Finishing as spring comes again

Kieran Egan




"We must laugh and we must sing,

We are blest by everything,

Everything we look upon is blest."

W.B. Yeats.


I sit looking through the teahouse window up into the sky, and see a bird, resting on a slight rising breeze, perhaps bemused by this pond's reflection of the blue above it. The bird slides sideways down the wind to pass close over the surface and inspect the pond's possible contribution to its diet, and is gone in a flash across neighboring gardens. Whenever I look out at the garden, my eye moves first to the stream, where the water from the bog runs through multi-colored stones towards the fall into the pond. Many of the stones have been donated by friends, and are gathered here, to make the water gurgle, from Japan, Hong Kong, England, Romania, Portugal, Ireland, Hawaii, Texas, Haida Gwaii, Toronto, Oxford, Washington and, a set of green stones, from the beach on Vancouver Island where we used to take the children when they were little. And Mike recently brought a small pebble from Tanya's balcony garden in Nagoya that started this odd enterprise.

Before me on the desk are files with slips of paper of various sizes and colors. There are notes of measurements I can no longer decipher, and amounts of money for quantities of wood or stone, and lists of things to do, happily long done:

order more basalt, 2/2.5 tons? Ask Gary at yard

mini-ferns, Korean

bags of gravel, granite, light

Moby Rock -- out. pulley?

Bamboo fertilizer 10-6-4

fill behind wall

two-needle black pine? For up by bog.

think what size teahouse? Maybe just covered bench?

They are in a file marked "Gardening Info.", into which I also tossed all the labels from the plants I bought, many of them those printed plastic things stuck into the soil at the edge of the pot. These were put into the file with bits of soil attached, and so my lists are stained and mostly crumpled from having gone with me on the errands they describe, to be stuffed into a pocket once I had followed their instructions. They have a rather dirty authenticity.

And would I do it all again, knowing what work would be involved? I think so. And what have I learned from all this? Beats me, as the British poet, Philip Larkin, wrote, distilling the lessons he had gathered from his experience. Maybe something about this cooperative battle with nature that we don't expect to win. And that we are only undefeated as long as we go on trying. I'll think about it in the teahouse, watching the waterfall and the ripples it makes on the pond, and the reflection the late sun casts from them onto the fence, or when the light fails on a winter's afternoon and the bamboo minutely shrugs in the window at the hint of a breeze.

Some people tell me I must feel a sense of accomplishment. But I really don't. And I can't quite see this small garden and its teahouse as something I have done. Nietzsche, that fierce but entertaining philosopher, suggested that our usual way of thinking of ourselves as originators of actions is simply a product of our language. We have nouns for agents and verbs for what they do. But our relationship to the world isn't one of noun to verb. I don't feel like a noun, and the garden doesn't look like my verb. Perhaps I can get nearer to how I feel by dropping a couple of further weighty names.

You may be familiar with Chuang Tzu's most famous semi-humorous observation: "While he is dreaming he does not know it is a dream, and in his dream he may even try to interpret a dream. Only after he wakes does he know it was a dream. And someday there will be a great awakening when we know this is all a great dream." A similar idea was expressed around the same time a long way away by that other mystic, poet, and jokester, Plato. He suggested that the everyday world around us is like shadows on a wall in front of our eyes. But the shadows are cast by a reality that we cannot see.

The choices of what stones to use and where to put them were mine, in some sense, but in some sense, too, they were not mine. Something hidden from us urges one choice rather than another, one aesthetic principle rather than another. Something that is part of the baggage that comes with us, in our genes and from our upbringing, does much of the choosing for us. The garden is one of the things that has happened to happen, and I have been a somewhat bemused instrument in its construction.

So my feeling about the finished garden is something of a mixture of Eastern Zen and Western irony coming together. Irony shows us that our intentions and our actions are in no simple sense our own, while Zen encourages us to suppress the sense of self as agent entirely. I suppose I am failing a tad in both by being glad the garden has happened to happen to me. And, anyway, my failures in irony and Zen will themselves soon be as nothing. Moby Rock will see all that now surrounds it, the moss and plants and the teahouse across the pond, decay and vanish between the slow beats of its granite heart. The Zen stance before the world and its passing fancies requires recognition that "The inclination towards nothingness is unrelenting and universal." But, while Western irony reaches its own recognition of this, it is more buoyant, perhaps, and encourages us also to bear in mind that there is a present in which there is something. And while we should be attentive to the slide towards nothingness and to the scale of time in which Moby Rock too will crumble, we should not be so intent on that austere dimension that we fail to delight in our present abundance of somethings.


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