Sunday, September 22, 2013

Day 133 - Visiting the Anderson Japanese Gardens

I have never been to the Anderson Japanese Gardens. In fact, I was unaware of this sprawling expanse of gardens inspired by Eastern traditions until I started doing research for my “I have never...” journey. Perhaps it was because the gardens are located in Rockford Illinois, or perhaps it was because I didn’t have a strong interest in such experiences prior to this year, but the Anderson Japanese Gardens were simply an unknown place to me until recently. Of course, after seeing photographs of the beautifully sculpted terrain contained within the garden’s walls, I knew I needed to make a trip to the Anderson Japanese Gardens sometime during my “I have never...” year.

Although I didn’t know exactly when I would make the trip, I eventually narrowed in on a few days that would permit me to make the trek down to the gardens. Eventually, that effort led me to decide today would be the day that I first visited the Anderson Japanese Gardens. Primarily, this decision was driven by the fact that I learned recently my Grandmother was facing her final days of life. As a result, I figured the trip would be a good way to occupy my mind with something I knew my Grandmother, who was a helping hand to my Grandfather the florist in her younger years and an active gardener in retirement, would enjoy if she was capable of making the trip. It was set to be a relaxing Sunday trip and a new experience, both of which I looked forward to after an otherwise busy weekend.

The entrance
As Rachael and I prepared to make the journey to the gardens this morning, I received word of my Grandmother’s passing from my Mother. My Mother was quick to tell me there was no immediate need for me to make the journey north for funeral preparations, and encouraged me to make the trip to the gardens as planned. “Grandma would have loved that,” my mother said with a soft, somber tone, “Go enjoy the gardens. Just keep her in your heart.” Understanding my mother’s intent, I worked through the rest of the morning as planned, and Rachael and I began our trip to Rockford. For the length of the trip, I rested quietly in the passenger seat moving in and out of deep thought on the meaning of my Grandmother’s passing. My heart was heavy and parts of me felt hollow at the thought of it all, but I knew my Mother was right in telling me to visit the Japanese Gardens today. I knew the memories from our time before the tranquil and beautiful space would be forever intertwined with my memories of my Grandmother, and that somehow made sense to me. It just seemed to fit, knowing that my Grandmother would be at the forefront of my mind while we walked the gardens. In a way, it made me feel as though a part of her would be there with us, and that meant a lot in the wake of today’s news.

The visitors' center
My thoughts carried me until Rachael and I arrived at the gates of the Anderson Japanese Gardens. After finding a parking space we entered the visitors’ center resting at the foot of the parking lot and gained our passes for the gardens. Although the property bordered a busy roadway, it felt as though we had moved far away from hustling streets as soon as we entered the gardens. A lush green space spread out before us and climbed up a hill on the opposite side of a series of waterways, with serpentine paths moving across the ground and disappearing behind tree cover. At first, Rachael and I paused to grab a drink of water and plot our course through the gardens. As we spoke, I took time to look over the space around us, which was rich with life happily basking in the midday sunlight. My first impression of the space left me in a state of reverie as Rachael made some final decisions on the direction we would take. Eventually snapping out of my distant gaze, I focused on Rachael’s final words of recommendation before we began our trip down one of the gardens’ paths.


As we walked along the path mirroring the property’s border, Rachael and I pointed out some of the more unique plants and features we passed. The morning’s news made for a mostly quiet walk, but that gave us more opportunity to take in the natural beauty of the space around us. Birds sang from every direction, the sound of flowing water whirred in the distance, and the gentle breeze drew out applause from the thousands of leaves surrounding us. I still felt heavy, but I was in a good place and I was happy Rachael was at my side.

