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April is poetry month!  Just thinking about it makes me recall wilder, grander (younger) times when I spent my life carousing with poets, drinking infinite goblets of wine and talking all night about the great unfathomable mysteries of life and love.  Those days are gone, those friends have all vanished to wherever poets go, and the great mysteries remain unsolved (of course).  Yet, anon, it is spring once again.  There is a cold breeze blowing clouds across the white moon.  The garden is empty and dead, but the buds are starting to form on the cherry tree.

To celebrate these wistful memories and to celebrate the eternal art of poetry here is a very short poem by the original drunk master, Li Po, a roving carouser famous for descriptions of the natural world combined with intimations of otherworldly knowledge.  This poem is a good example–and a good spring poem.  The Chinese original is probably filled with cunning homonyms and allusions of which I am ignorant (at this point, everyone might be ignorant of some of them…Li Po lived in the Tang Dynasty from 701 AD to 762 AD).  But it seems like Jasper Mountain is an allusion to the court intrigues of the capital.  It also helps to know that peach blossoms are associated with celestial/fairy folk not unlike the Ae Sidhe.  Enough prose, here is Arthur Copper’s translation of Li Po’s succinct masterpiece:

IN THE MOUNTAINS: A REPLY TO THE VULGAR

They ask me where’s the sense

on Jasper Mountain?

I laugh and don’t reply,

in heart’s own quiet:

 

Peach petals float their streams

away in secret

To other skies and earths

than those of mortals.

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The ornamental cherry tree in the back yard circa present!

The ornamental cherry tree in the back yard circa present!

It’s cherry blossom season again!  Every year for a magical week, the ornamental cherry tree in the back yard garden blooms and the world is filled with happiness, joy, and beauty.  In past years I have already explained the historical roots of the Japanese hinami festival (which celebrates the beauty of the cherry blossoms) and rhapsodized about “Mono No aware” the awareness of transient beauty.  This year maybe we don’t need to read a philosophical post to appreciate the beauty of the blossoms.  We can skip straight to the garden pictures.

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In case you are wondering, the big strange mummy/fish/monster thing at the bottom of the 2nd picture is a sculpture project which I am working on.  It is the subject of my next post (but I need to put some glitter and fluorescent paint on it first, so that it doesn’t look like it crawled out of a forgotten tomb).  In the meantime, savor the pink blossoms.  It’s all so fleeting and exquisite…

Um...who could be unmoved by such splendor?

Um…who could be unmoved by such splendor?

The Tree of Forty Fruit by Sam Van Aken

The Tree of Forty Fruit by Sam Van Aken

If you have been keeping your eyes on the internet lately you have probably seen the shimmering tapestry of pink, purple, red, and white blossoms which is the “tree of forty fruits”. This is a stone-fruit tree which has been agonizingly grafted together out of numerous branches from heritage peach, apricot, plum, apple, quince, cherry and other rose-family fruit trees into a frilly pink Frankenstein of a fruit tree. The root stock is a hardy plum tree to which the other stocks are added one by one. The effect is simultaneously garish and beautiful—particularly in blossom season (though it must be impressive to see the tree in early fall when it is laden with heterogenous fruits).

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The tree of forty fruits seems like it might have been designed by a mad scientist, a huge biotech corporation, or a high-minded super-villain (like Poison Ivy or someone), but it was actually the creation of an art professor, Sam Van Aken. Van Aken gre up in rural Pennsylvania and he wanted to save the vanishing heirloom fruits of his youth. In an article about his project in Epicurious, Van Aken explained why he is working to safeguard these classic fruits, “In trying to find different varieties of stone fruit to create the Tree of 40 Fruit, I realized that for various reasons, including industrialization and the creation of enormous monocultures, we are losing diversity in food production and that heirloom, antique, and native varieties that were less commercially viable were disappearing,” To him the number forty has a talismanic quality which represents superabundance. He has already created 16 of the intricately grafted trees and he dreams of spreading them around the country and perhaps the globe.

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The tree of forty fruits is a living sculpture—a bizarre amalgam of trees, agriculture, and diligent manual artistry. It isn’t just a splicing together of different tree species, it is a hybridization of ancient fundamental human pursuits. If you told the nurserymen and sculptors of Babylon that we would live in a world with such a tree, they would applaud. So should we!

