Wednesday, 30 June 2010

crossing paths

It’s been a long time since I saw my friend Takaya, since he lives in Kyoto, but last week he visited and we drank and ate and talked and walked as we do at all our meetings. Right now Takaya is making a garden path. He is slowly putting this together from stones he collects on his 5 mile daily walk on Omuro – the little hill behind his house which has 88 shrines. Each shrine is a little hut in itself, dedicated to buddhas (inside each is a seated buddha, or sometimes the founder of Ninnaji), and the whole walk along these shrines is in the grounds of Ninnaji temple. The course of the walk echoes the 88 temples’ pilgrimage of Shikoku Island south of Hiroshima.

Takaya walks this route in all weathers and is bringing his stones back one or two at a time to cobble his garden path.

In 2005, Takaya, with his friend Kitizou Kawasaki took two months in summer heat to build a traditional Japanese style small hut. They built this hut – called Chuusan ann - in the woods next to Kawasaki’s home. I visited the following winter & wrote this at that time:

“Chuusan ann is in the mountains, at a place called Miyama, an hour`s drive from Takaya`s house, north, along a twisting mountain road, at first good, then on back roads with uncleared snow.

My first sight of Chuusan ann was in deep snow – more than three feet, though it was just beginning to thaw a little. There was a path from Mr Kawasaki`s house shoveled through, just wide enough for one person to walk.

To call this a hut is literally the case – it is too small to be a house; but as huts go, it is truly beautiful. Built in the traditional Japanese manner – as for, say, a tea house - of only wood and plaster, it belies those materials to become something else. That something else is actually a work of art. It joins materials with intention, ignoring any debate about what is craft and what is art – such a distinction does not exist here. It`s a three dimensional art work in which it`s possible to sit and just to be. This last is, for me, the most important aspect of the work. Of course the site and situation help, but a space to simply be, rather than twenty-first century doing is very rare and could not be achieved in the grandest store-bought mansion.

I was able to sit by myself as I had hoped when Takaya and Kawasaki went for a walk in the snow, leaving me comfortable and warm next to the little charcoal fire-pit, even though both door and unglazed window were open wide for good views of the snow and hills.”

Takaya builds things slowly, too. He has visited this Carbeth hut and appreciates the time spent arriving at solutions for the habitation of a hut – by which I mean the dwelling, repairing, gardening and active thought that happens in any little wooden hut, here, Japan or elsewhere.

He understood the impulses that made me collect bricks from a demolished railway arch entrance to lay a red brick path from garden gate to hut door. These (some of them with curved tops) were laid in square or rounded blocks as stepping stones, to leave plants to grow up in between.

I had collected two red bricks in a yellow shopping bag every time I walked past the demolition site, over a period of weeks.

The original huts at Carbeth, including ours, are laid on brick piers, with timbers laid onto these so that the wind blows under the hut, reducing the risk of winter damp creeping in. These bricks were as often as not brought to Carbeth on the rattling 1930s buses in a shopping bag along with bread and milk, a couple at a time until enough bricks were accumulated to start laying the foundations of habitation.

My path doesn't quite reach the gate yet; bricks can be elusive.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010


The hut was here before the garden, but there is no doubt that it grew by the same process of accretion, of borrowing and making do and mending.

The major problem here over the years has been the deer. When we arrived at the hut, there were two terraces behind it. They must have been sunnier then; it’s surprising how the trees have grown in the seventy odd years since the hut was built and those terraces levelled and dug and manured. The rhododendrons which may have been entirely absent then had trunks as big as my forearms by the time we took on the hut.

One terrace remains to this day as it was planted: blackcurrants. The other is totally shaded, but was, I’m guessing, for potatoes. Both easily grown crops needing not a huge amount of cultivation. Neither attractive to deer. Or rabbits.

The garden to the south was entirely taken over in spring by paths bordered with narcissi. Under the trees (field maple, sycamore, birch) carpets of snowdrops, then ferns, then nettles – the nettles pointing to further old cultivation this side of the stone dyke remains where they grow.

Our gathering of plants has tended towards the Enlightenment ideal of utility. By which I mean of course, edibility. So the quinces are from Bowling – before the gentrification of the little harbour, the Basin - there were thickets of quince whose fruits we would pick to make cotignac (the name I much prefer to our own insipid and slightly inaccurate translation: quince jelly). Before the cooking, the fruits would fill the entire house with their fragrance, placed all over in bowls for that very purpose. I collected seeds one year, as I do for many plants, then forgot about them for the entire winter. The next spring, I discovered them germinating in a plastic bag at the hut. I also discovered that the Bowling trees had been cut down to make way for mown grass and rubbish bins. The little saplings were nurtured and are slowly becoming a deerproof thorny hedge, along with the holly sapling rescued from a city park’s over-zealous weeding gardener. The bay tree at the open end of that hedge was given by Glasgow Botanic Gardens, but last winter’s deep and prolonged freezing, together with the loss of all its leaves to the deer, I think has finally ended its life. If a poacher discovers ready flavoured venison, he’ll know where it came from.

In fact this combination of hard winters here and the hunger of an overpopulation of deer, savages most plants. The rhubarb, nothing touches. It too was rescued and divided from one sad specimen in total shade between the terraces. It thrives year on year. The two currants now in the great circle of apple trees were the gift of a friend. I’ll get to grips with the old currant bed soon, but this year potted some self-layered currants from there.

Other gifts include sort of edible herbs: the tansy, the lovage and the angelica, all too strong-tasting for deer or rabbits; though that’s what I thought about the bay. Parsley’s a problem, but the mint from a former empty city lot (now a new school) is romping.

And the apples. All old Scottish varieties from that master organic grower John Butterworth in Ayr. They came as bare rooted maiden standards some years ago. Last year was the first proper cropping. This year’s blossoms suggest the yield might be even better. These are grown in as wide a circle as ground allows. Just last year, though, we planted four more in a small arc inside this circle. Space dictates that these last are on M26 rootstock, meaning they would only grow to a maximum of nine feet or so, but we’ll be training them as intertwining espaliers. All are fenced against barking by deer, though the new ones had their buds nipped this spring.

Just as the carpenter’s hammer – the one he’s had for thirty years (though it’s had three new handles and a new head) - so the hut and its garden. The constant through all this has been a practicality of outlook: growing food as well as the roses that someone lovingly planted at the eastern stone wall.

The other constant – more constant than the human hut dwellers –are the birds and mammals that walk through the garden – and through the hut – dwelling there, inhabiting; as well as the edible wild plants. More of it all is tastier to those creatures than to us. But we’re happy to share the abundance.