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Abi Echevarria, Japanese Gardener

Abi Echevarria came to work for the Olmsted Conservancy in 2004 through Erie County’s Workfare program, a federally funded welfare-to-work initiative that places participants in jobs with the Conservancy and provides them training, in the hopes that they will be retained as permanent employees. The program, made possible by the county takeover of the city’s Olmsted Park system, worked exactly as intended in Echevarria’s case: Today he is the foreman in charge of Delaware Park’s celebrated Japanese Gardens, on Hoyt Lake beside the Buffalo & Erie County Historial Society. On Friday, Echevarria and some of his colleagues will travel to Kanazawa, Japan, where they will attend workshops on Japanese gardening techniques and philosophy, courtesy of Buffalo’s Friends of the Japanese Gardens.

What’s the secret to Japanese gardening? What’s the philosophy behind it?

The secret to Japanese gardening is to have respect for everything—for things you see and for things you don’t. It may be October and you don’t see snow but you know it’s coming, just as in winter you have to plan for the spring.

What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?

My favorite part is going to a park and calling it my office. I worked for eight years in a factory that didn’t have windows.

My least favorite part is being reminded about people—they’ll walk through natural beauty and litter the area with wrappers and beer bottles. They’ll also damage trees horsing around and breaking branches for soon-to-be-discarded souvenirs.

Tell us about your upcoming trip to Japan.

Buffalo’s Friends of the Japanese Gardens invited me to Kanazawa, where I will be joined by others from Western New York.

When my flight leaves the continental United States I will be flying over the Pacific Ocean for 13 hours before I see land again. It’ll just be ocean; we are not flying over any islands.

Abi Echevarria—a good Japanese name. What’s your heritage? How and when did your family come to Buffalo?

Abi might pass for Japanese, Jedi, and possibly kosher, but Echevarria won’t. My family came to Buffalo from Puerto Rico by way of New York City. You can trace our name to Basque region of Spain, where there are more Echevarrias than there are Smiths and Joneses in the United States

We were in Puerto Rico for over 100 years before coming to Buffalo in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

What will happen to the garden while you’re gone?

I like to stay on top of the garden every day. Many people don’t realize that we’re dealing with something that is alive.

But I also know that while I’m gone there are very capable people such as Bob Stotz and Humbert Baez Jr. keeping an eye on things.

The garden isn’t about just one person or one thing, it’s about many, and if you’re quiet and if you’ll listen, you can hear it…

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