A monk asked Joshu why Bodhidharma came to China.
Joshu said: "An oak tree in the garden."
Mumon's comment: If one sees Joshu's answer clearly, there is no Shakyamuni Buddha before him and no future Buddha after him.
Words cannot describe everything.
The heart's message cannot be delivered in words.
If one receives words literally, he will be lost,
If he tries to explain with words, he will not attain enlightenment in this life.
After I arranged Ikebana for my sister’s wedding in the spring, my roommates and dearest friends Zac and Monica asked me to do about 28 table centerpiece arrangements for the reception after their wedding. With some added confidence and stress-reducing-techniques after my last endeavor at this scale, I gladly accepted.
Zac Catanzaro is an entrepreneur and musician and producer who most notably does many things for the band Walker Lukens And The Sidearms. If you’ve not yet heard about their Song Confessional project, check it out. Monica Marcano is a coffee connoisseur, witchy lady, and house plant guru. I honestly couldn’t imagine a more deserving pair of human beings to whom I’d give a gift like this - they’re both creative, loving, generous, kind, and (best of all) sassy. It’s a joy to know them and a privilege to call them my closest friends.
If you’ve not yet read about my arrangements for my sister’s wedding, you should definitely read that before you dive in any further here; it provides very useful context for what you’re about to get into.
For those who don’t know, I've been a practitioner of Ikebana (生け花, "living flowers") for several years now. It's a Japanese art form of contemplative floral arrangement that has become one of my favorite art forms to practice. It is also known as Kadō (華道, "way of flowers") and is considered one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement.
The form has been practiced for more than 600 years. It has evolved during this long period from what were originally Buddhist offerings that were placed on the altar of temples into a developed art form free of its religious origins that are displayed in the home. Practitioners use flowers, branches, and leaves to create living pieces of art. There are many schools of Ikebana, but I have been taught in the Sogetsu School and have studied under artists who venture into the unknown territory of free form arranging and personally have been moving into the more abstract expressionist practices with respectful nods toward the old styles.
Ikebana is an art form that is deeply meditative. Creating an arrangement is typically done in silence to allow the artist to observe and meditate on the beauty of nature so that insight into the infinite and fundamentally sound nature of existence can arise. Seasoned designers realize not only the importance of silence, but also the importance of space, which is not always meant to be filled, but created and preserved through the arrangements. This ties into other principles of Ikebana including minimalism, shape and line, form, humanity, aesthetics, and balance.
It is also imbued with “hidden” meaning. Meaning has been attributed to flowers for thousands of years across the planet, but particularly in Japan. The concept of hanakotoba (花言葉) is the Japanese form of the language of flowers. It is sometimes called floriography, and is a kind of cryptological communication through flowers themselves. While I have been practicing Ikebana for a number of years, I have only just begun my education of hanakotoba. In the work I did for this wedding, I explored the aspects of hanakotoba to the degree I understand it within the relationship between the viewer and the arrangement. In hanakotoba, the emotional connection and poetic communication in flowers occurs directly between the recipient or viewer without needing the use of words.
To become a masterful artist that can express hanakotoba with elegance (something I have not yet fully accomplished) requires a patient commitment to the art and discipline to see it through. The discipline cultivated when arranging flowers in this way creates a situation wherein the artist may experience a deep level of connectivity to the land, seasons, and plants. This art form opens up the possibility of a more nuanced understanding of context of the surrounding ecology and forces the artist to engage with an intense degree of focus and presence. The physicality of arranging forces the artist to open up to the fundamental concepts of space, harmony, and asymmetry.
In order to practice Ikebana deeply, an artist needs to see clearly - to perceive the full picture of context, texture, color, and form. The fundamental obstacle to clear perception is the anxiety of our narratives, the bullshit stories we tell ourselves that clutter our minds. When we convince ourselves that any part of the world is fixed and solid, we lose the ability to really relate with ourselves or to the world outside ourselves. I like to ascribe that anxiety the quality and feeling of heat. When anxiety arises in any moment, it feels like entering a hot and stuffy room where it’s easy to feel claustrophobic without fresh air. That claustrophobia leads us to contract our sense perceptions. We can’t smell, we can’t taste, we can’t hear, we can’t feel. Our sense perceptions are numbed, which is a fundamental obstacle to creating a work of art that expresses genuineness and elegance.
Some cling to neurotic artistic fury, as though they could not become good or honest artists without it. I understand the tortured artist perspective to a degree, but it really lacks openness. It cuts off potentiality and limits the artist’s work to a brand of aching and pain rather than a more robust expression of our human nature. It’s a view of art opposite to a sense of peace and coolness, which our insane world could use more of. It undermines the possibility of intrinsic ordinary beauty where even the mundane becomes powerful and visceral.
