How Nordic nature relates with a Japanese garden

Posted by on Oct 29, 2016 in In search of
How Nordic nature relates with a Japanese garden

Swedish wilderness and Japanese gardens, the natural beauty versus the created beauty. In both surroundings there is no balance without contrast. Yet, while the essence of the Japanese garden is found in its purpose to enhance the quality of human life, the close-up or miniature landscape in a natural environment, doesn’t have a purpose in itself that is related to our lives. It is nature as it is.

Travelling is experiencing new things, with countries, places and their people to remember. Hiking in natural environments is a travel that certainly creates memories. And memories benefit from taking in the whole picture as well as the details. Once they’re formed and saved in the brains’  labyrinth, the remarkable and the meaningful, the funny and the unusual, the colors and the smells, they all add to a faster gateway. Hence their contribution to remember something is obvious, and to recollect events properly the context is of the essence. The small and the beautiful are the details of the whole: the unspoiled vastness of the Nordic countries natural environment.

Wild places are not calm

But in fact and maybe strangely enough, the same wild places are far from quiet, calm or serene. It’s what we experience. When we are, for instance, in the Sarek national park in Sweden, an area renowned for its outstanding natural beauty, the overall experience is overwhelming. However, looking down at your feet, you’ll see another picture. Zooming in, this area of one square meter is a miniature landscape, filled with organic life. The big picture versus the small details, more qualified by contrast than by opposition. The details are in fact the parts of a bigger something – nature as a whole – and interconnected, explicable only by reference to the whole.

By the way, it’s the same with maps. The detailed one indicating the campsite near the bridge and the small stream while the general map charts the whole area, guiding you to the next mountain station.

In nature everything is designed to meet a purpose and it’s only one: to survive. What may appear as coincidental or unstructured – in our opinion – will reveal the same pattern at closer inspection. Nature follows it own rules and the schemes basically are cycles. The climate dictates the weather conditions, the geographical position together with climate and weather form the habitat of different species.


Japanese garden: representation of natural setting


Balance and subtlety. Nature is looked upon as an ally, not an antagonist, maybe due to the delicately gradated changes of the seasons. The Japanese Archipelago extends from the twenty-ninth to the forty-fifth degree north latitude, most regions belong to the temperate zone. In an old book on Japanese handicrafts is explained how the subtle seasonal changes in nature have influenced and sparked the Japanese artistic sentiment and sensitiveness to nature. And the following words, written in 1956, still hold true:

From the incessant evolution of the seasons the Japanese feel that nature shares the same inevitable influence of time as does their mortal life.

Scaled reduction and symbolization are the main principles of the Japanese garden, therefore the selection of materials and their subsequent arrangement is an artful skill. The elements always include water – or in the dry rock garden, its replacement white sand – as a complement to rocks. Garden bridges, fences and gates, stone lanterns and water basins all have a specific meaning, guiding the visitor through the garden and into the realm of calmness. The trees and flowers are chosen with care, nothing is left to chance.

The continental approach to nature is different. We appreciate the natural surroundings as they are, doing our best to preserve the wild quality. One of the characters featuring in Annie Proulx’ novel Barkskins, the Chinese merchant Wuqua, explains the intricate meaning of a garden to the French trader Duquet, after they have visited Wuqua’s Garden of Delightful Confusion.

“We do not forget the forests when we have removed the trees. We make gardens to give us the pleasurable illusions of wilderness.”

“I myself,” said Duquet, “despite the gloomy and unruly forest, even while recognizing that it is a source of wealth and comforts. Yet I would never make a garden alluding to it.”

“Of course you would not. You do not understand the saying ‘tian ren he yi.’ It refers to a state of harmony between people and nature. You do not feel this. No European does. I cannot explain it to you. It is a kind of personal philosophy for each person, yet it is everything.”


Aesthetics and the environment, it has been studied throughout the years. Edmund Burke believed the Beautiful and the Sublime were counterparts, Emmanuel Kant opposed this theory by saying that Burke had not understood nor researched the causes of the mental effects of beauty and sublime. Nowadays environmental aesthetics is science, and studied by Allan Carlsson, amongst others.

No mushroom in a Japanese garden though. This visible part of the fungus, produced above ground on soil or on its food source, upsets the once established and throughout maintained balance in this secluded area. Right here it is an aberration. Thus its quiet yet provocative presence will be treated like all other unwanted weeds. Literally a total tidying to preserve the still life of aesthetic principles.


Higher grounds, the plain in the mountain area near Grövelsjon, with heather, small bushes and a lake.

