Monday, January 20, 2014

The #1 Japanese Garden in the U.S.?

Long-time readers of this blog know that I love Japanese gardens, so much so that I created my own little miniature Japanese garden this past summer. I've visited several Japanese gardens, both private and public, but my favorite has always been the Portland Japanese Garden in Oregon, which I've been fortunate enough to visit a couple of times and hope to see again this summer. Hailed by a Japanese dignitary as "the most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan,"  the Portland garden is a magnificent place, a refuge of serene beauty.

Imagine my surprise, then, when a local expert on Japanese gardens told me some time ago that the number one Japanese garden in the U.S. was no longer the Portland garden, but instead one much closer to home--the Anderson Japanese Garden in Rockford, Illinois.   An Illinois garden more beautiful than the one in Portland--really??  I was very skeptical, but vowed to see the Rockford garden and judge for myself one day.

One of several curved bridges at the Anderson Japanese Garden.
Rockford is only a three-hour drive from where I live, so this August when friend Beckie and I decided we needed a short girlfriends' getaway, it was the first place that came to my mind. 

I knew when we finally arrived that this was a special place, and I was excited to see it.  But I must admit to being a bit prejudiced; for the first half hour as we strolled down one path to another, I kept comparing the Anderson Garden to the Portland Garden.

I've learned just enough about Japanese gardens to be an obnoxious pseudo-expert on the subject.  I immediately recognized the traditional zig-zag bridge. Although artfully designed, it was rather small, I thought smugly.

Until later, when we came to this--now this is a zigzag bridge!  According to traditional Zen philosophy, the zigzag bridge helps the garden visitor to focus on the here and now, especially since these bridges often have no railings.

It wasn't long before thoughts of comparison to Portland's garden left my mind, and I focused on the here and now beauty of the Anderson garden.  All the traditional elements of a Japanese garden were here in abundance, such as stone, whether in the natural form or a manmade statue.

Stone paths leading to a special sculpture . . .

 Or a simple, but beautifully built stone bridge.

A second element, water, was present everywhere, too, from small streams . . .

. . . to a large reflecting pond.

From the smallest, a water basin . . .

. . . to the magnificent, a waterfall (more on this later).

There was also a dry garden, often called a Zen garden by Westerners, for quiet contemplation.  You may not be able to see it in this photo, but the gravel was carefully raked into a checkerboard pattern. 

Poetry is an important part of traditional Japanese culture, and it was also found in several spots throughout the garden, including a carved inscription on this water basin. Our handy map/guide, which I have misplaced, helped to translate for us.

As one might expect, there were large koi in the ponds, but there were some unexpected wildlife as well, such as this friendly--and I suspect well-fed--goose.

Ducks scrambling up the cobblestone beach were equally friendly, probably hoping for a handout.

And, of course, there were the plants, the third main element of a Japanese garden.

Japanese maples provided a pop of color in what is typically a primarily green landscape.

Colorful reflections in the water.

Interesting bark invited closer inspection.

As did the water lilies floating on a pond.

Not everything was traditional in plant choices, however--
a native plant, Swamp milkweed, looked right at home bordering a pond.

As we followed the paths, I was impressed by the size of the Anderson garden, and no wonder--covering at least 12 acres, it is more than twice the size of the Portland Garden.

Turtle Island--islands, either real or the suggestion of one, are often found in a Japanese garden, too

What is amazing is that this garden began as a private garden.  Local businessman John Anderson was inspired by the gardens he saw while visiting Japan after graduating from college. When he and his family purchased land in Rockford for a new home in the 70's, he realized the swampy ground below his hillside home had the potential to become his very own Japanese garden and began clearing the acreage. On a business trip to Portland, Oregon in 1978, he visited the acclaimed Japanese garden there.  Not only was he inspired by its beauty and tranquillity, but he asked to meet its designer and soon after asked him to help design his own garden.  Hoichi Kurisu agreed and has been coming to the garden for the past thirty years to work with Mr. Anderson.  (When I read this in the garden's brochure, I had an "Aha" moment--there is a Portland connection here!)

The garden has been open for tours since the early '80's, and in 1998 it became a public, non-profit organization.  My favorite spot in the whole garden was near the end of our visit, this waterfall.  Small paths in front allow visitors to get close, and I scrambled over some slippery rocks for a closer look.

This large stone covered in moss below the waterfall drew my attention, and accompanied by the soothing sound of falling water, I was mesmerized. I don't know what it was about this mossy stone that held me in thrall, nor am I sure how long I stood here because time suddenly stood still.  It truly was a Zen moment for me.

By this time you may wonder what my final opinion is.  Does the Anderson Garden deserve to be ranked above the Portland Garden as the number one Japanese Garden in the U.S.?  Does it really matter?? The Portland garden is shadier because of the tall Douglas firs surrounding it on all sides, and its location on the top of a hill provides some interesting views, including a spectacular view overlooking the city.  The Anderson garden, on the other hand, is larger, and has the advantage of being within much easier traveling distance for me.  But both are beautiful places, providing an oasis of serenity in the middle of a busy city.  If you live in the Midwest, the Anderson Japanese Garden is definitely a destination worth putting on your must-see list.

