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A Garden’s Power

This garden has given me a sense of meaning and purpose.  Some of the guys here who volunteered said that they had spent more than 50 years never doing a single meaningful thing. It was something we could call home…and a way that maybe we could become the people our parents wanted us to be.

–Johnny Cofer, inmate, Oregon State Penitentiary

Hoichi Kurisu was one of Portland Japanese Garden’s first directors and has been a close friend of this organization for most of a half century. He’s a prolific designer of transcendentally lovely hospital healing gardens and public Japanese gardens like Florida’s Morikami. But his newest creation, unveiled Nov. 6 at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, is a first: a Japanese-style garden for a maximum security prison, designed and constructed in collaboration with the facility’s inmates.

The garden, with features including a gate, pine trees, a sand and stone garden, a koi pond and a bridge, is maintained through privately raised funds at no taxpayer expense. About 200 volunteers including the prison community worked for 96 days, clocking 12,000 hours and raising $200,000 for the construction, and many community partners, including the Garden, provided support or helped advocate for the project. Kurisu spoke at the Garden last year in the company of several OSP administrators, and the Garden played host to team making a documentary film about the project.

Kurisu himself was a significant financial contributor to the project in addition to his roles as designer and hands-on builder. It wouldn’t be beside the point to note that Kurisu was a small child when the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and he escaped harm because of the mountain between his village and the city – the theme of landscape and salvation is a familiar one to him.

So what does a garden like this say about us as a society? It’s not the easy, knee-jerk feel-good of, say, a school garden for underserved children. It’s got complications. But those complications are exactly what make it the embodiment of redemption and hope.

There’s a Japanese concept called mitate-mono. It can be loosely translated as recycling or reuse, but the truest translation is to see an object anew – for a thing to gain a new meaning and purpose.  Our own garden has lots of beautiful examples of this, mostly involving old roof tiles, or stones taken from some long-demolished Portland landmark.

But there is also such a thing as mitate-mono of human beings. The same hands that once visited terrible harm on another person can become the hands that plant and carefully prune a pine tree. The mind that once decided to commit acts of violence can become the mind that chooses to make a place of tranquility and restoration. And the heart that once harbored uncontrollable rage can become the heart of the gardener: patient, humble, and selfless enough to see itself as only a small part of something greater that will outlast it.

Gardens not only heal us. They teach us to see ourselves anew — connecting us to the better angels of our nature and elevating us to be our best possible selves.

–Kristin Faurest, Director, Japanese Garden Training Center, and honorary member, Asian Pacific Family Club, Oregon State Penitentiary