On a recent rain-soaked Saturday morning at Spalding House, the air heavy with humidity and mosquitos, a dozen faithful volunteers assemble to battle the weeds, bromeliads, and haole koa saplings that have taken over the rocky landscape. To get everyone’s blood going, and offer some perspective on the labor ahead, Honolulu-based designer and repeat museum volunteer Anna Marciniak starts the day off with a pep talk.

“We know that the thousands of rocks that were used to transform the barren sandy ravine at this property were sought out along the roads of O‘ahu and transported to the garden by Reverend Inagaki,” Marciniak reads aloud as the group huddles in the foyer at the front desk. Her script is part of an in-progress essay that she fell headlong into writing in August, after the garden restoration team, which had its first meeting on Aug. 1, began to uncover curious shapes long covered by layers of overgrowth: pointy rocks in triangular patterns, striated basalt aligned in serpentine flows, stones that seem to bear faces.

Marciniak has spent hours combing through vintage articles in House and Garden and Pacific Coast Architecture, museum guidebooks, and Japanese gardening manuals going back to the Sakuteiki, a garden-planning text produced in the 11th century. From these pages she has started to piece together the story of what appears to be a Hawaiian-style amalgam of traditional Japanese gardens—the pathways of a shizen (natural) stroll garden, the waterless streambeds and waterfalls of a dry landscape garden, and a scroll-like hide-and-reveal design that unfolds at each meandering switchback. Then there’s the more obscure story of the Christian reverend from Waialua named K.H. Inagaki, who showed up out of the blue and knocked on the front door of Spalding House in 1928, when it was still museum founder Anna Rice Cooke’s home, and asked for a gardening job.

“But how did he go about placing those rocks once he got them here?” Marciniak asks the volunteers in a tone that hints at a ghost story. “How did he create the garden walls, the pathways, and the enchanting formations that we see here? Where did he begin?”

The mo‘o in the Spalding House garden

The Kappa in the Spalding House garden

Marciniak, with Micah Vargas, the museum’s visitor and information associate and her de facto assistant, leads the group out into the rain to reveal one answer to her questions: a river spirit. Near the top of the garden, which starts just below Cades Pavilion, four rocks stand in a row. The group surrounds them and stares until someone says, “Oh, I see it! The top rock is the head.” Then a scene becomes clearer; the other rocks are the humped back sections of reptilian-like Japanese yokai known as a Kappa, and a horse: the collection of rocks as a whole depicting a popular motif from Japanese folklore.

The core volunteer team at Spalding House, which includes visitor services director Vicki Reisner and Spalding House head of operations Garry Ka‘aihue, has come to discern this kind of zoomorphism throughout the garden. “Garry has been present for the past three decades during professional ‘revivals,’ of the garden space by various landscape designers, such as Leland Miyano,” says Marciniak. “He has a vast amount of knowledge about the garden itself, the plants within it, and the history of Spalding House.” The most obvious zoomorphic space used to be the rabbit garden area, which hosted a whimsical interplay between metal rabbit sculptures and rabbit-shaped rocks. At some point the metal sculptures were removed, but the name and curious little rocks remain. Now, as the team clears the overgrown garden spaces, volunteers, with primed imaginations, have been quick to spot new formations based on Marciniak’s glossary of possibilities.

Designer and museum volunteer Anna Marciniak gives her fellow garden restorers background info on the landscape's history

Designer and museum volunteer Anna Marciniak gives her fellow garden restorers background info on the landscape’s history

After getting everyone mentally fired up, and thoroughly coated in bug spray, Marciniak and Vargas direct volunteers around the ravine. Some bag dead bromeliads, unveiling an intricate rock wall in the process. Others hack excessive ferns and haole koa away to reveal a giant, prehistoric-looking anthurium. Museum docent Lena Galbraith and her husband Geoff climb down into the riverbed and plunge their gloved hands into the weeds. Recent docent graduate Nancy Miwa trots down to the dry “lake” at the garden’s bottom where the imaginary river pools around stones stacked to form toadstools and a host of lithic deities. Because Inagaki left each rock in its natural form, interpretations vary. When children visit their minds swim through the unhewn clues, finding miniature mountain ranges, rock faces having conversations, and Kappa playing hide-and-seek in the weeds.

As the rain lets up and the clouds start to burn off, Lēʻahi comes into view on the horizon. Marciniak thinks it holds a special place in the grand scheme of Inagaki’s design.

“Compositionally within the garden design, Diamond Head is believed to be the Iwakura, Sacred Stone—a ‘symbol of eternity and importance’ on O‘ahu—and the one-time home of Pele, the volcano goddess, Hawai‘i’s creator and destroyer,” Marciniak explains. “Diamond Head provides depth and perspective to the garden composition—it conveys a sense of vastness, as though the landscape were extending infinitely into space. Inagaki reflected on his design choice regarding Diamond Head’s visibility within the garden, saying, ‘I obscured the view of Diamond Head and framed only the view of the horizontal sea and thus accentuated the effect of quiet and meditation.'”

At the bottom of the garden, in the dry “lake,” three conspicuous rocks catch the eye. As Marciniak and the other volunteers see it, these could be Inagaki’s nod to Hawaiian mythology: a mo‘o. A large stone peeking out from a patch of moss resembles the head of this mythic reptile; and as in the mo‘olelo, this figure guards the entry to the spaces that follow. Across the lake in a blue and green grotto-like cavern, another upright mo‘o stone presides over the solitude. According to Marciniak, “This stone radiates more intensity than any other stone within the garden, as though it could spring to life at any moment,” she says, “and therefore it is believed to be the Omo-ishi of Spalding House Garden—the inspirational master stone which requested the placement of all other ‘supporting’ stones within the garden—truly, the rock of Perfect Beauty.”

One of the mo‘o at Spalding House.

One of the guardian stone mo‘o at Spalding House.

“The remaining stones in the garden are set following the requests of the Omo-ishi,” Marciniak says. It isn’t hard to imagine Inagaki—who endured a paralyzing car accident during the garden project—stationed atop the garden ravine in his wheelchair, staring down past his workhands toward the mo‘o’s cave, and intuiting its requests.

The Omo-ishi mo‘o stone.

The Omo-ishi mo‘o stone.

But we’ll never know for sure—Inagaki disappeared from the records following a trip to Japan in October 1941. The rest of his story is hidden in the rocks, waiting to be uncovered by gloves and spades.

Get involved: Want to join in on this fun—and important—museum project? Fill in our online volunteer application form and under “Interest & Skills,” check “Gardening,” and Micah Vargas will contact you.