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I meant to finish off flower week last Friday with some photos of my garden in Brooklyn as it bursts into spring blossoms—but I was unable to find my camera (well actually I couldn’t find the charger for the battery of my camera). This past weekend I went through all sorts of drawers, shelves, and closets and finally found the missing unit in a cabinet which I swear I checked before—why don’t electronics manufacturers make these things the color of marine rescue equipment as opposed to matte black? Anyway, here is the back garden. After a long hard winter, it is pure joy to see the tulips, dogwoods, and bleeding hearts in bloom. I’m sorry I am not a very gifted photographer: the plants are so much prettier in the real world! However, maybe a little part of their beauty shows up in these photographs.

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Above all else, the star of the garden is the huge stately Kwanzan flowering cherry tree which overtops the house. The tree is so big that it is difficult to photograph all of it. Additionally no camera can do justice to the ineffable beauty of its stately pink blossoms (which I have written about in past posts about the Japanese blossom viewing festival and about the wistful poignancy of ephemeral beauty). I love that tree so much—maybe I’ll go out and take pictures of it tonight with the lanterns on (sorry about all of the ugly cords).

 

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There are some holes in the garden where summer plants have not yet sprouted (or where grim winter laid waste to the flower that was living there) but that is all part of the joy of gardening. I’ll try to post some more pictures with the irises, roses, and hydrangeas once they have bloomed. In the mean time it is a lovely season to head outside and enjoy the flowers!

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A wild Prairie Trillium

A wild Prairie Trillium

In the wild there are all sorts of brown flowers.  Trees, grasses, vines, and wildflowers frequently bear tiny brown or green blossoms so as not to draw the attention of herbivores.  Yet brown is an unusual color in the flower garden for the same reason.  For centuries (or millennia) gardeners have tried to breed, hybridize, or mutate flowers into increasingly vibrant shades of pink, purple, yellow, orange, red, white, and blue.  However, if you look through botanical gardens and flower catalogs for long enough, you will find a pretty brown variety of nearly every popular sort of garden flower.  Here is a tiny gallery—and the familiar favorites are surprisingly pretty (and unfamiliar) in shades of chocolate, caramel, auburn, and sienna.

Brown Hybrid Orchid (Warren Arthur Wilson)

Brown Hybrid Orchid (Warren Arthur Wilson)

Paphiopedilum faireanum

Paphiopedilum faireanum

Velour Frosted Chocolate Viola (from swallowtailgardenseeds.com)

Velour Frosted Chocolate Viola (from swallowtailgardenseeds.com)

Chrysanthemum (Brown Disbud Cremon)

Chrysanthemum (Brown Disbud Cremon)

Brown Bearded Iris

Brown Bearded Iris

Terra Nostra Roses (NIRP International)

Terra Nostra Roses (NIRP International)

Copper toned daylily

Copper toned daylily

Absalom Tulip from 1870 at Old House Gardens

Absalom Tulip from 1870 at Old House Gardens

Brown Gerbera Daisy

Brown Gerbera Daisy

Voodoo Magic Hibiscus

Voodoo Magic Hibiscus

 

Brown Gladiolus

Brown Gladiolus

Brown Sunflower

Brown Sunflower

The Picture Scroll of “Clustering Chinese Plum Flowers”by Chen Lu

Clustering Chinese Plum Flowers (Chen Lu, Early Ming, Ink on Handscroll)

The plum blossom is a favorite motif in Chinese painting.  Since the tree blooms at the end of winter it has long been a symbol of winter and the endurance of life.  Similarly, because ancient gnarled plum trees could bear elegant new blossoms, the plum evoked thoughts of long life.  Plums were also indirectly connected to Lao Tzu who was allegedly born under a plum tree.  For  more than 3000 years plums have been a favorite food in China and a favorite food for thought for Chinese artists and poets.

Plum Blossoms, hanging scroll, ink on paper

Plum Blossoms (Chen Lu, Ming Dynasty, ink on paper scroll)

These paintings are all paintings of plum blossoms by Ming dynasty master Chen Lu.  He was born in the early Ming dynasty in Huiji (which is today Shaoxing in Zhejiang province) and was one of the all-time greatest painters of bamboo, pine, orchids, and especially plum blossoms, but no one knows the exact dates of his birth and death.  The spare calligraphic lines of these monumental scrolls are interspersed with sections of wild chaos and with internal empty spaces.  The effect is not dissimilar from abstract expressionism—the plum boughs become an abstract internal voyage which the viewer embarks on through form & lack of form; from darkness to light and back.  This internal voyage element of his work was highlighted by the fact that the long horizontal work is a handscroll—the viewer is meant to spool through it and thus appreciate the modality of discovery and change (if you click on the horizontal scroll at the top of this post you will get some of this effect, although the image is smaller than one might hope).  Additionally plum blossoms opened in winter and so they are frequently interspersed with white snow and ice—an even more trenchant juxtaposition of life and non-life.

