Place Setting: Carleton's Garden of Quiet Listening

Japanese Garden 

Nestled behind Watson Hall is a quarter-acre site of serene and subtle beauty: Carleton’s Japanese-style garden. Some discover it as they stroll the campus, while others seek it out—aware of its reputation as one of North America’s top 10 public Japanese-style gardens, according to surveys by the Journal of Japanese Gardening.

The garden also serves as a place to host classes, memorial services, and events for the College and the Northfield community.

This past summer, Bardwell Smith, who conceived of the garden, and David Slawson, who created and cared for it for 36 years, gave us a tour.

  1. Bardwell Smith: When he visited Kyoto for the first time in 1965, Smith viewed many Japanese gardens and says he was “captivated by their elegant simplicity.” The John W. Nason Professor of Religion and Asian Studies Emeritus, Smith taught at Carleton from 1960 to 1995. He worked with several administrations during the ’60s and ’70s to create a Japanese-style garden at the College. Besides raising money for its creation, Smith established an endowment that funds the garden’s use in the curriculum, as well as its continued maintenance by head gardener Mary Bigelow, from the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, and a crew of volunteers.
  2. David Slawson: After studying for two years in Kyoto with Kinsaku Nakane, one of Japan’s foremost garden designers, Slawson designed and constructed Carleton’s garden between 1974 and 1976. He follows universal principles in Japanese garden design to create public and private gardens that evoke the beauty of regional landscapes and use local materials. The undulating shoreline of the Minnesota River and the region’s bluffs inspired his design for Carleton. Although Slawson has returned to the College annually to consult on the garden’s care, this past summer marked his last official visit. He’s cutting back on his consulting projects, and a new Japanese gardening consultant, John Powell, will take over the role for Carleton’s garden.
  3. Stepping-stones: Japanese stepping-stones (tobi-ishi) create a transition from the lawn to the garden’s entrance.
  4. Stone Lantern: A chiseled salt-and-pepper granite kasuga lantern, named after the ancient shrine in Nara where its style originated, marks the west entrance to the garden.
  5. Water Basin: Water trickles from a copper pipe into a water basin (chozubachi) where, traditionally, visitors wash their hands in a symbolic gesture of cleansing.
  6. Sign: A bronze plaque notes the name of the garden, Jo– Ryo– En, or the Garden of Quiet Listening. Smith chose the name after observing how people used the garden.
  7. Stone-Paved Walk: Carleton’s garden may be thought of as a three-dimensional landscape painting. The stone-paved walk (nobedan) serves as the bottom of the “picture frame” and divides the scene from the viewing area.
  8. Viewing Pavilion: Shaded by a grove of large trees, the teahouse-style pavilion is a refuge from which visitors may view the garden.
  9. Fence: A four-eyed fence (yotsume gaki) is traditionally built of bamboo, but Slawson used cedar branches collected from Cowling Arboretum.  
  10. Arborvitae: Toward the south, existing arborvitae trees form the garden’s backdrop, which Slawson extended along the east side to create a feeling of seclusion and to screen the buildings beyond.
  11. Rocks: In this dry landscape garden (karesansui), Slawson chose off-white gravel to suggest a lake, pebbles from Lake Superior’s North Shore to create a winding stream, and glacial rocks from Northfield farms along with gneiss rocks from 100 miles west to evoke hillside outcroppings and bluffs.
  12. Plant Material: In Japanese gardens, plants are used to recreate impressions of their natural habitat. Slawson chose plants that are well adapted to this region’s climate, including Scotch pine, mugo pine, yews, barberry, blue rug juniper, and sedums. Over the years, he’s carefully pruned them to control size, promote health, and create interesting forms, such as mounds that suggest rolling hills. Says Slawson: “In composing all the elements, you try to show the beauty of the garden to its best advantage.”

Web Extra: To learn more about Japanese-style gardens, view In Full Circle: The Japanese-Style Garden as a Work of Art in Progress (a DVD featuring Carleton’s garden). The DVD and Slawson’s book Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens: Design Principles, Aesthetic Values (Kodansha, 1987), which is a classic in the field, are available at the Carleton Bookstore. Call 800-799-4148.

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