I Don’t Make Gardens

published August 9, 2014

My father was a gardener.

When people introduce me with the same title I feel like a fraud. But I understand. I am a gardener. It’s only that in every way I’m praised or admired for what I do, my father was unseen.

He died when I was 19.

I was still in high school. There was no stigma attached to my late exit because I’ve always looked young. At 19 I looked 12 and now that I’m 42 I look like I’m still in my 20’s. I’m Japanese. I guess that helps.

In California I spend hours in the sun, like a beach bunny who has no idea all the ultraviolet will make her look 60 by the time she’s 40. My time in the sun is spent carefully, in a wide-brimmed straw hat of my father’s that he called his sugegasa, long sleeves, and gloves. The only consistent evidence of exposure are the tan lines from my sandals. On close inspection my feet might reveal my age.

My first garden was my father’s. There was no reason to maintain it after he died. My mother sold our house and the garden with it. The new owner loved the space, which was much larger than the modest house. I offered to take care of it until she could find someone else. She agreed, and for over a  year I fought to keep the garden in the family. I lost our garden at 21, the year I decided to give college a try.

A Japanese garden is a lot of work.

There are rules, closer to call them sacraments, that you don’t find in Western gardens. Here you hear the term “landscaper” a lot. It’s a title my father was appalled by when applied to him. It was never an insult to be called a “gardener” and he corrected anyone who tried to elevate what he did with a word.

But I understand. It’s common for a Western gardener to go into a space for the first time, with a vision for a garden they already had, and to make the space conform. They are unafraid to tear things down to nothing. In many ways that’s what gardening is here, an act of destruction followed by the production of something that makes people remark,

“I can’t believe this is the same space!”

This would not be a compliment to my father, or to any traditional Japanese gardener for that matter.

“A garden is everywhere Yuko. A garden is here. In the same way that a stone contains the statue, a place contains the garden.”

My father was a happy man who seldom smiled.

His name was Muso and he was Ainu. The Ainu are indigenous people, similar to Native Americans, whose lives were transformed by conquering invaders. Ainu have light skin, a different bone structure, average height, and weight. The men have full, thick, dark beards. The Ainu stand out in Japan. Not as much as a Norwegian would, but they’re noticeably not “Japanese.”

“Your grandmother was Ainu, but married a Japanese man.”

“Was it forbidden?”

“Forbidden? No. Her family was already living in a Japanese city. There was no work for the Ainu on their own land.”

I never met my grandfather, but in pictures he is short, slight, and fair. My father was taller and broader than him by the time he was a teenager. Photos of them together show my small, smiling grandfather next to a brooding giant. It’s clear that he loved his son, even in a few pictures.

“He was an outcast with us. I sometimes followed him into town, in secret. He was one of them when he was alone. With us he was the other.”

I think It was hard for my father to be Japanese in Japan. He moved to the US before I was born, to a part of California where everyone is an outcast, and for that reason, also a community.

“Is it better here?”

He would never answer. He talked of Morioka often, of the gardens he worked on there, of meeting my mother. He was never melancholy about anything. It was clear to me though that there was something about each place that made him feel like an outsider. I got along well in the world, and he often said things to me like,

“When you get older Yuko, you will make great things.”

He was proud of me, proud that I was wholly part of the place I was born. I saw myself always as his champion. Each day he seemed to push me out to sea, simply because he thought I was a natural swimmer. And I swam, surely, but each evening when I paddled back to him he seemed surprised, and gracious.

“I want to be a gardener.”

I Don’t Make Gardens.

Like my father, I uncover them. In the Bay Area there are so many natural contours and wild, invasive plants that my job seems at times easy. If I did things like everyone else  I couldn’t work cheap and I couldn’t work miracles.

If Muso were alive he would disagree. Our garden, his garden, continues to be what inspires my every project. It was an impossible space that I remembered before, during, and after his efforts. It always looked the same in one respect. It contained the same trees, the same bumps and dips and pools. It was the kind of mess a landscaper would need thousands to even make useable, and when it was sold with the house the buyer remarked that it was as though the garden had always been there.

“It’s miraculous!”

Muso had heard that sort of thing his whole career, and always told me there were no such thing as miracles. I never believed him.

“So you’re amazed?”

“It’s amazing!”

“It was there before Yuko. You just couldn’t see it.”