I have been sitting in this old temple for over an hour, looking out at the garden. The room I am in — with its clay-plastered walls sectioned neatly by posts and beams, its modular tatami mats, and grid-patterned paper doors — is a model of planar geometry expressed in shades of sepia; subtle and subdued. The garden meanwhile, is a verdant transcendence of mathematics. It’s early Spring; the world outside seems to tremble with the promise of a kiss. A breezy day. Clouds passing overhead in ranks let sunlight through intermittently, at times strong, then fading slowly, brightening again. Now the sun is out and a soft light filters down through layers of translucent new maple leaves to the smooth surface of the pond, reflecting a cool pale green on the trees and boulders at the water’s edge. Waves of light ripple up the trunks as if returning to the sun. A small brown warbler, an uguisu I believe, flits back and forth, restless with nervous energy.
The pond, neatly tucked between the temple and the hillside beyond, recalls a pearl of water caught in the hollow of a lotus leaf. Glistening like liquid mercury—pure as the soul of Buddha. Dense trees encompass the rear of the pond, hiding it in shadow, but open up further to the right, giving way to a moss-covered yard in which stands an old prayer hall, weathered and noble. The trees in the yard, with more space than those in the forest, have filled out majestically and carry their heads high above the ground. From where I sit, all I can see are trunks echoing the vertical lines of temple posts off into the distance.
Everything about this place seems to belong here. The water which falls from the shadows of the forested hillside at the back of the pond and pools before running on to the river below. The temple, sitting so comfortably by the pond, together shaded by the spreading cover of old trees. The gravel path that casually turns to avoid tree roots as it cuts through the moss carpet beneath the trees on its way out to the prayer hall. All of these seem not so much separate elements fitted together in one place, but rather as elements that are very much of the place. Born of it, nurtured by it, at one with it. Complete.
What keeps recurring in my mind, and what has kept me here in this chilly hall for the last hour, is the question of where the mountain ends and where the garden begins. What here is natural and what is man-made? Surely the path in the moss was built, and the grey granite lantern in the shadows of the maples by the back of the pond was set there, no doubt about that. But what about the smooth boulder the lantern rests on, or the maple that arches gracefully above it, or the pond itself? Were these set out by design or have they always been here? The whole appears seamlessly connected and somewhere in that unity, I feel, lies the mystery of the garden. The desire to understand that integrity has set me hunting for the boundaries of the garden but it occurs to me now that, as is so often the case, the difficulty in finding the answer is that the question is all wrong. I realize that what I am puzzling over is not what is natural and what man-made, but “What is nature?” and that the essence of the garden is concealed in that question.
What is nature? If common usage of the word is taken as fact, nature would be that which occurs without the impetus of the human hand or exists free from control of the same. After all, we ask “Is it natural or man-made?” as if the two defined each other by being opposites. Yet, the moment we breathe those words we separate ourselves from nature, placing ourselves outside looking in, which we are not. However much we may wish to set ourselves apart in some hierarchy among living things, there is no separation. There are some rare moments in our lives when this unity appears to us so clearly that it stuns as it pleases, like the first gulp of air after a long dive. I felt that unity in Canada one night after a thunderstorm cleared the air and an ocean of stars flowed out into the ink-black night sky. I have felt it while floating on the surface of the warm sea off Hawaii, bobbing gently, each breath synchronized with the rhythms of the surf; the waves breathing for me. I feel like it might happen here and now, and just the thought sends shivers along the skin of my back.
I have felt the unity, but not as often as I’d like, and I also see that humans do things that seem unnatural; things that seem to prove us separate from nature—different from other species. We murder, wage war, despoil our planet with toxic waste. But if base horror is proof of unnaturalism, consider for a moment the callous acts of some other species. Take, for instance, the African lion, which from time to time consumes its own offspring, still wet and clinging, at the moment of birth. Annie Dillard described in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek how a mother lion will start by tenderly licking the soft belly of her new-born, and then for some untold reason, begins to eat, one massive clawed paw pinning down the frantic cub while her jaws work it over. I recall this and shiver. Or for sheer horror, consider the mating habits of the female praying mantis who devours her mate while copulating, crunching away from head on down, even as his remains continue to pump away at procreation. Shut your eyes and pray.
I look up from these musings to see that a break in the clouds has momentarily highlighted the valley beyond the prayer hall. From end to end it is filled with box-like houses and a maze of power lines. Not a single tree in sight. The light fades again and the valley recedes, leaving me with an image of ugliness; cold and suddenly sad. Perhaps just this sort of wanton destruction of the environment for selfish purposes is the deciding factor that sets us apart from the rest of the ecosystem, but even as I think this I am also reminded of the North American beaver, flooding a valley for his new home and in the process drowning neighbors by the thousands in their earthy burrows. And not only animals, trees too. Their roots submerged, they die by the acre. The beaver, who builds his house of these trees, fells them and then uses the very pond that killed the trees to float them where he wishes. Admirably efficient selfishness. Or witness African locusts, crowded and restless on the dusty savannah, metamorphosing into their migratory form. Their mandibles grow, wings expand, and body color heightens to insane yellows and pinks. Delirious with their own energy, they swarm, darkening the sky. Spreading across the land, in numbers that have been calculated in the billions, they consume everything in their path until, having recklessly eradicated their own source of life, they die, en masse. Are we so different? We kill; we lay our own backyard to waste.
