June 15, 2011

Water Rites

“Nothing in the world is a s soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.”

WATER IS THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENT OF life, the most common and most powerful substance on earth, carving mountains into canyons and wearing stone to sand. It covers 71 percent of the earth's surface, filling rivers, lakes, ponds, and the air we breathe.

As embryos, we are composed almost entirely of water; by old age, the proportion is still 65 percent. "Water precedes all forms of life and upholds all creation," says theologian Mircea Eliade. "Every contact with water implies regeneration. "

It is hardly surprising that water has long been a central element of landscape design, from the earliest gardens in the irrigated Mesopotamian valley to the water walls in the pocket parks of contemporary cities. Today, we excavate pools and ponds, lining them with clay, plastic, vinyl, and concrete. We divert streams, construct waterfalls, install fountains. All are designs that depend as much on water's physical properties as on one's individual taste. The latter is, of course, specific to every gardener. Let us here explore some of the former.

• Water refrains from taking a form of its own but instead fills out any offered to it. We experience these forms in two very different ways: as a contained element (a pool) and a flowing one (a channel).

Examples of both are offered at Shalimar, the Abode of Love, a Mogul garden set high in the foothills of the Kashmir Himalayas. A central water-course fed by mountain streams falls down the terraced mountainside, forming the garden's aesthetically pleasing structure through alternating turbulence and stillness, slowing to a near eddy in Shalimar's wide pools and accelerating to a rush in its narrower channels. Thrones placed within, above, or upon the water evoke the contemplative state that was surely the architect's intention. In creating our own gardens, we must always remember that water will only go where, in what form, and at what speed we tell it to.

• Water reflects when still. We feel invited to ponder a pool's silent depths and contemplate the latency of its glassy surface, aware that even a single raindrop or the softest of breezes will send ripples cascading to its outer edge. The darker the pool's color, the deeper it will seem; the mood of the visitor may darken or deepen accordingly.

An ornamental reservoir-a bassin acts as a reflecting pool in Andre Le Notre's first great garden at Vaux-le Vicomte in Seine-et-Marne, France. Constructed between 1656 and 1661 for Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV's minister of finance, the chateau's grounds also boast a moat, pools, cascades, a grotto, an allee of water fountains, and a great canal more than three thousand feet long. But the biggest surprise is the square bassin called the Grand Miroir d'Eaux, which reflects the entire facade of the chateau from a great distance. Although we can hardly expect to recreate such grandiose visions on our own property, we should imagine how our constructions will appear to guests stepping onto the grounds for the first time.

• Water always seeks its lowest level. In so doing, it creates the rivers and streams that delight our senses with their complex patterns, unpredictable rhythms, velvety softness, and murmuring sounds. Watching water spill down a mountain slope or meander through a sunny meadow is one oflife's simplest, most eloquent pleasures.

The Rill Garden at Coleton Fishacres, in Kingswear, Devon, England, is a channeled streambed built in a combe - a deep, narrow valley along the flanks of a hill. Designed by Oswald Milne for Mr. Rupert and Lady D'Oyly Carte in the 1920s, the rill emerges from a grotto to flow through a thin canal of silver stone into a bright perennial garden. From there it wanders down into the landscape, ever seeking its lowest level, creeping along the valley floor in ponds and rivulets before disappearing over the cliffs into a harbor in the English Channel. The footpaths that crisscross the stream transform what was merely a storm-water runoff into a fluid focal point of the surrounding gardens and an inspiration for today's designer who would use the laws of gravity to create charming watercourses at home.

• The character of a waterfall is determined by the edge over which it spills. Do you want a smooth or aerated sheet of water falling into your garden? Will it flow in threads or tiers? Here are some quick tips: a wide mouth will produce a thin expanse of water; a narrow mouth, a denser column. The longer the drop, the louder the sound at fall's end. The more obstacles in the water's path, the more it will rime. A stone at the base of a waterfall will produce more of a splash than will water falling directly onto water.

A particularly lovely example of water's strength, speed, and energy can be seen in Lawrence Halprin's Lovejoy Fountain, a public watercourse in Portland, Oregon. Halprin created it as a series of natural falls, concrete cliffs, and chasms upon which viewers can perch or stand, or from which they can dangle their feet into the gushing flow.

• Water seeks to travel in a straight line. It will both erode and build up streambeds through this process, wearing away a channel until it hits a non-erodible surface, depositing the refuse on the opposite shore.

The designers of traditional Japanese stroll gardens took care that their ponds and streambeds be honest representa tions of natural waterways, using rocks to maintain the banks of a stream that would otherwise suffer erosion, or reproducing the buildup of sand that occurs in the lee of a small island. When creating our own gardens, we can hardly use a better model than nature herself.

• Water pressure can direct a flow against gravity. This principle can be seen in anything from a geyser or a water fountain to a spouting whale, and put to dramatic or amusing effect. Italian horticulturists of the Renaissance loved to create giochi d'acqua (waterjokes). Trick fountains (automata) generated by concealed pipes surprised and delighted strollers caught unawares.

The Villa Medici at Castello, in Tuscany, boasted hydraulic wonders that showered on-lookers with water manipulated by a gardener said to be "two hundred paces away."

Other fountain options included the obscene: giochi d'acqua at the Villa Mondragone at Frascati consisted of priapic water features that will otherwise remain undescribed here.

"Meditation and water," wrote Herman Melville, "are wedded forever.” This miraculous silver liquid, the creator and sustainer of life itself, can transform an ordinary garden landscape into a spiritually rejuvenating refuge, a shimmering oasis of aesthetic beauty and peaceful contemplation. The only limits lie in our own imagination.