NEW YORK – Walking up the iconic stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on a cold April morning with my family, in the midst of an endlessly brown and dry landscape, we chanced upon a sequestered, silvery pink alcove of weeping willow cherry trees, with silken threads of blossoms, trailing the old grounds.
While the spring air wafted and shuffled through the frail branches, the morning sunlight was scented with shadows from the past. when these trees were planted on a high rocky elevation almost a century back. As timeless gifts to the US from Japan, the trees were in luminous drapes of clouds that felt as sacred and pure as solitary temples lost in the bell chimes of a fragrant silence.
As an altar to the high priestess of beauty, and, with an awakening call to the vast surrounding barrenness that winter had finally reached its tethered end, these Japanese cherry tree groves were revered as sentient beings that shelter loving and nurturing spirits.
To have one growing in one’s home is to bestow the land with luck and charm. In Japanese culture, it is forbidden to cut a branch or even to pluck any of its incandescent blossoms, lest spirits are disturbed.
Hanami, in Japanese, is “flower-viewing” – a custom that dates back to the Nara period in the 8th century that noted the celebration of flowering trees in spring. The queen among them all was the sakura. During these celebrations of forest bathing, a walk amongst the trees or simply a reverie in moments of silence under the branches was a spiritual tradition.
People gathered underneath for a picnic, with sake and bites of cakes, to pay homage to the earth waking up from its slumber in the form of ephemeral, light blossoms.
An evening hanami is called yozakura, where the trees, frosted in pale pink, are lit with twinkling lanterns and lights under the deep canopies of the night sky.
A haiku written by the poet, Matsuo Basho, mistily reminiscences,
How many, many things
They call to mind
These cherry blossoms!
Writing in the twentieth century, the American poet, Louis Gluck, in Vita Nova, writes about tables under the apple trees and her mother holding plates of little cakes,
By the tables patches of new grass, the pale green pieced into the dark existing ground. Surely spring has returned to me, this time not as a lover but a messenger of death, yet it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly
In other words, the return of flowers to the writer and all of nature’s muses were soaked by the rush of bittersweet memories of childhood and of years gone by.
Another mythical vine that sometimes escalloped entire streets is the bejeweled wisteria, also a symbol of long life and love. Generations would pass by under the shelter of this vine as it grew into sweeping profusion, spreading over acres. In its rapt tapers around the country-side in early May, it embodied the essence of immortality, magnificent beauty, grace and fragrance.
Much like the hot pink bougainvillea in tropical countries that quickly covered up walls, the wisteria hung in a cascade of shimmering waterfalls—its blooms, are an unreal welter of what fairy tales are made of. Delicate and fragile, like tear drops, though they may appear, they have a great capacity to endure harsh conditions.
The blossoms, falling in masses of exquisite tapestry, are redolent of prayer and worship in Shin Buddhism. The branches, bent in gentle supplication, are a call for peace and quiet and an acknowledgement of divine essence in the universe.
“In the gifted air, mosquitoes, dragon flies and tattered mute angels no one has called upon in years,” writes Stephen Dunn, in the poem Landscape at the End of the Century.
In Japanese drama, Fuji Musume (Wisteria Maiden), a lovely maiden is portrayed holding a branch of wisteria in a painting. Destined by fate, she falls in love with a young man and steps out of the painting with the trembling prospects of love, hope and promise. Alas, her affections go unrequited and she retreats into the still life of her painting, still clutching onto the lonely branch of weeping wisteria.
Like a full-bodied symphony, spring comes laden in the fragrance of ancient lilac trees while the petals of the cherry tree lie in lush carpets on streets and pathways. Under the falling rain, whiffs of lilac float in the evening air with the freshness of a lilting lily and musk rose.
My neighbor’s old lilac tree stands in purple sheaths of velvety blossoms. Her husband had planted the young sapling several decades back when they had bought the house together. Now their window eaves are covered with its intoxicating blooms. When their giant saucers of shaded pink magnolia fall away, the lilac comes to its splendor, lighting up heavy reflections from poetry read long ago.
In the language of flowers, lilacs symbolize love and first innocence. And its complex aroma of variegated notes carries into the far distance, filling an entire garden. They were brought by the colonists from Eastern Europe and sometimes reach to a height of about thirty feet.
In colors of wistful white, pink, mauve, violet and blue, they line up the outdoors of the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia right next to a cluster of pearly white lily-of-the-valley. Among fresh greenness of the trees, the heavenly scent suffuses the air with unforgettable magic – the likes of which create a nostalgic homesickness.
Among the lines of poetry that swiftly come to mind are Walt Whitman’s pastoral elegy to life and death:
Lilacs blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
My lilac bushes spill over to the sidewalk and are sniffed out by the neighborhood puppies in their evening stroll. Intertwined with cherry blossoms and peeping violets on the grass, in the damp smell of the night, when the moon rides over the garden, the scent of lilacs weave in a line from another poem, Sprig of Lilac by Hyam Plutzik:
The living and the past give to one another, there is no door between them. They pass freely out of themselves; becoming one another.
Lilacs in the front yard are also an old-fashioned way of warding off evil in medieval folk-lore.
The legends and stories that have sprung up underneath these sprawling forests of amethyst and emerald trees have been the fountains of wisdom and wonder, watering the rivers of human civilization in its serpentine growth and expansion.
The flowers, eddying through blanched, newly minted leaves, inspired the writer, Iris Murdoch, to exclaim that, “people from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.”
Ephemeral spring only translates to a blurred memory of Shakespeare’s “darling buds of May” as the year transits to summer, but it remains heaven incarnate on earth.
(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications)