The Zen of Gardening
by Nanda Munshi
It started with a citation from Village of Skokie regarding overgrown hedges on the alley side of the house obstructing line of sight for drivers exiting the alley. We have been Skokie residents over thirty years and were never cited. My husband Susim took it was an insult – a Trump kind of insult; many of our neighbors have bushes which look like jungles. He took the matter into his own hands, determined to fight not a Trump but a Bush Battle! After retiring we do our own landscaping and yard work. I was at my wits end. What might happen if he suffered major health set back? I tried to reasoning with him – the heat is outrageous, we do not have the equipment, importantly, if the job takes too long, we may end up getting a second citation. My daughters, our good neighbor Mark, tried to dissuade Susim. My nephew called from Kolkata, “Mesho, no, don’t do it. You are a Bengali Babu. This kind of work is not in your DNA.” None could stop him going down the disastrous path.
Susim started sawing and cutting down the hedges with fury and rage. I was the silent bystander, observing everyday how the vegetation standing between the yard and the alley turning uglier each day. In the process of this humungous job we acquired a battery powered chain saw, a lopper, bigger shears, a Little Giant ladder, sustained scratches, numerous cuts, a couple of minor falls, and a twisted ankle which had to be iced and nursed for a couple days. Time is precious even for retirees. Should we have hired a professional landscaper? To make a long story short, after a week an a half, the hedges were gone, the ground leveled, a 360 degree clear line of sight. Susim stood there with an ear to ear grin like a victorious Samurai. He claimed he is an undaunted, high spirited Bengali who never gives up a battle. Somehow I admire my Bengal Tiger!
Even as he was successful, his struggles reminded me of an ordeal from the time when the children were very young and Susim installed a swing play set in our back yard. To stand upright the swing set required its six legs to be grounded into six deep holes in the ground. In the end, after endless restarts we stood looking at sixteen gaping holes in the ground instead of the required six. We were all disturbed. The girls were in tears. Susim a little dismayed. A ruined backyard with no play area and a lop sided swing. But that was a long time ago……
This time around, we we were left with a strip of barren land which needed skillful beautifying. We both dreamed of a Zen garden. Our recent trip to Japan highlighted visiting gardens in Tokyo, Nara, Kyoto, and Kobe; our senses were still alive and verdant, preoccupied with the simplicity in Nature yet its abundance.Since we both love gardening so much we relocate to the outdoors the minute the weather turns warm. A strip of land, not very large where a Zen garden would spring was among my prayers. By this time working together on other projects, we have learned to work cooperatively, exchanging and accepting different ideas, no stepping on each other’s toes, better frustration management techniques. We listed some goals that we needed to be accomplished before plunging into the Zen concept. Susim was fretful from the beginning. He couldn’t quite put together his brilliant burst of ideas in a cohesive pattern. My major consideration was low budget, high impact.
We are both visual learners so each one of us sketched out our dream illustration of our Zen garden. Whereas I pay little attention to measurements, Susim works like an architect.Whereas I pretend to be a pseudo artist, the flora, objects, accessories, and other items of his garden had to be labeled for me to recognize them! To see the light at the end of the tunnel like this one project undertaking is important, but we have endless time on our hands- the luxury and joy of retirement. However, we did want to be able to enjoy our Zen garden while we’re still fit and active, and set a timeline. All debris was bagged and garbaged. Susim was ready to construct a 3ft high retaining wall. A perfectionist; each brick was placed precisely, checked with a level, reinforced with a mallet, and then firmly glued on to each other. Two days later, when I went to inspect the site I said, “You have something amazing here”. “Hmm,” he replied, “that is an overstatement but I surely worked my sweat out.”
We evaluated the handiwork and decided that planting selected shrubs and flowers , using stones and rocks will certainly bring about the Zen look in the small and narrow space. At close proximity, it will be easier to enjoy and evoke the true sense Feng Shui. Feng Shui is the art of maintaining a beneficial flow of life giving energy or “chi”. No matter how rudimentary in nature our Zen garden may be, we will try to give it harmony and balance, the watch words of Feng Shui. For the next few days we stopped working concentrating more on creating an intimate realm in the public sphere. As a team, we are not so bad together, after all.
