The sacred in the garden, and design patterns to emulate

In all the cultures, flowers, trees, and garden spaces are valued, and inspire many aspects of mythology, stories, art, music, and our relationship to nature. The gardens are specific to the geography and climate of a place and are imbued with certain principles and values that make them unique. In many cases, being a gardener (and designer) is a sacred profession that is dedicated to the maintenance of this connection. The garden is thus the realm of a spirit practitioner that mediates between the plant and human worlds.

Now, people will approach the sacred in any number of fashions. What does that even mean – the sacred, the spiritual, sublime ecstatic divine awe? Is it a set of material symbols? Do you have to buy into it, or subscribe to a set of beliefs? Is it antagonistic to science, reason, and rational discourse? Define ‘sacred’… Well, this is not a comparative religion essay, nor is it a preachers pulpit, an atheist’s diatribe, or psychoanalysis of ego and mind. It is about how the garden can assist in evoking a state of bliss and communion with the universe. It is about methods used in the design process.

A few things to reflect on before we start. The garden is an intermediary junction between nature and culture, the overlap between the wilderness and your home. It follows nature’s cycles – there are plants and it is outdoors. At the same time, it is easily amenable to our manipulations and add ons – whether that be a nice stone path or some up lights on the palm tree. In the house, theres the bedroom, kitchen, living room – mostly all rectangular shapes each with defined roles. In the garden, theres a lot more fluidity, and varied shapes are possible – curves, circles and the whole bit. Less is set in blocks. The innards of the house is mostly for humans and pets, whereas just outside the back door almost any creature can and does come by – spiders, ants, hummingbirds, worms. They are all out there. So how do you find harmony and balance? How do you make the garden a mirror of life itself, in order to look inwards?

In the northern woods, cold fjords and island nations, there is a long history of this sort of nature connection that predates recorded time. I was shown an Irish tree alphabet by a student named C, and can see how knowledge of the Ailm, Beith and Coll (pine, birch, and hazel) could potentially build a vocabulary for the soul. A sacred garden has happy and healthy plants. Hopefully, in my aesthetic, a lot of them! Ratio wise, hardscape to softscape, concrete & wood to leaves and flowers, strive for say 50:50, 60:40, or something close to it. Okay okay 70:30 but that is my last offer. Heck, the house is in the realm of 98:2 not counting the veggies in the refrigerator. Balance! Most of the time, folks do not have their breath taken away by a sofa, but a cluster of dogwoods in spring bloom, or the silhouette of a pink sky-lit cedar – those will do the trick. Plants play their part in the theater of time – that’s what makes the show special. Plants make the garden. If you wait till the end of the design to think and dream about the plants and their gifts, then most of the spaces will be taken up already, and you will relegate the plants to the edge of the deck and foundation or a container or two of so so greenery. That will be too late for the protagonist to rush to the rescue.

Do not plant plants that will quickly grow too big for their spot – these end up having to be corrected, hacked, manipulated, tortured, and moved. You want plants that fit. Plants that are comfortable with the ecology of the site, with regards to their basic needs. Plants that get better and better with age. Plants are like you, they want freedom and to be as they are; they do not want to be stuck out of place. On your plan, be sure to design with plants that wear different clothes as the seasons pass, to mark the wrinkles around the eyes, the loose skin at the elbows, and a slight clouding of the senses. There is no plant that is beautiful and unchanging all the time, that would be a plastic rubber statue stuck in an eternal state of wanna-be juvenility. You want well-grounded dynamic motion. And the red and yellow fallen leaves, well that is part of the picture. So is the fuzzy scattering fluff of anemones, and the bright red seeds of magnolias. Just cause its old, and on its way out, does not mean that you erase it from the garden entirely before its due. It is going to feed the earth, and with good weather give birth to a novel spring.

In medieval Europe, in the monastic gardens, the gardeners were the monks and nuns in a cloistered brick monastery. These places also happened to be the repository of medicinal plants and hence healing traditions. The ordered universe, the layout of the monastery garden, the not idle, hard working, and prayerful person in the midst of it all. All were to be in agreement. In an overall sense, it is like chemical molecular structures and formulas. Such a garden is geometric and law-abiding. Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio of flowers are all repetitions of this same motif. In the garden is the universe made small to fit. It too will have symmetry, whether radial or bilateral and repeating spiral fractal type elements that twist you into a churning web of complexity. All the while the outward forms appear simple and straightforward. That is the challenge. It is not easy. That is why there is a backspace, delete, and escape key on the keyboard. Not sure how many of you still crumple paper, but that is another kind of visceral and audial joy that lends itself to the design process.

