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In Northern and Central Europe, the last day of April is the last day of winter and darkness. The holiday known to the ancient Gaelic people as Beltane is the opposite of Samhain (aka Halloween): in spring, the forces of darkness and the underworld come out for a last wild dance but are driven away by the burgeoning summer. The holiday is called “Walpurgisnacht” in German and Dutch, however the Estonians know it as “Volbriöö, (Walpurgi öö)”, the Swedes call it “Valborgsmässoafton” , The Czechs know it as “Valpuržina noc”, and the Finns, bucking the trend, call the celebration “Vappu”. Except in Finland, the festival is named after Saint Walpurga, an English missionary who proselytized among the Franks and Germans in the eight century (and who was canonized on May 1st).
Walpurgisnacht is one of the ancient touchstones of German art and culture. Tradition has it that demons, spirits, and naked witches from around Northern Europe come together on that night to dance around bonfires on the Brocken, the highest mountain in Northern Germany (although only a hill compared with the mighty Alps in the south). The climax of Goethe’s Faust takes place on Walpurgisnacht as the witches and spirits attend the devil (although it seems like ancient pagan versions of the holiday were centered around fertility goddesses). Likewise in The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp finally talks at length to the bewitching Madame Chauchat on May Eve as the sanatorium erupts into primeval merry-making.
To celebrate this strange haunted pagan fertility festival I have included three great images from German art.
Du Fu’s life does not sound like the model of happy success, but history judged him very differently. Although his work was initially dismissed and garnered little attention even in the era immediately after his death, in remained in circulation and then suddenly began to grow in popularity. Each generation regarded it more highly than the previous and it became worked into the aesthetic and philosophical framework of Chinese society. Today Du Fu’s works of poetry (from across all classical Chinese genres) are among the most famous works of Chinese literature. His poetry has had a unique seminal influence on almost all subsequent poetry and he has been canonized as one of the greatest Chinese writers.
In late sun, the river and hills are beautiful,
The spring breeze bears the fragrance of flowers and grass.
The mud has thawed, and swallows fly around,
On the warm sand, mandarin ducks are sleeping.
(translated by Mark Alexander)
Last spring my flower garden was sad. I planted a ton of daffodils, crocuses, tulips, and irises, but, thanks to squirrel depredations, I ended up with one mangled tulip of indefinite color (which was ripped apart by a squirrel the day after it bloomed). The squirrels in my part of Brooklyn are angry hungry monsters. Rap music and powerful Jamaican curries have desensitized them to noises and smells which would scare off lesser squirrels. No one traps or shoots them–so they do not fear the fell hand of man.
This year I have been desperately trying to keep my bulbs alive long enough to bloom properly. Every evening since mid-March you can see me out back throwing hot pepper and garlic powder on the garden like some maddened chef. I have spritzed an ocean of animal repellent on the little green buds. I have studded the garden with glittering mylar pinwheels and festooned it with scary helium balloons. Yet every day another bud is taken. The crocuses were all ripped up. In the end, I wonder if anything will actually blossom, or if it was all once again in vain.
However there is one exception to this story of attrition and doom! Yesterday the first flower bloomed in my back yard…and it was not at all what I was expecting. Primulaceae, the primroses are native to Europe from Norway south to Portugal and from the Atlantic coast east all the way to Asia Minor. Perhaps I should not be surprised that the primrose is first to bloom considering it lives wild in Norway, the land of polar bears, glaciers, and marauders. Most garden primroses have been heavily hybridized, but last year I bought a specimen which looked most like the common European primrose, Primula vulgaris, and it survived a whole year to bloom again! The flower has five beautiful butter yellow petals with center around a bright yellow eye.
I was hoping to provide some exciting primrose lore, but the humble flower does not seem to feature in many myths and legends. According to Wikipedia, it was Benjamin Disraeli’s favorite flower, so crafty parliamentarians should at least be drawn to this article. Anyway, spring is finally here so prepare for everything to get better.
The vernal equinox will be here in a few days. This welcome news is hard to believe because the temperatures in Brooklyn are still dipping into the twenties at night. However the first bulbs are beginning to crop up in the garden (although the insatiable squirrels nip them down as quickly as they appear). A few bulbs have already flowered: one of the earliest of spring flowers, the Galanthus (or snowdrop) has one of the most fragile and delicate appearances of any garden plant. The translucent white hanging flowers resemble dainty tropical moths and grow from tender green shoots.
