I was introduced to the art of the Japanese Zen garden while I was at Sydney University School of Architecture in the late 1970’s. Zen Buddhist priests began creating gardens for meditation in the middle of the Kamakura period (1185-1392) and these typically included stones, water and evergreens, remaining visually constant, apart from a mantle snow in the winter, throughout the seasons. This minimalist approach was further developed in the Muromachi and Higashiyama periods (1392-1573) when gardens contained only stones, a style that reached its apotheosis with Ryoanji in the late 15th. century.

The Ryoanji temple serves the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism which emphasizes the use of koans in meditation. When I sat on the temple engawa (porch) at Ryoanji in 1982, during a semester abroad with UCLA School of Architecture, I pondered the raked gravel around the rocks and wondered what mind-teaser the monk had wrestled with while he created the flowing field.

When I was a kid I would enjoy short circuiting my brain by trying to think of nothing. By the time I got to an image of a black void I would call foul because void suggests that it is surrounded by non-void - at which point the synaptic fireworks would provide a pleasant buzz. Hey, it was healthier than sniffing model-airplane glue.

A friend asked me the other day how the weeding was going. “Fine”, I said. I didn’t have the heart to explain that it is winter in the chaparral and apart from mustard, pretty much everything calls it quits by the beginning of July. All my son Griffin and I have been doing for the last three months or so is raking.

We weeded all winter and then weed wacked for six weeks or so and now we rake. What’s taking so long? Shouldn’t we be sitting back in our lawn chairs by now and enjoying the parched land? The fact is that no one really likes to rake in the hot weather. So we catch a few hours at the end of the day, and then not every day. My son was charged with raking to earn a few bucks for college. He would do a few hours most days and there’s a pile of grasses, thistles and clover on the west meadow that attests to his efforts. I call it a compost pile, but it looks a lot more like a hay stack and is the size of a small house. I wish he had done more, but it really is soul destroying work and I was limited in my motivational resources.

In Haiiti, to make a zombie, a voodoo priest administers pufferfish poison to the intended victim. Exhibiting the usual signs of death the incipient zombie is buried, then, at the voodoo priest’s leisure the victim is dug-up, revived and, in his neurologically damaged state becomes a pliant slave in the sugarcane fields. There is some evidence that in 1918 a gang of zombie laborers was ‘employed’ by the American Sugar Corporation.

The novitiate Zen-monks of fifteenth century Japan underwent a more humane neurological intervention: they were set to work at jobs of mind-numbing boredom armed only with a koan. 

The Machiguenga Indians who live on the foothills of the Andes in southeastern Peru at a base elevation of around 2300 feet cultivate maize, manioc and other root crops in their steeply sloping gardens. They also hunt and collect wild food 2,000 feet up steep forest trails that run further into the foothills. Research has demonstrated that their work rate is beneficially impacted by their habit of chewing coca leaves.

Work on our acreage is conducted at a similar elevation and in similar sloping conditions to the gardens of the Machiguenga; the degree of difficulty in raking dried thistles approaches that of sugar-cane work and the boredom quotient compares (I suspect) with the leaf and gravel raking tasks undertaken by Zen monks. 

But Griffin’s labor was underpinned only by the lure of ten bucks an hour and that was clearly not sufficient to get the job done. I’m ending up doing a great deal of it. I understand, however, that I get a lot more satisfaction out of the work than my son ever could. At times I almost enjoy it - it’s the ultimate recursive activity. Seeds and straw fly through the rake tines away from the gathering pile so you rake again until, at last, you figure that the quail will take care of those last clover, rye, thistle and broome seeds and the wind will blow the errant straw away or perhaps it will be plucked to make a nest.

Griffin would mutter darkly that all this raking was asking for major erosion come the first rains of winter. I was seeing that after the birds did their work, the rains would gather the last remaining weed seeds and wash them down to Bear Creek. We have startlingly different world views vis a vis the little bit of scrub that we own. Let’s face it: I’m working on a vision that is not widely shared, even within my own family.

Lorrie tolerates my approach, but she’ll be wanting to see results by the first quarter of 2011. I tell her it’s a five year plan, that the idea is to rid the meadows and margins of weeds and allow the chaparral to grow back in and that our success is initially signalled by deer weed - the first plant in the chaparral succession. And look at that - the artemesia is growing in, and elderberry and walnut and chamise. She sees rocks and thistles.

She has profound doubts that I know what I’m doing. In this she is fulfilling the traditional role of the distaff side. She is right to have doubts. I am bouyed by my vision not my technical expertise. But my vision is based on observation, and that provides me with an unimpeachable guide.

We have raked down to the bare crust. I wish it were the 30,000 year-old soil crust of typical chaparral but we are working with disturbed soil, ravaged by excavators and back-hoes for nigh-on a decade. The accepted theory is that Chaparral succession is unique in that it succeeds itself rather than being preceded by other vegetative types. My experience is that severely disturbed soils, particularly at the wildland/urban interface come back as weed patches, then soft chaparral (coastal sage scrub) and then finally hard or classic chaparral.

The weeding/weed wacking/raking protocol is designed to hasten this process and also to facilitate seeding of select areas come the rains. Now according to Chaparral 101,

“Immediately after a disturbance the herbs and forbs initially dominate because of their sheer numbers and showy flowers. Within 2 - 5 years the seedlings of chaparral plants and the shrubs resprouting from their crown roots or burls take over. Their more aggressive root systems exploit deeper water reserves and they will eventually shade out the forbs and grasses and replace them.”

Santa Barbara City College Biological Sciences, Introduction to Chaparral.

the operative word in the above is, as Manuel the Spanish waiter in John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers would so affectively say, eeventuaarly.................

Our raking is in service to expediting the process. With Griffin gone, I now have two tools at my disposal, the rake and the koan. I know the intention. I know the answer to the koan must be ‘Chaparral’ - emerging flickeringly at first and then less faintly from the deepest recesses of the Zen beginner’s mind, echoing the emergence of the indigenous eco-system from the traumatized land. I’m still working on the question.