Contemplating Dharma While L.A. Sightseeing: Part VI, Huntington Gardens

Los Angeles is a thriving city and buildings and gardens in a state of neglect, as I described in my last post on the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, is only a small part of the city’s landscape. For my last afternoon in the city I took the 110, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, a few miles east into Pasadena, or San Marino to be exact, to visit the Huntington Library and Gardens. I’ve been there before, once when I was a kid, and later when I lived with my brother in Anaheim. And the thing that enchanted me the most was the Japanese Garden. There are lots of buildings at the Huntington housing rare book collections and art, but the highlight of the place are the variety of ecologically-regioned gardens laid over several acres. There are the desert gardens with seemingly every kind of agave and cacti species. There’s a subtropical garden and an Australian garden. There are gardens dedicated to camellias and roses, palms and herbs. The plants all have labels giving you their Latin derived genus and species names. IMG_4893With Carl Linnaeus’s categorizing hierarchy inspired by monarchy, this place is a monument to the plant kingdom. I was a botany student for a stretch. I can tell you why plants are categorized into families because of their characteristics, their similarities. Asteraceae, Orchidaceae, Pinaceae, Moraceae. But here so much of everything is packed in like a living botanical library, where all the books are seemingly stacked willy nilly. There may be a method to the jumble, but when you have to house a huge variety of cacti from the Colorado to the Atacama Desert in a few acres, it is going to get crowded. Aloes of southern Africa send their bright orange inflorescences high above the fleshy leaves, jockeying with the agaves and the bromeliads, which have their own impressive blooms. It gives me that out of context feeling museums often engender. It fatigues me. I came here for something more transcendent than plant identification. I was hoping to locate it in the Asian gardens. An artifice that strives for natural authenticity; these gardens are created for one to move silently through stillness and poise. On my way toward them I wandered through a jungle habitat, then below tall eucalyptus of the Australian Garden. Southern California is no stranger to this genus, the Tasmanian blue gum long since naturalized. It was a busy afternoon at the Huntington and the crowds milling about gave the impression there are quite a few visiting Los Angeles that would prefer the subtle excitement of botanical gardens, to the thrill of Universal Studios. And probably quite a few locals here. Although the entrance fee is a demanding $29 at the door for the day, if you split an annual membership with a friend or loved one you’d beat that price with only three yearly visits. I’d be signing up if I lived anywhere near there.

The man behind all this, Henry Huntington, was a railroad magnate who later developed the Pacific Electric Railway Company in the Los Angeles area, the world’s largest electric railway system in the 1920s. Whether the auto industry conspired to dismantle it or its unprofitability sealed its doom, it was eventually swept away by internal combustion consumer madness. The rail line was ultimately a means to acquire and develop real estate, to which Huntington was very successful. His name is on lots of things in this area of Southern California. There’s a Huntington Drive of course, and a beach town bares his name, and a lake up in the Sierras created as a hydroelectric project to power his once extensive trolley car system. The other thing he did, like Getty, was to build an impressive art collection. Getting in on the post-World War I European art market boom, he then moved on to American art. The institution has also amassed a huge collection of rare books and manuscripts.

But I only had an afternoon and I was there to be in the gardens. I finally found myself around the Japanese House, the wooden platforms and steps, the moon bridge, and the bonsai gallery. The illusions of the bonsais as timeless ancient trees that only nature could sculpt is well represented. There was olive, gingko, elm, cypress; the juniper lends itself well to this art form. There was even a California coast live oak. A tree that knows well the twisted, curling branches and gnarled growth that gives the viewer a sense of timeless antiquity. The form of the little specimen didn’t match what a couple of centuries in the arid foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains would do, but it was a nice inclusion of a California native. It is a marvel that the roots of these trees are maintained in moss covered dirt held within the boundaries of rather shallow rectangular or oval ceramic pots. I seem to recall seeing other bonsai exhibits with age labels for each tree. Perhaps their absence here was better, giving more the illusion of timelessness.

