Monday, September 17, 2007

Japanese Internment Camp Gardens

Recently, I went to a wonderful exhibit at the Japanese-American National Museum in L.A. It was a one-room exhibit dedicated to Japanese-Americans and gardening. I found much of it fascinating, but the most fascinating part of the exhibit was really the smallest part: a brief mention of sagebrush styled as bonsai in the vast prairies east of the Sierra Nevada.

During WWII, when Japanese-Americans were torn from their homes and relocated to internment camps in the great deserts and open country of California and beyond, men who had previously found work and pleasure in gardening turned their creativity and their talents on the native flora and fauna around them.

At Manzanar in the windswept Eastern Sierra, the men gathered Joshua Trees (a remarkable feat) and created fantastic and beautiful Japanese-style gardens for the new community. They moved boulders and massive amounts of earth from the surrounding area, and transplanted sagebrush, willows, cattails, and native grasses.

And over in Minidoka, in southern Idaho, Yasusuke Kogita was amassing magnificent and beautiful stones to display as sculpture in his native rock garden (see, perhaps, the Japanese art of suiseki). There, he transplanted sagebrush and carefully pruned them into gorgeous specimens of fragrant bonsai.

Were Kogita, the men at Manzanar, and the men of many other internment camps creating Japanese gardens? Japanese gardens use a set of aesthetic building blocks to create scenes that are unified in style and philosophy but individual and idiosyncratic in execution. The men in the internment camps used these familiar building blocks to create gardens that approximated these stylistic conventions. But where the approximation failed is, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of their endeavors.

For instance, it is difficult to tell whether Kogita was truly creating bonsai. If his plants were merely sagebrush shaped into pleasing forms, then he could not have been creating true bonsai. Bonsai is necessarily nature in miniature, it takes expansive vistas and focuses them, distills them. This usually involves some sort of shrinking, taking a plant that would usually be much larger and constraining its size; this results in a miniscule sculpture-of-sorts that recalls something much more vast. Unfortunately, Kogita’s sagebrush creations were life-sized. Aesthetically pruned plants, no matter how beautiful, can not be bonsai if they do not, somehow, capture in miniature the essence of a landscape.

And yet, wasn’t Kogita capturing the essence of a landscape? What better way to communicate the essence of sagebrush country than with its namesake plant, pruned to capture the way the rushing winds twist and flay every living thing that dares to show itself in that expansive land? One must remember that bonsai is not really mimesis; in its best forms it does not seek to copy or imitate. Rather, it attempts to manifest, to embody and express a landscape’s pith and substance, its being. Kogita’s sagebrush were bonsai, then, in that they embodied the spirit of place in concentrated form.

Kogita’s sons have said that their father created his garden to take control of his world, a world overturned by forced relocation. This sounds simple enough. But couldn’t the gardening impulse have been much more nuanced? Without daring to state that I know exactly what went on his mind, let me speculate. Perhaps, by taking the plants of his new environment and encouraging them to display their true natures more fully--to express their roles as distillations of place--he was not so much controlling his world as attempting to immerse himself in it, to flow along with it.

The Japanese virtue of gaman, upon which the internees relied, stresses endurance, self-discipline, and dignity in the face of hardship. Kogita’s sagebrush demonstrated gaman, as did the gardens at Manzanar. Forced removal from their homes and internment in strange locales may have focused these men’s attentions on the importance and the power of place. By creating gardens and bonsai that expressed the vastness of their new locations on a human scale, the men may have been miniaturizing their world to embrace it, not control it.

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