Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Kami

The Sleeping Goddess at Heligan
Tropical gunnera plants in southwest U.K.
Any day now, amateur bloggers and paid journalists are going to start talking about that dull cloud that has enveloped us, colloquially known as "cabin fever."  It's not going to be above freezing here for about ten days and as much as you want to go somewhere and do something, you just fish the SmartWool socks out of the bottom of the drawer and wrap up like a big croissant in that afghan that really should have been washed last Spring.  There are a few diversions:  the snow vigorously reflecting sunlight hasn't worn out its welcome just yet, the birds are enjoying the new seed block outside, and you can spend more idle time finding amusing pictures on the Internet.  But the other day, while doing just that, I found one at the top of Jason Heppenstall's fine blog that warmed up my deep-frozen brain.

It was the Sleeping Goddess earth sculpture (above) which is one of several that surprise visitors to the Lost Gardens of Heligan near Pentewan on the south coast of Cornwall, U.K.  Jason, you see, after living quite a life in southern Spain and then in Copenhagen, is moving back home to the Isles, having purchased six acres of isolated fairy-land wood near the Gardens to pursue a permaculture life for his family.  Very ambitious (unlike the rest of us in January!), but lighthearted, too.

So I took a mental trip along with Jason and found that the gardens were indeed "lost" for most of the 20th century, after the original shelterbelt trees were cut down for use in World War I.  The manor house was given over to institutional use, then cut up into rooms, and the grounds were used as a U.S. Army base in World War II.  Another half-century of neglect followed, but in 1992 dedicated groups began replanting and it all came back to life.

That original stand of trees had been planted in 1766 to shield the already old estate from strong southwesterly winds.  Succeeding owners established formal and Japanese gardens; the efforts of the army of Victorian English botanical collectors provided tropical and exotic species which have flourished in the relatively mild climate.  Additionally, the Japanese garden enjoys a microclimate in a sheltered valley five degrees warmer than the rest of the property.  It's hard to believe, until you see the photos, that pineapples, camellias, palms, bananas, bamboo, gunnera and cycads (leftovers from the Jurassic Period), thrive at the same latitude as central Quebec.
It's quiet -- no machines are used in the Garden and all work is done by hand.  You get a feeling that there's more to it than a well-done botanical garden.  Maybe an ancient, dormant Druidism has emerged tentatively from deep underground, just as the Mud Maid, Giant and Grey Lady earth sculptures seem to be rising and stirring slowly back to life.  The Japanese, in their animistic Shinto religion/philosophy, seem like the druids in their appreciation of the spirits dwelling in trees, waterfalls, rocks and half-dark places. Known as kami, they are not located beyond this world and have no abstract moral qualities.  They seem present when they invoke feelings of fear and awe and can be, as nature is, either assertive or gentle.  Shrines have been built on such grounds in Japan to keep the kami separate from a busy and noisy world.  In Shinto the goal of life is to develop a pure and sincere heart; they say to do this, people should respect and venerate the spirits inherent in the animate and the inanimate.

Maybe these still winter days have a message for us.

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