Ballet-slipper pink, wedding-dress white, purest cameo; blossoms are crowning the streets of Vancouver in this, the enchanted season.
In our time, flowers of the cherry, plum and magnolia have never bloomed so profusely, luxuriously, endlessly. Trees of akebono, amanagowa, grandiflora, kiku shidare, pieris japonica, pendula, stellata, taihoku, yoshino: mellifluous names, luscious as their blossoms.
In the fullness of sun, the absence of rain and non-occurrence of wind, fragile petals have lingered on and on for days.
Could there be a better time, thirteen months into a pandemic, for looking up?
A better reminder of patience than observing the tight bud of a magnolia unfolding, leisurely, into a teacup of petals: varicolours of porcelain pink; inside, milky white?
“But I can’t see anymore,” my mom says when I describe the clusters of shell-pink blossoms adorning our street.
You may remember Sakura, a post in which we mentioned Cherry Blossom Epiphany, 3,000 haiku selected, translated & explicated. In this book for springtime, Robin Gill presents Japanese haikus from centuries past, many with various translations. Daily, I have been reading a selection of these haikus to mom, each of us choosing our favourite translation when more than one is offered. Here’s an example from Chapter 1, “Waiting for the Bloom,” in which Robin offers his variations of a poem by tantan (1673-1761) on the Japanese custom of making special trips to see particular cherry trees.
wanting to see them
in the morning, i sleep
with the blossoms
a real blossom trip
leaving at night
to see them in the morning
Mom, unfussed by her fading memory (and asking, almost daily “Do we have cherry trees in Saskatchewan?”), especially liked “fuzzy recollection” by saigyô (1190). She prefers the second translation.
takes a spring mind
but who recalls
their age when first
swept off their feet?
our true love
for flowers flows from
a spring heart:
how old was I when
i first fell for them?
She liked this poem, also by saigyô, in the chapter “Babushka, or Old Dame Cherry,” its philosophy very much hers.
ever forgets about
so wait calmly and
just let life go on
Yesterday, Magellan walked over to the VPL to pick up a book I had on hold called The Sakura Obssession. In it, Hiroshi Saitô, Japan’s ambassador to the United States in the 1930s, is quoted comparing cherry blossoms to roses:
There is earnestness in the rose, but animation in the cherry. The rose holds to life till the very last, while the cherry makes light of death and dances down in the breeze.
The rose with its thorns stands for rights, while the cherry for duty with its unobtrusive colour. The rose is individualistic and self-assertive, the cherry is to be enjoyed in clusters, each flower losing its individuality in the making of the whole.
But the cherry and the rose have one thing in common: beauty, which is a joy forever.
In the chapter “Late Cherry,” four translations were presented for an undated poem by ichiyo. Mom couldn’t decide between these two. Your preference?
the late cherry
would stay a spell longer
in spring’s bed.
not yet ready
to let go of her spring
the late cherry.
The title of today’s blog and its last words come from “The Enchantment Season,” a poetic tribute to the ephemerality of cherry blossoms in The New York Times by a young American woman of Japanese descent named Hanya Yanagihara.
The pleasure of seeing a cherry tree bloom is the sorrow of knowing it will soon be over. To be in the presence of one is to be humbled before nature, and moreover, to be welcoming of that humiliation. A sakura is the human life condensed into the period of a week: a birth, a wild, brief glory, a death. It is to us what we are to the sweep of time—a millisecond of beauty, a memory before we are even through.
The quintessence of the enchanted season, what the Japanese call wabi-sabi, appreciating beauty in nature that is imperfect, impermanent, incomplete.
These are the days for to look for beauty, to hold fast the memory, to be enchanted.
Abe, Naoke. The Sakura Obsession. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019. Subtitled “The Incredible Story of the Plant Hunter Who Saved Japan’s Cherry Blossoms,” Naoko tells the story of Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingram. From ten wild species more than 400 flowering varieties had been cultivated in Japan over 1,200 years, beginning in the eight century. A philosophical desire for cultural homogeneity led to the horticultural sameness in the twentieth century; seven of every ten specimens of cherry trees in Japan were Somei-yoshino. Because they are clones, the flowers of this tree bloom together and only survive for eight days, or less. Thanks to the reintroduction of ancient species in Japan and around the world by “Cherry” Ingram, Japan (like Vancouver) now has a kaleidoscopic cascade of soft-pink and gossamer-white blossoms that stretch the hanami season to two months. A renaissance of cherry blossoms.
Gill, Robin D. Cherry Blossom Epiphany. USA: Paraverse Press, 2007. The Poetry and Philosophy of a Flowering Tree, a Theme in Praise of Olde Haiku, with Many More Poems and Fine Elaboration—well-fingered are the pages of this 720-page volume during the enchantment season.
Hanya Yanagihara. “The Enchantment Season.” The NYT Style Magazine. November 17, 2019.