Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Dissonance Resolves

Japanese maple with Rio Grande cottonwood
or At the Albuquerque Botanic Garden, 
Part I

If gardeners ran the world, no one would worry about first impressions.  We would all be too aware that our initial acquaintance with a flower or tree or border or garden has little to do with our impressions once we've lived with that flower for a while and seen it blossom, set seed, and return another year, or once the tree has matured or the border has settled in or our abilities or interests have changed.  If we relied on snap judgments, we'd miss all the fun of seeing things pan out.

I've been thinking about first impressions this weekend after a visit to the Botanic Garden at the ABQ BioPark, and especially to the Sasebo Japanese Garden at the park's far end, almost on the edge of the Rio Grande.  The Japanese Garden is a relatively young one.  It opened in September of 2007, and I visited it for the first time a month later, when it had an air of shiny newness.  The ground cover plants were still in little plugs with large patches of mulch between them, the perennials looked mighty uncertain about their new digs, the twiggy trees were losing a few of their leaves.  In other words, it was a lovely first year garden that radiated hope and potential.

Rio Grande cottonwood (Populus wislizeni)

Something else that struck me that first year, though, was a sense of dissonance—not an unpleasant one, just a sense of things not quite matching.  The gardeners had (laudably, wisely, you-want-to-kiss-them wonderfully) incorporated the established cottonwoods that grow close to the river in their design, but the contrasts between the trees' craggy old growth and the infant plantings, their genuine wildness and the designed "wildness" of the garden, their hard-knock toughness with the delicacy of the weeping cherries—all those contrasts jangled.  Their starkness also made me very much aware that the entire design of the garden was foreign, that I don't know how Japanese gardens work.  I don't understand the principles behind the design, beyond the basic "stone and water are important" kinds of things, and reading about those wasn't enough to make the garden "click."

Which is funny, because if you asked me how a basic American (or other Western European-influenced) garden worked, I wouldn't really be able to tell you that either.  I know the design how-to's, like that planting in groups of three or five is best, and that curved lines are generally more pleasing than straight ones (except when they're not), but to articulate the values behind such a garden?  I'm not sure I could do it—it's just the way things are.  It's familiar, in a way the Japanese style of gardening isn't to me, and on my first visit I was very much aware of that.

I've seen the garden several times a year since then; yesterday was the first time since last September, an unusually long lapse.  I was delighted to see how much the garden has taken off this spring—how it's grown into itself, how the contrasts that used to be so stark have softened, how the sense of dissonance has sweetened if not resolved altogether.  The understory trees have grown into the canopy of the cottonwoods, which shelter the more delicate plantings from the noonday glare (with an air of grandfatherly benevolence, I might add).

High noon in the canopy, shade on the ground

I still don't know enough to appreciate (or comprehend) the underlying design, and since the Botanic Garden's approach to education seems to be very much that of my fifth grade teacher (i.e., "Go look it up yourself," a valuable skill in the long run but not very helpful when you want information right away in a classroom where all the reference books are stashed behind the teacher's desk) the learning process is a slow one.  But between repeated experiences in multiple seasons in multiple years, intermittent searches on the internet, and other gleanings from you, fellow bloggers, one does learn, and in a slow, leisurely, from-the-ground-up sort of way that's rather nice, since there's no test coming up on Friday.  The Japanese garden has begun not only to be lovely, which it has been all along, but also, piece by piece, to make sense.  At any rate, it is becoming familiar in such a way that I don't know any more where its foreignness breaks off and my own expectations begin.

We act as though a first impression is the real deal, but it isn't; it's just a seed. And we all know what resemblance a seed has to the mature plant—none.

It's how we nurture the seed to maturity that matters.


  1. I really enjoy reading your musings... I don't know much about garden design either, I just know the difference between a garden that's been loved and a garden that is kept to give a good impression.

  2. I hadn't thunk about the whys and wherefores of Japanese gardens. But I was revelling in your pictures which capture the atmosphere and feeling for us.

  3. Everything you say is very thought provoking. I am still contemplating the seed to plant reference. Lovely photos.

  4. I can understand how new plantings next to mature tress would be jarring. We often forget that gardens change, mature, grow, and are ever-evolving.

  5. Now see, that first paragraph is awesome. I wish I lived it more in my life, but it's right on. I just hope folks on my garden our in a few weeks wil be as toughtful... :)

  6. I love the botanical gardens (it's my favourite of the bioparks, I think) and I've learned so much wandering through them. If my schedule permitted, I would be volunteering in them.

  7. Beautiful pictures and lovely story. It's amazing how much like a garden we all are.


  8. Lovely thoughts...I love the garden pictures..very peaceful and I will have to make a point of visiting it the next time I am in NM. I have come to the realization that my first impression judgements are just that...judgements...learning, taking it in slowly and letting the garden and relationships develop are by far the better way to go...

  9. Dear Frances, You take us into the heart or inner workings of a thought . . . or concept of a garden, even if you do not understand the why's of the design. The Japanese garden seems to me to create peace and often an illusion of spacial grandeur and mystery. If I could think correctly I could share more of why I love the movement and forms within them all. Their use of space generally is masterful. When you live on a narrow island you begin to see ways of making space seem more expansive. The mind becomes that way too, while within the garden devoted to earthly water, rock and forms of living trees, shrubs etc. I ramble . . . there is such peace and beauty and you capture it so well. I can imagine seeing the tiny plugs of growth fill out and the garden become what someone had envisioned. Harmony between all elements soothes the mindful visitor. Impressions evolve . . . so true . . . in all things, but most certainly in a garden. Lovely and thought provoking. You always are. Thank you for your kind thoughts my way too. Carol

  10. Good Grief! I meant to write Stacy. Forgive me. I was confusing you for Frances of 'Island Threads' another very deep thinker. Funny, we are all woven together through our sharings. At the moment my mind is not quite woven tight enough. ;>)