Healing garden can offer solace, a sense of peace

October 14, 2007|By Charlyne Varkonyi Schaub | Charlyne Varkonyi Schaub,South Florida Sun-Sentinel

At first glance, Steve Yamamoto's house at the end of an unpaved road in The Acreage in western Palm Beach County, Fla., looks a lot like others in the neighborhood. Single story. Stucco. Situated on a large piece of ground.

But enter the back yard, and it's obvious this is no typical garden.

Water rushes over boulders and rocks into a pool. A Japanese-crafted pergola and an area with a pair of benches invite conversation or meditation. Gravel pathways crunch under foot. Curved paths allow what lies ahead to remain a mystery. Plants are selected for their texture and leaves rather than for color. Spaces in the landscape are left empty.

Welcome to Yamamoto's healing garden, commissioned after he learned he had prostate cancer. The cancer diagnosis, about a year and a half ago, was chilling. Pancreatic cancer killed his mother. His sister, who had intestinal cancer, died after an E. coli infection. And his best friend had a fatal brain tumor.

"So far everything is all right," he said, explaining that renowned urologist Patrick C. Walsh performed the surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. "But once something like this happens, it's always in the back of your mind."

Yamamoto, 57, was inspired by the peace he felt visiting the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens west of Delray Beach, Fla. He hired Hoichi Kurisu, who created the Morikami's landcape design, because one of Kurisu's specialties was restorative or healing gardens.

A member of the Baha'i faith, Yamamoto goes out into the garden at about 6 a.m. every day to pray for an hour.

"The healing garden is supposed to take you away from the everyday mundane life and work and problems," Yamamoto said. "It's a blending of nature, appealing to all senses."

Kurisu talked about how a healing garden can connect the human mind to nature, so that those with health or mental problems can get outside of themselves and feel some peace.

"If you study the connection to nature and open yourself up to nature, that's the start of the healing of disease," he said. "You start to feel a part of the universe."

Transforming Yamamoto's back yard was a challenge. When Kurisu first saw the more than 2,000 square feet, he said it looked "terrible, all weeds and fire ants." His only inspiration was an old slash pine that he wanted to use as a main part of his design.

Japanese gardens typically contain elements that are made from natural materials such as boulders, stones, ponds and waterfalls.

Kurisu and other designers of Japanese gardens believe that the flow of the water from the waterfall or stream to the pond symbolizes all phases of human existence -- from birth to death. In this garden, the sound of the water changes as you walk around the garden. Behind the mound built for the waterfall, it sounds almost hushed. Closer to the waterfall, it has a louder rushing sound.

"Some say it's like being reborn from the womb," Kurisu said. "Water is soothing and comfortable and peaceful."

A consistent element in Japanese gardens is the pond that can symbolize nature's water features. A large pond introduces you to the garden. Another pool of water is under the waterfall.

Some designers say the type of trees and plants selected for the Japanese garden are what give it character. The first thing you notice is the lack of color. In this garden, color comes from a few plants such as the pink trumpet tree, the golden shower tree and the trunk of the giant golden bamboo. Green plants come in different shades and textures.

"Oriental or Japanese garden design doesn't have much color because we believe it takes away from the garden's meaning, depth and effectiveness," Kurisu said. "Color is satisfying to your eyes, not to your soul."

Yamamoto plans to form a nonprofit organization and get volunteers who can teach visitors meditation and yoga for free.

"I did this for myself, but I would love to open it up to cancer survivors and those with a cancer diagnosis so they can have a few moments of peace," he said.

Charlyne Varkonyi Schaub writes for South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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