For the month of February we are staying in a rental known locally as Ada’s Wabi-sabi Cottage. Ada is an artist, and an extraordinary one, evident in the impeccable decor and character of this cottage. It is “polished rustic” and “elegantly comfortable” intrinsic to wabi-sabi style. There was a book upon the shelf, “Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers” by Leonard Koren. I cracked it open out of curiosity. I have heard of wabi-sabi – I have seen photos of the cracked tea cup repaired with gold. I likened wabi-sabi, an eastern tradition, westernized into shabby-chic, but somehow felt it deserves more. I wanted to flesh out and expand my own narrow definition of wabi-sabi.
I sort of had an inkling, but not firm understanding, that wabi-sabi has something to do with Japanese tea ceremony. Leonard explains, wabi-sabi originated in the philosophies of Taoism and Chinese Zen Buddhism – simplicity, naturalness, acceptance of reality (I can get behind that) – which further synthesized into Japanese culture in the late 16th century where it reached its most comprehensive realization within the context of the tea ceremony. Leonard shares with us that the tea ceremony evolved into an eclectic social art form encompassing architecture, interior and garden design, flower arranging, painting, food preparation, performance and more. The first recorded wabi-sabi tea master was Murata Juko, who intentionally used locally made and understated utensils in opposition of the elite indulgence of tea at the time. This was the beginning of the wabi-sabi aesthetic in tea.
More curious I looked up the definition of wabi-sabi on Wikipedia: represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”
Leonard explores that wabi-sabi by its very being cannot be defined. “Some Japanese critics feel that wabi-sabi needs to maintain its mysterious and elusive – hard to define – qualities because ineffability is part of its specialness.” … “Since ideological clarity or transparency is not an essential aspect of wabi-sabi, to fully explain the concept might, in fact, diminish it.”
Leonard offers instead a “provisional definition”:
“Wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty.”
He likens the word “rustic” as the closest english word to wabi-sabi – simple, artless, unsophisticated with rough, irregular surfaces – however emphasizes this is only a limited dimension of the wabi-sabi aesthetic, but it is the initial impression many people have when they first see wabi-sabi expression.
The words “wabi” and “sabi” originally meant different things. Wabi originally meant the misery of living alone with nature, away from society, and suggested a downtrodden state. Sabi originally meant “chill,” lean or withered. Then around the 14th century, according to Leonard’s book, both words began to evolve in the direction of a more positive, sought-after aesthetic offering spiritual richness. The self imposed state of living with and appreciating nature was desirable. (Yes!) The meanings of the words began to cross over time so much so that there is no longer a line separating them today. So when the Japanese say wabi they also mean sabi, and now most just generally say wabi-sabi. Still, Leonard offers a considered comparison of the two terms:
Wabi: a way of life, a spiritual path • the inward, the subjective • a philosophical construct • spatial events
Sabi: material objects, art and literature • the outward, the objective • an aesthetic ideal • temporal events
You may be wondering is this a plug for Ada’s wabi-sabi cottage? No it is not. Although I urge you to stay here and explore Cedar Key. Your stay will be artistically inspiring, cocoon-like, safely nestled among the natural beauty that surrounds Cedar Key. You will feel hermit-like, but simultaneously nature will beckon you.
You may be wondering is this a book review? No, it is not. I felt the need to sort out this deep sea of information I dived into and absorb it through my writing of this post (and to journal the wondrous experience of this February 2015). Perhaps you find yourself more comfortable with the term wabi-sabi, too, as I am now – like a new favorite pair of faded jeans just picked up at the second hand store. Although I do recommend Leonard’s book and may just need to purchase my own personal copy for my library.
You may also be wondering what, pray tell, does this have to do with gardening? I say everything!
Reading further, Leonard explores “the wabi-sabi universe.”
“Metaphysical basis: things are either devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness”
That bare plot of earth you plant, watch sprout, watch grow, watch bloom, that becomes the center of the insect’s – bird’s universe, watch set fruit, then seed, then rot, then fade back into the soil? Ah yes, that resonates loudly with the above doesn’t it?
“Spiritual values: truth comes from the observation of nature • “greatness” exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details • beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness”
How often do you observe your garden and how often does it feed your soul and spirit? How often do you marvel at the bee or butterfly, the web of a spider in morning dew, the inside of a squash blossom, the veins in a decayed leaf? What did your yard look like before you began gardening? What did that shrub look like before you selectively pruned its branches? Why does that bright blue morning glory bloom look extraordinary on that rusted wire?
“State of mind: acceptance of the inevitable • appreciation of the cosmic order”
We accept the garden will die back in Fall and Winter and that some things will just simply die. There will be storms, there will be weeds, there will be disease, the clay soil will crack and harden when dry. Plants will become compost and so will we. We certainly visualize our gardens before they come into being. We ask for growth, we ask for rain, we ask for sun. We ask for nothing short of a miracle.
“Moral precepts: get rid of all that is unnecessary • focus on the intrinsic and ignore material hierarchy”
In any good design or process we try to eliminate that which is unnecessary. If we spread compost every year, we can eliminate synthetic fertilizers. If we live in balance, we can eliminate weed killers. We must focus upon a plant’s nature in order for it to thrive. We must focus upon the relationship of a plant to the sun, the soil, water, a neighboring plant. We must ignore hierarchy in the garden – the soil is no less important than the plant, the plant no more important than the structure that supports it. I believe there can be no hierarchy in the natural order of things in the garden. We are not the “top” of the food chain – without the bee where would we be? Without the microcosmos in the soil where would we be? Gardening is a circle of events/life – not an hierarchal order.
“Material properties: the suggestion of natural process • irregular • intimate • unpretentious • earthy • murky • simple”
The garden is the most glorious example of the natural process. Why do I love my home built rustic arbor of tree branches more than a store-bought lumbered cedar arbor? Why doesn’t everyone’s garden look exactly the same? Why do gardeners like to garden alone? Why do some gardens offer retreat from the world while others expand? Why do the best gardens have a sense of place? The best gardens blend into the landscape or transport you. They don’t shout at you. What is more earthy than dirt? What is more murky than mud? Why is a mossy, rotting log so beautiful? It is simple. Nourish the earth and it will nourish you.
The more I read about this wabi-sabi, the more I liken the world (the universe if you will) to the garden! What is the garden if not imperfect, impermanent, incomplete? It seems I have been, am, subconsciously dabbling in wabi-sabi all this time.
“The simplicity of wabi-sabi is probably best described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. The main strategy of this intelligence is economy of means. Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don’t sterilize. (Things wabi-sabi are emotionally warm, never cold.) Usually this implies a limited palette of materials. It also means keeping conspicuous features to a minimum. But it doesn’t mean removing the invisible connective tissue that somehow binds the elements into a meaningful whole. It also doesn’t mean in any way diminishing something’s “interestingness,” the quality that compels us to look at that something over, and over, and over again.”
Words to garden by.