Hideko’s Stone

August 8, 2008

Base by Mas Nakajima - 2008; W 7" x D 6" x H 5"; Klamath river stone on walnut base

Hideko Metaxas found this stone many years ago on the Klamath River. As often seems to be the case with really good suiseki, it was lying right-side-up on the surface, seemingly waiting to be discovered.  Hideko says about this stone

When I first found this stone, I knew it was extraordinary.  It gave me the feeling of times long past. The restrained and subtle color, with its deep, rusty, weathered, patina gives it a calm, consoling feeling.   The gentle, quiet, shape is tender and comforting. The wrinkles and furrows that run through the middle of the stone suggest that something happened a long time ago, but that everything is now quiet.

The size is small enough to hold in my palms and hear and feel what the stone is trying to tell me – or maybe what I want to hear from the stone. When I hold it in my hands I feel at one with the universe and the magical healing power of the stone embraces my soul.

Mas right away fell in love with this stone when he saw it at Hideko’s house.  He said:

This is not the type of stone that will stand out in a suiseki contest, but even so it caught my eye immediately.  The beauty of its depth, modesty and simplicity all combine to create a deep wabi-sabi   feeling.  It reminded me of a special gift I received from our suiseki teacher, Mr. Hirotsu.

About 25 years ago, not Keiseki Hirotsu in 1984; 1903-1987; Founder and first instructor of Kashu Suiseki Kai, first instructor of San Francisco Suiseki Kailong before  he passed away, he gave me a little suiseki, which he loved. At that time   I didn’t quite understand what he was trying to show me with this gift. For Mr. Hirotsu suiseki were the way into the world of Zen, but I could not yet follow along with him.

One way to appreciate stones is through the natural landscapes and figures defined in traditional suiseki.  Another way is to go beyond this into the realm of fine art.  However, just as most of the universe is “dark matter”, hidden from our view, behind these visual forms is a very personal, emotional and spiritual world of suiseki.  After many years had passed I realized that Hirotsu-sensei was trying to lead me to this Zen world with his valuable gift.

Hideko says there are many ways to appreciate suiseki.  She tells about the time when Nancy Eaton, the editor of the Golden Statements bonsai magazine, was publishing an article about Mr. Hirotsu and his suiseki.  Nancy asked Hirotsu-sensei if he had any advice for suiseki admirers; he said calmly, with a gentle smile, ”just enjoy it”.

Mas Nakajima collection, Suiseki by Keiseki Hirotsu; W 4 1/2" x D 3 1/2" x H 4"; Eel River stone on painted pine base

Gift from Hirotsu-sensei

Click on any picture to see the photo gallery for this article.

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The Oldest Trees on Earth

July 27, 2008

Bristlecone Pine; Inyo National Forest, 11,000 feet, White Mountains, California

The oldest living tree currently known is a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine growing in the White Mountains of eastern California.  This tree, which is over 4800 years old, was born at the dawn of human civilization and is still alive and vigorous today.  Mas and I went to visit the bristlecone pines, which grow between 9,000 and 11,500 feet (2743 m – 3505 m)  in the high mountains of eastern California, Nevada, and Utah.

What allows these amazing trees to live so long?  Of course, there is no single answer,  but a big factor is simply that bristlecone pines can thrive in conditions that would kill any other tree.

The bristlecones grow widely separated from each other, like a display of natural bonsai art, accented by small alpine plants. Because they grow in rocky, alkaline soil in a dry, cold  climate with an extremely short growing season,  they have no competition from other trees and shrubs for the little available water, and are also isolated from insects, fungus, and fire.

They can survive extensive damage to one  part of the tree.  Over time many parts of the tree will die – the soil slowly erodes away killing a root, lightning strikes the top, the climate warms allowing insects to attack a branch.   Each injury shows  itself in arresting visual patterns as the live veins twist around the dead wood.

The trees that grow the most slowly, in the harshest environments, are also the oldest.  The bristlecone’s wood is full of pitch, which protects it from insects and fungus.  The more slowly they grow the denser their wood is and the tougher they are. Even after death the tree will remain standing in the ground for thousands of years.

We returned home with deep admiration for these magnificent trees and their ability to survive thousands of years in such harsh conditions.  The bristlecone pines, in their lonely endurance and dignity, teach us the deep meaning of the art of bonsai and the eternal dance of life and death.


Click this picture for more photographs of the bristlecone pines and landscapes and wildflowers of the White Mountains.

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The Biggest Trees on Earth

July 22, 2008

California is full of incredible sights that attract visitors from around the world, and among them are the tallest, the biggest, and the oldest trees on earth.  The tallest trees in the world are the Redwoods, The General Sherman Tree - the biggest tree on earthwhich grow in the coastal mountains from Big Sur north.  The biggest trees however are the Giant Sequoia that live on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, and the oldest trees are the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines that are found in the high country of eastern California.

Mas and I took a small trip earlier this month to visit the sequoia and the bristlecone pines.  We started with the big trees of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks  in the central Sierra, south of Yosemite.  These parks encompass an incredibly diverse set of environments, ranging from the dry foothills at 1,700 ft (518 m)  to the top of Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet (4421 m).  The sequoia grow between about 5000 and 7500 feet (1524 – 2286 m).

If a sequoia is lucky enough to find itself in a good spot, it can live for a very long time and reach an enormous size. The largest single-trunk tree on earth is the General Sherman tree, in the Giant Forest grove of Sequoia National Park.  It is over 2000 years old, 275 feet tall (84 m),  and has the biggest trunk by volume of any tree in the world. Such a giant sequoia needs solid, undisturbed, land that can support its weight for many centuries.  Its foliage needs plenty of sunlight in order to create energy for the tree’s growth, and its roots need good, mineral-rich soil with sufficient moisture. As is often said about real estate – it’s all about “location, location, location”.

Fire is the key to the sequoia’s ability to live long and prosper.  The forests where the sequoia grow will naturally burn every 10 years or so.  This adds minerals to the soil, and clears out all of the undergrowth and small trees that would otherwise compete with the sequoia for moisture and sunlight. The heat from a forest fire opens the sequoia cones, which then drop the seeds to the freshly prepared soil. The young seedlings will grow quickly in this rich environment, pushing their heads toward the sun and sending out wide, shallow roots to gather moisture from the soil. They will be well-established by the time the rest of the forest grows back.

As the tree matures it develops a beautiful cinnamon-colored bark.   The bark, which is extremely thick, will provide insulation and protection from insects, disease, fire, and cold.  Lightning may strike and burn through the bark and even the heartwood, but as long as a thin “lifeline” of the inner bark and cambium layer remains, transporting water and nutrients between roots and foliage, the tree will continue to live. 

After about 1500 years or so the tree will enter old age and become what is called a “monarch”.   These are the massive trees that dominate the groves and cause visitors to lower their voices as they enter the mysterious, silent world.

Eventually, as with all living things, the tree will die. Soil erosion and accumulated damage from fire, insects and disease will damage the shallow roots, the tree will start to lean, and one day a storm will finally push it to the ground.  The heartwood of the giant sequoia is imbued with tannin, which gives it the characteristic “redwood” color and protects it from insects and fungus.  It will take many centuries for the wood to slowly decompose.

Walking among these ancient trees, we felt an upwelling of wordless joy. The sequoia forests have a quiet, peaceful atmosphere, with the shaded undergrowth, the flowering dogwoods, the pine, hemlock, and fir – and standing over them, protecting, shading, and nurturing, are the old monarchs with their gentle, powerful, dignity. Despite tremendous age and the “ravages of time”, the giant sequoia retain their vigor and life force to the end.

Clicking on any photo will take you to a gallery of more pictures.  Our next article will be about the oldest trees on earth, the Bristlecone Pines.