I came around a corner to see the Zen garden with its raked gravel around stoic stones. A line of tall ginkgoes in golden leaf coloration stood on one side of a tiled walkway, the raked gravel garden on the other. I took my shoes off and sat cross legged on a wooden bench to gaze at the patterns of the raking and the stone islands. As much as I tried to maintain a silent mind I couldn’t help but be a little bothered by the chatting all around me. It seems the beautiful stillness that the gardens imply is only superficial. Something to be seen two dimensionally, as one talks with friends and family. Four kids sat or stood around a bench next to the Zen stone garden and stared at their smartphones talking about some game they were all involved in at that moment. Maybe there were pokémons in the stones that I did not see. But the kids weren’t even holding the phones up to the space to see them. This was all just an observation on my part. Nothing I was sad about. Just a pondering of how true peace and silent contemplation that such a place would instill, is only truly accessible through the interior of the people that are there. One could provide all the trappings of heaven, but the scattered worldly concerns and trivial mundanities of the visitors would soon make the heaven irrelevant. But I sat still on the bench long enough so the ebb and flow of people passing became superfluous. For some minutes I found myself completely alone staring at the carefully pruned juniper along the border of the raked gravel. People of course have the right to chat. I’ve spent many a hike in the natural world with a friend babbling on about worldly affairs, my own and the perceived rest of it in the abstraction I think of as the world. But this garden is specifically meant to hush the babble. I guess it would take more to do that than a short visit to this island of quiet contemplation in the chaotic sea of Los Angeles, but I was visiting alone, so it was accessible.

It was in a garden like this in my early adulthood where I had an epiphany of sorts. I had recently left home with everything I owned stuffed in my hatchback. I had a daytime job prep cooking in Austin, Texas, while I played guitar in 6th Street bars on open mike nights. I tried to learn live sound engineering from a guy named Delon at a place called the 311 Club. It seemed half way through the evening shows he was angry drunk and yelling at the owner of the club, of all people. The musicians I got to know lived in various stages of un-residents, as did I. Couch surfing, car sleeping, some of them maybe had rooms somewhere. The clubs didn’t need to pay anyone to perform. The supply far outpaced the demand. The singer in one band would come down off the stage near the end of their set with a big Stetson held upside down in the palm of his hand. He continued to sing as he held it out, so the crown would get fairly stuffed. Still, for an entire band it was measly pay. And the musicians on 6th Street jockeyed for attention, elbowing each other in the desire to be noticed. The Darwinian aspect of the whole thing turned me off. There was lots of alcohol and drugs. I had a daytime job but I wanted to get away from restaurant work. Maybe it was because I was fresh to the town and only just newly off on my own, away from home, but the whole thing depressed me. It didn’t seem these people were headed in a healthy direction, whether or not they were going to have success. Maybe I hadn’t completely understood at the time that I was looking for a healthy direction, whatever that might be. And this part of me was diverting from the musician part of me. Or at least I wanted a direction that wed both the music and a more wholesome lifestyle. That wasn’t what was on offer in Austin. If it’s offered anywhere for a performer.

It was a long time ago and all the forces that moved me at the time cannot be adequately accounted for. There was a Japanese garden on a hillside across Austin’s Colorado River. A place I visited a couple of times while I was living there. One night after another sordid evening on 6th Street, I found myself in that garden after closing time. There was no fence, nothing that stopped me from taking repose there on a waxing moon night. As I sat on a wooden bench and watched the reflection of the moon on a pond dappled with water lilies, I felt a profound sense of gentleness to my situation. Even a kind of promise of potential transcendence. A limitless horizon that was not contingent on whether I was to be a hot guitar player on the scene or not. It was so long ago, but I do remember the feeling. It was only shortly after that I ditched Austin and went out west to join my older brother. A series of discoveries, as well as mishaps, would follow, but it was a pivotal moment in that part of my journey.

At the Huntington gardens there is a pond below the Japanese House. I walked down to it to gaze at the moon bridge, then followed a path along a creek. The garden is carefully constructed to give the impression of nature as the gardener. Even so, evidence of concrete pourings made to look like granite and sandstone, which might improve water cascade flow and more dramatic pond edge reflection, still remind you that this is a nature inspired scene according to a human schedule. A lumpy contrivance that does not match a wild land trail through nature’s elegant chaos. An elegance that looks to have been maintained by a much more mysterious gardener who exists in a dimension beyond our comprehending. But these gardens are like the finger pointing at the moon. They are not the moon. But if you are quiet enough, and perhaps in need of direction, they can reflect the moon and point the way.

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