In Japan, you see the influence of Shintoism which is old time nature worship and spirits, then the later addition of Buddhism that arrived in the 6th century via Nepal India China, and Korea. The gardeners are the monks who rake the pebbly gravels to create an ocean and sweep the boardwalks of leaves and debris as they empty their minds in the same way. It is a walking meditation that allows a person to become fully immersed in the way or no way, the circular blank-out lightning bolt kazaam that is intrinsic to the Buddhist frame of thought. This is to say, while you are raking, the mind is judging, analyzing, thinking “This is lame, I’m not here, I wish I was somewhere else”. Or the mind is in a blank rut, unaware of its surroundings, uttering not much more than “Uhhhh”. And when the mind is saying neither of those things or anything else, yet focussed like the prick of a pin, then you are sewn into the fabric of the whole dream-like scene. It happens in a wisp. You engage as an actively integrated pollinator in the care and maintenance of yourself and our world. And that’s all, that is the goal. Kinda reminds me of the walking labyrinths that go from the outside in. Then it lights up and reverses direction.

In the Japanese garden, the rocks lining the paths are deliberately staggered and uneven. Zig zagging here and there. It is not a straight shot from one end of the garden to the other. Time is not an issue; it is no longer money. Time is a petal falling to the earth. The passage way does not go up up up then climax and stay there. The paths are made to slow down the uptown frenzied motion and bring a person down to nature’s sloshing tidal-type rhythm. And if you think about a person’s life, with the myriad of twists and turns of fate, wishes, accomplishments, and expectations coupled with disappointments and failures. Well, there’s the path. The plants are uniformly green, without the frills and shock of a multitude of colors. Again, bright city lights, billboards, drunken head-spinning neon LED tubes with heavy bass. Not so much. Birds scratching in the dirt for breakfast, droplets of dew shining mini rainbows seen only with your head tilted, cold hands holding a warm cup of coffee. The fading of the sun and clouds into fog shroud mists – that is the ambiance and vision. Another design technique is the whole contemplation-borrowed-scenery-from afar vantage point. That is to say, you deliberately create a place that invites someone to sit down and look off into the distance, whether through a cut out in the fence or the direction that the seat is facing. The whole idea is to see beyond the narrow small confines of one’s built world and bring in something from far far infinite. A high mountain, a sky, some light. So it’s a setup, designed on purpose to bring about a desired mind state for the garden visitor.

When I used to watch my friend Saba do Haitian dancing they would alway trace design patterns onto the floor, and set up a central place to gather the energies of the dancers and musicians. In general, the point of concentration was an altar with a myriad of objects representative of the cosmos at large. And as the ceremony proceeded the participants would request that the spirits descend to demonstrate that humans are not, well, just animals or biological phenomena hard-wired to genes and such. The drum frequencies were also dialed in to elicit this break from the regularly scheduled programming that runs on the hour, to the minute, and measures every second. Yeah, you got to wake up at 6 am tomorrow and do a 45-minute commute and put in an exactly 8 hour day with a 15-minute break. But today, you are coursing down an eternal stream in a canoe of sound, fish-on-the-line hooked into the design patterns hidden from day-to-day view. And anything is possible.

When you observe a site you can look for these same lines of energies that are ever present but require investigation, observation, and perhaps even supplication. The lines are disguised and not clearly marked. What you are looking for is the slope of the land in relation to the whole neighborhood, the shadows cast by the sun around the third week of June, and a place where people would likely gather, congregate and share food. You are looking for the source and origin and path of travel for that most sacred of all substances which is water. You want to accentuate these ‘power locations’ and the intersection of the lines where Papa Legba lives. Navigate to the center, and track the dotted lines of planets revolving around this sphere. Imagine every person has a lit flame of a star inside. The individual bodies may spin in ellipses, shoot off into the galaxy like asteroids, then come looping back a millennium later. Where are the lines and punctuation marks? Does your design plan have a core? How is the circulation and movement? If it is all flat paths that lead to fence walls, hard square cubby-like rooms, closed in, and constricted traffic, then the energy cannot buzz and people will be separated from one another, not joined together in the skin and beats. Given our already limited tiny yards in San Francisco, keep the garden plan more or less open. That is to say, limit minimize or eliminate the one-way streets, dead ends, narrow alleyways, and abandoned lots smelling of ammonia. That is the planning aspect of design.

