Structures can be made in the outdoors that provide support for spiritual practices. In this area, it is essential to be sure that one has the legal right to alter the landscape. In many public parks, for example, rules prohibit altering the natural settings, except with special permission. On private lands, the owner’s approval must be secured. One’s own property is the natural place to shape the woods and streams to support one’s spiritual practice(s). The following projects present ideas about the realms of possibility, ranging from small temporary interventions to constructing permanent outdoor gardens.

Temporary Art

There is something in human nature that leads us to impress our mark on the landscape, a wish to make an ordered space in the larger, chaotic world, at sites reserved for special, sometimes extraordinary activity. In the woods, by lakes, on mountains, along streams, human beings added items that are special due to their beauty and inspirational qualities. Images of saints, the Buddha, or other inspiring teachers are natural choices. (These spaces of refuge for meditation, reading, or prayer can be highly supportive of spiritual practice(s), and even small interventions can awaken an interest to go there regularly.)

Piled stones, or cairns, were perhaps the earliest markers of sacred places in human history. In addition to marking burials, cairns likely were places of divine contact, sites where religious rituals are done. Buddhist shrines called stupas can be made simply of piled stones, but developed in many forms, from small shrines to pyramid-sized structures.

Many public parks have specifically prohibited people from piling stones, as wilderness settings have been overwhelmed with cairns. But to mark a private sanctuary in one’s own space, especially if set with a small tree or plant, a cairn can mark one’s own center, a sacred space for practice. Examples here indicate playful ways to make natural “vignettes” of plants, stones and trees.

Other examples illustrate temporary art that can be made for specific retreats or other spiritual events at the beach, in the forest, etc. Leaves can be stitched, vines woven, sticks interlocked.


Land Art in the Deep Woods

The modern tradition of land art goes back over a half a century, as artists were drawn especially to the wilderness expanses in North America to execute massive projects. Most famous among them, perhaps, is the Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake by Robert Smithson in Utah (1970). The tools for these extraordinary projects include earth and stone movers such as back hoes and bucket loaders.

Most Land art works were done to focus attention on the earth and ecology, fostering awe for the powers of nature, awareness of the passing of the seasons, and making bold, massive human artistic expressions of connection between the land and humanity.

A project challenges the maker to harmonize a design with the plants, stones, and trees as one re-arranges a specific portion of the landscape. There is often an overriding artistic principle at the center of the project. Sometimes by its playful arrangement Land art serves the valuable purpose of amusing the viewer, as for example the Goldsworthy wall at Storm King Sculpture Park (1997-8):

The land art shown here was created to be the view from a meditation seat, on the opposite side of a stream that flows with cascades and waterfalls. The arrangement of wood, trunks and branches in the nearby area that had fallen or been discarded by a homeowner, comprised the spiral arrangement. The primary inspiration is the work of Andy Goldsworthy; a spiral is mathematically created by graphing a certain class of equations; they can turn around a fixed point infinitely, symbolizing the force of life in an endless loop. Sitting to meditate with the sound of a stream and with this spiral in view provides a great support for meditation practice.

Rough Gardening

This practice entails creative and ecologically positive “interventions” in the woods. My own coming to this practice began soon after an extremely destructive ice storm in central Massachusetts in December 2009. I could see and feel the brokenness of the forest, though on an analytical level I knew that nature can handle whatever happens. (The hundreds of acres in my forest are a family conservation trust forest, and I had helped for over a two decades by then to keep the trails open, in return for the right to hike, cross-country ski, and ride my mountain bike on this land.) Seeing the forest a dense jumble of broken trees, fallen limbs, and completely blocked trails, I decided that I didn’t want to spend many years just passively coping with the ugly mayhem; I needed to do something.

I first began to reopen the trails, chain-sawing fallen trees and branches. Seeing so many living trees knocked down, I began making “Y crutches” to prop up trees and branches that could be saved. (This tree crutching is a common practice in Asian gardens.) In that spirit, I also found myself making lyrical stone arrangements along the way to express the spirit of resilience and add notes of levity as I restored the trails.

What got serious and more difficult was extending these random acts of kindness and restorative work to a small but always-flowing stream in these woods. It is on average 6-10 feet across, shallow and rocky. I saw over a mile of stream that looked like the roads and trails right after the storm, a tangle of thousands of branches and hundreds of trees fallen, many submerged. The scale of destruction was so great that it was hard to fathom.

I decided, “just do something: start,” and so began clearing things out, from where the wetland headwaters end and moving slowly downstream. I enlisted students and family friends to give an hour to free the stream, treating it like a garden. Except for about 20 meters of huge trees still tangled across an upstream section, eleven years later it is more or less done.

Stroll Garden. The stream is now flanked by two rough stroll gardens, over a mile long consisting of two trails along both sides. My occasional walks have the purpose to remove newly fallen limbs from stream and path.

As this work moved slowly downstream, I also found it important to show special attention to certain trees and plants along the way. In short this was through pruning, applying principles from formal garden care of specimens to their wild relatives. The idea is easy to grasp: prune away damaged branches or those destined to be shaded out and eventually die. I have taken up this practice of showing “random acts of kindness” to trees and greenery along our forest trails both meaningful in working with nature as well as very good exercise! Durable tools were essential.

At several places, we recently added small hand-made bridges where crossing the stream allowed connecting with other trails.

