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Living and Writing in the Natural World

A Tale of Three Gardens

A garden in Suzhou: shan and shui

The Huntington Library, Museum, and Gardens in Los Angeles now have a first-rate Chinese as well as a Japanese Garden. Tammy and I visited both several weeks ago, and they reminded us of pleasant times in Claude Monet’s Water-lily Garden in Giverny, France in 2008. All three are superb, but in dramatically different ways, that reflect much about the cultures that gave rise to them.

Monet’s garden at Giverny is very much a painter’s garden, specifically an Impressionistic garden. When Monet first rented Le Pressoir in 1893, he wanted lots of flowers to paint, so he converted the orchard into dense beds of a variety of flowers: roses, clematis, wisteria, irises, poppies and more. Soon the massed abundance of flowers seemed to engulf visitors: “In the Giverny garden there is no respite from the flowers,” noted Arsene Alexandre. “Wherever you turn, there are at your feet, over your head, growing to chest height, hedges of flowers…at once improvised and calculated, and renewed as season follows season.”

The increasingly-famous (and prosperous) painter purchased the property in 1890, and three years later added an adjacent plot next to the Epte river, from which he diverted water into a depression in the new land and created his famous Water-lily Garden. Here he planted willows, azaleas, rhododendrons, and of course dozens of varieties of water lilies of every size and hue. In 1901 he added more land, tripled the size of the pond, and created a man-made lake with four connecting “Japanese” bridges. From 1900 to his death in 1926, over half of his paintings were set in the garden, many of them his famous water-lily series.

This garden is all about flowers and water, primarily, with trees around the pond, but few rock formations and no pavilions or man-made structures. A painter’s garden, where Monet would have a few of his ten children and step-children carry his easel, palette, and canvas to his location for the day, at which he painted enough of the scene to finish in his adjacent studio.

Hordes of visitors descend upon the garden these days soon after its daily opening, and you experience the garden as a promenade in a crush of people. There are no opportunities for refreshment, and certainly no leisurely, peaceful enjoyment of the garden. Still—we loved it, even though Tammy’s photo of Ash, Lou, and I on the Japanese Bridge had a dozen strangers also crowded onto the bridge around us.

The Japanese Garden at the Huntington, established on 9 acres in 1912, had far fewer visitors when we strolled through it mid-week (though I understand it is a favorite attraction, particularly on weekends). Water also is a central element here, with perfectly manicured and placed flowering shrubs and dwarf conifer branches hanging picturesquely over the winding pond. There are some benches to sit on and view the elegantly-framed scene above the pond, but very little opportunity to sit beside the water.

When I was in Japan with my oldest daughter Heather in 1998, the same was true: you could sit in the room of an inn or restaurant and view a garden area, but only as if it were a post-card. Indeed, the Huntington brochure about the garden boasts of “picture postcard views of koi-filled ponds.” The same feeling pervades the small James Irvine Japanese Garden in downtown L.A.’s “Little Tokyo”. I had to take an elevator in the Japanese Culture Center to reach the garden’s entrance, and the single path through it had not a single bench, very much as if it were frowned upon to sit and be part of everything. In the very center of the garden was a circular platform at which wedding photos were taken—beautiful photos, but again: the Japanese garden was a visual setting for formal occasions, not a “lived-in” place.

This sense of garden-as-viewed-phenomenon is taken to its extreme in the so-called "Zen Garden" of Japan, which consists of raked pebbles (to represent a sea of water) with rocks arranged within the pebbles (representing islands). Here one doesn't walk at all within/through the garden. The Huntington also has such a garden, above the more typical Japanese garden.

The Huntington’s Chinese Garden only opened its 12 acres in 2006. It was fabulously expensive—some $60 million, I heard a security man say, went to recreating a perfect representation of the famous classical gardens of Suzhou, north of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province. Chinese artisans were imported to craft the pavilions, the elegant carved panels of yellow cypress (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) and camphor (Cinnamomum camphora), the decorated walkways, the tiled corridors, and granite bridges. All the material for these structures were, of course, obtained in China and shipped to Los Angeles.

The garden is thus nes-plus-ultra authentic and classical. Though I’m no expert, I have visited the half-dozen or so most famous gardens in Suzhou, and to my eye and experience the Huntington’s garden was fully as pleasing an experience as the originals in China. Actually, more pleasing, as the Suzhou Gardens, like Monet’s in Giverny, are jammed with visitors at all hours. While the visitors at Giverny were generally subdued, Chinese tourists are anything but, and the cacophony of shouts and general frolicking could not but seriously detract from the enjoyment of the garden. In Suzhou, I often found myself wishing that it were “the good old days” of the mid-1600s, when I could be in the garden with a few fellow-literati (and perhaps a serving-girl or so) and have some seriously enjoyable garden-time. Alas, such was not to be.

Garden design and experience in China is a well-studied and well-developed art, stretching back half a millenium, complete with a rich history of books, poems, and art. The central elements are Shanshui: rocks (shan) and water (shui). On this backbone are layered flowering trees (usually the genus Prunus) and plentiful pavilions and terraces throughout, connected by covered corridors. In other words, the garden is a place for humans to relax and enjoy a microcosm of the natural world in all its beauty. The garden is explicitly not a formal “picture postcard” but rather a place for humans to enjoy nature either in solitude or with friends. A lived-in garden, in other words, with plentiful spaces for sitting and enjoying.

Thus the Chinese Garden at the Huntington has a teahouse adjacent to a terrace, where Tammy and I purchased a delicious hot lunch and pot of green tea (Lung-ching, or Dragon Well, from Hangzhou) and enjoyed being there immensely, in the sunshine with the San Gabriel mountains looming over the Coastal Live Oaks surrounding the garden.

After this respite, we resumed our stroll, which included passing behind a waterfall, through pavilions adorned with gorgeous carved wood-panels of flowers and classical garden scenes, and the many strangely-shaped “Tai-hu” stones standing in carefully-chosen spots. These tall stones, obtained from Lake Tai near Suzhou, have been sculptured over the ages by wind and rain (they are of limestone). In China, you often see folks standing before these stones and studying them, since they exhibit the ceaseless flow of the Tao in their naturally-sculpted swirling shapes and patterns. The stones embody the flow of the Tao and teach us how to align ourselves with that most fundamental truth of existence.

Three gardens, three different experiences, all good. Clearly I find the classical Chinese Garden more satisfying, but one can learn from and enjoy all three, and I hope to revisit them all frequently and soon.

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