There's a carving of a deer on the Japanese stone temple lantern that stands in the new zen garden at the University of Mary Washington.

When the garden's designers, Bob Chilton and Todd Stewart of Gardens Unlimited in Caroline County, arrived to work on the space on a recent Tuesday, they spied a doe grazing in the tall grasses next to the gardens.

"It was a sign," Stewart said.

The garden, which Stewart and Chilton named "Tai-yo-chan"—Japanese for "Little Sun"—occupies a shady spot behind Trinkle Hall that was formerly a neglected patch of grass known for drainage problems. 

Daniel Hirschberg, assistant professor of religion, said the garden, which will have its official opening Saturday, had been a dream of professors in the university's Leidecker Center for Asian Studies for years prior to his arrival in 2015. 

"I thought it was a great idea," Hirschberg said. "And now three years later, after many, many contacts and negotiations and especially the good fortune of meeting Bob Chilton and Todd Stewart, we're finally able to build this here."

The garden is made up of several smaller garden "rooms." The main focus is a rock garden anchored by three enormous boulders—two weighing a whopping four tons and one a mere two tons—which represent heaven, earth and humankind. They are surrounded by an expanse of white crushed gravel that will be raked in the characteristic style of a Japanese garden. 

Stewart said the boulders came from the mountains of Tennessee and have been in the Gardens Unlimited collection for a long time. 

"I've been looking at them for years and was hoping to get a project to use them for," he said. "We needed something impressive for the space."

Stewart said it was important not to scratch or chip the boulders while they were being positioned.

"It took thousands of years for them to get this natural façade," he said. "You need a natural shape and coloring of the rock and everything living on it, lichens and moss—you don't want to kill any of that."

The main representation of a Japanese rock garden is water and the gravel is raked to evoke ripples in the water.

"It's like a pond, if you throw a pebble in it, it makes ripples," Stewart said. "The ripples represent us, the effect we have on society, our families, the universe. Those effects can be positive or negative."

Another "room" is the Tea Garden, which lies in front of a bamboo screen Stewart and Chilton erected to shield the air-conditioning unit from view. 

"The bamboo fence is to hide the AC, but it is representing a Japanese tea house," Stewart said. "So we'll have little tea tables around it."

This area is covered by low-growing dark green Mondo grass, bright golden sweet flag, azalea bushes and Japanese maple trees. Stepping stones placed at angles cross the living carpet.

The angled path is another traditional feature of Japanese gardens.

"Each time you stop to turn, you have a new view of the garden, almost like looking at different paintings of it," Stewart said. "And you have to be mindful of your steps."

The Japanese also believe that negative spirits cannot follow you down a crooked path, he said.

Another room in the garden features two ceremonial bells that a friend of Stewart and Chilton crafted out of a fire extinguisher and an oxygen tank.

"So we've got fire and air represented," Stewart said. 

UMW sculpture students, under the guidance of woodworker Larry Hinkle of Hinkle Ukeleles, constructed the bell structure out of reclaimed wood. 

Stewart and Chilton added beach pebbles throughout the garden to improve drainage and constructed a dry creek bed close to the foundation of Trinkle Hall, where the downward slope of the land towards the building had resulted in four feet of erosion.

Hirschberg also directs the contemplative studies program at UMW, which is now offered as a minor. Maintenance of the garden will be the responsibility of students in the program and it will be a place for them to apply what they are learning—intentional focus, concentration, development of empathy, and reduction of self-critique and anxiety.

"We see the gardens as a physical expression and resource for those values," he said. "And likewise as a space that can support contemplative experience."

Hirschberg also sees the garden—which was funded by the Leidecker Center, the department of classics, religion and philosophy, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and private donors—as promoting multiculturalism on campus. 

And it will be open for all students and community members to enjoy.

"I hope it can bring peace and tranquility," Stewart said. "Students come here and they are suffering from financial burdens and academic burdens and being away from family. They can come here and let go. We all need some outlet.

"I hope each person who comes here sees something a little different," he continued. "It's open to interpretation, like clouds."

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Adele Uphaus-Conner: 540/735-1973