Some Gravel, Some Stones: Nature, Art and Spirit in Japanese Gardens

Last year, German writer Marion Poschmann’s novel The Pine Islands was translated into English. Set in Japan, and winner of the Berlin Prize for Literature, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. The following are extracts of a discussion between the author, who is also a poet, and the Japan-based writer and photographer Stephen Mansfield, based on a three-month stay she made as a guest at Kyoto’s Goethe Institute-Villa Kamogawa.




Stephen Mansfield: I understand that a great deal of your time in Kyoto was spent in the city’s gardens. What drew you to them? And how did you approach them?

Marion Poschmann: For many years I have been interested in the art of gardening. All the specific connotations, the Garden of Eden, paradise, the Arcadian landscape, you can find in a Baroque garden and as well in an English garden. When I visit a city, I always try at first to find the gardens and parks. I did so, for example, when I was spending a month in Kaliningrad. This was especially interesting, because there you can find parks originating from several times and ideological concepts: former German city parks, based on the opening of aristocratic gardens to the public, botanical and zoological gardens, typical Soviet parks with playgrounds, amusement parks and parade grounds for the annual Victory Day marches. I found that you learn a lot about a country and its history by strolling through the gardens. And that was my intention in Kyoto: to get in touch with Japanese aesthetics by visiting the Japanese gardens, to perceive their beauty, to contemplate them. And, of course, I read a lot about them, because usually you only see what you know.


You devote over a page of your novel, The Pine Islands, to an extensive listing of the varietals of the Japanese pine. Can you explain the centrality of the tree in your mind?

In one sense, my novel is a book mostly about trees. It deals with the Japanese Pine and the American Sugar Maple, and my first idea was to write a book just about the beauty of these trees, a very quiet, meditative, poetical book. Actually, I started with a poem, which has the same title, The Pine Islands. But a tree is not only beauty and nature, it represents history and politics, it is a symbol and a concept, and it was very interesting for me to compare how different countries look at their trees, which means looking in a way at themselves. The Japanese Black Pine is a tree connected with wisdom and strength and discipline. It is formally trimmed in a way that is looks absolutely wild, so nature is formed into an image of nature, an idea of nature. In writing about pines, I wrote a book about projections and prejudices, culture and representation, traditions and modern society, dream and reality.

Another inspiration for the book came from the Noh plays. I am fascinated by the structure of these plays, especially by the aspect of illusion. Most Noh dramas are a kind of ghost story, but you never know who plays the role of the ghost: the living person or the dead. I wanted to do something similar, and I think my character Yosa fits in this scheme; he might be called a doppelgänger.


The descriptive passages in the book ring true. You must have spent time in Japan, researching settings?

I had the opportunity to spend three months in Kyoto during a residency at Goethe Institute. I wanted to do research on Japanese aesthetics, I was fascinated by the specific Japanese arts like tea ceremony, ikebana, Noh, Kabuki, butoh, and for the short time I had there I found it to be the most practicable to concentrate on the Japanese garden. For three months, I visited the gardens of Kyoto, staring at stones and gravel, walking around ponds. This was a physical and a mental experience, similar to the pilgrimage my characters are on in the novel. It enhanced my sense of the differences between Eastern and Western aesthetic principles, for example asymmetry, the importance of shadows in contrast to Western culture stressing visibility, or of simplicity, based on incredibly complex rules. And one of my questions was, how do these principles survive in postmodern times?

Two years later I went back to Japan to see some places on the Basho route, during the koyo season. I loved the idea of writing poetry at stations where so many other poets have looked at a particular landscape.

However, my text was almost finished, [I found] it feeds itself more from literature and imagination than from concrete perception. Strangely enough, my experience is that descriptions seem particularly realistic when they are constructed rather than mimetic.


Writers often talk about Japanese gardens replicating nature. It seems to me that the most accomplished landscapes go a step further by, not imitating nature, but transcending it. Would you agree?

I would absolutely agree. In the Japanese garden, there is no imitation of nature in the sense of wilderness. What might be replicated, is the idea of natural order, the image of spiritual sensitivity. In the Western tradition, the formal garden, for example Versailles, represents a cosmical order with its strict lines and flower beds and perspectives from one central point out into the open. The Japanese garden looks totally different, but the principle is similar, to create a surrounding which reminds us, for example, of the Islands of the Blessed, the Land of the Immortals. And because we do not know exactly, how these landscapes really look, it is important to create an atmosphere which calms the mind, which helps the mind to rise up.


It seems to me that in the dry landscape garden and the stroll garden we find dual, almost opposing urges in the Japanese mind. The former, simple, even humble, spiritually-driven, the latter, beautiful but occasionally bordering on the ostentatious, a pleasure driven entity. The temple and the amusement park.

The dry landscape garden and the stroll garden seem very different, they have different historical roots, the dry landscape garden being used for meditation in the temple, the monastery, the stroll garden for pleasure of the aristocratic class, for parties, boat trips, maybe with the hidden idea in the background to already belong to the group of immortals. In the tea garden both aspects come together. You stroll around, you admire the moss and the gravel, you are either host or guest, that means, you are not alone, you are socializing, but the aim of such a meeting is not only to drink tea and chat a bit, but to enhance your own awareness.


