field trip: Lan Su Chinese Garden in winter

winter koi pond reflections, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

Having lived in Portland for over seven years now, I've seen most of the city's handful of paid tourist attractions at least once: OMSI, the Portland Art Museum, the Oregon Historical Society Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Craft, the Oregon Zoo, the Japanese Garden, the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden. Being poor, I mostly visit on the occasional public free days. But I'd never visited the Lan Su Chinese Garden till this week when I learned they were offering free tickets with canned-food donations to the Oregon Food Bank. So I did a little stopover downtown on the way home from work, walked the few blocks to the walled park, and dropped off two cans of evaporated milk, gaining entry from two smiling attendants bundled up for the cold.

(unknown plant), Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

emerging leaf bud, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

mossy pebbled path, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

rose hips against the pond, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

Frankly, I've never felt an affinity to Chinese culture or aesthetics (not to mention its top-down, dissent-silencing politics, which has even been creeping into U.S. academia through Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes), at least as translated by most Chinese-American restaurants, which is how most Americans experience China—though the Chinese do have a way with the wok to produce perfectly crisp-tender vegetables. (And yes, I have visited China, if five days in Hong Kong and Macau during a typhoon in the late 1990s counts.) I don't believe in fortune-tellers, auspicious numbers, eating tiger penises for virility, blessings bestowed by first-born sons, or rooms decked from floor-to-ceiling in garish lucky red and gold. Confucius was far too patriarchal for feminist tastes, influencing various cultural misogynies such as concubinage, foot binding, and the current Chinese gender imbalance—excess young men nicknamed "bare branches"—as a result of female infanticide and sex-selective abortions, as in India. It's also regrettable ecologically that Chinese skies are thick with coal and other toxins in their efforts to modernize, the country (along with India) now hoarding the bulk of the factories of the globalized world. Ironic then that above Portland's Lan Su Chinese Garden on Wednesday, the skies were not even rain-cloud-gray as usual but a crisp clear blue.

drooping (willow?) tree against tiled roof, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

tree leaf buds in sun, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

dwarf Camellia 'Winter's Rose', Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

Camellia close-up, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

Fortunately, in the Lan Su Garden, the focus is on the plants, lovely even when bare-branched in chilly January. I walked the stone paths amid the crowd, dodging children and couples snapping self-portraits on their phones, the garden comprising one small city block, walled to the outside like traditional Chinese compounds, its designers having created a maze of rooms with upswept-tile roofs lining the interior and a large pond crossing the center on a diagonal. Skipping the gift shop and tea room, I looked for koi but found none, some apparently having been killed by low temperatures last winter; perhaps the garden directors had given the fish temporary shelter elsewhere, large koi being rather pricey to replace, or maybe the fish were just hiding. On the east side of the garden, I sat on a chilled concrete bench finishing the last few pages of a library book, watching a hummingbird perched unmoving in the tree above me, more still than any hummingbird I'd ever seen, almost frozen in place, until it flew clicking across the courtyard and began to sip from a camellia blossom.

Camellia profile, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

herringbone path, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) branches against curved doorway, Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

In that same garden, near the Covered Walk to Celestial Hall of Permeating Fragrance (Westerners could never dream up such cloying names) I was arrested—literally stopped in my tracks—by the delicate sweet fragrance of something like jasmine or honeysuckle (in the dead of winter!), which my nose followed to a pale-yellow-flowered bush around the corner called wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), blossoms the Chinese once used, like lavender in the West, to scent linens.

flowering Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

Flying Dragon, aka Japanese Bitter Orange (Poncirus trifoliata), Lan Su Chinese Garden (January 2015)

In Portland's Chinese Garden, at least, flora trumps politics. And rare free days for American public museums and gardens are indeed lucky—though such places should really be free to citizens year-round. If the U.S. withdrew from all its preemptive wars and shuttered its military bases in the developed world, it would have money for trifles such as free museums (as in the UK) and a national health care system, like England's, Canada's, and Australia's. Maybe it takes the fall of an Empire—like America into the deepening pockets of China—for priorities to shift and a more mature civilization to appear. Till then, all one needs is to offer up a yearly can of food to the gods of capitalism.

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