Fundamentally, Ikebana is the expression of the kind of beauty that is unconditional and doesn’t require forcefulness or artificial conditions. From that unconditional beauty, which is peaceful and cool, arises the possibility of relaxing, and thereby perceiving the phenomenal world and one’s own senses properly. Ikebana is, at its core, a form of art that allows the artist to get out of the way of the world around us and simply expressing what is. That is hanakotoba, my aspiration for these arrangements.
Given this premise, the work ahead of me would be framed by two simple questions:
How do flowers offer freshness, a sense of cool and spaciousness?
How do I tell a real story without words?
A New But Familiar Context
Much like the approach I took on with my sister’s wedding, the notion of using what the land could provide was again attractive to me. It’s such a unique opportunity in time and space to take what the land can offer in that season, in that moment, and to create a temporary work of art from those materials. Ikebana is brilliant in that way. This time the context wouldn’t be the Texas High Plains, but right in the heart of the river woven hills of Central Texas.
The Texas Hill Country is located in the Edwards Plateau at the crossroads of West Texas, Central Texas, and South Texas. Given its location, climate, terrain, and vegetation, the Hill Country can be considered the border between the American Southwest and Southeast. Obviously I wanted to dig into the native vegetation of the region for the foraging efforts that would these arrangements to life. Lucky for me the region is rich with various yucca, prickly pear cactus, desert spoon, and wildflowers, while the predominant trees in the region are ashe juniper, yaupon holly, Texas live oak, and of course, the infamous and conflicting epiphyte ball moss that grows from their brilliant spindly branches. There would no doubt be a rich palette of colors and textures to work with. And these materials have a sense of depth and story.
In Pre-European America, what we now call the Texas Hill Country was more or less a grassland savannah formed largely by grazing habits of bison and antelope (not dissimilar from the grassland plains whence I come). The land supported a rich diversity of forbs and grasses, while the ashe juniper was restricted to overgrazed areas along rivers and streams where the cloven animals would gather for water, and in areas of shallow soils and steep canyons where wild fires did not occur frequently. You might be surprised to know that the white-tailed deer that are so overpopulated here now were rarely found in the grasslands back in those days. But enter the Europeans (of course, right?).
With European settlement came fences, cows, sheep, goats, and controlled fire practices. Livestock were continuously grazed in fenced pastures which disrupted the natural movement patterns of grazing animals. The plants weren’t able to recover from new heavy grazing patterns. By the turn of the 20th century, continuous overgrazing and control of fire had taken its toll and changed the fundamental quality of the landscape as it began to change from a grassland to the brushland we know today. Many of the woody brush species were readily grazed by sheep, goats, cattle, and an increasing regional wild deer herd. Domesticated cloven animals have selective eating habits, rapidly consuming the more desirable plants first and leave the less desirable plants for last.
By the 1940's, many of the good quality plant species were highly depleted and not readily found on most ranges. Our precious Hill Country was completely dominated by poor quality browse, forb, and grass plants. Ashe juniper (commonly called cedar by allergy sufferers) is a highly undesirable forage plant, avoided by both domestic livestock and wild deer. In much of the Hill Country, cedar became the dominant plant species, causing a once diverse and healthy landscape to become a virtual "cedar break" with very little plant diversity or vigor. All would seem lost were it not for the mighty Live Oaks’ perseverance and in such a Texan has a way, these trees have remained.
Now the economic activity in the Texas Hill Country is one of the fastest growing in the country. And as population explodes alongside this growth, the region is faced with its own critical requirement to balance that growth with the preservation of precious natural resources like water, the remaining ecological systems, and the culture of preservation that have long supported life here. The consequences of unbridled sprawl are irrevocable. If rainwater can’t find its way into the aquifers and springs, our vital drinking water supplies are endangered. Land fragmentation imperils the contiguous native habitat that our iconic Texas wildlife needs to survive. Unchecked expansion can also limit our access to the beautiful public lands which are so important to our recreational well being. This narrative is what makes Zac and Monica’s choice of venue such a compelling context in which to frame the work of arranging flowers that are meant to tell a story of landscape and movement.
