Book Evaluate: Spirited Stone, Classes from Kubota’s Backyard
by Anne Liu Kellor
Who cares about gardens and landscaping at a time of widespread sadness and despair?
Let me rephrase this question.
Who cares about a story of resilience, racism, community, intercultural connection, place and poetry?
We do it.
Spirited Stone: The Lessons of Kubota’s Garden (Chin Music Press) pays homage to the legacy of Kubota Garden in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle, as well as a collection of diverse, multiracial voices, including local treasures such as writer and UW professor emeritus Charles Johnson. Seattle Civic Poet Anastacia-Renee and Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna. In a series of photos, essays, and poems broken down into four sections (place, spirit, exile, and growth), this coffee table book offers a mosaic of angles from which to view a landscape’s legacy – a legacy that reminds us of the irreplaceable value of nature, of ornate public meeting rooms and of individuals realizing their unique visions. Not only is this collection an example of how the shape of a book can be designed to fit its subject matter, but Kubota Garden itself is evidence of how a landscape can reflect the people who inhabit it.
In 1927, Fujitaro Kubota, a Japanese-American hotel manager and gardener, bought the first five hectare property to become Kubota Garden with the help of a “friend”. He was not allowed to buy the land himself because he was Japanese. Kubota saw the potential in a place where others only saw marshland. He dug a trench ten feet long to drain the swamp and snuck into seeds from Japanese pine trees. By the early 1930s, the garden should be 20 acres.
Kubota Garden has impacted the communities in Seattle both visibly and invisibly. An essay by historian and UW professor emeritus David Streatfield examines how the garden (as well as other Issei nurseries) originally provided plants for many Seattle landscape architects, including the Olmsted brothers who designed much of our beloved integrated park system, such as than the network of parks that line Lake Washington Boulevard. Another essay by current UW professor Jeffrey Hou highlights how Kubota’s garden served as a meeting place for the Japanese-American community that was not welcome elsewhere due to racial discrimination. Kubota also welcomed others to gather without discrimination. Hou writes that the garden was “a place of survival and livelihood, a place of social gathering and community building, and a place of adaptation and resilience”.
Race – and the history of racism in the United States – plays an important role in honoring the heritage of Kubota Garden, as elaborated in an essay by landscape architect Anna Tamura. Despite the willingness of the larger white community to buy Kubota’s plants and benefit from his expertise (he also designed gardens for Seattle University and the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge), Kubota was nonetheless transferred to a Japanese internment camp in 1942 (along with 110,000 other West Coasts) sent Nikkei). Kubota was imprisoned for the next three years and created a garden at the Minidoka Relocation Center in the desert region of southern Idaho. This garden became a way for the imprisoned Japanese to work with their hands and the earth. move your body and relieve stress; hold on to their culture; and come together and do something beautiful, even in the face of despair. Today, the Minidoka Garden has been preserved as part of a larger pilgrimage site so that those who travel can witness the racial injustices that the American government could and can introduce in the name of “public safety”.
When Kubota was released from the internment camp and returned to his garden in 1945, he wept for the first time over the neglect he had accumulated over the three years of idle time, as writer Jamie Ford called out. Then Kubota went to work, restored the plants and paths and finally built a “mountain” and a waterfall as well as many large stones into his landscape – stones are a traditional Japanese design element that many in America did not use at the time familiar were the essay by Kentaro Kojima. Today, some of the most unique parts of the garden (“dancing pines” and “twisted hazelnuts”) are the result of neglect Kubota once lamented when the trees took the shape of plants that were left unattended for three years in kindergarten.
Kubota Garden is a lesson in resilience and hybridity. Not only did it survive beyond Kubota’s life in human form – first under the care of his son Tom Kubota, and later when it became a public park purchased by Seattle Parks and Recreation in 1987 – but it continued to exist as a beloved public hangout for one of the few distinct neighborhoods of Seattle, as described in Alex Gallo-Brown’s essay on Rainier Beach, in which there is a rich mosaic of multilingual, mixed races of the first, second, and third generation Black, Asian, Latin American, and white populations coexisting; in a city that is otherwise largely separate and white.
In fact, the people who find refuge in Kubota Garden are just as diverse as the plant forms of Kubota Garden. Fujitaro Kubota created a garden based on traditional Japanese garden aesthetics and design – Japanese maples, azaleas, hydrangeas, ponds, and curved arched bridges – but he also allowed these plants and trees, shapes and forms, alongside the native plants and trees to be found living in almost every backyard in the northwest: western red cedar, Douglas fir, and native rhododendrons. In this sense, the garden is reminiscent of both natural, wild beauty and the attentive poetry of a landscaped human hand.
I confess it sounded a bit boring at first glance: a book about a garden. But then I saw the wealth of writers whose work appears in it (including a fold-out historical timeline by Mayumi Tsutakawa and poems by Shin Yu Pai, Shankar Narayan, Elizabeth Austen, and others), and I was intrigued by his poetry. historical wealth and form. As I read this tribute, I was reminded of the beauty people bring out of their lives and the importance of honoring and preserving public spaces that provide a mundane but spiritual refuge in our midst.
A balm for every time.
A balm for this time.
The Kubota Garden is open all year round from sunrise to 9:30 p.m.
9817 55th Ave S.
Seattle, WA 98118
Anne Liu Kellor was born and raised in Seattle. She is a mixed race Chinese-American writer, editor, coach, mother and teacher at Hugo House. Her essays have been published in publications such as Longreads, The Seventh Wave, Witness, The New England Review, Fourth Genre, and The International Examiner. Her memoir, Heart Radical: A Search for Love, Language and Belonging, was selected by Cheryl Strayed as first runner-up in Kore Press’ 2018 competition and will be published by She Writes Press in 2021. For more information, please visit: anneliukellor.com.
Featured image by Sharon Ho Chang.