There are 20 species of snowdrops—all of which are hardy perennial herbaceous plants. The pendulous white & green flower of a snowdrop has no petals but consists of 6 large tepals (3 of which are larger than the others). Snowdrops naturalize well in Northern deciduous forests. Because they bloom so early they have the entire woodland to themselves and they form magnificent white drifts almost reminiscent of famous bluebell woods.
Numerous poets, writers, and artists have alluded to the snowdrop as a symbol of hope and a metaphor for the passions of spring. For example Hans Christian Anderson wrote an uplifting story for children about a snowdrop desperately aspiring to the light then blooming only to be picked and pressed in a book of poetry. [Ed. As an aside, does anyone remember why Hans Christian Anderson was such a beloved children’s author?]
Snowdrops are not just a lovely harbinger of spring, they also have a tiny place in one of the great unfolding fights about bioengineering. Snowdrops contain various active compounds useful for medicine or with insecticidal properties. In 1998 a Hungarian scientist, Arpad Pusztai, publically spoke about rodent studies conducted on potatoes which had been transgenically altered to express snowdrop lectins (for insecticidal purposes). Dr. Pusztai asserted that the modified potatoes were causing damage to the intestinal epiphelial cells of the rats (and imputed broader health dangers to the modified tubers). The subsequent scandal impacted science, media, politics, business, and culture. The scientific community came to the conclusion that Pusztai’s research was flawed (while anti-GMO community flocked to his support and rallied around his work as an example of how GMOs could potentially be dangerous).
It is spring again and the huge ornamental cherry tree which lives in my back yard is blooming (weeks earlier than it bloomed last year). Frequent readers know my fondness for both trees and flower gardens; and the Japanese cherry tree magnificently combines both things. It is a stately and elegant mid-sized tree of great vigor, which for one week (or less) is covered in clouds of gorgeous pale pink flowers. When it is fully in bloom, the tree is unrivaled in its beauty. Even the most lovely orchids and roses do not put on a display so simultaneously delicate and ostentatious.
Last year I wrote about the Hanami festival, which has steadily grown more important in Japanese society since its beginnings a thousand years ago during the Nara period. The flower appreciation festival now grips Japan as a national fervor which dominates the spring season and monopolizes the news. Hanami however is merely an outward expression of a much larger cultural concept, “Mono no aware” (物の哀れ) which translates approximately as “”the pathos of things” or “sensitivity to ephemera.”
Mono no aware involves a gentle wistful sadness for the impermanence of all things. The cherry blossoms come back year after year, yet childhood fades away before one even knows. Lovers with whom we dallied under the pink branches move out and drift away. The mayflies die. Our pets die. We die. Life runs by so quickly that we might as well be cherry blossoms ourselves, here for a beautiful fleeting moment before being shaken away into oblivion by some gust of wind or random happenstance. The idea of life’s beautiful brevity grows out of the flinty Buddhism for which Japan is famous and it gives rise to many famous tropes of Japanese culture (like the stoic samurai prepared to throw away his life in a lightning quick duel, or the suicidal lover, or the moth in the flame). There is an undercurrent of cupio dissolvi running through humankind and it seems particularly pronounced in the Japanese psyche.
However I like to imagine Mono no aware (and the cherry tree, and all trees, and all living things) less in terms of Japan’s Buddhism and more in terms of the animistic nature-based religions of East Asia like Shinto or Daoism. Look at the cherry blossoms more closely over many generations and you will see that they themselves change. Today’s blossoms are big showy gaudy things engineered by untold generations of nurserymen to appeal most directly to human taste. If you look long enough you will see that blossoms themselves are an innovation—a design leap by which plants appeal to animals to help out with the critical work of reproduction (and it works tremendously well! There is a cherry tree from Japan in my back yard in Brooklyn). The seasons themselves change, as demonstrated by this year’s unseasonable warmth (to say nothing of the warmth of the Eocene). The oceans rise and fall. Animals burgeon and fall into extinction. The world is made of clouds and storms and water rather than unchanging stone. In fact that metaphor doesn’t even hold up– geologists look at mountain faces and see the eons of erosion and shift with uncanny clarity. The stones themselves dance and shift and change as much as the fickle water (albeit so slowly that we can not clearly see them do so).