Since it's snowy and cold outside with nothing to see in my garden right now, it's the perfect time to re-visit some summer photos I didn't have time to post about then. Rockford, Illinois is only an hour or two drive west of Chicago and an hour south of Madison, WI.  There are other attractions worth a visit to this city, too, which I'll highlight in a future post.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

GBBD: Just Chillin'

Happy Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day!  The day of the month when bloggers can share what is blooming in their garden or in their home at the moment.  That is, if they have anything blooming . . .

Looking around my house, the pickings are pretty slim.  I never got around to chilling some bulbs so they could be forced this winter. The amaryllis bulbs were planted just a week ago and don't show any signs of growth yet.  The only "bloom" that even qualifies is this puny little bloom on a coleus overwintering in the spare bedroom.  Normally, I pinch these off during the growing season, but hey, I'm happy these cuttings are even alive!  I hope they make it till spring.

Outside, the snow from the polar vortex has mostly melted, but flurries every few days and the cold temps remind us that winter is far from over. The hellebores are still green, but dusted with snow, it will be a long while before any blooms appear.

Thanks to Carol for hosting this monthly meeting for seven years now; I wouldn't miss it, even if my contributions are pretty paltry.  But I know there are real blooms somewhere, so check out the entries at May Dreams Gardens to see what's blooming all over the world.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book Review Club: "The Book Thief"

After reading several books this past year that were set, in part, in Nazi Germany, I swore I wouldn't read another book about that time period and the Holocaust for a long, long, time.  Don't get me wrong--I think it is very important to remember what happened during that time so that we never, ever allow it to happen again.  But those events and the blind hatred of Hitler and his followers are just too depressing; I want to read books that provide some escape or lift my spirits.  And yet, what did I read over Christmas break but another book set entirely in Nazi Germany--The Book Thief by Markus Zusak!

The Book Thief is the story of young Liesel who is sent to live with foster parents near Munich.  After witnessing the death of her younger brother and being separated from her mother, Liesel is haunted by nightmares.  The kindness and patience of her foster father, Hans Hubermann, eventually helps her to adjust to her new home, and she settles into a somewhat normal--if there could be such a thing as "normal" in 1939 Germany--life of a 10-year-old, playing soccer with the neighbor kids and getting into mischief with her new best friend, the irrepressible Rudy.

Liesel is fiesty and intelligent, but she doesn't do well in school.  After her brother's hasty burial, Liesel picks up a book dropped by one of the gravediggers and keeps it as a secret treasure, her last tangible connection to her brother.  When Hans discovers it under her pillow during one of his nightly vigils by her bedside, he suggests they read it together to improve Liesel's reading skills.  And so Liesel's discovery of the power of words begins.

This theme of the power of words is reinforced by Zuzak's use of imagery and frequent use of poetic syntax.
"Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain."
Zusak has an unconventional style; one of the most unusual aspects is that the novel is narrated by Death, who is responsible for giving Liesel the nickname "the book thief."  That may sound morbid, but this is not your typical Grim Reaper.  This figure of Death does not especially enjoy his work and often looks at the color of the sky to avoid looking at the faces of his victims.  When the victims are children, he takes special care and carries their souls tenderly.
"The consequence of this is that I'm always finding humans at their best and worst.  I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both."
With its subject matter and setting, the book is definitely sad at times, but not as much as one might expect.  Much of this is due to the author's focus on Liesel and her reactions to her environment.  For example:
  • In a frenzied display of "patriotism," the citizens of Molching hold a book burning.  But Liesel uses this as an opportunity to steal another book.
  •  As the war progresses, people in Germany are starving.  But Liesel never complains about the disgusting pea soup her foster mother fixes every night.  And she and Rudy join a band of young boys stealing apples from farmers' orchards, more for the excitement than for the nourishment.
  •  When the neighborhood is forced into a cramped basement during air raids, Liesel reads to them from one of her stolen books, calming their fear.
  • Jews are being forced out of their homes and their shops destroyed.  But Liesel has a Jew hiding her basement; Max and Liesel become fast friends, and they even build a snowman in the basement one day.
A winter storm this weekend has kept me homebound for several days--the perfect time to curl up under a cozy blanket with a good book.

The Book Thief has been targeted at older teen readers, but it is certainly a book that adults can appreciate as well.  One of my favorite parts of the novel is the story that Max writes for Liesel, "The Word Shaker."  Its message is powerful and full of hope:  that one day the seeds sown by friendship will grow strong enough to overpower the seeds sown by hatred.

