TREE TALES: UNDER THE CHERRY BLOSSOMS
I remember our first Sakura Festival at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Our daughter was only four. The blossoms were glorious: rows of pink and white clouds on high branches, and merry people below, eating, drinking, and laughing. There were plays, concerts, and fashion shows, all celebrating Japanese culture. And the petals fell from their flowers all day long on the happy crowd as the festivities unfolded. It was a memorable day.
Sakura is the Japanese name of the Prunus serrulata, or Japanese cherry. The Land of the Rising Sun has celebrated the peak of spring for thousands of years eating, drinking, and flirting below the blooming crowns of Japanese cherry and other species of the genus Prune. The hanami, as these blossom-viewing sessions are called, had Japanese religious origins, with the white petals of the cherry blossoms carrying mountain gods to the human realm. Courtly celebrations – involving much eating, drinking, poetry reading, dancing, and singing – was first recorded in the year 712, and seems to have been initially restricted to the Imperial elite, though it is believed that commoners also celebrated the cherry blossoms in rural areas. Later, in the years of the Shogunate, it became a standard in samurai society, and eventually permeated to all spectrums of Japanese society.
The Sakura Festival is as much about the social as it is about the flowers. Brooklyn will be holding its own, as it has been doing since 1982, in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden this weekend on Saturday, April 27th and Saturday, April 28th. We were looking for a quieter, more intimate experience, so we decided to go visit those few cherry trees that—we hoped—had just awaken from the long winter slumber two weeks before the crowds take their best spots below the cloudy canopies. To our surprise, there were a number of trees already flaming with white petals below the gray sky, mostly around the pond in the Japanese garden. And there were many people enjoying the beauty of not only the cherry blossoms, but also, the magnolias, that were opening their pink, purple, and yellowish chalices everywhere in the park, exhaling the most intoxicating sweet and spicy cinnamon aromas.
Clouds: that is the image that better describes those luminous cherry blossom crowns. The space below the cherry blossoms is accurately heavenly. No words. We simply pointed to the miracles as we saw them. The sky was low and grey, threatening rain. But no day is gloomy when immersed in such vaporous beauty. We just wanted to live here forever—eating, drinking, and being merry below a steady drizzle of white petals.
THE FESTIVAL OF THE CHERRY BLOSSOM’ IN THE TALE OF GENJI
Lady Murasaki Shikibu (c. AD 938–1031) offers an eloquent description of the Sakura Festival in her 11th century classic novel The Tale of Genji. The narrative, often praised as an accurate portrait of the decadent Japanese aristocracy of the time, tells of the love adventures of Prince Genji, son of the Emperor, while revealing detailed aspects of courtly life. One such aspect was the celebration of the cherry blossom festival, and it is described in all its richness.
“About the twentieth day of the second month the Emperor gave a Chinese banquet under a great cherry tree of the Southern Court . . .After some promise of rain, the day turned out magnificent; and in full sunshine, with the birds singing in every tree, the guests (royal princes, noblemen and professional poets alike) where handed the rhyme words which the Emperor had drawn by lot, and set to work to compose their poems.”
Poetry, dancing, singing—as well as drinking and eating, of course—were some of the typical activities that the court enjoyed at the cherry blossom parties. But the sublime pleasures were not restricted to daytime. The celebrations went on well into the night, as guests and hosts looked for new sensual adventures better suited for the moonlit hours, as Lady Murasaki explains:
“The moon had risen very bright and clear, and Genji, heated with wine, could not bear to quit such a lovely scene.”
She then relates how the persistent prince, unable to give up in his night quest, eventually follows the source of a delicate voice humming a famous poem to find a lady guest still up:
“’Oh, you frightened me!’ she cried. ‘Who is it?’ ‘Do not be alarmed,’ he whispered. ‘That both of us were not content to miss the beauty of this departing night is proof more than clear than the half-cloud moon that we were meant to meet,’ and as he recited the words, he took her gently by the hand and led her into the house, closing the door behind them. ”
The flowers’ invitations to pollinators are hard to refuse. In the context of The Tale of Genji, that invitation is also extended to human lovers as the reproductive season enters full bloom. Love and sexuality have their place in the ephemeral space created by the blossoming trees. And that is perhaps what the Emperor is trying in this enigmatic message to Genji:
“Were my flowers as those of other gardens never should I have ventured to summon you.”
LOVE AND THE FLEETING NATURE OF PLEASURE
According to a few sources that I found, mostly design and gardening pages, Chinese culture offers a different interpretation of the cherry blossom. Feminine beauty and power, an association intimately connected to sexual attraction, seems to be the emphasis in the Chinese reading of the cherry blossom. And I did find one example from the 4th century Chinese poet Chan Fang-shēng where the cherry blossom clearly stands as a symbol of love and attraction: “At the time when blossoms/Fall from the cherry-tree” read the first two lines of the poem, as it sets to describe the differences that separates to lovers physically and metaphorically, to finally end with an invitation to reconciliation:
I have brought my pillow and am lying at the northern window, So come to me and play with me awhile. With so much quarrelling and so few kisses How long do you think our love can last?
