The Cherry Tree in the Backyard

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.”

A scops owl flying past a flowering cherry tree; the full moon behind (Koson aka "Naga Oban", 1910, woodblock print)

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.