The next step was selecting the plants for the Zen strip. I wanted to pick quick growing plants to satisfy my self-gratification needs. Susim, more patient, sets far reaching goals. We went out plant shopping and visited a couple of nurseries in the vicinity. Before venturing out we each made a list of our favorite species and compared notes. I was pretty shocked when I found out that Susim had selected only one specimen. Juniper shrub, juniper shrub, and flowering juniper shrub!! I have no idea what the flowering juniper shrub was? I said, “How can we maintain balance with this one selection, with the rest of the Zen scape? It’s going to look pathetic!” After heated argument and debates, he finally compromised. We agreed on a carpet rose bush of pink and fuchsia colors. Japanese gardens use a lot of roses, lilies, and irises. Irises were past their season this year. We planted a row of pink cone flowers, a native of Illinois, their long colorful stems as exclamation points. Yellow coreopsis for brightness, small green shrubs as a winding border. The overall look traditionally Zen, contemplative in nature, informal, cost saving yet appealing. Exchanging high fives upon reaching this landmark, we were ready to move on to actual implementation.
From hereafter everything went relatively smooth. Adding Zen tidbits – rocks, stones, water feature, a sculpture. Susim raised a red flag regarding the addition of a water feature because there were no accesses to electric outlets in the area and installing one would be an expensive affair. Instead, we decided, we would emphasize on more rocks and stones. According to Feng Shui, rocks symbolize mountains connecting spiritualism and nature. We are both big on spiritualism and feel delighted when surrounded by this uplifting feeling. Rocks also add strong positive “yang” in contrast to the softer “yin” energy. Several bags of river rocks were brought in , white, in color to juxtapose against the black dirt. We also used big white rocks which we already had from a left over landscaping project. A winding pattern along the bed of plants was created by the larger rocks to bring in a sense of illusion to convey that the path is longer than it really is! The marriage of materials of stone and bricks, also enhanced Feng Shui’s mixing of elements for continuous harmony.
Only a water feature was missing! This is a major flaw in my opinion of the concept of a Zen garden. The sight and sound of clean naturally flowing water is both relaxing and soothing. Suddenly an idea popped up in my head. Why not a bird bath? No electrical connection would be necessary. A deep basin holding clean water would still serve the purpose of placing a water feature and having the essential calming effect. Of course there will be no ripples, no sound of gurgling water but the bird bath will bring the cardinals, finches, sparrows, robins in numbers. Their tweets, chirps, and melodious songs would be a good mix of “yin” and “yang” energies. Whoever thought about that? For a little indulgence, we illuminated our Zen garden with lights that are specially designed for outdoors. For statues and sculptures, we used a ceramic Buddha statue and a couple of hanging Japanese lanterns. I made a composition of rounded rocks heaped on top of each other.
From concept to completion, our Zen garden stood there in all its glory! We all want recognition from others but we are not supposed to say that. When passers by, neighbors stand casually to view the garden for a few moments with admiration in their eyes, I tear up! Some have openly come up to us to pay compliments about our handiwork. Physical labor, hard outdoor work are not the kinds of things I like. I always wanted to work less and relax more. I want to be fit but never want to exercise. However, in the pursuit of happiness, I managed to bring it all together. It is our joint effort and hopefully we have been able to achieve the harmony and balance that we were looking for. I think we provided movement, color, shape, texture, and lots of sweet love. It is a garden in progress for we have to provide a shaded seating area somewhere; all tired legs need rest. I feel a strong sense of freedom and serenity now, when I look at our Zen strip. Finally, the Zen garden, with all the flowers, green vegetation, rocks and stones, the Buddha and bird bath, reminds me of my favorite Haiku ever:
“The temple bell stops
But the sound keeps coming
Out of the flowers.”
– Japanese Haiku Master, Matsuo Basho