Twenty-seven years ago, when Nate Cormier ’95 was a senior and enamored with Japanese gardens, he decided to build one behind the Asian Studies building for his honors project.
These days the little patch is not as well cared for as it used to be by a dedicated team of local gardeners. Despite this, each May, the rhododendron’s magenta blooms reliably open, creating a vibrant border wall with a halo of pollinators. Little green shoots sprout all over the garden floor. Shrubs thicken, forming a protective screen for a contemplative space set apart from the surrounding asphalt parking lot.
Standing at the edge of the garden on a warm spring day, Vyjyanthi Selinger, the Stanley F. Druckenmiller Associate Professor of Asian Studies, explained why the space “is so significant to the Asian studies community.” The plot is located right outside his office window.
“Every time we walk out of our offices, we have this beautiful view. And there’s visual interest wherever you look. I’m not a gardener, but I’ve learned to appreciate the visual variety that it has,” she said. Asian Studies open houses are always held in the garden at the end of the year for students and their families, she added. “It’s the perfect setting to conclude our farewell to Asian Studies students.”
When the department moves its location next year, to Kanbar Hall, it hopes the university will retain the garden or recreate it nearby.
Cormier now works as a landscape architect at RIOS in Los Angeles. He has designed gardens for public parks in Denver, Houston, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Palm Springs. When contacted to discuss his legacy at Bowdoin, he emailed back, “What a blast from the past!”
While the garden project at Bowdoin was the culmination of his college studies, Cormier’s interest in Japan began as a teenager growing up outside of Madison, Wisconsin. In high school, his guidance counselor urged him to take a class at the University of Wisconsin.
But when it came time to sign up, one of the few classes left with open seats was an introductory course in Japanese and Chinese history. The class piqued his curiosity and he came to Bowdoin in 1991 thinking he wanted to be an Asian. Specialization studies and, perhaps, a specialization in economics. (He ended up doing just that.)
In fact, as he was to discover, “you go to visit these gardens, and there’s an army of stooped old ladies hand-pruning every day. So it’s far from a desert, but there’s this tension between something that looks wild and something that looks wild.” somehow it’s crafted by the human hand.”
After studying the Japanese language for two years at Bowdoin, he studied abroad for his third year in Japan. When he arrived in the country, he sought the chair of the architecture department of his university.
“I had a really powerful question for myself, and it’s something that a lot of liberal arts students have to struggle with at some point,” Cormier said. “He asked me: ‘Do you want to study gardens or do you want to do gardens?'”
Being immersed in the academy, Cormier had gotten used to thinking and not doing. But, “again, it was one of those gut reactions, and I was like, ‘I want to do them.'” He spent the year studying with gardeners and traveling the country to visit as many gardens as he could.
When he returned to Bowdoin, a teacher introduced him to a Japanese gardener, Masahiko “Masa” Seko. dry He has since passed away, but was living in Buxton, Maine at the time, a recent transplant from Japan.
Cormier decided that one day he would drive up to Seko’s house to ask if he could be his apprentice. In his mind he was enacting a kind of ancient Buddhist custom, in which a young man prostrates himself at a monk’s door, begging to learn from him.
But dry Cormier wasn’t interested, undeterred, continuing to pester him. Finally, he wore the man down.
Japanese apprenticeships, Cormier explained, whether for calligraphy or gardening or another skill, tend to be very hands-on, with a clear delineation between master and disciple. Cormier said that he remembers a time that he approached dry with what he thought was a brilliant idea.
dry he barely reacted. “He said, ‘I don’t need your ideas. Do what I tell you for twenty years and then we’ll talk about your ideas.'”
In their time together (Cormier worked part-time during the academic year and full-time for two summers), they built gardens with Japanese elements throughout Maine and New England. Cormier, then living next door to the Asian Studies house, began to look at the small rectangle of grass behind the apartment.
He proposed to his teachers that he design and build a new garden as part of a senior honors project. But without a big budget (he only had $1,500), he couldn’t afford much. The Bowdoin gardeners took pity on him and gave him their spare bushes. So he planted rhododendrons and blueberry bushes. He removed patches of moss from the garden behind the president’s house.
The rest of the plants came with dry aid. “Masa was like the secret sauce and he connected me with the materials. I would say to a person in a daycare, ‘Hey, give this kid a good treat, you know he’s doing a good thing.'”
The garden took three months to build, from May to August, in 1995. It has a front with a ribbon of gravel, symbolizing a river. A path of steps leads up to and over a small bridge. The vertical rocks placed in the garden look like a steep mountain range in miniature.
“One of the classic motifs in Japanese gardens is karesansui, which means dry landscape or garden without water,” Cormier said. However, in karesansui the element of water is fundamental – after all, it is the source of life in the garden and, indeed, of all life – and so it is evoked by the use of sand or pebbles. The vertical stones of Cormier’s garden represent a waterfall.
Cormier said his inspiration for the garden was the coast of Maine. “I tried to recreate the sense of invigorating movement that I felt in places like Giant’s Stairs on Bailey’s Island. The waves, the movement of the tides and the jagged cliffs are expressed by gravel, rocks and moss.” he said.
He started thinking about working on a larger scale and in public spaces after meeting a famous landscape architect in Bowdoin. During his senior year, Cormier served on a committee that helped the university establish a master plan for the campus, including new landscaping. “I was really doing it just so I could say, ‘Please don’t put anything in my little place where I want to do this garden!'” he admitted.
In the process, however, he met the designer Bowdoin eventually hired, Carol Johnson, who inspired him to study landscape architecture at Harvard University.
“I realized the limitations of a Japanese gardening practice in the US, where you would basically just work in people’s backyards,” Cormier said. “And at the same time, as my eyes were opened to all those space-making principles, I learned that they could be applied in public settings and for much larger audiences and even more impact on the world.”