The little brown warbler has been flitting between the trees in the garden and I watch as it crosses over to the old prayer hall, which sits well above the ground on a platform of stone, its roof held high by eight massive wooden columns. A sense of pride is expressed in its erect posture, and one of grace in the upward sweeping lines of the roof, which is supported by an impossibly complex puzzle of interlocking wooden rafters. The temple eloquently expresses the spiritual desires of the priest who commissioned it; the harmonic balance of the whole remains as a tribute to human achievement. So perhaps it is not our destructive capacity so much as our noble acts, our higher achievements in science and art, like the graceful prayer hall before me now, which separate us from the rest of nature. A highly subjective topic no doubt, but does our architecture in any way but size surpass the gossamer, crystalline webs of spiders? The microscopic intricacy of the silken threads, actually sheathed cables of pleated keratin, is well beyond the present capabilities of human science to explain let alone reproduce, and although arachnids may not be adept at a wide range of skills, when it comes to construction detailing, their genius is downright humbling. One such creature, all black and yellow and needle legs, inhabits my front garden. Somehow, in the space between the fir tree and the huge gardenia that frame my entry walk, she finds just the right twigs to anchor her threads, and though I don’t imagine she can see well enough to plan the whole from afar, her master engineering is impeccable.
Despite prolific examples like these of the overwhelming complexity of the organic world, we still tend to pride ourselves that the sophistication of our machinery shows us to be not just one of the multitude of species, but in a class by ourselves. And yet, what if we compare a nuclear reactor with a leaf? Both are producers of energy. By applying the greatest concentration of intellect and capital currently available we can build reactors and make them work — barely. Can anyone build a leaf? Music is another of our great accomplishments, but surely none of the astounding variety of instruments we have invented emit a sound more moving and potent than the dulcet call of the little brown uguisu, darting among the trees — a melodious blur. Its voice is so pure and full that I look in disbelief at the minuscule bird, searching for an amplifier hidden beneath its feathers. Are we so different? We build, we sing.
I look outside again and something happens, at once strange and wonderful. I breathe, deeply, and the universe inhales with me. Suddenly, and with great force, the air expands. The shimmering forest on the other side of the pond snaps into focus, each flickering leaf a story in itself. The tatami runs cool and smooth beneath my fingers. A sweet scent beckons, barely apprehensible. Witchhazel flowers, this late in the season? The uguisu cries, sharp and utterly clear like a Noh master’s drum. Not a thing has changed, not a drop, not a photon, and yet I am new. Now not on the floor — part of it. Not in the temple — I am the temple, and I am immensely old; I have been here forever. I am the mountain and the pond, I know the air and the water and the trees by name. I am them. The uguisu flies over, settles lightly in my branches and sings.
I wish this feeling would last for eternity. I flow within the garden, filling the space between the trees and temple like the air, listening to the echoes of stories that linger there. A tale in which the mountain begets the temple, its noble trees becoming the wooden frame, its clay earth the sepia walls. This then overlaid by whispers from the pond-water; its own account of cool oceans it has passed through, of rising in vortices through electric thunderheads and settling down as mist caressing the forest nearby. And sudden beams of sunlight flash a complex language I cannot understand; a sermon of combustion and fusion, booming like the voice of God.
The sliding door behind me opens with a sharp clap. I am awakened to the enormity of what I have been feeling, but in the moment of realization the feeling is gone—vaporous morning dew rising off garden moss. I touch the tatami. They are still cool. The maples in the garden remain verdant, swaying back and forth in the gentle breeze like kelp in ocean waves. The bird is gone without trace. The older couple who just entered the room sit quietly in the corner opposite me. Did they notice that I was on fire, burning in unison with the universe? Did they see the warbler flitting through my branches, chirping in my ear? If so, they’re taking it casually.
In some way it remains with me, the unity, the instant of being whole, not separated into nature or man but simply alive. Complete in the moment. It is then, still tingling, that I realize the indivisibility of nature; that we cannot separate ourselves from the rest of the natural world by any of our acts. Rather we come to see that those acts are simply our nature. We do them because we are capable of them; they are inherent in us. We kill and ruin not because we are unnatural but because it is within our nature to do so. Likewise, we cannot elevate ourselves above nature on any testimonial to the refinement of our character. We design and create not because we are supranatural, but simply because those qualities also are in our nature. We do all these things as naturally as the uguisu flies or sings.
It is in our nature to build and to create, as much as it is our nature to be wild and brute. When it is time for the latter, I will run through the mountains and sweat, give blood to leeches that cling to grasses by the clear streams. But when it is time for creation, I will make a garden, be an artist in nature, for gardens reveal to us what is best in our nature. The garden is a place for the gentle builder and humble artist to call their home, a place for them, and all those who visit thereafter, to find their way back to a unified world where there are no boundaries. No point where the mountain ends and the garden begins.