The Harper Ranch in Bulverde, TX is a boot strap tract, built by people who started with little and truly worked the land in the tradition of Texas ranches to create an environment focused on conservation. These days it’s an active horse and exotic species ranch, as has been the trend in the Hill Country the last decade or so, featuring animals from the Middle East and the African plains. It’s a beautiful hill country parcel full of beauty, both in flora and fauna. Without places like this, the Texas Hill country would look like a ubiquitous, never-ending suburb. And wouldn’t you know it - it’s absolutely covered in brilliant Live Oak trees. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to do this work.
The ranch owner worked with and was a dear friend to the late Richard Catanzaro, Zac’s father, back when they were building the famous and beloved HEB grocery company into the Texan empire we know it as today. I came to learn that the land was the very first place Zac had come to “experience” Texas when their family was considering a move from New Jersey. Mr. Harper was endeavoring to convince the Catanzaros to set up camp in Texas and become part of the HEB family. As they toured the ranch, Zac (who was 9 years old at the time) was given permission to drive one of the golf carts in a virtually empty pasture save one single oak tree in the distance. Much to his mother’s chagrin, he took off with big eyes and a wide smile and everything seemed to be fine until he somehow managed to send that cart sailing directly into the lone tree, crashing and terrifying everyone for a moment. Of course, they all laughed it off.
As I surveyed the space where the wedding would be held, beneath a beautiful grove of live oak and red oak trees, contemplating this story of young Zac that Mrs. Harper told the night before the wedding, it became very apparent that Live Oak would be the perfect and obvious central theme for all the flower arrangements. Live Oaks were Zac’s first experience of Texas. Live Oaks would gently canopy the wedding guests as Monica’s father presented her to Zac to be married. Live Oaks were the historic heart of this land and would become the heart of the story these flower arrangements would tell.
Commonly known as escarpment Live Oak or Plateau Live Oak, Quercus fusiformis is an evergreen oak tree that is emblematic of the Texas Hill Country. Its native range includes the Quartz Mountains and Wichita Mountains in southwestern Oklahoma (where my grandfather grew up and where he taught me the ways of working the land), through the Texas Hill Country (where I migrated from the High Plains and have made my home my entire adult life), to the Mexican states of Coahuila, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo León (where I have spent time enjoying the many offerings of the Mexican desert). It is a magnificent and stately tree with unparalleled longevity, which has endeared it to generations of hill country dwellers.
As I explored the metaphor of the Live Oak, I was struck by how well it represented Zac and Monica’s relationship. These trees have been considered symbols of strength for centuries and if you’ve spent any time around these trees, it’s quite apparent why. They are hearty, strong, and firmly rooted, often growing for hundreds of years. What’s so remarkable about such a lifespan is that they begin as a tiny acorn in a very thin layer of soil atop limestone bedrock. Their root systems can often far supersede the height of the tree, such growth being triggered by the violent storms that bring with them torrential rains and wind.
Live Oaks are often up against considerable existential threat - heat, drought, flood, malnourished and alkaline soil, idiotic humans, etc. Yet they persist in providing immense shade, as well as supporting an abundance of life in their canopies. Epiphytes, lichens, birds, bees, lizards, squirrels, and even the occasional climbing hill country goat. In fact, when Live Oak branches encounter an obstacle, they do not break or bludgeon their way through, but rather they begin to bend and grow alongside whatever hardship lay in their path. What we consider beautiful and sinuous trunks and branch systems are actually a brilliant stroke of evolutionary luck that has created an iconic tree.
The metaphor was so rich and beautiful. It would be absurd not to use Live Oak as the central theme. They are remarkable and beautiful trees, cherished and beloved for their enduring qualities. Just as they have been steady in holding the land together here in Central Texas, so too would they represent the steadiness and sustaining qualities in Zac and Monica’s marriage as they bend and dance elegantly alongside any obstacles in their collective path.
Monica gave me some wonderful and interesting ideas to explore, in both the materials with which I would be working (many of which she had dried to blend in with the living flowers for a weathered effect) and the containers purchased for the event, which varied in size and shape and color. The palette of colors would be autumnal and the textures diverse and rich.
I began to do some simple design exercises to get acquainted with the themes and forms that might emerge. Ikebana is a practice of trusting your instincts so I took pen to paper to see what would come to life when I imagined what forms could take shape. I knew I had my work cut out for me given how many arrangements needed to be done (it was a big wedding with lots of tables to fill), so the better I could familiarize myself with some ideas beforehand, the more fluid the work of arranging would be. For an extra measure of fun, I did all of these sketches with my left (non-dominant) hand to really lean into the idea of trusting my intuition.
