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I am still thinking about Lady Xia’s pet gibbon, the first and last known representative of its kind, and the subject of yesterday’s post.  After I wrote about the interwoven fates of rice and trees and men and apes, I spent a long time looking through Ferrebeekeeper archives for the beautiful gibbon poem which I alluded to in the essay, but I came to realize that I never did write about it, so today’s post is another post about pet gibbons in ancient China. Bear with me, for the poem is an exquisite piece of history, and a remarkably soulful examination of pets…and of the winsome sadness of life itself.

The poem was written by Wen Tong (1019–1079AD), a scholar-artist of the Northern Song Dynasty who was famous for his bamboo paintings. Allegedly he could simultaneously paint different stalks of bamboo with both hands, and lovely examples of his work are still extant a thousand years after he painted them…as is poetry about his favorite pet (As an aside, medieval China featured a class of learned polymaths who were masters of writing, erudition, gardening, and “painting without financial reward”: there is no clear career analogy in the modern western world although the painting without financial reward part sounds rather familiar).

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Wen Tong wrote about his love and admiration for his pet, and the poem quietly reveals a great deal about the household mores and emotional norms of well-to-do life in the Northern Song dynasty (note how the painter has so many retainers that he just passingly assigns one to look after the gibbon).  It is a lovely and heartfelt window into a vanished world which is well worth examining line by line. As a poetic device, the back-and-forth switches from first person to second person keeps readers attentively off balance and yet draws them closer to both Wen Tong and his gibbon.  Although, the writer’s privilege and possessiveness shine through, so does his kindness, playfulness and curiosity (perhaps there is a reason he got on so well with his remarkable pet that we are still thinking about it all of these centuries later). However, the final stanzas transcend the writer’s time and place.  The poem speaks to the uneasy and fraught relationship we have with our fellow life-forms.  For animals have their own lives and hearts and spirits, no matter how much we want to love and possess them. Wen Tong also delves into the realm of the existential, questioning the apparently painful randomness of fate, which mocks notions of ownership and control.

Don’t let my clumsy words put you off reading the actual poem (coincidentally I have taken the whole translated work from “Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras: Understanding the World’s Most Intriguing Animals” By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson).  It really moved me greatly and I hope you will also find it to be equally enchanting and sad.

it really is extraordinary and I think it will move you

Last year a Buddhist Monk of Hua-p’ing, in the Min mountains,

Obtained a gibbon for me and had it delivered from afar.

On arrival he was already tame and accustomed to captivity,

And his swift and nimble movements were a delight to watch.

He would come and go as told, as if he understood my speech

And seemed to have lost all desire to return to his mountains.

Put on a leash he was not interesting to watch,

So I set him free and let him romp about as much as he liked.

On a moonlit night, he would sing, swinging from a branch,

On hot days he would sit by the flowers and doze facing the sun.

When my children were around or my guests showed their interest,

He would hang upside down or jump about showing his tricks.

I had told a man to look after all his needs,

So that he never even once lacked his seasonal food and drink.

Yet the other day his keeper suddenly told me the gibbon was ill.

He stood on my steps, the gibbon in his arms, and I went to look,

Offered him persimmons and chestnuts, but he didn’t glance at them.

Legs drawn up, head between his knees, hunched up with folded arms,

His fur ruffled and dull, all at once his body seemed to have shrunk,

And I realized that this time he was really in great distress.

Formerly you were also subject to occasional slight indispositions,

But then after I had fed you a few spiders as a remedy,

After having swallowed them you would recover at once.

Why did the medicine fail now, though given several times?

This morning when a frosty wind was chilling me to the bone,

Very early I sent someone to inquire, and he reported you had died.

Although in this world it is hard to avoid grief and sadness,

I was tormented by repentance and bitter self-reproach.

You could be happy only when near your towering mountains.

You had been yearning for far plains and dense forests.

You must have suffered deeply being on a leash or chain,

And that was why your allotted span of life was short.

I had his body wrapped up well and buried deep in a secluded corner,

So that at least the insects would leave his remains in peace.

Mr. Tzu-p’ing, my western neighbor, a man of very wide interests,

When he heard about this, slapped his thigh sighing without end.

He came to inquire several times, in deep sorrow over my loss,

Then, back home, he wrote a long poem of over a hundred words.

Reading those lines my lonely heart was filled with sadness.

Well had he expressed the grief caused by my gibbon’s death!

He also tried to console me by referring to life’s natural course, “That

Meetings result in partings, subject to the whims of fate.”

I took his poem out into the garden, read and reread it

Then, looking up at the bare branches, I burst out in tears.

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.

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