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Found Object

June 26, 2008

Found Object, June 2008; W 21″ x D 12″ x H 5″; Stone, Walnut with stain

This is a stone we found by searching through a big bin in the yard of a rock shop near Eureka.   We found several tamari (water pool stones) with good color and shape. Mas originally planned to finish this stone in a very simple suiseki style with a wooden daiza.  One side shows beautiful color, and he chose it as the front.  About a year ago he made a rough model for the base, but had not completed the woodwork.


Original Front

Original Back

Then, a few weeks ago, a friend told us about a mill up in Santa Rosa that sells pieces of hardwood as scrap.  When we went there we discovered a mountain of solid walnut slabs. Searching through the pile was like stone-collecting on the river – from among the thousands of pieces we selected a few.

After we got home Mas was looking at the smallest slab and thought it was so interesting.  While he had it up on the table to study he remembered this stone, and thought that maybe they might fit together.

Mas tried different orientations and locations for the stone, looking for the best combination.  He tried turning the stone around and using the less colorful back as the new front, and found that the rough, subdued, appearance of the stone harmonized with the wabi-sabi feeling of the wood.  In this orientation, the movement and lines of the stone and slab echo each other, creating a unified composition.   I find it quite remarkable – a rock found in a bin and a piece of wood found on a scrap heap seem to fit together as if intended.

Mas did very little work on the wood.  He made a shallow seat for the stone, just deep enough to hold it upright, removed the bark at the front and slightly carved the edge of the slab.  He finished the piece by applying a light stain and flat varnish to bring out and preserve the natural wood color.  In this way, Mas tried to show the simplicity and purity of the wood and stone.

Stone is the beauty of the earth and wood represents life and death.  Combined they create endless possibilities for art.  - Mas Nakajima


Walnut Mountain, May 2008

Click on this photo for pictures of the development of this piece.

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Goshiki Numa

June 12, 2008

“Goshiki numa ” (五式沼 Five color pond) – 2007; W 5″ x D 4″ x H 3 1/2″; stone and black walnut

One day on the way home from a Klamath River stone-collecting trip we stopped near Eureka to poke around in a rock shop. Out in the yard they had a bin of these rocks for sale by the pound. They aren’t typical suiseki – being rather colorful and decorative – but they were so interesting and also inexpensive.  We spent quite a bit of time searching through the pile and selected a few to bring home. The bright colors in this one calmed down after a few months outdoors, so Mas made a simple base and we brought it inside to enjoy.

Last October we visited Yamagata, Japan. We had never thought to go there – it’s not a major tourist destination – but when we mentioned  to our friend Hideko Metaxas that we were going to Tōhoku (the northern part of the main island) she insisted that we visit her sister’s family in her home town of Yamagata.  As everyone knows, it is often exciting to get off of the major tourist route, and this trip turned out to be no exception. The visit to Yamagata was one of of the highlights of our Japan trip, and we are so grateful to Hideko-san and the Iwata family for making these arrangements.

The Iwata family’s hospitality is a memory we will cherish. During our two days they took us sightseeing all around the area. Spending the night at their house was like being at a first-class ryokan.  The sight-seeing tour included the Yamagata castle with its 400 year old cherry trees, the ancient Mountain Temple (Yamadera), the 350-year old Maple Garden and Tea House a short walk from their house, and the impressive Mount Zao, which is one of Japan’s most active volcanoes.

Okama, the crater lake near the top of Mt. Zao, is also known as the Five Color Pond (Goshiki numa 五色沼) because of the way it changes color from day to day.  When we returned home Mas noticed how our colorful little rock-shop stone evokes this image.  Whenever we look at this suiseki we remember our wonderful visit to Yamagata and our deep appreciation to the Iwata family.


Autumn in Yamagata
click to view gallery
2008 06 10 006-smart fix edited cropped
Suiseki display – Goshiki Numa
click to view gallery

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The Cave

June 5, 2008

“The Cave” – 2008; W 18″ x D 10 ” x H 8 1/2″; Eel River stone and ash wood with stain

Mas collected this is stone from the Eel River.  The finished suiseki gives the image of a beautiful snow-covered distant peak with a deep, mysterious, cave underneath.

