story by Janice Crowl
photos by Jack Wolford
I follow Birch Robison down a mossy path fringed by brilliant red sealing-wax palms. Forests of bromeliads big and small spread their leaves like cups to catch the rain. Lacy ferns brush our ankles and sweet ginger perfumes the air. At the first pond, a shimmering oasis in the rainforest green, we shift easily into gardener-speak, naming our favorite aquatic plants, sharing tips and ideas. Our laughter drifts over the lilies, water lettuces and hyacinths; in a water garden the rhythms of life synchronize: dragonflies and damselflies, frogs and toads, fishes and birds, plants and human beings. I can’t be sure how it happens, or why, but even though I’ve never been here, I feel immediately at home. Perhaps it’s because water is the common thread that binds all nature together; it includes us in a community of water. An ‘olelo no‘eau (Hawaiian proverb) recorded by scholar Mary Kawena Pukui speaks of this connection:
Mohala i ka wai ka maka o ka pua.
Unfolded by the water are the faces of the flowers,
Flowers thrive where there is water, as thriving people are found where the conditions are good.
Perhaps that’s why, in the courtyards of Hawai‘i’s towns, in the backyards of houses, hidden among the asphalt streets or at the forest’s edges, we find water. Some water gardens are simple and small—a single lily in a plastic tub—and others are elaborate water worlds representing years of a gardener’s love, labor and, of course, money.
In Hawai‘i a mild climate means gardening can become a year-round addiction—we can’t help but revel in the sunshine and work amid rocks, soil and plants, rearranging and cultivating our personal paradise. But the gardener who takes on the challenge of making a pond enters another dimension where problems and solutions are fluid in every sense; it’s a journey of trial and error, heartbreak and bliss. A professional landscaper could do the job with fewer headaches, but such ease often comes with a hefty price tag. A do-it-yourself water gardener like Birch Robison derives pleasure from playing around in the muck, transforming a hole in the ground into a private Eden sprung from his own creative spirit and sweaty, aching muscles.
Birch is a retired Hawai‘i Community College English instructor, and being a naturally laid-back sort of fellow, he’s got the time and the equanimity for such a quixotic hobby as water-gardening. The proof is in the eclectic, densely planted water gardens that meander down his hilly property in Hilo.
Before he built his first pond in 1987, Birch had tried his spade at traditional gardening. He planted vegetables in terraces but was never successful, hampered in part by the shade of a huge lychee tree. After a friend gave him a book on English water gardens, he cut back the tree, dug a small pond and laid an inexpensive liner he purchased from a garden store. It promptly sprang a leak. He tried again, this time successfully, with a heavy-duty liner made of the same rubber used in septic tanks. Over two decades he created nine more water gardens; the magnificent centerpiece is an in-ground pond, measuring 20 by 7 feet. Seven others are container gardens in whiskey barrels, vintage Japanese furo baths and ferro-concrete bowls. Within each one is a story: a tiny glass fishing float found while living in Micronesia, plants named after the friends who gifted them, a collection of toys that trace his son’s childhood. Each turn of the garden path reveals another chapter in the Robisons’ lives.
Like most avid hobbyists, Birch hasn’t a clue how much money he’s spent to date, nor does he really care. “It’s an obsession. I always want to do something new, and it ends up being more expensive when I start adding everything up. But, my wife approves,” he says. “It’s better than gambling, since I stay home and she gets to stroll through the garden in the mornings.”