Another design exercise I did was a contemplation of texture and form. One of the most basic principles in the Sogetsu school of Ikebana is the expression of heaven (Shin), earth (Tai), and humanity (Soe) within an arrangement by establishing a hierarchy of the elements themselves in the arrangement. This principle comes from the Chinese tradition and was developed further in Japan, where it has been connected with the tradition of ikebana for centuries. The principle of heaven, earth, and humanity also applies to calligraphy, painting, interior decoration, building a city, designing an airplane or an ocean liner, organizing dishwashing by choosing which dish to wash first, or vacuuming the floor. All of those works of art are included completely in the principle of heaven (Shin), earth (Tai), and humanity (Soe).
To explore how Live Oak might lend itself to the expression of heaven, earth, and humanity, I spent an afternoon about a week before the wedding walking around with a plucked branch. I wanted to hold it, become familiar with it, and let it make an impression. By using our sense of sight and touch in Ikebana, each flower or branch can connect us to something beyond our body. Our existence can’t be without the support of the Earth just as much as we need the open sky, sunlight, and the solar system for our existence. The connection isn’t just symbolic, it is a literal interpretation of how we are interconnected to everything that surrounds us.
It’s difficult to put into words how one internalizes the qualities of a plant. At some level, we all become intimate with the various aspects of our daily life. Farmers know every inch of their fields. Programmers remember lines of code. I came to know this plant. I had a sense for its story and now had the task of communicating with others what I’d experienced through the arrangements.
Arranging Ikebana in the chaos of setting up a wedding requires calm focus, genuine expression, and gentleness. Otherwise, there is no way to work with the universe at all. I felt that I had a tremendous responsibility: the first to myself, to stay gentle and genuine; the second was to do this work for others in the same manner. I worked for the guests so they might experience the spaciousness that the flowers invite us to feel when they’re arranged in Ikebana practice. I think it is very important to realize how powerful all of us are in this way. What we are doing may seem insignificant, but the ways we move in the world have a profound impact on those around us. My job was not just to provide pretty flowers for a wedding, but to create an experiential landscape that tied together the brilliant live oak trees and the elegant scene where guests would eat, drink, and celebrate Zac and Monica’s love for one another.
When we begin to perceive the world with that sense of space, peace, and appreciation for simple and minimalistic beauty, conflict begins to subside and we start to perceive our world clearly and thoroughly. There are no questions, no obstacles, just as the Live Oak experiences no obstacles. In Ikebana practice, the general anxiety of life can subside as the artist’s sense perceptions become tuned to the work at hand. Through this practice of meditation, we can relate with our thoughts, our mind, and our breath and begin to discover the clarity of our sense perceptions and our thinking process. This is where a deep artistic expression occurs in the flowers.
This is the joining of of heaven (Shin), earth (Tai), and humanity (Soe).
When we begin to realize these principles at work, the heat of neurosis is cooled and a more pure insight has space to emerge. Because restfulness exists beyond the neurosis, we can feel confident in our hands’ ability to place flowers and branches where they need to go. Such trust in ourselves comes from realizing that we do not have to sacrifice ourselves to neurosis. And relaxation can happen because such trust has become a part of our existence. Therefore, we feel we can afford to open our eyes and all our sense perceptions fully.
That kind of trust is what held the space for textural Live Oak branches to sit in contrast to the elegance of calla lilies and carnations without pretense. It wasn’t my mind trying to create a situation that wasn’t there - it was simply observing the qualities of the materials in front of me and trusting myself to create without inhibition. Of course the “rules” of traditional Ikebana guided the decision making, but they didn’t create the arrangement. The arrangement was a genuine expression of its own making.
Earth and heaven are not separate from us. The vast, spacious autumn sky opens above us all of the time, just as it did in Bulverde that beautiful day. But still we forget that we ourselves have the ability to turn the door knob in each moment of life to connect to something spacious, beyond our seemingly limited self. In the same way that a Live Oak’s roots connect to their surroundings, far beyond what we see of them.
Whether or not these arrangements communicated this story well, I can’t say. However, it is my great hope that these arrangements touched the hearts of Zac and Monica on the day they committed to one another, giving them even the briefest breath of fresh air in the midst of the hustle and bustle. And it is my great hope that their guests found delight in the forms as they wandered through the nuptial grounds, taking in a new petal, branch, or detail with each passing glance, the effect so subtle that it nearly passed unnoticed.
A huge thanks to Laura Brennand for her creative spirit, helpful eye, and for taking so many of the arrangement photos in this essay while I was diligently arranging in the midst of wedding madness. She is a fellow flower freak and besides being business partners with Monica in their Hoja project, she’s someone you should certainly look to for flower and plant needs in Austin via her project “La Otra Flora”.