The east pond
Eventually our path took us to locations containing authentic Japanese monuments and structures scattered throughout the property. After passing a pillar of peace nestled in a low lying moss garden, we came upon a large pond bordered by dense greenery and a wooden walkway. As we came nearer the pond we saw massive koi fish breaking the surface of the water and responding to the presence of another group of people feeding the animals some of the available fish food. We paused briefly to look at the odd relationship the fish had developed with passersby, which caused them to mirror the movements of people around the body of water. It was strange, but completely understandable. After a short time at the pond, Rachael and I walked back through the garden until we met a traditional Japanese guest house hidden in the middle of the property. The structure was simple in its design but beautiful in its symmetry and openness. While we couldn’t enter the building, we took time to glance at its features and at the centric Japanese rock garden near the building’s rear. The whole of the sights made it easy to feel we were in another location entirely and made it easy to settle into a deeper state of relaxation as we continued through the gardens.

Our path took us deeper into the property until we ultimately reached a small wooden bridge stretching over wide, shallow river some distance below. On the other side of the bridge massive wooden gates opened to another expanse of garden space full of lush plant life climbing high above the ground. Rachael and I spent some time taking in the authentic teahouse nestled at the base of a steep hill before rounding a corner and meeting a cascade of water falling over a rock face nearly three stories tall. The stature of the waterfall was altogether unexpected, which caused Rachael and I to pause before it for some time. 

As we watched the water tumbling down into the stream at our feet, I found myself entering a state on contemplation similar to the one that gripped me when we first entered the garden grounds. As I thought about the meaning of the day, I shifted my eyes to the scenery surrounding the waterfall, which contained pockets of leaves licked with color at the first signs of autumn. On the hill in the distance, a small wooden bridge rested over the origin of the falls, which was nestled somewhere on the steep surface before us. I couldn’t help but think of how my Grandmother would feel to see the scene as we stood silent before the rushing water. While it wasn’t the most amazing sight I have encountered in my life, the waterfall created beauty and peace, and that’s exactly what I had hoped to find during today’s travels.

Leaving the falls...

After taking in the falls for some time Rachael and I continued down the garden path, which guided us back over the river and around the far side of a second body of water on the west side of the property. We passed a mediation space before finding ourselves walking down a narrow path ending in a small seating area overlooking the pond. With little discussion we took to the chairs to rest for a while, sitting before the panoramic view framed by the plants and trees springing from the ground resting at our feet. We chatted a bit as we took in the view, which seemed the perfect backdrop for that moment in our time at the gardens. While I could have stayed in that spot for the rest of the day, Rachael and I eventually decided it was time to move on and bring our first trip to the Anderson Japanese Gardens to a close.

The view from the pond shore

With other obligations pending back home, Rachael and I worked our way through the rest of the gardens past some familiar sights near the river and a massive pavilion structure on the opposite side of the pond. Eventually, our path took us back into the visitors’ center, which led back to our car. As we left the Anderson Japanese Gardens we talked about the obvious beauty contained within its walls and discussed how the changing seasons would likely bring an entirely new feel to the space. In short order, we decided a return trip to the gardens was needed in the future before we settled in for the drive back home. On the trip I shuffled through some of the photos I had taken while we were at the gardens and tried to predict what my Grandmother would have thought about the visit. While I knew she would have loved the beauty and serenity of such a place, I wondered what she would have found the most appealing about the gardens. Although I will never know what she would have thought, my mind kept drifting back to the chairs resting on the shore of the pond and the beautiful stillness that came with our brief stop at the location. There was something about that spot I knew my Grandmother would have loved, and it was where I wanted to feel her with us the most.

A woman standing alone in the pavillion

I stared at the photo of that moment in our trip for some time before sinking into my seat and drifting into a light sleep. My rest occupied me the remainder of the trip until Rachael stirred me to life just outside of Madison. As I snapped back into consciousness, a flood of thoughts hit me, but the calm from our earlier trip to the gardens quickly moved to the forefront of my mind. Although a persistent sadness from the morning’s news hung in the air, I knew making the trip to the Anderson Japanese Gardens was probably the best thing we could have done today. There is something about the place that cleared my mind and provided perspective on the meaning of today, which is exactly the kind of reflection I needed on a day like this.

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