(Published in the Seattle Times online on April 16, 2020)
Discovering a healing heart for nature at Kubota Garden
By Clay Eals
With Earth Day now seemingly every day, symbolism abounds in Kubota Garden. This 20-acre park near Seattle’s southern city limits showcases a calming mix of greenery, stone and water, all buoyed by an early enhancement, the Heart Bridge. And in this uncertain era, more than ever we need heart.
Soon after officials invoked social distancing to slow the coronavirus, I wandered the garden’s vast and meandering paths. Beckoning with bright red railings was the diminutive bridge.
The garden’s founder, Fujitaro Kubota (1880-1973), who left Japan for America in 1907, installed the span a few years after acquiring the tract’s first five acres in 1927. It bolsters the entire park’s role as a refuge for contemplation, healing and renewal.
Its range of trees, pools and meadows is complemented by a bronze entry gate, ornamental wall, hanging bell, stone lantern and interlaced waterfalls, blending Japanese and American styles of landscaping. One can instantly internalize the careful combination of art and nature.
The peace it engenders was no effortless ethos to create, given that Kubota, with thousands of other stateside Japanese during World War II, was shunted into three years of incarceration at Minidoka, Idaho. There, the headstrong horticulturalist coped by leading the camp’s beautification. Post-war, he wept for hours when encountering his overgrown Seattle garden and struggled with back taxes, but he pushed on.
Naturalized in 1955, Kubota shaped public spaces of the Rainier Club, Seattle University and Bainbridge Island’s Bloedel Preserve as well as the grounds of countless residences.
The garden in South Seattle, however, was Kubota’s magnum opus. He didn’t live to see its splendor triumph over a 480-unit condo development scheme to become an official city landmark (1980) and city park (1987). But he maintained vision and a desire to share.
“Every rock and every key plant have a meaning,” he told The Seattle Times in imperfect English at age 82 in 1962. “I wish to leave in this ‘beautiful’ and ‘artistic.’ ”
That’s evident in a new, 230-page coffee-table book, “Spirited Stone: Lessons from Kubota’s Garden,” with evocative essays and photos from 20 contributors. Infused with earthly humanity, the book is a stirring backgrounder for experienced visitors. For the uninitiated, it’s a lavish entree to Kubota’s story.
As expressed by Linda Kubota Byrd in a companion documentary, her grandfather embodied “an overarching spirit and a testament to the power of holding an intention.” In the same film, Bellevue landscape architect Don Shimono says Kubota devoted himself to working with nature, not against it.
“It seems like this whole planet is man trying to conquer nature,” Shimono adds, “and there’s no way nature is going to be conquered. Nature is going to have the last word.”
Seattle’s Jim Rupp, of the Pacific Northwest Historians Guild, observes that in our “Then” photo, “The fellow standing next to the seated woman (presumably his wife) is Dr. Henry Gowen, longtime UW professor for whom Gowen Hall is named.” That this is Gowen is bolstered by a photo of Gowen from the Museum of History and Industry, Rupp says.
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!
Below are the cover of “Spirited Stone,” a map of Kubota Garden and 18 clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) that, among others, were helpful in the preparation of this column.