Chapter Nine--Part 2

Finishing as spring comes again

Kieran Egan



Brother donkey

St. Francis of Assisi, in the usual representation of him these days, appears to be something of a wimp, a symbol of a sentimental attachment to animals and flowers. But Francis Bernardone was a very tough customer, rebellious and hard as nails. Towards the end of his life, he was told that he was going blind, and that the recommended remedy was to cauterize one of his eyes. When the glowing metal for the operation, without anaesthetic, was taken red from the fire, he rose and greeted it with a friendly gesture, calmly saying: "Brother Fire, God made you beautiful and strong and useful; I pray you be courteous with me."

His fasting and sicknesses, and his ascetic life in general, led to his body becoming exhausted before he was fifty. He spent his astonishing energy prodigally, hauling along what he called Brother Donkey, his body. Well, this is perhaps an overwrought introduction to some minor observations about the wear and tear this project has wrought in my Brother Donkey. But St. Francis's semi-humorous and semi-affectionate relationship with his body seems more appropriate than our usual coddling. Though we might find his ruthless disregard of its comforts a tad daunting.

His was an attitude that shares something with Chuang Tzu's. As he was dying, his disciples said they would give him the most splendid burial. But Chuang Tzu said that he would prefer to have the heaven and earth for his coffin, the sun and moon, planets and constellations, as jewels around him. What more could he ask for than to stretch, as had St. Francis, on the cold ground? His disciples said they feared that the crows and kites would eat him. "Well, he said, "above ground I shall be eaten by crows and kites, below by ants and worms. In either case I shall be eaten. What have you got against birds?"

The project, at least, hasn't killed me. I did have thoughts that careless prancing around on the roof might have done for me, but Brendan took care of that. Early on, I managed to pull my back out a few times, and was sent to a chiropractor. No doubt their cracking of backs is of some good to someone, but I couldn't detect any benefits from it. The back got better slowly whatever I did or didn't do for it. I did learn how to bend and lift large stones sensibly, except that seeing myself moving with care made me feel like an old man. Abusing the body seems a privilege of youth, that brings age faster.

My much operated-on knees&endash;&endash;from a youth of soccer and athletics&endash;&endash;were the weak point in the project. They suffer from carrying weights. It became a matter of gauging how much I could manage one day, so that they might recover overnight to allow me to manage a bit more the next. If I would have to go into the office on a following day, I could do a bit more work, and hobble a bit for the next days, till they recovered again. Only once did I overdo so much that I had to use a walking stick for a week.

As I look in the mirror after a shower, I guess some of the muscles are due to this project, though some of the other features seem to owe more to the tea and cookies. I seem to have managed to develop the muscles moderately well for the tasks I have faced, but have wrecked most of the joints in the process. I'd say this was a straightforward design flaw in this model. Fortunately, the joints haven't caved in, they just cause pain. Everyone cheerfully assures me that the elbows will take more than a year to settle down, and the knees are beyond repair. Brother Donkey and I will have to do some physiotherapy stretched out on the tatami mats.

The pond water is very cold still, and the fish lethargically drift around at the bottom. But I have to lower the water lily from the shelf it has been resting on since I trimmed off the last of its decaying leaves and stems in the fall. It needs to be at the bottom of the pond, ready for its shoots to feel their way up to the surface when the water warms up. Getting the heavy pot down there will involve my lowering Brother Donkey into the water. It was all very well in the summer climbing in clad in swimming trunks, but I suspect such a maneuver now would have me in hospital suffering from exposure.

The solution seemed to be waders&endash;&endash;thigh-high boots that strap over the shoulders. My wife favors this solution, but giggles in a way I don't find encouraging as she suggests it. The fact that she is also eager to take a photograph of me in waders worries me even more. I'm not sure what they represent in her mind, but seriousness and dignity clearly don't figure.

But where to get such things? I assumed outdoor equipment shops would carry them, but my first couple of visits to such places resulted in rather frosty assurances that they didn't carry such things. I was eventually directed, with some disapproval, to what I had assumed was just another outdoor equipment store. It became clear that most people who buy waders seem to intend damage to living things&endash;&endash;either fishing or shooting&endash;&endash;and Mountain Equipment Co-op and such places greatly disapprove of these activities, and of people who want waders, clearly for just such nefarious purposes.

The store I was directed to was indeed decked out with just about everything you might need to kill fish, animals, or birds. The young men and women serving seemed all to be into self-mutilation, with studs in lips, noses, ears, and tongues, and were a veritable walking gallery of tattoos. Leather and stained denim were the couture of choice. The young skin-head who served me was helpful and charming, and the female wrestler at the till pointed out that I could get a similar pair of waders for less, and one of the road-warriors in slit leather pants eagerly rushed off to replace them with their best deal.

I haven't yet had a chance to wade into the pond in these magnificent shiny-black artifacts, and am not altogether looking forward to it. I expect to slip, or have water trickle down over them. And how am I to avoid those water-snails I put into the pond a year ago and haven't seen since? Not a word of gratitude out of any of them. But the project is nearly finished, and Brother Donkey has survived well enough that my major concerns are some aching joints and a fear of getting cold water down my waders. It could have been a lot worse.