Mas spent a lot of time studying this stone to learn how to appreciate it as a suiseki, and in this article I want to share his  artistic process.  The main problem with the stone is the heavy left-hand side, which makes the stone very unbalanced.

Clicking on this picture will take you to a photo gallery that goes with this article.  I’ve put some detailed information in the captions for each photo.

The first set of pictures (1-7) show various possibilities for how to position the stone.  One solution is to cut the stone (picture 6).  This solves the imbalance by removing the left side, and would make a rather nice, simple toyama ishi (遠山石 or distant mountain stone).

As readers know, Mas sometimes will cut a stone when he feels it is artistically necessary, but in this case he did not want to. This meant that he had to find a way to handle the left side imbalance.  Mas said: “I know I am crazy and it doesn’t make sense, but I love this part as much as the beautiful snow mountain. The huge unbalance is so unique! Because of that reason, I would rather take a chance and try to create the art.

One option was to finish this as “suiseki art” similar to Looking Forward.  But the combination of the snow mountain overhanging the wide board didn’t seem to harmonize.

Alternatively, he could just simply make a daiza by filling up the space under the stone.  But this would result in a big wood wall in the front – sort of repeating the problem I discussed in The Struggle.

He wanted to change what seems like a negative into a positive. It is not unlike human life – we all have weaknesses of various kinds that aren’t going to go away.  We have to live with and work with these aspects of ourselves and others.

Once he has decided on his approach, he makes some sketches of the design, and then renders this design into a plaster model (Pictures 8 and 9).  Once he is satisfied with the design, Mas completes and refines the daiza in wood (Pictures 10 and 11).

The finished piece is shown from different angles in pictures 12-15. In this suiseki Mas tried to balance the weight of the stone with the emptiness of the cave.  He said “Dark, empty, space creates a mysterious feeling and allows people to use their own free imagination.

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Carmel Trip

May 20, 2008

Golden State; Waves at sunset north of Santa Cruz; May 2008

Mas and I drove down to Carmel for a night to visit our friends Phil and Debby. On our first day, they took us to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Debby used to be a docent there so she was our personal tour guide.

Many aquariums have a variety of fish tanks that show marine life from all over the world. The Monterey Bay Aquarium concentrates on the life local to the Bay. It is flushed daily with new water which brings with it the plankton from the bay. The exhibits are filled with small animals, such as anemones, that have seeded themselves from the outside.

The displays and tanks are all carefully constructed by someone with a restrained, artistic eye. The jellyfish exhibit stands out in my memory – it is hauntingly beautiful.

The next day we visited a couple of art galleries in Carmel, including the Winfield Gallery. The owner, Chris Winfield, is the older brother of Robin Winfield – one of the gallery artists and my high-school classmate. It was nice to see Robin and Chris, and the gallery was a treat. He represents a large group of artists, including their father, Rodney Winfield, and all three of Chris’ siblings (Robin, David, and Nancy). It also turned out that Debby and Chris had gone to the same high school in St. Louis and knew people in common!

After a lovely outdoor lunch at the Village Corner restaurant, we enjoyed the 17-mile drive along the beautiful Monterey Bay shore. A highlight of our tour was the view of the Walker Residence, designed in the 1940’s by Frank Lloyd Wright. Mrs. Walker asked him to design a small house (she lived alone) that would fit into the landscape and not block anyone else’s views. The house seems like an extension of the land it sits on. After all the grandiose mansions of Pebble Beach, this little house is beautiful in its modesty.

After saying goodbye to our friends, we drove home on Highway 1 along the Pacific Ocean, and stopped to watch the sun go down. We sat on the cliff, all alone in the quiet, and enjoyed the brilliant, golden sunset.

(click here for more pictures)

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