We already showed that in “The Festival of the Cherry Blossom”—the actual title of the chapter from The Tale of Genji that I quoted above—the symbol operates at this level from the onset, as the Japanese entertain themselves with a night of Chinese poetry below the cherry trees. But it is true that Japanese literature offers many examples of interpretations more closely related to the fleeting nature of life, tragically analogous to the short-lived beauty of the cherry blossoms.
Matsuo Basho (1644–1694) dedicates many of his haikus—a form invented in Basho’s time—to cherry blossoms, and in each explores this poignant subject from different perspective, not disregarding the pleasure of contemplation:
White cloud of mist above white cherry-blossoms . . . Dawn-shining mountains
Nor the more sensual joys of hanami:
Under cherry-trees soup, the salad, fish and all . . . Seasoned with petals
These short insights into the hedonistic pleasures work as a contrast to the ineffable true:
Must springtime fade? then cry all birds . . . and fishes Cold pale eyes pour tears
And to make sure that we drive this point home, one more contrast, this time with the long-living Oak King:
The oak tree: not interested in cherry blossoms.
THE SADDER SIDE OF BLOSSOMS
A symbol of the transitory essence of human life, the cherry blossom was regarded as a representation of the samurai fearless attitude toward death. Harakiri or Seppuku—that element of the Bushido code that most sharply contrasts with its European counterpart— was also inevitably associated with the short-lived flowers: the samurai aspired to the honor of falling at the peek of their beauty like the fallen petals that covered the ground in spring.
One story tells about Jiuroku-zakura (Cherry-tree of the Sixteenth Day), an ancient tree that blooms every year on the sixteenth of the first month of the lunar calendar. Iyo, and old samurai that played below its branches since he was a little boy, had a deep love for this tree. One day, the tree died. Iyo was an old man with no one left in this world—all he had was that tree that had seen generations of his own family come and go. Iyo was devastated, until he realizes he can save the cherry tree by giving it his own life—just like the hare in the Buddhist tale sacrifices itself for the hungry traveler. Iyo then set a white cloth under the tree and performed hara-kiri on the sixteenth day of the first month of the lunar year. The tree, now possessed by the ghost of Iyo, blossomed again, and it still does to this day, every year on the sixteenth day of the first month of the lunar calendar.
During World War II, kamikaze pilots attached cherry branches to their uniforms before leaving on their final missions. The blossoms, representing both beauty and death, were also painted on the sides of their tokkotai, or kamikaze planes. There are cherry trees planted at the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial devoted to soldiers fallen in duty since the Meiji period. The national symbol of Japan still blooms every spring as a consolation for the souls of those who died defending the Empire.
BLOOM AND LAUGHTER
The word sakura is derived from the root saku, which means to bloom and also, to laugh. People bloom below the cherry trees, and laughter is a common sound of hanami, where hana means flower, and mi view. It is impossible for the human heart to remain impassive at the heavenly display of cherry blossoms: they offer a sublime break from our prosaic routine, a chance to reflect on the shortness of that miracle we call life, a chance to stop and feel the petals landing on our heads as we laugh.
One of Lucia Berlin’s stories included in her book Evening in Paradise is called “Cherry Blossom Time.” It tells about a stay-home young mother, Cassandra, and her daily routine in the West Village with her two year-old Matt. One day she notices that her daily patterns are as rigid as those of the postman. Cassandra’s husband, David, a struggling writer, also seems trapped in his own quotidian jail, working a job in the textbook division of a publishing house, and complains bitterly when he hears her compare her routine to the robotic routine of the postman. Their daily lives seem to respond to fixed patterns impossible to break: little Matt does not react well to changes in the order of their daily activities and David cannot leave his job to fully pursue his dream.
One day, as Cassandra sees her own little prediction come true (Cassandra, in Greek mythology, was cursed by Apollo with the gift of accurate prophecies that no one would believe) when Matt falls from the swing in the Washington Square playground and cuts his lip. Overwhelmed, she compels herself to look at the positive as she consoles Matt. Then she notices the cherry blossoms:
“They have been coming out little by little, but it was that day that they were lovely. And then, as if because she saw the trees, the fountain turned on.”
The next day, Cassandra decides to completely change the routine. Instead, they bring food and blankets and have a picnic in the park, then they sing until they fall asleep. When she wakes up, she “sees the pink blossoms against a blue sky.” Cassandra then tries to change the mailman’s routine, and she’s only partially successful. At the end, Cassandra can’t pull David out of his own routine, but the cherry blossoms have offered her and Matt the opportunity to see a way out, to experience the uniqueness of every moment, even when life seems to be a collection of repetitive habits.
So let’s pack some food, a nice cold drink and head to the nearest cherry tree. Let us bloom and laugh while the petals still fall.
* Reprinted from the Go Green! BK Hub, the 24/7 representation of the annual Go Green! BK Festival.