The mountains are still there, and the valley. Clouds still gather around the peaks, loose snow and rain onto the high polished granite. Spring still comes to melt the ice, to send it trickling down the near-vertical creeks that drain into the Owens River. Sky pilot and tamarack still push out new leaves cell by tiny cell.
Dust still swirls around the floor of the old lake. Winds still raise devils to waltz across the river’s saline sump.
The rocks are still where Kuichiro Nishi placed them. They may have shifted an inch to the left, tilted five degrees to the east. It doesn’t matter. It was planned for.
There is a phrase in Japanese – “wabi-sabi” – that resists translation into English. Wabi, roughly, means the kind of beauty conveyed by imperfections. Sabi means the kind of beauty conferred by age. Together, they stand for an aesthetic prizing a natural geometry, rough edges and apparent random simplicity. Never mind that Nishi spent months planning the rocks’ placement, all of them carted from the nearby mountains. Their edges, their faces look as if a blade of mother rock has just barely pierced the desert soil, there to crumble.
All things are impermanent.
All things are imperfect.
All things are incomplete.
This is the essence of wabi-sabi.
One hundred and seventeen thousand people were removed from their homes, shipped like cargo to the camps. The litany of place names is a geography of heartbreak: Tule Lake, Topaz, Heart Mountain.
All they had worked for was stripped away, sold to neighbors for pennies on the dollar. Some held out hope that should this trouble ever end, their white friends would return the property they’d been lent. That day was far off.
They built furniture from scrap pallets, planted vegetables in the firebreaks. Kuichiro Nishi planted roses, dug a dry streambed, arranged stones around it. Young people posed for wedding photos.
The barracks, the hospital and canteen were torn down a half century ago, their weathered timbers salvaged for barns. A new building holds historical displays, a searing and thorough apology made architecture. It sits on the land, but recognizably does not belong to it. Tourists read the essays, watch the newsreels. Some weep. Others scowl. Back into the tour bus and on to Death Valley they go.
Nishi’s roses are long dead. All things are impermanent. The stones grow a crop of rabbitbrush and aster now. All things are imperfect. Red brome grass fills the streambed. All things are incomplete. This is a most beautiful place. I cannot bear to walk among these stones.