Plum Blossom and the moon (72.8*155.7 cm, by Chen Lu, Ming Dynasty)

Plum Blossom and the Moon (Chen Lu, Ming Dynasty, Ink on Scroll)

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Pagoda Trees in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

In this part of the world, most of the truly spectacular flowering trees bloom in spring.  The redbuds, magnolias, cherry trees, and the empress trees all burst into blossom months ago. Do any trees flower in the very heart of summer?  Well, actually all sorts of trees flower now, but many of them have tiny blossoms or green flowers which are not easily seen.  The pagoda tree however (Styphnolobium japonicum) is not so modest: during the end of July and the beginning of August the trees can be found covered with bursting clusters of off-white flowers.

The Pagoda Tree or “Chinese Scholar Tree” (Styphnolobium japonicum)

Pagoda trees obtained their English name because they were planted around Buddhist temples throughout East Asia. The species name “japonicum” is a complete misnomer—the trees actually originate in China and were imported to Japan (where they first came to the attention of botanists).  In English the trees are also known as scholar trees or “Sophoras.”

Seed Pods on the The Pagoda Tree (Styphnolobium japonicum)

Pagoda trees grow slowly but they can eventually become large growing up to 10-20 m tall (30-60 ft) with the same breadth.  They are members of the sweetpea family, which becomes evident in autumn when the trees are festooned with strange long seedpods which resemble huge yellow snow peas. Like other popular ornamental city trees, the pagoda tree can tolerate high pollution and poor soil quality.

A memorial stone where the last Chongzhen Emperor hanged himself (the actual tree was uprooted and killed during the Cultural Revolution)

In China, the pagoda tree is esteemed for its beauty but it has a more sinister reputation than it does here. In 1644, a peasant army was storming the Forbidden City after conquering all Imperial resistance.  The Chongzhen Emperor, the last Ming Emperor, ordered a lavish banquet for all of the women of his family.  When the meal was finished he killed his wives, concubines, and daughters with a sword and then went outside and hanged himself on a pagoda tree.  The actual tree lived a long prosperous life but was uprooted and killed. Even the Chinese name 槐 is somewhat sinister, combining the characters for wood and demon.  This is partially because the pagoda tree does not suffer other trees to live near it in its native forests and partly because of harrowing old Chinese myths about families that died when living in houses made of pagoda tree wood.

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.

Different pictures of grave side devotions which characterize the Qingming festival

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.

Qingming kite making in Yinchuan, capital of northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region

Magnolias at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Spring has come early this year and the beautiful tulip-like petals of New York City’s magnolia trees are already beginning to fall into great drifts of white and pink.  If you stop and pick up one of the pretty petals from such a pile you will be surprised by the leathery resilience of the delicate-looking petals.  The durability of the petals of magnolia flowers is not coincidental—the flowers are different from other common flowering trees because Magnoliidae trees were among the first flowering trees to evolve.  The earliest known fossils of such flowers date from the upper Cretaceous period around 130 million years ago. Magnoliidae petals are tough because they were originally meant to attract the attention of beetles rather than bees (which do not appear in the fossil record until 100 million years ago).  Since there were no insects specially adapted to live as pollinators when magnolia-like trees first appeared, the petals and reproductive structures of these first flowering trees had to be robust to survive attention from the hungry clumsy beetles (toughness which has passed on to the modern ornamental trees).

Paeleobotanists have not yet unraveled the entire history of the evolution of flowering plants (indeed, Charles Darwin called the abrupt appearance of flowers in the fossil record “the abominable mystery”) however magnolia-like trees appeared long before the great radiation of angiosperms which occurred approximately 100 million years ago.  The first magnoliid trees must have seemed tremendously strange–explosions of color and shape surrounded by great uniformly green forests of gymnosperm trees (like the familiar conifers). Magnolia blossoms betray evidence of their ancient lineage through several “primitive” features: the petals are nearly indistinguishable from the sepals; each flower has many stamens which are arranged in spiral rows; there are multiple pistils; and all of the stamens and pistils are supported by a “fingerlike receptacle.”

By attracting the attention of animals (either through the colorful appearance and appealing scent of flowers, or by the edible nectar and fruit) flowering plants were better able to reproduce themselves.  Magnolias spread around the temperate world and began the complicated interdependent relationship which all sorts of animals (including humans) have with flowering plants.

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