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Japanese Garden Turns 35

Published: September 19, 2016

The Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden at CSULB marks its 35th anniversary this fall with appreciation of the past and anticipation for the future.

“It’s an exciting time,” said garden director Jeanette Schelin, a member of the university since 1993 and co-founder and past vice president of the North American Japanese Garden Association (NAJGA). “Gardens usually take 30 years to mature. That was something Ed Lovell, the garden’s designer and landscape architect for the campus, used to say. Loraine Burns Miller and he envisioned a garden for a generation of people they would never know. Their vision of the physical garden has become fully mature.”

The School of Art’s Ken Brown, author of Japanese-Style Gardens of the Pacific West Coast that included CSULB’s Japanese Garden, is the founder and past president of NAJGA.

“We are thinking less today of Japanese gardens as microcosms of Japan that teach us about culture,” he said. “Now, we think of them more as microcosms of nature formed manicured in a Japanese style. Because they are idealizations of nature, the larger goal is not to learn about Japan. The goal is to connect with the power of nature in diverse ways.”

Schelin believes the mission of the garden is to be a place of learning and culture.

“Loraine Burns Miller wanted a garden that created an ‘aesthetic respite,’” she said. “I think that was an interesting phrase. She had health problems in her youth yet she became curator for 25 years of the Howard Oriental Art Collection. She knew how art could be restorative and invigorating. She decided she wanted to give Long Beach another gift and that gift was the Japanese Garden.”

Brown, whose 2013 book Quiet Beauty: The Japanese Gardens of North America explores the history and social impact of Japanese gardens, lectures around the nation every year including stops this fall in San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Washington D.C., Ithaca, NY and Taipei. In 2009, he and Schelin organized an international conference on Japanese gardens outside Japan on campus that drew 240 attendees and 44 speakers from five countries.

“That,” he said, “inspired the foundation of the NAJGA to foster the sustainability of Japanese gardens, both private and public, by thinking of them in terms of horticulture, human culture and business culture.”

Over the years, Schelin has worked hard with community support to create a menu of activities for the garden.

“We know our garden naturally attracts families,” she noted. “For instance, we host a Children’s Day every year plus July’s Tanabata Festival or the Festival of the Star-Crossed Lovers, a romantic festival that involves taking strips of paper, writing poetry on them, attaching them to bamboo and letting the wind take the poems up to Heaven. It’s lovely.

“I remember my first Chrysanthemum Festival at CSULB,” she added. “My first thought was that adults would do adult activities and kids would do art. But I quickly discovered many adults tried to do the art activities with the children. Since then, our adults are included in all artistic activities. It is open to everyone from ages 2 to 92.”

Weddings continue to play a big part in the garden, but they have evolved.

“In the 1980s, reservations were made by phone,” Schelin recalled. “Married couples visited Public Safety to pick up the key to the garden and let themselves in without any equipment, no PA system and no food. They used the space then returned the key.” Today, reservations are needed months in advance for the big day (or evening), with the garden able to accommodate up to 200 guests for a ceremony and 150 for a wedding and reception.

Japanese Garden
PHOTO BY DAVID J. NELSON

Looking to the garden’s future, Schelin envisions a connection with an academic home, noting that linking academically to the core purpose of this institution is strategic.

“Plus, we need improved facilities,” she said. “For instance, there is only one restroom. We have 300-plus visitors on an average Sunday. We are working with the university on a courtyard improvement project this winter. The university will improve pedestrian access with sidewalks in front of the garden and we are funding a perimeter with appropriate signage.

“We anticipate controlling the gate,” she added. “We need to make sure people who bring large groups to the garden have made a reservation. Currently, if a big tourist bus pulls up and unloads 50 people, they are in the garden before we see them arrive. Students and the campus community will always have priority. But we are trying to right-size how many visitors can fit in the garden at the same time.”

Gardens depend on support, Schelin says. “I think if we walked out the garden and locked the gate, within six weeks, Mother Nature would take over,” she said. “The bamboo would spread and things would go back to the wild. True, the wild has its own charms but Japanese Gardens sit at the apex of garden design. The care that is required is phenomenal.”

Brown encourages the campus community to visit the Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden.

“The best gardens have a sense of boundary. You can understand them yet there are some parts that are mysterious. You can’t see all of it at once. Our garden fits those definitions and does so on an intimate scale,” he said. “Some gardens are big and overwhelming. Some are small and claustrophobic. Ours has very nice proportions. The best Japanese gardens are places apart, defined by complexity, clarity, mystery and a sense of human integration: check the box on all of those for our garden.”

To learn more, visit the Japanese Garden website.

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