Can you tell me a little about the themes contained in your yet-to-be translated essays on Japanese gardens?

The collection of my essays is not only about Japanese gardens, they deal with aesthetics and perception in many facets, but I wrote some pieces on Japanese themes: the Ryoan-ji and my personal experiences there, the moon viewing architecture, which fascinates me especially as a poet, because the moon is one of the most important motifs in traditional poetry, but I never had heard of special devices to view the moon before: a terrace near a pond, in order to see the moon mirrored in the water, or a little tower with a round, moonlike window, I found it just incredible. In German, my essays are called “Mondbetrachtung in mondloser Nacht”, that might be translated as “Moon Viewing in a Moonless Night”, and this title hints at the power of imagination. Another essay tells about my visit to the garden of Saihō-ji or Koke-dera, the famous moss garden in Kyoto, and there I reflect on the taxonomic differences, the biological difficulties to distinguish 100 species of moss: It is said that in Koke-dera you find 100 varieties of mosses. And this raises both linguistic and poetic questions, because who knows 100 different mosses?


Lafcadio Hearn wrote about Japanese gardens, that they were, “…gardens of the past. The future will know them only as dreams, creations of a forgotten art.” Do you sense the decline of contemporary gardens created in the spirit of the past?

The stunning effect of the traditional Japanese gardens is that they seem absolutely modern. At least in comparison with European or in general Western gardens, the asymmetry of the stone settings looks like they were positioned randomly, but there is a system, only you cannot grasp it with logical efforts. In this sense, it might be the case that a contemporary garden, constructed in the spirit of the past, is more or less a copy and maybe lacks depth. But my experience is that the contemporary gardens I have seen achieve a new kind of depth in their own way. In Germany, I recently saw a building created by Tadao Ando. The Langen Foundation is a museum of modern art, built on the grounds of a former NATO rocket base, and it is surrounded by a garden made of concrete walls, a water basin and a row of Japanese cherry trees. This garden is really different from a formal garden, but I think it transports the spirit of the past and also includes the remembrance of the events which have happened in the recent decades, especially in Germany.


Is there a risk, then, that formal gardens, even those engorged with living plants, may become mummified cultural artifacts?

I don’t feel it like that; on the contrary, those places are much more vivid than other artifacts and also than other cultural spaces. The construction is in a way timeless, and the people visiting these gardens every day are enriching them with their mode of perception. And such a formal garden is not just standing there over the centuries, every day it demands a certain maintenance, like raking, weeding, or washing the dust from the stones. One can call it a procedure which revives the garden again and again.


Zen writer Alan Watts contended that the creator of a dry landscape garden possesses no “mind to impose his own intention upon natural forms, but is careful rather to follow the ‘intentionless intention’ of the forms themselves.” Do you think contemporary garden designers have the requisite sensitivity to achieve that state of mind?

As I know regular meditation is a kind of basic exercise to achieve such a state of mind and to create, in a second step, a garden. Each garden might mirror the state of mind of its creator. I see no reason why a contemporary designer should not be able to follow the “intentionless intention” of the form itself. What excited me when I was reading old Japanese garden manuals, was the idea that in Shintoism the stones are looked at as living beings. So, the garden designer has to fulfil the wish of the main stone, and then react to the wishes of the other stones. I wonder if these conceptions are still accepted in contemporary garden design.


I think they are. The garden designer and Zen priest, Shunmyo Masuno, talks about listening to the “request” of stones, contending that one should “converse” with them, waiting “until they seem to speak and say where they want to be placed.” Is it fair to say that experiencing the Japanese garden enables us to examine other arts and practices, fine-tunes taste, enhances our appreciation of Japanese aesthetics, and develops a kind of connoisseurship of our critical faculties?

I have to admit that I know several people, who have seen Japanese gardens and found them nothing but boring. My personal experience is, that you need some time to tune into the mood of these gardens, to be able to endure the silence and to tolerate the subtleties. In our daily life, we are not used to such surroundings, and after some weeks in the Japanese gardens I observed that other visitors became often quite nervous, they immediately took some photographs and avoided staying there any longer. The thing is, experiencing the Japanese garden challenges the whole person, one has to change oneself first, and only then does the view of works of art, only then are you yourself fine, refined enough, to appreciate their finenesses.


Japanese aesthetics, in this instance, those applied to gardens, can seem quite unfathomable at first. Concepts like seijaku (absolute stillness), koko (precious simplicity), and yugen (profound depth and beauty), are not easily grasped. How did you approach these ideas?

These concepts were unfamiliar to me, or at least I didn’t know the terms. My impression was, Western aesthetics do not seem that differentiated, I could not tell that we have an equivalent to yugen or koko. But nevertheless, these ideas felt somehow natural to me, as an artist I deal with them, even if I do not name them. It was a great relief for me to realize that one can communicate conceptually about these matters, even though they are very subtle things that are difficult to express.

