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The Nitobe Memorial Garden

Story by Steve Giordano

Have you seen the garden? Peter Sellers as Chauncy (the) Gardener asks that question in "Being There," his film about a dull-witted gardener forced out of his home and garden of 50 years. He may be a man of few words, but he chooses them carefully. He speaks only of gardening, and his listeners apply their own meanings to his words.

In a meeting with the U.S. President, Chauncy says, "As long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well, in the garden." The President takes this to mean, and says on national TV, "As long as the roots of industry remain firmly planted in the national soil, the economic prospects are inevitably sunny."

You may wonder what gardening has to do with United Nations Day this October 24, but I'm getting to that.

Nitobe Memorial Garden is a two-acre Japanese memorial garden on the University of British Columbia campus. It was built in 1959, 25 years after Dr. Inazo Nitobe's death.

Nitobe belonged to the House of Peers of Japan and was the Under Secretary General of the League of Nations. He was also a Quaker and internationally famous as a force for peace and goodwill, especially between Japan and Canada. His face is on the Japanese 5000-yen note.

At the closed gates to the garden one October 15, the anniversary of Nitobe's death, I met a Japanese businessman who had chartered a plane to bring him from Victoria to Vancouver especially to visit the garden. We were both disappointed, because special events of a celestial nature are rumored to take place each year on that day.

A specialist in astrogeography studied the gardens almost daily for 25 years. He is Richard Copley, a Senior Instructor Emeritus in the UBC geography department, and he says that the stone lanterns, bridges, trees, rocks and the garden's teahouse are all aligned to harmonize with movements of the sun and moon. He uses spherical trigonometry in his calculations, a science on which the garden's designer had written.

A volunteer gatekeeper at the garden says "nothing is accidental" in the placement of rocks, bridges or in the numbers of stepping stones, bridge boards, plantings and lanterns.

What's the mystery? Is some Chauncy (the) Gardener giving us another enigma? The designer of the garden, Japanese landscape architect Kannosuke Mori, created more than a traditional Japanese garden. Copley believes it is a cosmic memorial to Nitobe, but nothing in Mori's records will confirm it. He told his gardeners to ask no questions and to keep curiosity-seekers away while the garden was under construction. Mori died three months after completing the garden and gardeners have laughed at the cosmic speculations.

Current gardeners don't say much about the symbolism, but one points to the three lanterns spaced in a row over the length of the garden. The only position that allows the viewer to seem them all at once is on a zigzag bridge. Copley says crossing the bridge frees one of devils, since in Japanese mythology devils can move only in straight lines.

According to Copley, every October 15 at noon the shadow cast by the shaft of the Nitobe Memorial Lantern (15 feet tall) passes through a fist-sized chip in a strategically placed boulder, as if it were the shadow itself that had worn down the rock. Four hours later, an observer sitting on a nearby bench sees the sun pass behind the granite lantern and appear to illuminate its light chamber with a bright flame. At that moment it is high noon at the International Dateline and 9 a.m. in Japan, when Nitobe died, providing a fitting memorial for Nitobe, the internationalist who called himself "a bridge to the West."

This past October 15 found me at the gate to the Nitobe Garden at 3:30 eager, for the 4 p.m. show of flame. The gate was locked and there was no gatekeeper in sight. I saw a young couple hop the fence (this is a university campus, after all), so thinking they must be some of Copley's students with the same mission as mine, I too hopped the fence.

The sun even came out briefly, but was gone before I got to the lantern. The students had parked themselves on a bench to generate their own flame, so I wandered the garden while trying to figure how anyone could make astronomical calculations in the cloudy northwest. No wonder it took Copley 25 years to announce his findings.

But at 4 o'clock, give or take a few minutes, the sun broke through again briefly, just as it started to rain, and sure enough, the inside of the lantern was illuminated. I was the only person there to see it, so you'll have to make of it what you will. But I do agree with Chauncy: "The garden is a healthy one."

Chauncy had a special message for us on United Nations Day: "It is possible for everything to grow strong, and there is plenty of room for new trees and new flowers of all kinds."

If you go:

Located at Gate 4 to the UBC campus on Marine Drive West, The Nitobe Memorial Garden is a garden of the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research. It is considered to be the one of the most authentic Japanese gardens in North America and among the top five Japanese gardens outside of Japan.

Until October 14, 2007, the garden is open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. From October 15, 2007 to mid-March, 2008, it will be open on non-holiday weekdays from 10am to 2:30pm, except late December / early January when it will be closed for the winter holidays. Admission is by donation in the off-season, $5 during the summer.


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