My recent trip to Brooklyn wasn’t all the insides of courtrooms and the outsides of container terminals, oh no.
One day, Mrs Friendoftheblogpaul — who knows a good walk when she sees one — suggested we take a wander through Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.
I’ve always preferred Prospect Park to Central Park. Partly for reasons of borough pride, of course; but also because I was touched as a teenager by Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece, Arcadia.
Among other things, Arcadia is about landscape gardening and the emergence of the Romantic style over the Classical. And set against its Manhattan sibling, Prospect Park does present a certain Gothic ruggedness. Like in Central Park, an assortment of international types are kicking each other in the air and crumpling to the ground in anticipation of their heroes bravely doing the same for the motherland in Brazil.
But take a quiet path wending through the woods, and you’ll emerge in a quiet lea barely populated by the odd New Yorkers who have the time and inclination to find it. Keep heading south-east and a carousel of Victorian solidity evokes imagined memories of Edenic childhoods.
I’m not coming from that direction. Instead, proving that if you pick up your bags and charge at New York from an odd angle, you’ll find something magic, I cleave to the eastern fence. Passing through the turnstile, I’m at the top of stairs that sweep down into the Prospect Park Zoo, where sea lions whirl like débutantes in Sea Lion Court. Sheep wait to lick my open palm clean of kibblish pellets with sandpaper-soft tongues. Goats shout at each other like humans doing impressions of goats doing impressions of humans. Kids peer out of plastic bubbles set into Prairie Dog Hill, like lunar meerkats.
Across the road, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden abandons gothic romanticism. It reflects an America that, for all its mythology of the frontiersman and the cowboy, is obsessed with order and Doric columns.
The BBG is flanked by the Brooklyn Museum, designed by classicists and Beaux-Artistes McKim, Mead & White to be “the focal point of a planned cultural, recreational, and educational district for the burgeoning city of Brooklyn” that was greatly reduced in scope upon the borough’s union with the city of New York.
Entering the BBG through the Osbourne Garden, one is confronted with trompe l’oeil pillars falling away in size to present a greater sense of scale. At the bottom of the hill are the Rose Garden and the Cherry Esplanade, where couples loll as youngsters run amok. The Japanese Hill and Pond Garden curls towards the southern border of the gardens, where the Shakespeare Garden (in the English cottage-garden style) and the Fragrance Garden lead to the Palm House and the acme of order that is the C.V. Starr Bonsai Museum.
The history and discipline of bonsai is varied and complex, even if the BBG does a good job of pruning it down for the casual Scottish stroller. Wikipedia’s miniaturised summary is appealing, too:
The purposes of bonsai are primarily contemplation (for the viewer) and the pleasant exercise of effort and ingenuity (for the grower).
I was particularly taken by the museum’s focus on bonsai as a miniaturised and idealised landscape in the Vietnamese tradition. Learning more, I discovered that bonsai aesthetics are informed by Friendoftheblogron’s fave concept, Wabi-sabi — described by Leonard Koren as “the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty…. [I]t occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West”.
The aesthetic of Wabi-sabi is anchoered by the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Thus, the key principles of bonsai aesthetics include miniaturisation, proportion, asymmetry, the absence of the hand of the artist, and a poignancy, or expression of mono no aware.
Leaving the Palm House, I sketched a haiku which I would like to think isn’t devoid of those aesthetics:
size and age mean naught
to the towering bonsai
who just wants to be
Like each of the haiku I write for Mrs Stroke Bloke, the poem follows a strict 5-7-5 syllable pattern. (And any reference to the season is opaque as best, but that seems traditional.) This rigid approach forces upon the inexperienced haiku-writer a contemplation of the interplay of language’s form and content.
Meanwhile, Mrs S-B was back in Edinburgh picking up a book I had asked my new favourite independent bookstore (the wonderfully-curated Golden Hare Books) to hold for me: The Essential Haiku: Versions Of Bashō, Buson & Issa, by Robert Hass. In it, Hass writes that these three great masters of the form respectively demonstrate poignant calm and spiritual restlessness, painterly precision and strangeness, and pathos and humour. I’m looking forward to learning how they construct their poems so that I can humbly enjoy new forms of the pleasant exercise of effort and ingenuity in my own haiku.
It is, of course, after learning within guidelines and restrictions that one can branch out and play with the form — Picasso being the axiomatic example. Mrs S-B and I were recently talking with a nice young couple (the couple are young, and so is their coupling). Mrs S-B, harking back to her days as the Stern School of Business’s resident Dan Savage, mentioned the importance of partners simply being nice to each other — saying “thank you,” for example, and being appreciative. It’s after mastering these seemingly simple skills, I suppose, that one can move on to the varsity level stuff.
And with that, this short return to Edinburgh ends and I head to Brooklyn for one last, short trip. For now. Thank you for reading; I wish My Love — and you — an awareness of the transience of all things, that heightens appreciation of their beauty.