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Sense of Place

The North Country Japanese Garden at St. Lawrence University

A place for reflection and learning
University Business, Nov 2009

The space includes a dry stream and moss garden, as well as a traditional dry landscape garden and a "strolling garden."

A COLLABORATION BETWEEN TWO PROFESSORS at St. Lawrence University (N.Y.) brought students to visit Zen gardens in Japan. What they brought home was ideas for a garden blending nature, art, and East Asian and local aesthetics.

? FUNCTION: The North Country Japanese Garden serves as a place of reflection for the campus and the broader community, and as an outdoor classroom.

? CHALLENGES: An Asian studies grant supported the trip and a class taught by Catherine Shrady from the geology department and Mark MacWilliams from religious studies. “We picked students from across the disciplines, and each student focused on a particular aspect of the gardens,” notes Shrady. The final assignment: Design a Japanese garden and help win university approval to build it. They suggested “a lovely, large but completely neglected and unused courtyard” for the garden, she says. With the humanities and arts on one side of campus and the sciences on the other, the goal was to join the two academic areas.

Grants and donations took care of the funding. Then the project team focused on logistics. The big question: How to remove a sculpture, rocks, and fill from an inaccessible courtyard and then bring in needed materials?including two rocks in excess of five tons and beyond the capacity of existing equipment? Courtyard access was limited to an archway with a set of stairs, explains Grounds Manager Marcus Sherburne. “We thought about using a crane and lifting the rocks over the building.” But the potential building damage nixed that idea. Also, the bulk of the work had to be done in about six weeks.

? SOLUTION: The project team cut out hand railings, built ramps over the stairs, and paired up equipment to get everything in place. That meant getting the rocks angled precisely right, says Sherburne, to match plans and ensure that shadows fell properly within the space. Although the garden design contains traditional Japanese symbolism, it is also symbolic of elements found in upstate New York, Shrady says. Besides being “a place of beauty and quiet contemplation,” she adds, the space will be used for classes and labs and available for events such as poetry readings.

Sherburne says the project offered a “golden opportunity” to improve an area in need of attention. The grounds crew, who will sometimes joke about taking reflection breaks in the garden, keep the area mulched and mowed (electric equipment prevents excessive noise). Volunteers from across campus also do their part to maintain the space, from weeding to cleaning out any debris. Sherburne, who visits regularly as part of his campus rounds, says the garden fits its spot well. “It just seems like it’s been there for 20 years.”

? COST: $54,000

? TIMELINE: Opened fall 2008, completed and dedicated May 2009


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