Peaks and Troughs
Spring in Four Places

by Clement Kent

Hsin Chu, Taiwan
Spring Equinox, 1997

Dear Hort members,

It has been some time since I last wrote. I have left my job to start my own company, started my own country garden, visited Jonathan Wong in Italy, and returned to Taiwan on business since my last missive.

Where shall I start? There have been peaks and troughs; let's start with the troughs...

I left Toronto March 13th just ahead of a brutal snowstorm which covered the snowdrops. In Van Dusen Botanical Gardens it was a chilly, cloudy day. It was uncomfortably close to snow weather, as has been much of the Vancouver winter this year. So when I peeked at the collection of trough gardens in original English stone troughs, only a few hearty crucifers (such as the Draba species) were blooming. Still, one of the joys of an alpine rock garden is the elegance of tufts and rosettes of grayish-green foliage, and these were fully formed and choice. Each trough, of weathered stone about one foot by two feet, filled with stone chips, looked like an exquisite Japanese garden, all gravel and foliage.

On March 16th I viewed the remarkable miniature orchids, chrysanthemums, plum and cherry blossoms of Ch'ing Dynasty porcelain in the former collection of the Manchu emperors in the National Palace Museum of Taipei. Stricken at last by museum fatigue, I went outside to rest my eyes.

Just below the Museum is a small formal garden, open to the public on payment of a nominal amount (about 50 cents). The gatekeeper, however is not empowered to make change and I had no coins, so would have been turned away had not a kind Chinese gentlemen paid my fee. Thanks to you, sir!, although I know not your name.

Inside children threw pellets of fish food to seething schools of rainbow colored koi. A beautiful stream fed the fish ponds and on its banks fresh spring foliage framed a pagoda. Dancing sun reflections lit a Brunfelsia bush with its blue and white blooms, and the deep scarlet tubes of an unlabeled plant that could have been one of the U.S. desert Penstemons.

Just up from the stream a small pavilion sheltered a group of troughs, each about the size of those in Van Dusen; but instead of being filled with stone chips, they were filled with water. Picturesquely weathered limestone rocks sat in the water, and on the rocks grew a natural bonsai garden of ferns, mosses, and dwarf herbs. I'd never seen such "water trough gardens" before and was struck by how practical they would be in this wet Taiwan climate. They gave a strong bonsai effect, improved if anything by the fissured rocks, which perfectly resembled the mountain peaks of southern China I had just seen painted on thousand-year-old scrolls.

Just this morning I celebrated spring by watching tiny yellow-green warbler-like birds sip from the hot orange cup-shaped blooms of the flame tree (is it related to our own Liriodendron, the tulip tree?) and peering through binoculars at an island whose tufts of bamboo sheltered 30 to 50 egrets per clump. I had trouble holding the binoculars because I had to hold a plastic Taiwan flag and the string of a red helium balloon, pressed upon me by patriotic revelers, at some event whose details will forever be mysterious to me. I loved the rhythm section, though: toothless old men in the back of an army transport truck beating drums, clashing symbols, and pounding a huge gong.

This afternoon I was honored to be introduced to the octogenarian Rev. Wu-Ming, Ph.D., chairman of the world Buddhist Sanga council and resident Buddha Master of the Hai-Ming Buddhist temple. Outside the door of the Rev. Wu-Ming's house was an alcove filled with orchids, bonsai trees just budding out, and collection of over 30 small troughs and bowls filled with bonsai bamboo, bonsai grass, and many other bonsai species I couldn't identify. The whole miniature, perfect garden took up a space smaller than my kitchen.

The Hai-Ming temple, founded by Rev. Wu-Ming when he fled from the Communist takeover of China, has grown tremendously. The newest building, largely in traditional Chinese style, has a decorative motif of lotus blooms throughout, symbolizing the emergence of perfection of spirit from the mud of everyday life.

In the gardens of the temple, cherry trees were just beginning to bloom, while swallows chased the mosquitoes. Tomorrow the Rev. Wu-Ming will greet the Dalai Lama, while I shall return to my sheet metal industrial barracks on the grounds of a large computer chip factory. To each his own.

From the troughs, to the peaks... In early February, former newsletter editors Jonathan Wong and I drove from his home away from home (on the beach, about 50 kilometers southwest of Rome) inland. Our goal: to explore the Monte Lepini, a range of mountains that rises abruptly from the Pontine marshes to almost 1500 meters in a nearly sheer wall.

But first, we stopped at the base of the mountains to look at the Giardino di Ninfa, a garden set amongst the ruins of a 17th-century castle. Unfortunately for us, the gardens are only open to the public on a schedule peculiarly Italian: the first Sunday of each month except ... and followed a list of exceptions with rather more than 12 entries.

Although Jon and I could only look across the walls yearningly at Ninfa, you, dear reader, can do better. Pay a gigantic number of pounds sterling to J&C Voyageurs, Buckridges, Sutton Courtenay, Abingdon, England (don't you love British addresses?) and on the 16th to 18th of May a real Contessa will escort your small group through the Giardino. (This intelligence gleaned from page 20, March issue of Gardens Illustrated). Lacking the pounds, John and I ascended the Monte Lepini instead.

On the way up the steeply switchbacked road, I amused myself watching the wild red snapdragons blooming on the rocks, and the large nodding acid-green Euphorbia flower clusters. We had left behind the massed mimosa blooms of the Mussolini era roads in the Pontine, and were ascending into what should have been a cooler, more wintry climate.

But because these dry white slopes face southwest to the sea, even at 1500 meters plant life was as advanced as on the plain. On the slopes below the medieval town of Norma, cherries and almonds bloomed, delighting the bees. Backyard gardens, perched on slopes that would daunt a mountain goat, featured a plethora of cerulean rosemary blossoms, underlain by violets, narcissi, and primroses.

From the "recent" medieval town of Norma, we strode up to the ruins of its ancestor Norba, a fortified Roman town. Guarding the mountain flanks with huge walls of unmortared stone, Norba still watches over the valley below. Broom, almonds, and thorny berry vines alternate with sheep-shorn turf. The sheep were guarded by a very bored looking shepherd, who seemed mildly amused by the antics of the contemporary Romans, casting themselves off the cliffs for his edification.

For no sooner had Jon begun to explicate Roman stone working techniques, and I had initiated a search for choice turf-dwelling harbingers of spring, than a bevy of beautifully caparisoned Romans - cell phones, spandex uniforms, rainbow colored parasails, and all - began jumping off the cliff sides of ancient Norba. A stiff northerly breeze coming over the cliff face allowed them to soar like birds of prey - albeit gorgeously colored, cell phone connected Italian ones.

Jon and I spent a pleasant hour enjoying the anachronistic sight - parti-colored modern Romans leaping into space off the bleached white two thousand year old Roman walls, as the sheep grazed below and wild Crocus (species unknown) popped up between the stones.

Well, dear Reader, I've taken you from troughs to peaks from Vancouver to Taiwan to Italy. Now I must return to chips and Lamas in a Taiwan spring. May your snowdrops bloom bravely through the snow!

Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t