“When my husband and I moved here 15 years ago, there were only two houses on six acres of forest. I wanted to create a flower garden – a garden in the middle of the forest.” Mrs. Phan Nguyen recollected.
Trees and shrubs are … “children”
Mrs. Phan Nguyen has been a visual artist for over 50 years, with over twenty-five solo exhibitions and thousands of artworks; but as far as gardening, she is an amateur, she admitted. “At the beginning, I just pulled weeds and wandered around.” She had no knowledge of what, when, where, and how to launch into this “flower garden.” She had never lived at an elevation of 3500 feet, with 145 inches of annual rain fall, and a temperature in the mid fifties in the winter.
“I thought if I truly listen to this forest, this land will ‘teach’ me how.” Mrs. Phan Nguyen recalled. “But they took their time teaching me and I was an impatient student.” Then she bought plants and put them in the ground as a test. Everything took root and grew, so fast to the point that they were out of control in places in just two years. I had to remove half a dozen fast growing flowering plants and ground cover for fear they would take over the whole garden.
With tons of rain and great volcanic soil conditions, with 50 to 100 percent humidity – this place is a super greenhouse. No wonder the vegetation is so lush. The garden grew fast, but age was catching up with the gardener. She was approaching her late sixties at that time and had to hire helpers to pull weeds occasionally. But unless she had deadlines for exhibitions, you couldn’t keep her away; she spent hours caring for this garden.
She tends the plants as if they were her children. The COVID-19 period was excellent for working in the garden. Because of her love for nature, trees, and shrubs, when they needed to be trimmed, rather than tossing the cuttings out, she turned them into art materials, adding them to her fiber sculptures.
There were times she neglected garden work due to her deadline for art exhibitions. Feeling guilty, she would run to the garden for a quick visit just to say hello to the “children.” “Oh God, I am so busy right now; my opening is happening real soon so please wait. I will be out here soon to pull weed and fertilize you, ok?” The weeds had a tendency to choke the plants she added.
Her brother came to visit, and noticing his sister spent so much time in the garden, he
remarked: “For heaven’s sake, you put in that much time to rake leaves and pull weeds every day?” She turned the question around: “How much time do you spend on your two children every day? I spend the same amount of time for my garden! Plants and shrubs are my “children.”
Tending flowers and shrubs, remembering friends
Realistically, ninety percent of the plants here started from cuttings, so she didn’t have to buy them. She said, 50 percent of people who moved here would buy a parcel of land and the first thing they did was level it and remove all the trees and ferns. We wanted to keep the forest full of Ohi’a and Hapu’u –they are indigenous to the Kilauea Rainforest.
Mrs. Phan Nguyen was from Tu Chau Village, Ha Dong Province. She remembers the giant bamboo hedges which surrounded her village. During her first year living in Volcano, she planted five varieties of bamboo because they reminded her of her motherland.
Mrs. Phan Nguyen’s garden not only contained Ohi’a and Hapu’u, but there are flowering plants like Azalea, Hydrangea, Amaryllis, Agapanthus, and Anthurium and much more. But she admitted that she doesn’t know all the names of the flowers in her garden. She also planted turmeric and green tea since they are helpful to treat body inflammation.
“Ten years ago, a dozen of friends who love gardening like me, would meet in early Spring every year. For our meeting, we each brought a vegetarian dish, and whatever we have grown in our own garden to share— seeds, seedlings, and just cuttings from their gardens. Everything they shared with me sprouted and grew soon or later. And from these plants I trimmed and started new plants. Every time I am in the garden, I remember the friends who gave me the cuttings.” She confided. Pointing to a corner of her garden, she continued: “Those Azaleas came from my friend Heidi. She has passed away, but every time I enter this garden, seeing the Azaleas, I say: “Heidi, how are you, thank you for the gorgeous blossoms today.” She lives in my garden, forever.
To a giant rock situated at the turn of her driveway, she said: “This rock was placed here by the former owner. Dr. William Wenner was a surgeon, before his death, asked his wife Cynee to make sure a part of his bones would be buried under it.” Mrs. Phan Nguyen honored his wish and believed that his soul is wandering around her garden. “He is looking over my property and the people who live here. We feel protected. It’s all good.”
Gardening is a meditation
This artist produces artwork in fiber, and she often says: “My art reflects my life and the path I follow. It is a way of nourishing the soul. She added: “The Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh said that we should reinvent meditation. To this Zen Master, raking leaves, trimming shrubs, or pulling weeds are all meditation. This philosophy fits me perfectly as gardener.”
Not everyone has an acre of land for gardening to meditate in. But in a small house or apartment one can have potted plants. She said a live plant not only releases oxygen, but it also purifies our environment by capturing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Artist Phan is lucky to live in a natural clean environment. No one can guess her age when you see her work — she moves fast and gracefully. Of course, one more factor is just as important, she is very disciplined in her exercise routines, and keeps a healthy diet. Except for the roast duck that she loves and sometimes she must break the rules and enjoy life.
Growing flowers, according to Mrs. Phan, has another advantage. You will always have flowers from your own garden to give to friends. To have a party, just pick flowers and greenery to decorate the house. Not only that, but the garden is also your own private Heaven that you can enter anytime. “When I am mad at my husband or friends, I say it’s time to pull weeds, or rake leaves. I don’t even need to do anything, just enter the garden path, and suddenly all thoughts, anger, and irritation dissolve. Very strange!” She shared with a puzzled look on her face.
The Unfinished artwork and future projects
She believes that “We Are All One.” This philosophy effects the Interconnectedness of All Things, meaning we are all connected to The Creator, God, The Great Spirit, The Universe, Buddha, or whatever name you give to this ENERGY. It is easy to have compassion for All Things because they are part of us. We are part of this INFINITE OCEAN OF ABUNDANCE, and each of us is a drop of this OCEAN.
“My garden is an unfinished artwork,” artist Phan continued. It is a metaphor for my life, never perfectly complete, always growing, changing, evolving and that is why I am here on this earth school to become a better person.” She sometimes hears the vegetation greeting her, answering, or remind her of something.
In her garden, a wood sculpture stands with head bowed, a posture of a surrendered being, facing the front of her house. That is a work by a friend, a Japanese American named Randy Takaki. “He carved it right in my garden, out of my neighbor’s pine tree which fell in a massive storm 15 years ago.”
Besides creating artwork to prepare for her art exhibition, artist Phan Nguyen dreams of a future project. She will give five years to work on this series of outdoor sculptures, land art, and installations to place right here in her garden. “I think visualizing a future project begets inspiration, which is the life force that keeps us alive.” She disclosed.
Even though this garden in the forest by artist Phan Nguyen is an unfinished work of art, it provides a driving force for her to achieve her future projects.
. Translated by Phan Nguyen Barker
. Edited by Susan Stann, ESL Professor, Stanford University
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