Monday, February 13, 2017

The ebb-tide beach

Trees and rocks in the 1466 Maeda manuscript of Senzui narabi ni yagyo no zu (Illustrations for Designing Mountain, Water, and Hillside Field Landscapes), attributed to the priest Zoen.

The last words of this manuscript are these, 'You must never show this writing to outsiders.  You must keep it secret.'  I'm not about to reveal all its advice on landscape gardening here, if only because it would take too long and you can read the full text in David A. Slawson's Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens.  Also, the nature of the text is such that it can only be fully understood alongside advice that would have been provided directly by a master: it begins with the warning: 'If you have not received the oral transmissions, you must not make gardens.'  As Slawson points out, by the fifteenth century, when these Illustrations were written down, 'secret teachings' were being passed on in other Japanese art forms - Zeami's famous treatises on acting and Noh theatre only became widely known in the early twentieth century.  The precise origin of the Illustrations is unclear.  It includes advice that clearly predates the fifteenth century and it is attributed to a priest, Zoen, who lived before the eleventh century, which is prior to the first Japanese garden treatise we have, the Satuteiki, written by Tachibana no Toshitsuna (1028-94).

The teachings in the Illustrations have much to say about the arrangement of different types of rock and how to choose appropriate flowers, herbs and trees (see the different varieties of pine branches above, providing diagonal, horizontal and vertical forms).  The treatise is mainly concerned with the design of a 'scroll garden', viewed from the house like a painting, rather than a 'stroll garden' which requires a walk to take in different vistas.  It therefore has interesting things to say about space, scale and perspective; for example, suggesting a 'narrow-and-widen' principle in designing winding paths or streams so that they appear closer or more distant, depending on the site.  Some elements of a garden can be imbued with religious symbolism or evoke the Eastern Paradise.  Cultural references are also possible: the Illustrations refers to 'Boat-concealing rocks' placed in water to 'convey the feeling of a boat vanishing behind isles in the bay of Akashi', an allusion to a poem in the KokinshÅ« in which the poet's longings follow a ship into the morning mist, which disappears behind a distant isle.  

The text gives advice on evoking various kinds of landscape - a river valley, a marsh pond, a seashore.  I will end here with a paragraph from Slawson's translation which describes the subtle ways in which simple materials can convey the impression of a landscape in motion.
'Another type of shoreline scenery is the ebb-tide beach, which has no striking features but simply creates the impression of the tide constantly ebbing and flowing.  Here, if just by spreading fine and coarse grains of sand and without setting any rocks you can visually re-create a single scenic ambience - that of a beach rising to a knoll where a pine or some such tree alternately appears at high tide to be out in the middle of the sea, and at ebb tide to tower as if suddenly borne high above the beach that is now exposed so far into the distance that one cannot tell where it ends and the sea begins - you have nothing more to learn.  The visual impression of an ebb-tide beach is produced simply by the way the tree is planted and the way the fine and coarse grades of sand are spread.'

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