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Sunday, October 24, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mixed And Modern -- A Striking Natural Garden Turns Asian, English And Northwestern Ideas Into Something Singular

TERRY WELCH'S Woodinville property has been much photographed and written about, and last year was featured in a glossy British lifestyle magazine. It is widely admired for its naturalism, its lovely trees and its overtones of Japanese culture. On a recent visit I realized that what is most significant about this stunning garden is that it displays true modernism.

You might look around at the conifers, the smoothly raked sand in the Zen garden, the ponds and maples and wonder what in the world I'm talking about. There are no bright blue stucco walls, stainless steel or sleek sculptures, no whimsical ornamentation, no aggressive architecture, none of the elements usually injected into gardens to inform us we are looking at the hip and avant-garde.

In Welch's garden it is the essence that is profoundly modern, a blending of cultures and influences into something new that comes uniquely of its distinctive location.

The understated nature of the place, the Zen garden, the bonsai - all speak of Japan. A moongate hints of China.

Two hundred tons of rock, carefully chosen and placed to represent glacial ponds, mountain rivers and swimming salmon, evoke the early Northwest landscape.

The sweep of lawns, and how everything fits together to suit its site, is firmly rooted in the English landscape tradition.

This melding of international symbols and aesthetics, as well as Welch's reverence for the land, its history and its animals, seems to me to be a new modernism for the 21st century, going far beyond flashy colors, trendy plants or geometry.

Welch's love of nature came early. He grew up watching salmon spawn along Kelsey Creek before Bellevue grew into an urbanized city. At age 19, he studied the naturalistic, site-specific landscape forms of the Englishman Capability Brown. After receiving degrees in cultural anthropology and Japanese language from the University of Washington, Welch traveled to Japan, with plans to come back home and enter law school.

"I had no idea it would be gardens that would catch me and cause me not to go on to law school," Welch says. "I lived next to the gardens in Kyoto and I was just undone." He came home, bought a pickup and a lawn mower and began a career that grew from garden maintenance to a successful design-build firm.

He also began to search for land of his own. "What we found was a clear-cut, much-abused piece of wetland," he says. A great blue heron rose from the pond as he and his father approached. They bought 30 acres.

Today five distinct gardens are set into the gently slanting landscape. Subtly skillful references to Japanese gardening principles abound, but the real genius of the place lies in Welch's fulfillment of Capability Brown's 18th-century idea of gently coaxing out the essence of the site. Using Japanese traditions of landscape design, Welch has taken a mess of clear-cut wetland and created a much finer habitat than existed there before. "The center of my work is the adoration of nature," Welch explains, "and that is just what happens to be at the center of Japanese aesthetics, in gardens, art and daily living."

Also inspiring to Welch were such Northwest destinations as Butchart Gardens, Kubota Gardens and Oehme Gardens outside of Wenatchee. "Works of art were created out of three hopeless pieces of land," says Welch. "As with Japanese teahouse gardens, I loved the fantasy of it."

His own moon-viewing pavilion, reached by following stepping stones along the bank of the pond, certainly rests within this tradition of fantasy. Ducks slide along the water's edge up to the intricately ornamented pavilion carved in Java, complete with reclining chaise on which to rest while awaiting moonrise over the pond.

A short walk up a hillside from the ponds is one of the largest Zen gardens outside of Japan. It seems curiously at home amid the contoured grassy slopes of the garden. This may be in part because the garden's rock formations have been laid out to represent the Cascades, Olympics and Puget Sound.

Or perhaps its rightness stems from the fact that it is a Northwest adaptation of a Zen garden, walled on only two sides, in contrast to the fully walled gardens of Japan. Welch has left it open so animals can leave their prints in the raked patterns of the white gravel. A deer had recently passed through on the afternoon I visited, and Welch tells of a turtle that sought out the comforting warmth of the gravel.

Welch makes curving patterns with a rake in the gravel to represent his own life, as in the Japanese tradition. "Our life has no meaning but our passing through it," he says. Here his own tracks mingle with those of the animals who seek out the tranquility he has created amid the escalating development surrounding his property.

How has Welch managed to seamlessly slip Zen gardens and teahouses into a naturalistic Northwest landscape? He says he has transformed the idea of Japanese polarity into landscape forms, designing an austere upper garden (the Zen garden, where, he says "all life has been sucked out") to contrast with a lower garden infused with life - trees, grass, pond. The two meet at a point of balance where one can find a state of grace.

The most recently completed part of the garden is a sanctuary of stone and ponds entered through a large, simple iron circle, a moongate, a circle of life, which links and defines this garden of East and West. Here a filtered swimming pool among the rocks resembles a glacial pool, rimmed in Japanese red and black pines and clipped yellow-twig dogwoods. Welch selected and placed the stones in a translation of Snoqualmie Falls and River. The song of frogs joins the bubbling of water cascading along the watercourse.

The Snoqualmie people who inhabited this land for 10,000 years, up until the 1850s, were known as the children of the moon, and Welch points out that these native peoples held the same reverence for the land as the Japanese. The Snoqualmies' myths told them they were descended from the beaver. Beavers created and still live on the property's upper lake, and while Welch sometimes loses a tree to them, he considers the beaver as sacred to the land as it was in the days of the Snoqualmie people. Shadows of bear, otter, deer and swallow linger around the edge of the woodlands, the margins of the ponds, as they have for thousands of years.

Welch leads tours of schoolchildren through the woodland paths and uses the waterfall garden to teach them about how watersheds work. Amid rapid development of the Eastside, his garden remains a sanctuary for wildlife, a place of elegant beauty, a place to learn about the past and the future.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian and writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. Her e-mail address is vjeaston@aol.com Barry Wong is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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