Lichen, heather and hills in the mountain area of Grövelsjön, Dalarna, Sweden. And a distant lake as blue as the sky. A location above the treeline, these higher grounds are where the reindeer come for calving.


Nordic nature: the grand panorama and the details


A still life, that’s not the first or strongest impression of Nordic nature. A panorama, wide views, the big sky, dense forests, lakes and fjords, mountains and even volcanoes – magnificent, stunning and in every way there’s a lot of it.

The detail: wilderness at your feet

Differences in shape, substance, colour and tone – a miniature wilderness is right down there at your feet, this one square meter where you’re standing. Smaller and bigger stones, the dead material referring to thousands or millions of years ago when earthplates drifted. Or when the land was covered with ice. Now you can pick them up, holding a leftover Ice Age in your hand. Together with plants like heather, various sedges and grasses, moss, lichen and blueberry such a small scale area is like a miniature garden. Each species has its own place, often trying to gain more space. Dead rock is the soil for lichen, creating the habitat for other species. An occasional mushroom breaks the pattern of white and green, throwing in a completely different form with its round shaped hood. A spot where the species are living apart together, allowing the other just enough to survive in this battle for balance.

The detail: waiting for something to happen

Contrasts are also in the unexpected. The sudden strike of lightning, a branch with its delicate leaves hanging over a thundering waterfall, arctic cotton flowers waving gently on thin stems on a summer breeze. And wildlife of course. More often than not our approach is the ‘Better hurry, no time to loose now’. Precious time it is, a holiday – each and every minute counts, has to be filled, cannot be wasted on doing nothing. A waste it would be to just linger for a while, waiting for – yes, for what? Your own thoughts maybe, drifting to unknown territory. Or it could be an animal, wildlife shy and mostly hiding for people, and now that there’s no detectable danger it comes closer. A few years ago it happened upon our doorstep when a young fox sniffed its way through the bushes, seeing nor smelling anything. It jumped on the terrace, climbed on the stool and went to sleep. Patience also is needed for an equally fascinating sight when it comes to moose. In the wintertime we luck into the sight of a mother with her two calves, strolling the backyard through the woods every year. She’s at ease here, apparently.



The wild and natural high plains

We are a part of nature, obviously. In our lives there need to be some sort of balance. On an individual level, balance between the mental and physical state, balance between our wishes and ambitions, our talents, possibilities, abilities and all that is ‘manageble’ or otherwise could be influenced by ourselves. Chaos enters the stage, or conflict at least, when we’re drifting too far away from equilibrium, despite all those yoga classes and mindfulness hours. Only a happy few escape the costly setbacks incurred by life. The majority, on the other hand, walks the path of trial and error. Cheerfully of course.

The contemplative state the visitor of a Japanese garden experiences, is an aesthetic experience responding to the serenity and calmness of this created environment. In the wild surroundings of Nordic nature a sameness experience is related not to the structured and created but to the opposite: the wild and natural. Our personal ‘framework’ and the level of susceptibility account for how much the environment may evoke positive emotions including serenity. If you’re lucky in life you will find a place that touches the soul, whether this is a beach on a tropical island, the cherry blossom park or a mountain slope. I’ve found mine several times. These highland areas have in common the rough and at first glance almost barrenness terrain. The high plains are especially appealing. Three places where the whole is also in the detail, in consecutive order: the Scottisch Highlands, the Hardangervidda in Norway, the largest plateau in Europe and the Grövelsjön area in Dalarna, Sweden .

Maybe it is simple. Just find a place where the beauty and the sublime can meet. Nordic nature has it, this combination of the delicate and the rough. It’s Zen with a thrill.


References and further reading

  • Japanese Handicrafts, Yuzuru Okada, first edition, March 1956, Japan Travel Bureau (series Tourist library, Vol. 21).
  • The Journal of Japanese Gardening (Sukiya Living Magazine) is a beautiful magazine and comes with an equally elegant and informative website.
  • Barkskins, Annie Proulx, London, 2016. The quoted conversation between Wuqua and Duquet can be found on page 98.
  • The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane, first published September 2007. In this book McFarlane describes his journeys in Britain and Ireland, in search of the remaining wildness. As a writer, he combines an intellectual approach and a passion for the outdoors.
  • A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke, 1757 (for those scarse moments when you’re not out there somewhere because the weather is really bad and the cabin is the best place to stay for a while).
  • Aesthetics and the Environment: The Appreciation of Nature, Art and Architecture, Allen Carlsson, Psychology Press, 2002.
  • Environmental Aesthetics, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2007, reviewed 2015.


Featured image: reindeer moss and mushroom in August, location: Vasaberget, south of Idre, Dalarna, Sweden.

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