Twenty-seven years ago, when Nate Cormier was a senior in ’95 and in love with Japanese gardens, he decided to build one behind the Asian Studies building for his honor project.
Nowadays, the little patch isn’t tended as well as it used to be by a dedicated group of local gardeners. Still, each May, the rhododendron’s magenta blooms reliably burst open, forming a living border wall with a halo of pollinators. Small green shoots sprout all over the garden soil. The shrubs thicken, forming a protective screen for a contemplative space that contrasts with the surrounding asphalt parking lot.
Standing at the edge of the garden on a warm spring day, Vyjyanthi Selinger, Stanley F. Druckenmiller Associate Professor of Asian Studies, explained why the room is “so meaningful to the Asian Studies community.” The lot is right in front of her office window.
“Whenever we leave our offices, we have this beautiful view. And there’s visual interest everywhere you look. I’m not a gardener, but I’ve learned to appreciate visual diversity,” she said. The Asian studies open house is always held in the garden at the end of the year for students and their family members, she added. “It’s the perfect setting to conclude our farewell for Asian Studies students.”
When the department moves to Kanbar Hall next year, it hopes the college will preserve the garden or recreate it nearby.
Today Cormier works as a landscape architect at the office RIOS in Los Angeles. He has designed gardens for public parks in Denver, Houston, Seattle, Los Angeles and Palm Springs. When contacted to chat about his legacy at Bowdoin, he replied via email: “What a blast from the past!”
While the Bowdoin garden project was the culmination of his undergraduate studies, Cormier’s interest in Japan began while he was growing up as a teenager outside of Madison, Wisconsin. In high school, his school counselor urged him to take a course at the University of Wisconsin.
But when he was finally able to enroll, one of the few remaining courses with vacancies was an introductory course in Japanese and Chinese history. The course piqued his curiosity and he came to Bowdoin in 1991 with the idea that he wanted to be an Asian major and possibly a minor in Economics. (He ended up doing just that.)
In fact, as he was to find out, “You will visit these gardens, and there is an army of stooping old ladies pruning the hand every day. So it’s far from a wilderness, but there’s this tension between what looks wild and somehow man-made.”
After studying Japanese at Bowdoin for two years, he studied abroad in Japan during his junior year. Arriving in the country, he went to the chair of architecture at his university.
“He had a really strong question for me, and I think a lot of liberal arts students struggle with that at some point,” Cormier said. “He asked me, ‘Do you want to study gardens or make gardens?'”
Steeped in science, Cormier had become accustomed to thinking and not acting. But “again, it was one of those gut reactions, and I was like, ‘I want to do it.'” He spent the year studying under gardeners and traveling across the country to visit as many gardens as possible.
When he returned to Bowdoin, a professor introduced him to a Japanese gardener. Masahiko “Masa” Seko. Seko 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 to Seko’s house to ask if he could serve as his apprentice. In his mind he was re-enacting a kind of ancient Buddhist custom in which a young man prostrates himself in front of a monk’s door and asks to learn from him.
but Seko wasn’t interested. Cormier continued to harass him undeterred. Eventually he wore the man down.
Japanese courses, Cormier explained, whether for calligraphy or gardening or some other skill, tend to be very practical, with a clear demarcation between teacher and student. Cormier said he recalled an approach Seko with what he considers a brilliant idea.
Seko hardly 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.'”
During their time together (Cormier worked part-time during the college year and full-time for two summers), they built Japanese-inspired gardens throughout Maine and New England. Cormier, then living next door to the Asian Studies House, began eyeing the small square of lawn behind the department.
He suggested to his professors that they design and build a new garden as part of a graduation project. But without a big budget (he only had $1,500), he couldn’t afford much. The caretakers of Bowdoin took pity on him and gave him their leftover shrubs. So he planted rhododendron and blueberry bushes. He chiseled patches of moss from the back garden of the President’s house.
The rest of the plants came with me Sekos Help. “Masa was like the secret sauce and connected me to the materials. He said to a person in a kindergarten, ‘Hey, give that kid a good deal, you know he’s doing a good thing.’”
The construction of the garden took three months in 1995, from May to August. It is provided with a gravel band that symbolizes a river. A path of stepping stones leads to and over a small bridge. Vertical rocks set into the garden look like a rugged miniature mountain range.
“One of the classic motifs in Japanese gardens is karesansui, meaning an arid landscape or waterless garden,” Cormier said. Nonetheless, the element of water is crucial in Karesansui – it is, after all, the source of the life of the garden and indeed all life – and is therefore evoked through the use of sand or pebbles. The vertical stones in Cormier’s garden represent a waterfall.
Cormier said his inspiration for the garden was the Maine coast. “I tried to recreate the sense of invigorating movement I felt at places like Giant’s Stairs on Bailey’s Island. The pounding of the waves, the movement of the tides and the jagged cliffs are expressed through gravel, rocks and moss,” he said.
He began 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 college finalize a master plan for the campus, including new landscaping. “I really just did it so I could say, ‘Please don’t put anything on my little spot where I want to do this garden!'” he admitted.
It was along the way that 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 garden practice in the US, where you would basically just be working in people’s backyards,” Cormier said. “And at the same time, as my eyes opened to all these principles of spatial design, I learned that they can be applied in public settings and to a much larger audience and to an even greater impact in the world.”