1) A world composed of rocks; e.g., a rock garden.
2) Words composed of rocks; i.e., verse written in stone.
[Latin petra, rock; Old English vers, from Latin versus a furrow, literally: a turning (of the plough), from vertere to turn]
The Petriverse of Pierre Jardin, a xeriscape in the California Heights neighborhood of Long Beach, California, is “a rock garden where nothing is written in stone”: not only because the landscape is always changing, but also because words (including nothing) are literally written in stones. The rock garden was created in 2009 by the aptly named Pierre Jardin. This website is an organic extension of the physical site; properly speaking, “The Petriverse of Pierre Jardin” comprises both the garden and this blog.
Like all suburban fronts yards, the Petriverse is simultaneously public and private property. As a public space, the garden is designed to attract and amuse the eye of passersby, and to inspire appreciation for the beauties of stone and wonders of earth. The garden is regularly seen by a diverse audience, including schoolchildren, parents, neighbors, and Saturday strollers, who often comment on the changing displays. Through these exchanges, the Petriverse has become an ongoing public performance, what in contemporary terms would be called a work of Relational Art (an intentionally interactive installation only completed or realized through spectator responses).
Pierre Jardin purposely places provocative and playful elements in the garden that invite viewers to stop, look, read, and think. Eye-catching features include rocks in trees, balanced stone stacks, word collages, and punning messages. The texts displayed often pose riddles to the viewer; they use wordplay to create a delay between reading and grasping the meaning, in order to stimulate further lines of thought as strollers walk on.
The first thing approaching pedestrians see are large stones painted roadsign-yellow that mark the site as a “slow time zone.” Jardin coined the term slow time in the spirit of the slow movement; slow time is defined by mindful awareness, and an ethos that is both HANDS-ON (use materials on hand, work with things, people, words, deliberately, in direct contact) and HANDS-OFF (the hands are off the clock, your time is your own; you are not subject to influence of others). Jardin’s ultimate goal is to offer people the chance to pause for some slow time contemplating the garden, and thereby experience the unique peace and pleasure to be had from sustained stone viewing.
As a private space, the Petriverse has multiple functions. Working in the garden constitutes Pierre Jardin’s spiritual exercise regimen, which he has characterized as a composition of place. Jardin’s daily meditative practice integrates elements of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola with the Taoist philosophy that informs Chinese stone veneration. Jardin finds balancing stones to be a particularly intimate, rewarding way to engage with the telluric energies of rocks.
With considerable self-irony, Jardin thinks of the Petriverse as a contemporary iteration of the classical Chinese scholar’s garden. Chinese scholars were members of the ruling elite, the educated ‘literati,’ and they had the substantial wealth necessary to design large private gardens. Jardin is a mere middle-class scholar (his day job is Professor of English), and the Petriverse is humble indeed compared to magnificent sites like the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou. The Petriverse is a ‘scholar’s garden’ in the sense that it incorporates elements of Jardin’s academic research on Chinese and Japanese traditions of stone veneration, as well as current North American work on viewing stones. In terms of formal rock appreciation, Jardin is still a student, and his schools of study include the Southern Breeze Tree and Stone Society and the California Aiseki Kai Club, in whose monthly meetings he continues to learn a great deal.
Jardin’s scholarly career has centered on the interdisciplinary study of time (he was President of the International Society for the Study of Time for nine years), and his work on stone extends naturally from this research area. While the deep time of geology eludes conscious understanding—spans of millions and billions of years are very difficult to comprehend!—Jardin has found that contemplating stones allows one to develop an imaginative, intuitive, spiritual connection to earth’s history. Contemplating and working with stones opens the mind to a state of reverie, where one feels as if lithic materials and forces resonate and reverberate within one’s heart and brain.
The Petriverse also aspires to link into an emerging North American aesthetic and philosophy grounded in stone practices. Two of the most prominent proponents of developing such a tradition are Tom Elias and Richard Turner, who have become Jardin’s local mentors in stone appreciation (for which Jardin is deeply grateful). Through travel and research, Jardin studies rock gardens and stone art and appreciation. The Petriverse reflects some of these studies; it references various traditions and takes inspiration from contemporary artists including Guiseppe Penone, George Quasha, and Ian Hamilton Finlay. By the standards of these artists, Jardin’s garden is not more than a whimsical work. Perhaps Jardin’s more substantial contribution to a new tradition of stone appreciation will be through writing. Right now, he is composing and editing scholarly publications on stones, and he has also begun writing stone-inspired poems he calls Rockery Reveries.
Even though he has taken a scholarly approach to stones, Pierre Jardin could be seen as a kind of outsider artist in relation to the established traditions and artists he studies. The Petriverse is certainly not a formal art work, but it does exhibit several definitive features of outsider art environments: it is an organically evolving site (no formal plans); it is both never and always finished; it expresses a quixotic spirit and appears impulsive or spontaneous; it is constructed on personal property and work on the site fuses with daily life in its creator.
Given Jardin’s proximate, ironic relation to different rock gardening traditions, perhaps the appropriately tongue-in-cheek classification for the Petriverse would be ‘Outsider Scholar’s Garden.’ No matter the nomenclature, The Petriverse of Pierre Jardin is many things: a public performance, a spiritual practice, an aesthetic experience, and a scholarly pursuit. It comprises diverse activities: rock-gardening, photography, philosophical reflection, stoned thinking, and writing poetry. Pierre Jardin thanks you for reading this, and hopes you stop by some time.