Year after year the blossoms come and go. It is beautiful and sad. But it would be sadder if they never opened up, or even sadder yet if, having bloomed, the pink petals never fell but hung forever as though in some fairy land. Change is a critical part of living things. Children grow up for a reason. Lovers quarrel and part because they did not belong together. The samurais and warriors and noblemen of yesteryear have been replaced by kinder smarter better people, and it is to be hoped that we will likewise be replaced. As you sit drinking beneath the flowers and the stars, don’t be overwhelmed by the fact that spring flashes by so fast. Be appreciative of the beauty and meaning you have today and start dreaming of how to make the next spring even better.
Happy Tomb Sweeping Day! The 104th day after the winter solstice is celebrated in China as the Qingming festival. Throughout China, People go outside to tend to the graves of deceased loved ones and to enjoy the beauty of springtime.
As the English name implies, the holiday is also an occasion to carefully tend and restore revered grave sites because, above all, the Qingming Festival is an occasion for ancestor worship. Celebrants visit graves and tombs with offerings for the dead. Traditional offerings include roosters, flowers, paper decorations, pastries, tea, incense, chopsticks, wine and/or liquor.
In addition to being a day to show respect for the dead, Tomb Sweeping Day is a celebration of the changing seasons. People go on family outings together to enjoy blossoms or fly kites (these kites are usually shaped like animals or heroes from Chinese opera). Some people carry flowers or willow branches with them throughout the day or decorate their houses with willow branches–which are believed to ward off the wandering dead.
Here is one of my all time favorite paintings by the peerless hand of one of history’s greatest painters. Guo Xi was a Chinese literati painter from the Northern Song dynasty. He was born and lived in Henan from (approximately) 1020 AD – 1090 AD.
Not only was Guo Xi a matchless scroll painter, he was also a scholar, a writer, a gentleman, and a philosopher who thought deeply about the world he was painting. Guo Xi’s paintings look a little bit like all subsequent Chinese paintings because nearly every subsequent painter either copied him or (more flatteringly) deliberately set about attempting not to copy him. He has a position similar to Giotto in the west, and is famous for perfecting “floating perspective” and writing a treatise on how to paint landscapes.
The painting above, titled “Early Spring” is his magnum opus. Using successive layers of black ink wash Guo Xi has portrayed the wet forests of Henan in March or April, just before the trees and flowers burst into bloom. The billowing clouds are mixed up with floating gray boulders and mountains. The melt water and rain of late winter storms is cascading down the mountains in numerous rivulets and waterfalls–which empty out into mountain pools and lakes. Even though the trees and gorse are bare, there is an impalpable hint of spring in the painting. Though leafless, the vegetation seems anything but lifeless. The cold of winter has not passed but the first tiny hints of better weather seem to be on the way.
It is easy to miss the extensive human presence in this painting because the temples and pavilions of humankind are dwarfed by nature, but, as one zooms in (which you really should do by clicking on the image), one sees that people are indeed involved in the painting. On the right, fishermen ply their trade amidst the cold rising water while a second group of boatmen have landed on the left side and prepare to schlep their goods up the mountain to the sacred buildings in the center. Part way up the hill, a sage listens to a woman play the flute. The tiny people seem excited for spring to come. They look cold but happy as the elements and seasons swirl and change around them.
The heights of the mountain which blend into clouds are free of people. Covered in serene pines, they hint at an esoteric realm we can only aspire too. But even on the rarefied heights the relentless progression of seasons and the world is evident. The painting shows the of natural flux—of tao—and it suggests that for all of our hauteur, humankind is subject to nature and its relentless whirling change.
Discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1781, the seventh planet in our solar system is named for the Greek deity Uranus, the original skygod of the Greek cosmology. In classical myth Uranus was castrated and supplanted by his youngest son Cronus (Saturn) who then fell before Zeus (Jupiter) and indeed, the third largest planet in our solar system (in volume) is often overlooked by astronomers, whose eyes are trained on the dramatic gas-giants Jupiter and Saturn. Only one mission has flown by Uranus–Voyager II, which captured the following undramatic photo in 1986 as it whipped through on its way to Neptune.
