Newsday, October 7, 2001
Taking the Path of Enlightenment
John P. Humes Japanese Stroll Garden
By Barbara Shea
John P. Humes Japanese Stroll Garden, corner of Oyster Bay Road and Dogwood Lane, Mill Neck, 516-676-4486; open 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekends through late October; entrance fee $5; kids under 12 free. Guided tours with Japanese tea ceremony demonstration 10 a.m. some Saturdays ($10, reservation required). Other programs include shakuhachi flute concerts and meditation sessions, as well as ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) workshops. Partially child appropriate.
Did You Know? The Zen arts, including gardening, use techniques such as asymmetry to compel individuals to change in response to environmental changes.
AS PROFOUND as a wisp of haiku verse, the tiniest Japanese stroll garden is designed to subtly lead visitors on a mini-journey toward enlightenment.
Every pebbled path and stepping stone, every weeping willow and grove of swaying bamboo, plays a part in the overall plan to immerse you so completely in nature that you become one with it -- eventually discovering the not-so-fast track to inner peace.
And you thought this was going to be just another everyday walk in the woods.
"You are the garden while you're here -- you're as natural a part of this garden as the bird that just landed in the tree above us, or the water, or the plants, explains curator Stephen Morrell on tours of the John P. Humes Japanese Stroll Garden in Mill Neck.
This unusual local refuge from the world was inspired by a 1960 visit to Japan's ancient capital of Kyoto by lawyer (and later ambassador to Austria) John P. Humes. As soon as he got home he hired a Japanese landscape gardener, and within four years a two-acre corner of his Long Island estate was transformed into an ink-brush landscape complete with an imported tea house. Humes' Japanese garden fell into disrepair while he was abroad on his diplomatic assignment but when he returned, in ill health himself, he engaged Morrell to rehabilitate it. In 1986, a year after Humes died, it was opened to the public.
You can learn a lot from the brochure, but a walk led by Morrell is the optimum introduction to this tranquil oasis, which now covers close to four acres -- blending gardens and native woodlands with religious and philosophical principles of both Shinto and Zen Buddhism (embraced simultaneously by many Japanese).
"The intent is a walking meditation, Morrell says, describing how the stepping stones set in the path control the rate at which visitors move through the garden: Small stones slow you down, larger ones invite you to plant both feet and take in a particular vista.
Your journey begins at the first of three garden gateways, near a posted inscription: "May peace prevail on earth. A dirt trail winds across a narrow log bridge, then zigzags up a conceptual "seaside mountain (actually a gentle suburban hill). This represents the struggle toward enlightenment: During the climb, you can't see what's around the next bend but are meant to wander and wonder.
When you reach the second gate, atop the mountain, you suddenly see more clearly -- which is what meditation is meant to do for the mind. The natural woodland also morphs into more cultivated surroundings, adorned with stone lanterns and other symbolic objects. And the descending paths are pebbled -- representing streams cascading downhill over symbolic waterfalls (there's a real waterfall, too) to the "ocean. That's a pond harboring goldfish-like Japanese koi, turtles and catfish (including a burly black one called Hoover because, in a very un-Zen spirit, at feeding time he vacuums up every morsel meant to be shared).
Central to the garden journey is the tea house, set amid evergreens and nonshowy plants that won't distract from the tea ceremony -- which embodies a spiritual exchange between the host, an honored guest and the environment. The third gateway, outside the tea garden, symbolizes an enlightened return to earth.
The painstaking formality of the tea ceremony -- which Morrell demonstrates with a tour-group volunteer -- soon has some Type-A tourists furtively glancing at their watches. But Morrell later explains that the ritual is meant to take something ordinary and make every detail matter -- a lesson in giving yourself completely to every moment in life. "In the Zen arts, he says, "the only goal is to be where you are.
Wherever that may be after your garden visit, and whatever
worldly cares await outside, chances are you'll long remember
the harmony and serenity within.
Copyright © 2001, Newsday, Inc.