Of all the seasons in the garden I love the dead of winter best. In icy February when storms from the Gulf of Alaska pelt the frozen ground with hail, the bare-boned skeleton of the dormant garden stands revealed in the stiletto wind.
Winter is a fine time to tinker with the design of your garden and to plot fresh paradise on the undressed frame of the land. In this season I ignore the strong Zen admonition to live in the present moment and instead propel myself forward three months or so and imagine the dormant, gray-branched apple trees clothed in their best apple-blossom silks and wearing frilly anklets of sweet alyssum to draw down the lazy honey bees of June.
Garden design has always fascinated me. When I first came to Green Gulch instead of studying Dogen’sFukanzazengi, I buried myself in the seventh-century Swiss Benedictine monastic plans for St. Gall and spent hours studying the layout and design of the monastery gardens. I noted a pattern from early Byzantine times of Christian monastery gardens being laid out in the shape of a cross with an inner sanctum reserved for prayer and meditation at the hub of the cross. Admiring this classical symmetry and order, I wondered how to plot paradise on our American Zen soil.
Fortunately, twenty years later, I’m still asking this question. I’ve never been a fan of the spare and austere monastic gardens of East or West outside of their natural landscapes. The mere thought of the artfully raked sand of a Japanese sansui garden or of a Byzantine cross pattern superimposed on the Green Gulch landscape makes me cringe. Instead, the shaggy frontier of this watershed calls for a raw fresh voice that tells the particular story of our San Andreas fault line garden.
“Tell all the truth,” advises poet Emily Dickinson, “but tell it slant.” From the beginning I suspected that the Green Gulch garden would incline obliquely and present itself slant, and that our Zen gardens would unsettle and provoke attention. It just took us a little while to build up our design nerve.
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