All of this is a shame, Uranus is not only the first ice-giant planet but it is unique in the solar system for rotating vertically rather than horizontally (probably thanks to some apocalyptic super collision long ago in the planet’s history). From our perspective, the moons of Uranus orbit around it like a clock’s hands and its sporty red rings sometimes give it the appearance of a target. Uranus has an incredibly long rotation around the sun. One Uranus year equals 84 Earth years. Because it spins vertically rather than horizontally, one pole is cast in a super winter which lasts twenty of our earth years (remember the poles of Uranus are on the equator). Voyager flew by during the deep freeze of winter to get that boring photo up there, but now the seasons are changing and spring is coming to Uranus’ northern pole while fall is coming to the south (I wish there were a different name for the side poles—this is really confusing to write about).
Because of the seasonal change, huge storms (the size of a continent on Earth) are tearing through the Uranian atmosphere with 500 kilometer-per-hour methane winds. Keep in mind that Uranus has the coldest atmosphere in the solar system, probably because the collision which knocked it on its side dissipated its primordial heat (although nobody really knows). Temperatures there get down to a chilly –224 °C. Brrr!
The spring storms are apparently dramatic and fierce enough to be seen from Earth. Yesterday astronomers reported the appearance of a huge white speck with an albedo ten times that of the planet. This methane storm probably looks like an immense immense thundercloud spreading above the usually placid blue cloud cover of the ice world. Saturn has been going through its own cycle of super storms recently (in addition to the great hexagonal storm raging on its north pole). Its tempting to adapt the folksy mannerisms of country smalltalk and suggest that weather in the solar system has been bad lately–but humankind is probably only just now able to apprehend such phenomena!
Spring passes by so quickly. Only a little while ago I was looking out at the March ice and wistfully writing about the redbud tree, fervently wishing it would finally awaken in crimson blooms. Now most of the glorious trees of spring have bloomed and their flowers have already fallen. The cherry blossoms have come and gone. Summer is on its way with its roses, lilies, and foxgloves, but the trees have largely finished their majestic yearly display. However “largely” does not mean entirely. Walking around my neighborhood this week I have noticed many beautiful shade trees covered with fountaining red blossoms. Since New York City has been busily planting new specimens of every sort of tree, quite a few of these pretty mystery trees are still wearing plastic labels from the nursery (sometimes it is easy to practice dendrology in the city!). It turns out this lovely tree goes by the unlovely common name “red horse chestnut.”
The red horse chestnut tree is not a chestnut tree at all: its name is due to the fact that the horse chestnuts and buckeyes (which comprise the Aesculus family) were once erroneously believed to be related to true chestnuts. The name Aesculus means “edible nuts”, but this name too is a misnomer: the nuts are slightly poisonous, containing alkaloid saponins and glucosides. In fact the red horse chestnut tree I noticed on my way to work this morning isn’t even a naturally occurring species of tree. It is a cultivar between Aesculus hippocastanum, the common horse chestnut tree of Europe, and Aesculus pavia, the red buckeye or firecracker plant—a showy native shrub of the American south.
The Germans have long been fans of Aesculus pavia, the common horse chestnut tree, a large beautiful tree with spreading boughs and big white blossoms which appear in late spring. In Bavaria the horse chestnut tree was planted above the underground storage caves and cellars where lagers were stored. Brewers and beer enthusiasts once cut ice from ponds and rivers and kept it in these insulated shaded cells to cool the beer during summer (in fact lager means storage in German). It is believed that Germans first hybridized their mighty horse chestnuts with the ornamental American buckeye shrubs to obtain a cultivar with the best aspects of both–presumably so the beer gardens would be even more pleasant in May thus making lager drinking even more delightful. The first red horse chestnut trees seem to have appeared in Germany around 1820.
Whatever the case, the red horse chestnut trees in my new neighborhood are certainly very beautiful right now. I hope you have noticed that this miniature essay about horse chestnuts is really an elegy to this year’s fading spring. It was a very lovely season and you only get to enjoy four score or so springs in your life (give or take a few dozen). It is the merry month of May and summer is coming. Now it is time to go outside and sit beneath the horse chestnut trees of your garden and enjoy life with your friends and family.
Genieße das Leben ständig!
Du bist länger tot als lebendig!
(Constantly enjoy life!
You’re longer dead than alive!)