The French Broad River is the second oldest river in the world. Only the Nile is older. I am not certain who decided this and upon what basis, but when I stopped in Asheville to see my friend Lee Lee on my way home from a book festival in Virginia, she happened to mention it and she said it with such authority that I assumed she must be right.
I further assumed she was right about it being a good idea for the two of us to go hiking in the North Carolina Arboretum, which isn’t far from the river. We started at Bent Creek Park, a stone’s throw from the Blue Ridge Parkway, and made our way up and down trails lined with rhododendron and white oak and the occasional sign warning of bear sightings. We forgot about the threat of rain as the gray sky got lost behind the canopy of trees under which we climbed and talked. When we reached the exhibit center I was delighted to discover that the pedometer on my phone had recorded over 6,000 steps.
Inside the center was an exhibition of watercolors by a regional artist, landscapes and still lifes that captured in stunning realism the rhythm of life in both the small towns and cities of Appalachia. On the front lawn was a bronze statue of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture, whose last great project had been the nearby Biltmore Estate and whose design for an arboretum at the estate had been an inspiration for the one through which I’d just hiked.
And then there was the bonsai garden. Begun more than a thousand years ago in China and developed as a part of the Buddhist tradition, bonsai involves keeping plants and trees in a miniaturized state and shaping them into artistic forms. Lee Lee and I walked around staring at the tiny versions of the trees under whose vast shade we’d just been walking a few minutes before, feeling like Gulliver in Lilliput. I half expected to see small people – most likely in Victorian dress and carrying parasols – strolling beneath the limbs that were no thicker than a No. 2 pencil.
In the center of the garden was what Olmsted would probably call a water feature, a stream bed of rocks down which the soft trickle of flowing water would create the perfect ambiance for a meditative stroll through the diminutive forest. Except that there was no water.
I noticed it right away. And before I could formulate the thought that there must be a drought, I saw the sign: “This stream bed is intended to be dry, the only time it carries water is when it rains. With a dry stream the water is suggested. The water must be supplied by your imagination.”
I stopped. Stared. Read it again. “The water must be supplied by your imagination.”
The words burrowed into my subconscious as Lee Lee and I hiked back down to the creek and said our goodbyes. I left the mountains and headed back to the flatness of the coastal plains. I left the bonsai garden and went back to the farm.
Days later I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the dry stream bed and the far-fetched, yet familiar idea that my imagination could supply the needed water. How many times, I found myself thinking, have I landed in a place so dry, so drought-stricken that it should have been impossible for anything to grow, anything to flourish, anything good to rise from the dusty soil and, yet, somehow it did. And how many times had I managed to envision water falling, puddling, soaking into the dirt and coaxing a green blade to the surface. And how many times had I seen that blade pushing and writhing and willing itself to the surface. A single blade that was enough to make me know that more were coming.
I thought of other words. Old, familiar words. “The evidence of things not seen,” which is, of course, the description of faith as offered by the writer of Hebrews. And I realized that, for all we say of faith, religious or otherwise, it cannot exist without imagination because they are both built upon the always difficult, sometimes scary willingness to see what isn’t there.
I don’t know when I’ve been more astonished. Astonished and affirmed and just a little giddy. Imagination it now seemed, that place where I have lived so much of my life, is orthodoxy. Orthodoxy revealed in a Buddhist garden.