Recently, I stumbled across an astonishing place, one where beauty has emerged from a surprising source. In the Los Angeles basin, where water is ever a precious resource, a traditional Japanese garden filled with ponds and streams takes as its source sewage from hundreds of thousands of households.
In the 1980s, Donald C. Tillman, an engineer with the City of Los Angeles sanitation department, designed a state-of-the-art water treatment plant and envisioned the garden. Created by Koichi Kawara, the garden’s water features and vegetation are today fed by de-chlorinated waste water. A long fringe of California redwoods separates this beauty from the treatment plant. In the contrast, one can see what is possible.
During my short visit, I marveled at cormorants mating and perching in high trees. Hundreds of small carp nibbled at pond algae. Wading snowy egrets sought out a meal. A gardener told me that a fleet of 50 of these small herons had stopped by the day before, to feast on the larger carp.
The treated water ripples across the network of ponds and foams through constructed stream beds. Its health and livelihood are impossible to miss and seems almost miraculous, considering the contaminated sludge that was its source.
The miracle of the Japanese gardens has spread further in the past few decades. After the Army Corps of Engineers aggressively controlled the Los Angeles river in the 1930s, it had all but died. Lately, it has begun a comeback, watered by the Tillman plant’s surplus, and fed by human ethics. Concrete is being ripped up in several places in the river basin, to be replaced by willows, sedges and grasses. Kayakers are scaling chicken-wire fences and going for a paddle. Ducks have arrived. While the system is far from fully recovered, this modest river-renaissance owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Tillman. He seemed to understand that beauty can be a choice.
As I left the garden, I passed a particularly stressed redwood tree. Sequoia sempervirens is a conifer that prefers moderate temperatures, much in short supply in the L.A. Basin. It also likes long drinks of rain, a need that can’t be met by outflow from a treatment plant. True to its reputation as a survivor, this stressed tree has sprouted a geyser of new growth at its base. The supple, verdant contrast to the dying branches above forms an analogue for Earth’s current state. Resilience will, I believe, once again restore beauty and harmony to the living world.
The key is to (somehow) clone the visionary energy of Mr. Tillman. More of us need to realize the participatory role we can all play in the planet’s future.