Oriental Gardens

by Tim Gilmore, 6/26/2012

What’s Left, between San Jose Boulevard and the St. Johns River, South of San Marco, North of the Two-Story Stucco San Jose Gate Tower and Its Arched Ground-Floor Door and Arched Second-Floor Window Surrounded by Multicolored Spanish Tile

Remnants scattered through River Oaks Park and the neighborhoods on either side, remnants fenced in on private properties, Oriental Gardens Road, but no more Oriental Gardens, just this hundreds-of-years-old live oak and this child-sized stone pagoda, and this old brick-walled reflecting pool with a small nude stone figurine in its center.

What’s left is certain cypress trees, even certain cypress knees.

Businessman George W. Clark opened the 18-acre private botanical garden to the public in the late 1930s. Streams and fountains, footbridges and chimes in the trees. Developers built new subdivisions over the gardens in 1954, before the word “Oriental” was considered racist.

Left like ghosts beneath the neighborhood, standing up through the present, remnants, palimpsests—certain trees, certain curves of hill. Of which consist the ruins of a garden? What plantlife extends from the shoots off disappeared parent plants? The ruins are names, old trees, turns of the landscape. The landscape subsumes other landscapes.

They got in their small Nissan and drove four miles up San Jose Boulevard to its merge with Hendricks Boulevard. They did not know why they came. They parked by Southern United Methodist Church, got out of the car and walked across the street to River Oaks Park, into the park, onto the footbridge spanning Craig Creek. They still didn’t know why they were here. “Why are we here?” he asked her. She said, “I don’t know why we’re here.” They read the metal sign: “WARNING Bacteria Levels In This Stream Exceeded State Standards. Water Contact May Cause An Increased Risk Of Illness.” They walked by the muck and they smelled the muck. They walked beneath palms and oleanders and cypress trees, and then they saw it.

The Great Blue Heron stood four and a half feet tall in the mud at the edge of the creek. Its beak was sharp. It slowly crouched and launched and swooped and flapped its wings and flew heavily between the trees with its six and a half foot wingspan. Harshly, it said, “Squawk.”

Now they knew why they had come. She said, “That bird looks prehistoric.” He said, “That’s it. Prehistoric.” She said, “Now I know why we had to come. It was a pilgrimage. We were on a pilgrimage to see that bird, but we didn’t know it ahead of time. Now we do.”

They knew why they came. They had never heard of Oriental Gardens, even though a road with that name was one block away, but neither had the tall, blue-gray, prehistoric-looking bird.

The heron landed in still water closer to the river, stabbed his beak beneath the surface, and ate a frog.