Daiho-in Temple garden Kyoto autumn Stephen Mansfield

Daiho-in, Kyoto. Photo: Stephen Mansfield


Gardening principles imply a collaboration between the natural and the contrived. Given this deliberate creative process, the filtration of natural elements into preconceived forms, does that mean that the most accomplished gardens can be considered as works of art? Mara Miller, for example, an Asian Studies specialist, has called the Japanese garden a “subspecies of visual art,” a form of virtual space…

Of course, they are works of art, they create a visual space and also, what is much more important, a mental space. For me it is most interesting, that in Japanese gardens you do not have to decide, if it is a work of nature or a work of art, because in contrast to Western aesthetics these concepts are not divided. I found it fascinating, that a Japanese garden unites nature, art and also spirituality. The artistic character is only one aspect, or maybe this specific type of artwork is nourished by the beauty of nature and the boundlessness of the mind, so that you become aware not only of the outer, but also of the inner space you usually don’t notice.


The 18th century English landscape designer, Humphrey Repton, wrote that, “one of the fundamental principles of landscape gardening is to disguise the real boundary.” Might this be interpreted to mean that the garden is, in fact, confined, but, at least in the imagination of the viewer, limitless?

The poetry collection I wrote during my residence in Japan has the title: “Borrowed Landscapes.” This is a term taken from the art of gardening, and it means, that the construction of the garden includes elements which are located outside of the walls, for example a mountain or a pagoda. In Kyoto you find several gardens, where the trees or hedges are arranged in a way, that it seems, as if the garden extends far into the landscape. One of the most famous examples is the imperial garden of Shūgaku-in Rikyū. It operates with surprising effects. You walk through a labyrinth of hedges up to the top of a hill, and suddenly the view opens over the whole valley. In the Chinese garden manual “Yuan Ye” from 1631 the garden architect Ji Cheng describes for the first time the technique of borrowed landscape: It is important to evoke even in a limited space all the power and vastness of nature. And in my experience, this often succeeds.


In the Japanese garden, as in other disciplines like ceramic making, a defect might be considered an effect. One recalls Leonard Cohen’s lyric: “Everything has a crack. That’s how the light gets in.”  Were the merits of imperfection something that you noticed during your Kyoto garden immersion?

I know that imperfection is one of the major traits in Japanese aesthetics, but honestly speaking, I consider the effects of imperfection much more obvious in ceramics than in gardens. A broken tea bowl is repaired with gold and lacquer, so the crack becomes an ornament. A garden is always changing, the light is different each hour, the plants are growing, losing their leaves and so on. In a garden, there is never a state of perfection reached, something is always lacking, you have either the blossoms or the snow or the turning leaves. But if perfection is meant to be symmetry—yes, I noticed, that there is no symmetry in a Japanese garden, the sense of harmony is absolutely different in comparison to a garden of symmetry. Asymmetric patterns keep you awake, they show you, that every moment, every view is always new.


You mentioned the landscape designer Shigemori Mirei once. He’s quite a divisive figure in the gardening world, some characterizing him as creative iconoclast, others as despoiler of traditions. What’s your take on the man?

As I know it, Shigemori Mirei adapted influences of Western art and introduced them in his garden design. He studied the Surrealists, and some of his stone settings look really wild and emotional, as if they might bring up patterns of the unconscious. I really admire his work, I think it is a convincing renewal of the traditional garden, albeit it does not transmit the same calmness. It is a work of our time, and maybe it helps to appreciate the features of the traditional gardens even more.


Japanese gardens might be said to inspire a sense of refined introspection. Was that your experience?

My experience was, that all the traditional Japanese art disciplines deepen that refined introspection. The visitor of a garden is always led from the everyday world into a world of the mind. Personally, I was sometimes overwhelmed by the power and the stillness, when I came to a garden and expected nothing special. I do not dare to say if this stillness comes from the garden or from one’s own mind. In reality, there is nothing spectacular to see: some gravel, some stones.


Zen tells us that stillness is a prerequisite in attaining peace of mind, and yet the world is in perpetual, restless motion. Is it possible that the Japanese garden, in its mastery of space, its transmuting of nature into art, can provide that stillness?

The Japanese garden can of course provide this stillness, but even more, it can also help to find this stillness outside. I believe you can experience it in a parking lot, if you only once felt it concentrated and refined in a formal garden. In a garden, of course, it is easier.


I wrote in one of my books that, “Gardens may not change our life, but they can improve it immeasurably.” How did your time among the gardens of Kyoto affect you?

It is maybe not that exaggerated to say it changed my life, because it really opened a new world for me, or at least a new view of the world. It was fantastic to learn that in Japan, subtle beauty has such an importance, the background, the empty spaces, the shadows, the invisible. I don’t dare to say that I could have acquired even the basics of this aesthetic, but I have found something in it that comes very close to my own intentions, without having been able to verbalize beforehand what I was actually looking for.


See more of Stephen’s imagery and read more stories like this in new digital issue KJ98: ma, a measure of infinity. Just $5!


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