Contemplative garden brings ‘Zen’ to UMW

by | Nov 22, 2017 | Around Town

From LISA CHINN MARVASHTI / University of Mary Washington

A bonsai workshop last week set the right frame of mind for a progress report on UMW’s new Zen Garden. More than 100 people turned out to learn about the ancient art of tree trimming and hear about the space under construction outside the Leidecker Center for Asian Studies on the Fredericksburg campus.

The Japanese-inspired garden, set to be finished before this spring’s Commencement, supports campus initiatives in wellness, contemplation and multiculturalism, said Assistant Professor of Religion Dan Hirshberg. Workshop presenters Bob Chilton and Todd Stewart, who own Caroline County’s Gardens Unlimited, said the site’s carefully planned aesthetic appeal, informed by centuries of Asian design, will give passersby an excuse to “stop and smell the roses, so to speak.”

The pair – who advise the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and cultivated bonsai now owned by singer Paul Simon and business magnate Sir Richard Branson – brought with them a Chinese elm, a juniper, a pine and other decades-old miniature trees. Before sharing tips for potting and care, they gave an overview of the garden they’ve helped Hirshberg bring to life.

Three giant boulders, weighing up to four tons each, form the focal point. Plucked from the Tennessee mountains, they were trucked onto campus and lowered inch by inch into pre-shoveled spots meticulously chosen to showcase their angles and textures.

Working to mirror the timeframe of renovations to the nearby Amphitheatre, designers joined forces with Mary Washington’s Office of Facilities Services to secure the site, channel water away from the area and provide drainage, edging and more. A bed of pebbles topped with crushed granite will provide a gravel area, raked to represent ripples of water, showing shadow and definition.

Bamboo strips cut by hand and secured with hand-tied knots form an arched fencing. “It’s not like they bought them off the rack at a gardening store,” said Hirshberg, who earned a master’s degree in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism from Naropa University and a Ph.D. in Tibetan studies from Harvard University. “The whole process has been very interesting to watch as it enfolds.”

The space will provide a chance to slow down, shrug off negativity and reflect, Hirshberg said, even for those who aren’t well-versed on contemplative practice. “You don’t have to be able to paint like Monet to enjoy his artwork. Given their three-dimensionality, emphasis on spatial relationships and scale, Zen gardens have an immediate aesthetic impact on the viewer.”

The garden is visible from a complete 360 degrees, including from inside Trinkle Hall’s Leidecker Center, where students of the Contemplative Studies program, launched in fall 2016, come to focus their minds and deepen relaxation. The site provides a new iconic Mary Washington view of the three boulders, straight down Campus Walk to the bell tower.

“It’s a harmonious blending of UMW’s traditional architecture with a distinctly Asian environment, emphasizing complementarity so it all works together,” Hirshberg said. “Genuine appreciation for diverse cultures is a fundamental value in the liberal arts, and something we’ve always stressed as a primary function of this garden. We tend to pay attention to differences, but in encountering it we can recognize the ways in which cultures can be mutually engaging and enriching.”

The Zen Garden is set to be ready ahead of its projected completion date, but even at its own ribbon-cutting, it won’t be finished. The dynamic, ever-changing space will need regular cultivation and maintenance. Even the giant natural rocks, covered with lichen and moss, are in constant flux.

“It’s a living thing,” Hirshberg said. “A Zen garden anywhere is never done.”

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