecture, and ponds lined with iris—to a rectangular courtyard where seven lonely rocks contemplate an upright boulder in a bed of sand—it’s all there, including a gift shop and restrooms—packed into 5 acres.

It’s unfair to fault the designer of the garden for not having the resources of Disney. By the same token, it is Oregon—not the designer—that gave the garden its most essential features: lively topography, fertile soil, and a nurturing climate. In this environment, and drawing so carefully on traditional sources, the primary task of the designer is, in one sense, simply not to blow it.

One element of a Japanese garden is lacking: tranquility. How could it exist, however, in a such popular public setting? So its very essence is compromised by its purpose.

And how!—on this fair Saturday, the place is teeming with young lovers, doddering seniors, antsy toddlers—and tourists with several other sites to take in during their short visits—not to mention this solitary observer. A lowflying aircraft trumpets overhead, a truck growls up an incline, and the amplified conductor cries ALL ABOARD the Zoo Train that skirts the site.

By deliberate refusal to preview the garden plan—and otherwise by happy accident—the finest feature of the park revealed itself to me in the way I think it was intended. I came upon the main garden pavilion from the rear. Walking along its engawa, and studying the bands of sliding panels and carpentry details, then proceeding around the side—I was halfway along the front of the building before turning to look outward.

I gasped audibly. Before me was the expanse of the ocean garden (“Flat” garden in the guide book). This space, occupied by a bed of sand, calligraphically raked with concentric rings—perhaps the size of a baseball diamond—seemed vast. Two small islands of moss in the foreground, and the layered rim of dwarf willows and weeping cherries, manicured cutleaf maples, and sculpted mugo pines, backed with towering cedar and cypress, intimated infinity—to the point, where for a few moments, the hubbub and distraction died away, and tranquility descended on me.

The walk back down from the garden drove home the question: How do you improve on nature? In descent, that shear wall of verdure mentioned above confronted me—lush ferns cascaded down its entire slope, and a great dawn redwood sprung perpendicular to its shoulder to ascend 100 feet. How could a waterfall, with the artful, selfconscious randomness of its transported boulders, and its whirring recirculating pump, ever compete with the careless perfection of nature?

For me, it was the ocean garden that accomplished that task, unashamed of its artifice, reducing nature to its essential geometry, texture, and color.

Cheng was right.

No comments: