We know the sound of one Zen garden in Japan.
But what is the sound of two Zen gardens, one in Japan, one in Vermont?
Wind whispers among trees. Water splashes over stones. All is the same.
Which is hardly surprising, considering that Carson “Kit” Davidson found his inspiration for his Japanese garden near Hubbardton, Vt., after sneaking into the grounds of the Katsura Imperial Villa outside Kyoto, widely recognized as one of the most magnificent gardens in the world.
That was in 1956. Kit Davidson had taken a train and then a tram and then a two-mile walk only to find the villa closed. But he was a brash young American, so he simply scouted around the walls until he found a way to get over and inside, where — “sneaking from bush to bush,” he says — he explored with wonder this masterpiece of Japanese landscaping: its stones and falls and winding paths, its trees and sculpture and bridges.
Kit was a filmmaker, and although he had no equipment with him, as he roamed the Katsura garden he was a camera. So 11 years later, when he and his wife, the late children’s book author Mickie Davidson, purchased land in the Taconics for what was even then a bargain price of $69 an acre, he started looking over the property with an eye to how it might fit a Japanese aesthetic. Standing on the hill where he’d built his simple house, he could look down to where a couple of streams flowed between a couple of granite boulders. Hmm. . . .
Jump forward nearly 50 years. Kit Davidson’s house has two clear acrylic boxes holding flyers and maps attached to an outside wall. There is also a polite sign: “STOP! READ THIS. All red-blazed trails are being reblazed white. Sorry about the inconvenience.”
“I thought red would stand out on the trees,” Kit says, shaking his head at his perceived foolishness. “But it got lost in the shadow of the woods.”
Now 90, Kit is still lean and straight-backed, as befits a man who spent a lot of his life clearing trails through mountain forest. (He no longer does that hands-on work, relying on his assistant Alyssa Bennett, 38.) A native Washingtonian, Kit attended Antioch College, finishing up after his World War II service as a blood analysis technician in an Army hospital. After being happily fired from J. Walter Thompson advertising agency — “I hated it” — he went to work for Dynamic Films, a New York company specializing in weddings. His employers were glad to lend him equipment, and he made a documentary about the Third Avenue El train that ended up being nominated for an Oscar. (He was later nominated a second time for an Oscar, and has all together received 72 film awards, both here and internationally.) For the past few decades, he’s turned his cameraman’s eye on the landscape spread out below his house.
To get to the garden, you walk down a steep hill, through the meadow and past a row of several-story-high granite boulders, presents from an ancient glacier. At first, there’s no sign of any garden, although the wildflower-strewn meadow is lovely, and the surrounding mountains have the soft beauty typical of Vermont ranges. (I was taking this walk in May; in October it must be spectacular.) Then the path bends to the right and, as if sprung from the earth just a second before, there it is: two 20-foot boulders, each with a trailing narrow waterfall, just a thin stream, really, that splashes onto a granite platform, then into a pool. Two arched red wooden bridges. A tiny medieval-style stone clapper bridge. A three-foot concrete Japanese pagoda. Another one. A concrete Japanese temple lantern. An Adirondack chair.
An Adirondack chair?
Well, yes. Three, to be exact. One facing the waterfalls. One on a little mound, looking over the falls and the pond. And one balanced on the top of one of the boulders — to all appearances, inaccessible. But walk on a little. Cross the first bridge. Step between the boulders. More helpful signs. “Bridge To Island.” “Bridge To Ladders.” Ladders, of course! No Japanese garden is complete without them. They’re secured firmly to the side of the boulder, and you can climb straight up and maneuver around a bit — cautiously — and take your seat, looking over Kit Davidson’s gift to the people of Vermont.
Because that’s what it is. The garden and the meadow and the six miles of hiking trails that Kit made himself are free to anyone who wants to visit. After doing some research that convinced him that the state of Vermont wouldn’t be able to keep a person to maintain it all, he made arrangements to leave the place to a nonprofit conservationist group that will. You can’t put up a tent here. (Another sign: “NO CAMPING. NO OVERNIGHTS. (And of course no fires.)”)
But you can sit in the garden. Or walk the forest trail that takes you up past a series of waterfalls. Or hike up and around Zion Major, which overlooks the site of the Battle of Hubbardton, which may not mean much to folks outside Vermont, and which, okay, the Americans lost, but it was the only battle of the Revolutionary War fought in what is present-day Vermont (even though it was a pre-Vermont, New Hampshire territory then), and never mind that ballyhooed Battle of Bennington, which was actually fought across the state line near Walloomsac, N.Y. — 10 miles from Bennington and its fancy battle monument. Take the hike. Look at some real Vermont history.
Hear the sound of one Japanese garden in Vermont.
Rose is a former theater critic for
The Washington Post.
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