Meditation Garden. Having removed trees and limbs out and away from the stream, I also returned to a modest scenic sitting spot right on the stream. While the water flowed and delighted the ear, the view from the log bench installed there was still a broken, chaotic jumble that unsettled the eye. What to do to create a sense of harmony?

Recalling some of the noted projects by land artists, who used raw tree trunks to define the sculptural spaces, I started to create some boundaries for this space by piling them together. (For a garden to exist there must boundaries, however created.) I cut and purchased long garden stakes to keep the trunk wall boundaries in place as they rose and widened. This stacking was the way to clear the forest floor of all the storm debris. Except for a few huge fallen trunks reduced in length by a chainsaw (to be light enough to move), the trees were cut with a handsaw.

This intervention improved the new garden steadily and large stones also provided both boundary and artistic arrangement.

Sitting on the meditation/reading bench, I saw that the view beyond the stream garden proper still looked like a chaotic jumble, so I decided to organize the upstream background view by creating rough wood “walls.” (In the Japanese garden tradition, this is called “borrowed scenery.” ) Here, more straight rough wall berms were created with fallen trees and limbs, re-opening the bare ground through stacking and aligning branches and long tree trunks. Their location served to provide a visual boundary from the perspective of the main sitting bench, giving one seated on it a sense of calm, controlled, and lovely space that a stream flows through. (Note that a garden usually has one central viewing position that provides the basis of landscape designs; the photo above is from this place, the meditation/sitting bench.)

Having cleared the space for over three years, the ground covers and moss are coming back. I installed an 18” concrete Buddha image and prayer flags, keeping a rosary, candle, incense and a lighter in a waterproof box near the bench to support the ease of coming here to practice meditation. In the summer, a mosquito net provides relief from the bugs.

The yearly challenge for this garden in northern New England is the abundance of autumn leaves that would choke the site if left in place. Many a late fall hour must be devoted to their careful removal, as the moss is a sensitive resident by now.

Make a Formal Garden

Gardens from early in human history have been made for many reasons: growing food and cultivating flowers for human use; to provide bounded attractive spaces for leisure activities, from playing games or strolling. Some were made to serve as highly refined expressions of religious or philosophical ideas. The rich across the world invested fortunes in the making (and maintaining) of extraordinary gardens that express such ideals. Permanent walled gardens have enabled humans to enjoy their residences and express their cultural traditions. Gardens often have been made as retreats, with quiet and separation from public life integral to their designs.

Today, there is a rich and varied palette of garden forms from human history to consider when imagining making one’s own garden. One need not be rich to shape a bounded space that enriches one’s life. Here are some of the major garden traditions for inspiration.

Islamic cahar-bagh gardens with four divisions around a central fountain, have been made as models of the Garden of Eden (with four rivers), as reminders of the paradise that awaits the faithful Muslim in the afterlife.

Chinese created gardens to support and express their Confucian literati pursuit of the fine arts (calligraphy, painting, poetry) as and outdoor extension of their study retreats.

European aristocrats created gardens that demonstrated the Enlightenment science’s triumphs in understanding, and controlling nature. Trees, plants, and canals arranged in geometric patterns and pruned to direct their natural growth patterns into shapes desired by the owner.

European Romantic tradition reversed almost every choice in making Enlightenment gardens: ponds replace fountains, trees reach their natural potential; rejecting the imposition of human patterns on nature, Romantic gardens make it easy for the visitor to soak in the emotional and spiritual truths of being in the outdoors.

Japanese viewing garden.

Buddhist gardens of Japan were made as extensions of monasteries and tea houses. They were expressions of Buddhist and Japanese culture, distilling nature in the most basic if impermanent patterns of life; their carefully-maintained spaces supported those engaged in the Buddhist practices of chanting and meditation. Some gardens are very large; others in this style are magnificent in their simple smallness.

Temple garden upkeep required a community to undertake disciplined care of plants, stone, and water. Caretakers of these aesthetic spaces often did so as a form of spiritual training.


Japanese stroll garden to teahouse.

Even if on a very reduced scale, gardens can be made with the inspiration from any of these traditions, alone or in combination. Although the gardens stemming from Buddhist and Romantic traditions are naturally closest to the goal of fostering outdoor spirituality, it is your freedom to do what suits your own tastes by borrowing from any of these, including even inspirations from land art.

The great advantage of a built garden close to a residence is that it can support a regular spiritual practice. Benches, seats, devotional supplies can be set up and convenient; the space passed through to and within the garden, and the view from one’s practice site, can be designed and maintained to support contemplation.

As one ages and long walks on uneven wilderness paths become more difficult to negotiate, a garden can provide a ready, nearby refuge – still outdoors and in nature – that is no less impactful than a bench by a stream in the deep woods. A garden eases the way to daily practice.

The maintenance of the garden should also be seen as a form of practice. Zen Buddhist sage Dogen (1200-1254) famously taught that rocks and plants “preach the teachings” if we stay open and pay attention. Picking up leaves and sticks, raking stone in varying patterns, pruning, watering… nurturing life in harmony with nature is inherently a healthy and spiritual discipline.

Two exceptional books by Martin Hakubai Mosko and Alxe Noden speak from experience and with insight about all that goes into making a spiritually-attuned garden:

  • Landscape As Spirit: Creating a Contemplative Garden. (Weatherhill, 2003).
  • The Sound of Cherry Blossoms: Zen Lessons from the Garden on Contemplative Design (Shambhala, 2018).

There are uncountable books and websites devoted to garden making. Some are listed in the RESOURCES section.