From seito to sensei
How a CSULB philosophy graduate found his calling in the campus Japanese Garden.
October 23, 2017
When Andy Bready began his college education as a jazz studies music major at Cal State Long Beach over a decade ago, he never envisioned a career as a gardener for the Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden. When he originally took the job, it was a means to make some extra cash to take his new girlfriend, now wife, out for some fun.
“I went on ‘Jobs at the Beach’ and I was like oh man, I don’t know what kind of lame job I’m going to find. And then I saw a gardener at the Japanese garden and I was like, ‘oh I think I could do that, that would be pretty cool,’” said Bready.
Working as a student assistant he studied and learned with his former boss Nobuyasu Koreeda, or Nobi as everyone calls him.
Now he’s running the place.
The 30-year-old gardener begins his day at 5:25 a.m., before his family or the sun are up.
A man of few words, Bready’s quiet mornings in the garden are something he looks forward to.
“The moment my alarm clock goes off I hate it, but I love being here early in the morning,” he said.
Bready usually snoozes his alarm, sleeping an extra five minutes which delays his morning routine of feeding his pet Cockapoo-Pomeranian mix, Taco, and packing his lunch — leftovers from dinner the night before.
“In the winter it’s hard to start right away, it’s too dark,” Bready said. “But you’ll see the sun cracking over pretty fast, it’s cool. It sneaks up on you.”
The first two hours of Bready’s mornings are spent mostly on groundskeeping tasks. After a quick walk through the garden to check for any trampled or missing plants, Bready winds his way to the hidden area behind the garden. There he stops to feed the dozens of baby koi and goldfish kept in a small jacuzzi-shaped tub before reaching into a grey shed to pull out his Kawasaki leaf blower, a tool he’s fond of.
“This thing is badass, it’s really powerful,” Bready said.
10 minutes later the paths and walkways are spotless. The early morning fog still hasn’t lifted as Bready retrieves the garden hose to water the plants.
“I like watering. It’s like when you’re a kid and your parents let you play with the hose,” Bready said.
On some days his morning tasks might include power washing the garden’s plants and pulling weeds to raking gravel into water-like ripples in the zen garden.
As Bready finishes up the morning watering, he moves to a wooden deck above the garden’s focal point, the koi pond. He lifts up what looks like a magician’s trap door and sits on the square ledge, his feet dangling in the opening. One by one, he pulls out 13 metal cylinders and pours out the leaves and other debris caught in the filters. At least once a month Bready must wade into the pond and vacuum the mossy floor, too.
Bready recalled the time his old boss Nobi slipped on an especially slimy part of the pond while vacuuming the floor and fell into the water. The rush of pond water filled his wader, pinning him to the bottom.
“When the water got in, [Nobi] couldn’t get back to the surface and he said he couldn’t catch his foot because it was slipping, so he spent a couple seconds drinking pond water and thinking he was going to drown,” Bready said.
Eventually the disoriented gardener got his head out of the 5-foot deep water and swam out, Bready said.
There is no task too menial for Bready, but there are challenges that arise as the garden responds to the changing seasons and the inevitable punches nature might throw.
“I think the trees are the most difficult,” Bready said. “They are old, you want them to keep living and thriving and there’s a million things that can go wrong.”
But as Bready navigates the ever changing landscape of the garden, he must always keep in mind the original design, as envisioned by landscape architect Edward Lovell 36 years ago.
In order to effectively care for the hundreds of plants–each placed with a defined aesthetic purpose–Bready pools together his horticultural know-how, with the years of training with Nobi.
And he’s learned a lot, since growing up watering his father’s vegetable garden and mowing the front lawn of his house in Oxnard, California was the extent of his gardening interests. At the time he had envisioned a different future for himself.
“I was really into music,” he said.
Enthralled by electric guitar and Nirvana, Bready started playing music in his tweens. He took classical lessons in high school and went on to play guitar in a metal band.
He and his band even did a U.S. tour one year from Oxnard to Pennsylvania and wound their way through grungy dive bars until they made it back to California.
Bready didn’t glorify the experience.
“When you are on tour you don’t have much personal space. We didn’t even get to shower much, so we all started stinking real bad. We’d have to go shower at some random persons house from the show.”
After the tour, he said he felt that college was the most obvious alternative for pursuing a music career, until he changed his mind.
“I was undeclared for about a year and then I had to pick a major so then it was like, crunch time. I thought about criminal justice for a little while. Then my dad was like, ‘you don’t wanna be a cop!’ And I was like ‘yeah I guess I don’t,” Bready said.
While Bready floundered between major career decisions, the only constant was his job at the garden, learning from 28 years of hard-earned experience Nobi provided and a life lesson or two in the process.
“He taught me a lot about work ethic,” Bready said. “Just how your job is important because your job takes care of your family.”
The pair still see each other once a week, although their conversations are no longer guided by the dynamic of teacher and student.
“I talk to him every monday,” Bready said. “Sometimes we’ll go for a beer after work and get some food.”
After graduation, Bready was forced to end his time at the garden, but stayed at CSULB working briefly on his teaching credential, while supporting himself as a campus groundskeeper.
Then one day, on a sudden gut decision, Bready chose autonomy and sunshine over air-conditioned classrooms.
“I just kind of just decided [that] I like landscaping better,” he said. “I can advance my education within this field and do something more; it suits me.”
He returned to Nobi, no longer as a student but as his colleague, and worked with the Japanese native until his retirement in 2015, leaving the expanse in Bready’s gardening gloves.
“Seito in Japanese means student and sensei is the teacher,” Koreeda said. “[Bready] was the seito, but now he’s a sensei.”