Cleaning up

Cleaning up after completing the interior of the teahouse/study involves finding a place for the left-over nails. We have used nearly twenty different kinds of nails and screws on the project, from the massive galvanized carriage bolts that hold the base supports together down to tiny finishing nails that fasten the slim pieces of trim around the windows. There are the 3" spikes used to construct the frame, and long green screws that secure the decking wood. As I put each different kind of nail or screw into glass jars, I am reminded of the job for which each was bought. But there are three or four whose use I can't even recall. Could they have been used in building the fence, hauled out and not used in the teahouse/study? Here are drywall screws, shingle nails, exterior trim nails, and, ah, those screws were what I used to fix the joists onto the support posts before putting the galvanized carriage bolts in. What a testament to the tool-making ingenuity of our species.

(Incidentally, I put them in glass jars following a neat idea I had read about years ago. One screws the lid of the jar tightly to a joist or into the ceiling above one's work bench and then reaches up and screws the jar full of nails into its lid. Looking up one can see immediately what one has.)

Next I pile into a corner of the driveway all the remaining pieces of plywood, bits of trim and 2" by 4"s and 2" by 8"s, unused tar-paper, wire mesh, drywall, slices of bamboo, bent nails, irregular and crumpled sheets of plastic, bent chunks of flashing, spare wisps of insulation, cracked shingles, blocks of 4" by 4" and 1" by 2" strips, unidentifiable slivers of wood, bits of plastic and metal, and a few twigs from shrubs that were caught up in the mayhem. As I toss down a chunk of plywood, I see Brendan has used it to take notes from calls on his cell phone. So I learn that Mrs. Stokes on Trafalgar St. wants her bathroom measured up on Friday, and on a spare piece of 2" by 4" he had a couple of phone numbers with "teak" next to one and "no mats" by the other.


The quince and the drooping strips

I think that I am clearing up after the garden is finished, but of course there are endless bits and pieces to deal with. Remember those 1" by 1" strips I mounted under the cap of the fence long ago? I had tried to persuade myself that the foot long pieces I couldn't attach without their drooping were intended to droop. This worked for a while, in that I carried on, leaving them like that, convincing myself that accepting their droop was bordering on a Zen insight. Alas, this conviction wavered a bit when a storm managed to tear a couple of them free. One fell in the next door garden, which my fence had now made inaccessible without my trotting round the sidewalk. Though a new house is almost completed on that lot now, the place is still uninhabited, and I was able to retrieve my bit of wood without too many odd looks from the array of workers swarming over the site. I would have to do something more radical to fix the strips in place.

The mahogany on the balcony railings looks really attractive, and I had a pile of pieces left over. Brendan suggested replacing the 1" by 1" green strips with the red-brown stained mahogany, which would also serve to pull together the fence and tea house. So that's what we agreed he should do .

You might also wonder what was the outcome of the heroic struggle to transport the reluctant Japonica quince from the next door garden into my border of Mexican stones. I mentioned that the thriving part of the quince had been casually swept away and destroyed when they cleared the neighboring lot. Despite the "liberated" chunk languishing and dropping its leaves on my side, and standing like a bunch of dead twigs through the remainder of the year, now that spring has come again, the quince, as though in defiance of its near-death experience, has burst into prodigal red-pink blossom.

The tea house was to be also a study, of course, and a study requires a desk or table and a chair. I had thought that perhaps I would buy these final items, perhaps in a Japanese antiques shop. But I couldn't find anything suitable. I mentioned to Brendan that I had seen an attractive chair and desk in Restoration Hardware&endash;&endash;an American up-market store. But it was of a heavy dark wood that would not at all fit in the tea house/study. He went in a few days later, measured it up, drew the design, and reproduced it in the same fir as we had used for the window surrounds and the border of the tatamil mats.

The fir is appropriate, apart from also being beautiful, because it comes from local Douglas fir trees. They are named for David Douglas, a young Scotsman who was clearly enormously tough. The fir named after him was one of 200 species he was the first to collect and describe and whose seeds he sent back to the Royal Horticultural Society in London. His passion for natural history developed early apparently. He received as a schoolboy a penny a day for his lunch, and was found to be spending it on food for a nest of owls. While exploring the fauna of the West Coast forests, he expressed deep concern for the likely impact on the native people of those he knew would follow him. He died in Hawaii in 1834 at the age of 35, probably murdered for the small amount of money he was carrying.

I can see now that I have given myself a never-ending task, or, better, a kind of companion that seems always pleased when I do a bit of work with it. The gardening will go on though the book has to finish. My wife is sufficiently charmed by the Japanese-style invasion at the rear that I have been authorized to extend it a little to in front of the teahouse, particularly to cover the area of lawn that has been destroyed during the building of the teahouse/study. So I bought some more basalt stones, gravel, and bamboo from my friends at the landscape supply center, and toured familiar nurseries for a few plants. It took little time to make a small garden, and I even moved into it the pom-pomed juniper that began its career up by the bog.

I will spend the odd hour hand-picking leaves and plucking blades of grass from the moss, netting uninvited floating bits from the pond, moving the odd stone now and then, and generally pottering. But mostly, I hope, I will sit at the desk in front of the tea house window and glance up now and then to look at it all, mildly surprised to find it there.

Here are a few final pictures of the more or less completed Japanese garden and its teahouse/study.

And, below, is a picture of Mike, whose partner, Tanya, started off this small adventure, placing a stone from her garden in mine, and taking one of mine back to hers.

On to the Conclusion

Return to Japanese Garden Introductory Page

Return to Home Page