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@Barrie Summy

Disclaimer: No compensation of any kind was received for this review. As always, I review only books I enjoy and think others would enjoy reading too. After downloading a sample of The Book Thief on my Kindle, I was hooked and checked out the book from my local library.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Garden Lessons Learned in 2013

Happy New Year, everyone!  I hope that you enjoyed the holidays and were able to spend time with friends and family.  I noticed a considerable drop in blogging the past month, myself included.  Besides the usual rush of Christmas activities, I was hit with a respiratory virus right before Christmas that kept me down for more than a week.  Thanks to some antibiotics, I'm finally on the mend. Now that I've finally got a little more energy and with the holiday rush over, I plan to catch up on reading blogs as well as posting a little more often.

I had planned to join Plant Postings' seasonal meme on lessons learned in the garden this past autumn.  Since I didn't make the December 20 deadline, I'm going to look back at the year overall and focus on one special aspect of the garden that has become more and more appealing to me.

I've learned that a garden isn't just for me--it supports a host of wildlife who enjoy it--and need it--just as much as I do. The creatures who inhabit or visit the garden have taught me as many valuable lessons as planting and weeding have.

 Lesson #1:  Even the seemingly ordinary can contain small miracles.  I was pruning the Knockout roses this spring when I noticed this strange growth on one of the branches.  A quick photo was taken and compared to internet images; sure enough, this is a mantis egg case, the first I'd ever seen.  Unfortunately, I didn't notice an abundance of praying mantises this year, compared to past years, but I'm sure they were around, had I continued to pay more careful attention.

Another small miracle that I did pay more careful attention to was this dove nesting in the old lilac. My husband first noticed her while mowing, and pointed out her nest to me as well as to the grandkids when they visited. 

She seemed unperturbed by our attention, and since her nest was just a foot above eye level,  it was easy to see. We watched the amazing miracle over the next few weeks as she cared for the babies who emerged until they became fledglings who eventually left the nest.

Lesson #2: Sometimes we're too busy focusing on the task at hand to notice what is right in front of our faces.  I know I'm not the only one who has photographed a flower only to discover when I downloaded my pictures a little winged creature I hadn't even noticed at the time. 

I enjoy watching the bees busily flying about in my garden, but they're not the easiest creatures to photograph, especially honeybees and the smaller bees. I always think it's serendipity when one pauses at just the right second as the camera shutter clicks.

Lesson #3: Just as with the garden, there is always something new to be learned when it comes to wildlife.  While I know we have had foxes around our farm before, this summer was the first time one ventured close enough for me to see it on a regular basis.  For a month or two, she/he (and oftentimes with its mate) would stroll across the front yard every evening before disappearing into the cornfield.

Despite the fox's often unsavory reputation in fables and fairy tales, I think they're beautiful creatures.  I spent many a summer evening watching her as she watched me, each keeping our distance.

Lesson #4: Even the smallest of creatures often knows more about Nature than I do.  The woolly worm is a weather prognosticator for many of us.  When I saw several of these this fall, I decided I'd better be prepared for a bad winter--the black head and tail, according to folklore, means a cold beginning and end to winter with a lot of snow in between.  So far, his forecast has been accurate.

Lesson #5: There is a reason I leave most of the garden standing over the winter instead of cutting back everything in the fall. 

Fall is always such a busy time that I never complete all my projects anyway, but I often consider doing some cutting back just to make things look a little tidier through the cold months.  The goldfinches, however, confirmed my decision--dried seedheads have their own usefulness and beauty.

Lesson #6: Patience.  Although this lesson is taught over and over again in the garden, there is nothing quite like trying to photograph a hummingbird to teach you patience.  I've tried for years to get a decent photo of a hummingbird in flight and finally managed to get a couple this year. The pictures weren't that great, but I was happy.

These little birds just fascinate me.  It was a great year for hummingbirds, and I spent many hours watching them dance in the air and holding one-sided conversations with them.  We had a warm fall, and they stayed longer than usual--into late September.  I hope they arrived safely at their winter homes, and I hope they remembered the chatty lady on the porch who will have the feeders ready for them again this summer.

Lesson #7: Optimism While it was a great year for hummingbirds, it wasn't such a great year for butterflies.

So few appeared this summer that I was beginning to worry what had happened to them all.  Finally, as summer turned into fall, Painted Ladies, Red Admirals, and Buckeyes came to visit the garden, reminding me to never give up hope.

Fall also brought visits from my favorite butterfly and my favorite photo from 2013.  What is it about the majestic Monarch that fascinates us so?  The scientific research about its life cycle and yearly migration is certainly interesting, but even without that, I am in awe of its beauty.  Nothing makes me stop to really live in the moment as does the appearance of a Monarch.

The wildlife that visited my garden this past season taught me many lessons, but most of all they taught me to appreciate all the little miracles of Nature and to really live in the moment.  I look forward to their return this spring, but in the meantime there are the winter birds to watch . . .

. . . and, of course, the "wildlife" that live here year-round.  

Wishing you all a year filled with new experiences in your garden and the joy and peace that Nature can bring.