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Lions Roar : July 2014
People gave us picture books about dreamy Japanese gardens, and we tormented ourselves with comparisons to the gems of Kyoto. My husband bought flats of delicate mosses at the nursery. he tried to coax them into our sandy topsoil. But the sun was too hot and the irrigation too uneven. It took two or three tries before we conceded. What was it exactly that made a garden Japanese? We decided it wasn’t us. Like the ocean to the earth, ponds covered three-fourths of the backyard. So we let the horticulture go for now and decided that what we really needed was a pond guy. The fish guy referred us. We took him into the backyard and waited for the diagno- sis. he walked the circumference of the ponds, inspecting the waterfalls and the pump-activated stream that fed them. he stood back to get a sense of it all. he kneeled low to peer into the water. he put his hands on his hips and asked, “What did you say your problem was?” We answered, “They’re muddy.” Ponds are the heart of a Japanese garden, or so the literature told us. Kato, the long-dead landscaper, shaped the four interconnected ponds into the form of the kanji character for heart, after the pond in an eighth-century temple gar- den in Kyoto. I wouldn’t recognize a kanji character if it was tattooed on my ankle, let alone shaped out of a puddle on the ground. Look- ing at the ponds all day through my kitchen window, I couldn’t see any semblance of it. Of course I understood that water really was the heart of things—the essence of life. At least on this plane of existence, water is life’s source and sustenance. The problem is what we put into it. Everything ended up in this water: leaves, seed pods, and branches from the messy syca- mores; acorns and pollen from the oak; pine and cypress nee- dles; redwood bark, bamboo leaves, palm fronds, spent blooms, mosquito larvae, tadpoles, turtles, bird feathers, fish poop, and virtually anything that could be loosened by the gusting easterly winds. (Everything can be loosened by the gusting winds in this part of California.) A family of raccoons romped in the water nightly, dining on frogs and koi and leaving parts behind. One morning the tables turned, and we had to fish a raccoon out of the pond. It had expired from some unknown cause in the night, a reminder of how little we knew about what was happening under our noses. Traces of these—and other mystery ingredi- ents—would stagnate, sink, and ferment into the thick sediment at the bottom. Our ponds were muddy. The water was an ugly brown, laced with bright green strings of algae. It didn’t look like any koi pond we’d seen in a better homes magazine. We thought it was sick, and that the few fish swimming in the murk must be terribly sick too. “This is the most perfect example of a naturally purified pond that I’ve ever seen,” the guy finally said. he was awestruck. Then he showed us the hidden elegance in the whole rotten mess. The large surface area supplied ample oxygen. The stream and waterfalls were natural filters. The mud balanced the water’s chemistry, keeping plants and fish alive. The algae was seasonal, triggered by temperature changes, and easy to manage. The pre- cise science of pond scum was beyond my grasp, but the bottom line was this: ours wasn’t like the designer fishponds decorat- ing fancy homes and magazine covers. This was the real deal. It would always be trouble—ponds are a shitload of trouble—but it wasn’t a problem. Skim the leaves. Circulate the water down the stream and falls. Let the mud settle, and the pond will purify itself. he didn’t do anything that day—except give us the right view of the water. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s beautiful. We never needed to call him again. In JaPaneSe tHere IS a SInGle word that means “heart, mind, and spirit”: shin. Japanese is not like English, in which we divide into opposing concepts things that actually share the same indefinable essence. Like the ponds in my backyard: they look separate but are interconnected. Open the tap at the source, PhOTOBYThEAuThOR karen maezen miller is the author of hand Wash Cold, Momma Zen, and most recently Paradise in Plain Sight. She’s also a Zen Buddhist priest, meditation teacher, wife, and mother. Lotuses in Miller’s muddy yet naturally purified pond SHAMBHALA SUN JULy 2014 20