It never occurred to me that an architect could best describe how I feel about Japanese Maples. When I read this quote by the architect Louis I. Kahn, “The sun never knew how wonderful it was, until it fell on the wall of a building”, it reminded me of the light that is caught and trapped in the realm of time and space by the leaves of Japanese Maples. Maple leaves are very different than walls, but they each capture light in their own beautiful way. But compared to walls, it’s a matter of yin and yang, which only seem a paradox until combined to point to a higher truth. A Maple leaf against a wall would be a good synthesis. I am now thinking about walls and Japanese Maples for photos.
In the book Zen Gardens, which I recently found on Amazon, there is a quote from the Sakuteiki, the oldest known gardening text from 12th century Japan, about a wealthy person who wanted to dedicate a new temple to Buddha. But he was unable to find the right trees to build it. So, it occurred to him that dedicating living trees and creating a garden would also be a fitting gesture to a great saint. Walls versus plants. Since I’m a gardener, I’m also starting with plants, but still thinking about walls.
I have many Japanese Maple trees, maybe 25 or so, having decided to collect them several years ago, a dangerous idea. In my zeal, I bought over 30 Tamukeyamas, an heirloom variety from 1710 and still one of the best, thinking that I would sell them. I did sell about half, leaving me with the rest, some of which were oddly grafted with ungainly crooks and angles. It seems grafting is an art requiring practice and not all are soloist material. But now that they are grown more, they are taking on interesting and curious looks. Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers emerges as a valid idea – most appropriate with a Japanese tree.
I also started seeds of several varieties such as Suminagashi, Viridis, and others now perished. I lost over 75% of my seedlings due to an inappropriate soil mix. When I read “moist, well-drained soil” my brain seemed to short out – since this seemed flat out contradictory (without the elevation of paradox). What my thinking was left with was “moist” for some reason. So, lots of compost and sphagnum peat went into the pots – no maple of mine would ever want for moisture! – and one by one most keeled over to my daily disappointment. Back at the drawing board, I devised a new mix using Turface to provide drainage and porosity. I have now discovered expanded shale the size of coarse sand as a substitute, which seems to work even better. I use plenty of this drainage material – about a third of the soil mix. The other components are the stand-byes peat and compost in about equal parts. Moist/well-drained – walls/gardens. Opposites are getting interesting. No more wars here.
Some Suminagashi trees survived – they are destined to be 15 feet tall – and one intrepid Viridis, maturing at 4-6 feet. Seedlings are all a little different, like brothers and sisters, and this particular Viridis has beautiful leaves edged in red rather than the typical green. And having survived that first soil mix, it must be quite vigorous. It also has the Eastern horizontal habit – very architectural – the one glimmer of brilliance out of the chaos. But what to do with all those trees……
We have a hillside – all weedy now – and since the rather consistent advice of interior designers is to display collections in groups, it dawned on me to eventually place them together on this hillside , on terraces with short walls (cedar bender board?) that we would make – to create a sea of red.
So, for now, the Japanese Maples are seated in musical movable chairs – otherwise called pots. I hope they are comfortable – the pots are well selected – as any designer would select a chair. They are Rootmaker pots, constructed with small openings all around the perimeter to air prune the roots thus creating many more fine roots than would be in a smooth sided pot.
I have since discovered that there is a Japanese expression, “yama ga moeru” or “burning mountain in autumn”. The Japanese have historically searched for wild Maples, especially on the sides of mountains, to view. Even the viewing has a name: “momiki-gari”, maple viewing or hunting. This experience must be quite moving. I seem to have stumbled upon the same idea quite by accident and a bit of desperation. Perhaps there should be a special name in English for the experience, like “Maple enrapture”. Our present language seems to be limited when it comes to the experience of plants. Like “pretty”. Or “cool”. These words may not provide the motivation we will need to create the “burning mountain”.
Another coincidence: the Tamukeyamas destined for the hillside, have a name which translated means “hands folded in prayer upon the mountain” or “mountain of prayerful offering”, after Mount Tamukeya in Khushu, Japan. A Tamuke can be anything spiritual, or any offering to divinities, but is often a traditional song composed by Zen monks, typically played on the mournful Shakuhachi, an ancient flute. I may need to get This CD to properly garden with Tamukeyamas. That would also be a lovely musical chairs.
I do not compose prayers on bright silk To present at your shrine, But have only these maple leaves From Mount Tamuke. -Sugawara no Michizane (845-903)