Book Review: Spirited Stone, Lessons from Kubota’s Garden

by Anne Liu Kellor


Who cares about gardens and landscape design right now, in a time of widespread grief and despair?

Let me reframe that question.

Who cares about a story of resilience, racism, community, cross-cultural connection, place, and poetry?

We do.

Spirited Stone: Lessons from Kubota’s Garden (Chin Music Press) is a tribute to the legacy of Kubota Garden in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood, as well as a collection of diverse, multiracial voices, including local treasures like writer and UW professor emeritus Charles Johnson, Seattle Civic Poet Anastacia-Renee, and Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna. In a series of photos, essays, and poems divided into four sections (Place, Spirit, Exile, and Growth), this coffee-table book offers a mosaic of angles from which to consider the legacy of a landscape — a legacy that reminds us of the irreplaceable value of nature, of artful public gathering spaces, and of individuals who carry forth with their singular visions. Not only is this collection an example of how the form of a book can be shaped to match its subject matter, but Kubota Garden itself is a testament to how a landscape can reflect the people who inhabit it.

In 1927, Fujitaro Kubota, a Japanese American hotel manager and gardener, purchased the first five-acre parcel that would become Kubota Garden with the help of a “friend”; he was not allowed to purchase the land himself because he was Japanese. Kubota saw the potential in a place where others saw only swampland. He dug a ten-foot trench in order to drain the swamp, and snuck in seeds of pine trees from Japan. By the early 1930s, the garden would grow to encompass 20 acres.

Kubota Garden has influenced Seattle’s communities in ways both visible and invisible. An essay by historian and UW professor emeritus David Streatfield explores how, originally, the garden (as well as other Issei nurseries) supplied plants for many landscape designers in Seattle, including the Olmsted brothers, who designed much of our beloved integrated park system, such as the network of parks that line Lake Washington Boulevard. Another essay by current UW professor Jeffrey Hou emphasizes how Kubota’s garden served as a gathering place for the Japanese American community who were not welcome elsewhere due to racial discrimination. Kubota also welcomed others to gather, without discrimination. Hou writes that the garden was, “A place of survival and livelihood, a place of social gathering and community building, and a place of adaptation and resilience.”

Race — and the U.S. history of racism — plays an important role in honoring the legacy of Kubota Garden, as further detailed in an essay by landscape architect Anna Tamura. Despite the larger white community’s willingness to buy Kubota’s plants and glean from his expertise (he also designed gardens for Seattle University and the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge), in 1942, Kubota was nevertheless sent to a Japanese internment camp (along with 110,000 other West coast Nikkei). Incarcerated for the next three years, Kubota went on to create a garden in the Minidoka Relocation Center, in the desert region of southern Idaho. This garden became a way for the imprisoned Japanese to work with their hands and the earth; to move their bodies and relieve stress; to hold onto their culture; and to come together and make something beautiful, even in the face of despair. Today, the Minidoka garden is preserved as a part of a larger pilgrimage site, for those who travel to witness and remember the racist injustices that the American government was — and is — capable of instituting in the name of “public safety.”

When Kubota was released from the internment camp and returned to his garden in 1945, he first cried at its neglect accumulated during its three years spent fallow, as evoked by writer Jamie Ford. Then, Kubota set to work, restoring the plants and paths, and eventually incorporating a “mountain” and waterfall and many large stones into its landscape — stones being a traditional Japanese design element that many in America were not familiar with then, explored in an essay by Kentaro Kojima. Today, some of the most unique parts of the garden (“dancing pines” and “contorted filberts”) are a result of the neglect Kubota once mourned, as the trees took the shape of the plants left untended for three years in the nursery.

Kubota Garden is a lesson in resilience and hybridity. Not only did it survive beyond Kubota’s life in human form — first under the care of his son, Tom Kubota, and later when it became a public park, purchased by Seattle Parks and Recreation in 1987 — but it also has continued to exist as a beloved public gathering space for one of Seattle’s few diverse neighborhoods, as detailed in Alex Gallo-Brown’s essay on Rainier Beach, in which a rich mosaic of multilingual, first-, second-, and third-generation Black, Asian, Latinx, mixed race, and white populations coexist; in a city that is otherwise largely segregated and white.

Indeed, the people who find refuge in Kubota Garden are diverse in the same way that Kubota Garden’s plant life forms are diverse. Fujitaro Kubota created a garden that drew from traditional Japanese garden aesthetics and design — Japanese maples, azaleas, hydrangeas, ponds, and curved arch bridges — but he also allowed those plants and trees, shapes and forms, to live alongside the native plants and trees found in nearly every Northwest backyard: western red cedar, Douglas fir, and native rhododendrons. In this sense, the garden evokes both a natural, wild beauty and the attentive poetry of a landscaped, human hand.

I confess, at first glance it sounded a little boring: a book about a garden. But then I saw the wealth of writers whose work appears in it (including a fold-out historical timeline by Mayumi Tsutakawa, and poems by Shin Yu Pai, Shankar Narayan, Elizabeth Austen, and more), and I was taken by its poetry, historical richness, and form. Reading this tribute, I was reminded of the beauty that human beings spill forth from their lives, and the importance of honoring and preserving public spaces that offer a secular, yet spiritual, refuge in our midst.

A balm for any time.

A balm for this time, now.


Kubota Garden is open every day of the year from sunrise to 9:30 p.m.

Kubota Garden
9817 55th Ave S.
Seattle, WA 98118
kubotagarden.org/


Born and raised in Seattle, Anne Liu Kellor is a multiracial Chinese American writer, editor, coach, mother, and teacher at the Hugo House. Her essays have appeared in publications such as Longreads, The Seventh Wave, Witness, The New England Review, Fourth Genre, and The International Examiner. Her memoir, Heart Radical: A Search for Love, Language, and Belonging, was selected by Cheryl Strayed as the first-runner-up in Kore Press’s 2018 contest and is forthcoming in 2021 from She Writes Press. To learn more, visit: anneliukellor.com.

Featured image by Sharon Ho Chang.