Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang. Ah, the joys of listening to a piledriver.
And how is that relevant to the serenity and contemplation one might find in a Chinese Garden? Read on.
It’s good to have a sister city. While my initial exposure to the benefits of a sister city was years ago in the form of dragon boat racing, a recent excursion was a benefit from a more genteel version of the cultural exchange. The sib city this time was Suzhou, from the Jiangsu province of China, and the benefit was an urban Chinese garden.
The Lan Su Chinese Garden was built in 1999-2000. Considered the most authentic Suzhou style garden outside of China, I had a nearly front-row seat for viewing its construction.
At the time I worked in downtown Portland for a natural gas company. Established early in the city’s history it had several city blocks worth of property, and in the interests of cultural exchange (and I suspect a nice tax break), it donated one of those blocks for the construction of the garden.
Working on the fifth floor of the building next door, this gave us just enough elevation for a bird’s-eye view of the proceedings.
And a bird’s-ear experience as well. Piledrivers, heavy construction equipment, you name it. Perhaps to my benefit, my cubical wasn’t on the correct side of the building to get the full effect. But if I was curious to see what was going on, it was a short walk to get a direct view.
Ok, so it was a direct view of something going on almost a block away, not the up close and personal views we’re sharing today. Still, how many folks can say they’ve witnessed the construction of a classical Chinese garden?
What defines a classical Chinese garden? Landscapes mimic the natural scenery of rocks, hills, and rivers, featuring elegant aesthetics and subtlety. Strategically located pavilions and pagodas fill out the ambiance, and provide a place for the user to kick back and take in the beauty.
Even the rocks add to the aesthetics. Most of the raw materials for the garden were shipped in from China. 500 tons of rock were imported, including oddly shaped natural sculpture from Lake Tai. The waters of the lake are acidic with a natural circulation, eroding fantastic shapes and open holes into the rock. These shapes are said to add to the natural flow of qi (pronounced “chee”). The Chinese Daoists (or Taoists) believe qi is a cosmic life force, imbued into all things, and balancing its flow of positive and negative forces is essential for happiness and good health. Yin and Yang, interlocked, balanced, a top that spins best when both sides are equal.
It should come as no surprise these gardens and their aesthetic were created by a wealthy, scholar class. For those who could afford it, gaining what is now considered a rigorous liberal arts education provided an entry into higher paying government positions, and an appreciation for the more subtle beauties in life.
Two Chinese philosophers wandered along a stream. One noted the fish swimming along and told the other how happy he found the fish to be.
The other philosopher replied, “You are not a fish. How can you know if the fish are happy?” The first responded, “You are not me. How can you know if I can tell if a fish is happy?”
I’m no philosopher, or at least not enough of a one to take joy in splitting hairs that fine, but those fish look happy to me. Even the ducks seem to know the way of the Dao.
But there’s one in the pool who takes his name from another tradition. The volunteers call him “Apollo”. Burnished gold, named after the Greek god of the sun, he swims along merrily, and all in the pool note his passing much as we note that bright orb, passing through the sky.
Here a different sort of orb provides brightness, passing across the sky. Perhaps that is the lesson of the garden. Beauty is out there, in many forms. But sometimes we need to slow down, to look a bit closer, to see its variations.
It’s true, the world is not a manicured garden. Sometimes we need to look a little harder. Sometimes the beauty isn’t physical, it’s simply a feeling or an act of kindness. Sometimes we may despair, seeing the poor behavior that seems rampant and gets all the press. But if we look for balance, seeing all those little things that could be considered beautiful and weigh them against the bad, perhaps they’ll gain more impact. The search for beauty and balance could help a transition from piledrivers to peace, or at least give incentive to produce more good and tamp down the bad.
Or in a pinch, we could just find a garden.