Across the waters you will come to the continents of the north and south Americas. Aside from the well noted, highly organized, stratified hierarchical civilizations, there remains a deep and intrinsic connection here to the plants and animals, to hunting and gathering. All of the ‘hunt’ is masked in magic and encapsulated by ritual because you never know. You are not sure what will go down. Anything can happen. Success or failure is hunger and survival. And so you walk the same path as the animals, straighten your arrows as you coat them with good wishes, and ask for any kind of divine assistance there is. Because of this uncertainty, in the old times, each person found their own way to the spirit realm. There were no intermediary priests or abbots, no fine extravagant temple architecture, no guarantees or insurance of everlasting life, no school to teach meditation, no way you could buy your way in with a fistful of clamshells. You could only go there on your own. This was a difficult problem and terrain; it was a very personal adventure. How do you get there?

One of the methods for this spirit communion was ingesting a variety of plants and fungal products that would release a hunter from the confines of thought. It would tune your inner chords into an owl or a panther or a bushmaster. Encumbered with this sort of insight, you would no longer see and design the garden as a 25’ x 45’ outdoor room. Instead, you would design the garden as a replica of a cosmic shattering universe, comprised of all manners of angelic plants and probably a few accidental stowaway demons too (named yellow jacket wasp and raccoon, LOL). That is the desired vision. Lookup a Tibetan mandala or an aboriginal dream time painting to replicate this sensation. Anyhow, to go back to plants and fungi – one of the flight-inducing methods of such a subsistence culture is the small ephemeral Psilocybe mushroom commonly called the magic mushroom. Okay, to back up a bit and brief you on its history. For the past 10,000, 15,000 years, it has been revered as a medicine by native peoples because it reveals what the eye cannot see. (? And what is that?) Spanish Catholics show up around 1500 and think that the mushroom is in competition with the communion wafer which is the body of Christ, and they suppress the eating of these substances. Meanwhile, the native name for the mushrooms is the flesh of the gods. Weird coincidence? And the locals say yes, we know Jesus, we have known him since ancient times because he has shown himself to us when we eat the mushrooms. He is all that is good and holy and the only way to reach heaven. Bishops and fathers are in flabbergasted disbelief. Are we getting through to these people at all!? They come to church every Sunday, but during the week, they go to the woods! Ridiculous and callous drama ensues for centuries. Around 1970 these mushrooms were outlawed because – they have no FDA-approved medical use. And being a Schedule I drug means that there is a high chance for abuse and addiction. Fifty more years pass. Nowadays, there are leading medical schools advocating for its use in therapy, my psychiatrist friend down the street is prescribing it to patients with great success, Nikii at the bonsai nursery tells me about micro-dosing, and an army veteran student is using it for PTSD. I’m like ?!? There is something going on here.

Maybe you got lost there, I almost did. Yes, this is about garden design. Well you can grow your own spirit medicines in the garden, and put that down in the plant list or notes on the side. That would be super cool. If you can grow a peony or a daffodil, you can grow a patch of fungal mycelium, or grow a cannabis plant if that is your natural meds and it is legal where you live. Plus the garden is more exciting when there is something to harvest year-round.

If you cultivate and nurture this presence and unity in the garden, then that sacred edge will unfurl and reveal itself. The cocoon peels itself. In this manner you wed yourself to a little dinky plot of land that is an embodiment of the beauty and awe that is our world. And there you have done it – expressed what you feel inside, and made it perfectly match the outer reality. Yippee, you win, and the community wins too. Hopefully, you will come to possess all the good stuff readily available in abundance in the garden – greens, fruits, flowers, sun, and extra bonuses too like peace love understanding compassion joy contentment, and laughter. It’s right outside. Go!!

To sum up the main lessons for this section about bringing something of the sacred into your garden design: Its plants, geometry, stillness, frequencies & flow (music dance movement), and feeding the inner landscape in order to make the backyard bloom. Good luck on your journey!