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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.

So, it’s been a while since I put up a garden post.  The simple reason for this long omission is that I have moved (well also it was winter).  I had a delightful spring garden planted which I had hoped to showcase here–but the vicissitudes of the world intervened.  I have now moved from Park Slope (where no one who is not an investment banker can afford to dwell) to Ditmas Park, a diverse neighborhood of ramshackle Victorian mansions and elegant row houses. On this exodus, I took with me all of the plants that I could put in pots.  Naturally, spring plants do not like this sort of rough handling so mortality was high.  You should picture one of those cattle drives where, after great hardship and tremendous effort, only a few cattle are alive at the end. Um, except instead of rugged cowboys imagine me, and instead of shaggy longhorns picture tulips and daffodils [ed. Are you sure this metaphor holds up?]

Cherry Blossoms in my new back yard this spring

Anyway, the happy conclusion of all this is that my new garden is much more beautiful than the old one was. The ground is rich and fertile and, best of all, some ingenious landscaper from long ago planted a variety of gorgeous trees. This forethought provides the subject for this post, for the new garden features a Japanese flowering cherry tree, the undisputed emperor of ornamental trees.  The tree is old and huge.  It looms high above the two story house and spreads across three (or maybe four) lawns.

Hanami no en (Kunichika Toyohara, 1862, woodblock print)

Such trees are the central focus of spring festivities in Japan where “Hanami” festivals have involved viewing cherry blossoms and reflecting upon the nature of life (and drinking) since the Heian era.  Initially such flower parties were attended only by the imperial family, but the trend of festivals for sakura viewing was soon picked up by the samurai nobility.  The custom combined with the similar tradition of farmers who annually climbed up nearby mountains in springtime to have lunch under the blooming trees.  Soon Hamami was adopted by all classes in Japan as a time of drinking and feasting under the sakura trees.  Tokugawa Yoshimune, an eighteenth century shogun, arranged for the mass planting of cherry trees to encourage the tradition.

Today, the Hanami festival is the major annual spring festival in Japan.  A “blossom forecast” is carefully watched as people prepare their parties.  Then when the trees are blooming, the Japanese spread mats or tarps on the ground to drink and dine alfresco beneath the falling petals.  Of course many people are more interested in eating (and, more particularly, drinking) then enjoying even the most beautiful flowering trees. They are mocked as being “hana yori dango” (more interested in dumplings then flowers) and their drunken antics and passed out bodies are a major component of hanami time in Japan.

As you can see in the photos, the cherry tree at my new place is not the only tree blossoming in the back yard.  It is joined by a showy crabapple tree with deep pink buds and a flowering dogwood.  All of these beautiful trees mean that I’m back to shade gardening and my roses are living out front by the bustling street.

The Cherry Tree (foreground), the Flowering Crapabble, the Dogwood (pale green on the left) and some little white blossoming tree which belongs to the neighbors (right background)

I was bent on fully celebrating hanami with my friends. In the spirit of “hana yori dango” I had already thought out a menu of sake, dumplings, and grilled meats, but, due to a scheduling mischance, I will be on holiday in Los Angeles next week (which is a good problem to have). I have included photos of the initial blooms from my backyard but my roommate ensures me that the blossoms become even more fulsome as the whole tree morphs into a living pink cloud.  I suppose it is fitting that I am going to miss this peak bloom as sakura blossoms are an ancient and enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life’s joys.  Indeed to the stoic Buddhist and Shinto faiths which have taken root in Japan, the blossoms are symbolic of the brevity, beauty, and fragile nature of life itself.

"Under the Cherry Blossoms" (by Kunisada, 1852): This could have been me!

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