Today at work I saw a family with three little girls and their parents walk into the parking lot. The little girls each had cherry blossom branches covered in flowers. It made me so sad and angry. Cherry blossoms are so incredibly gorgeous, and are all the more gorgeous because they only appear during a small window, and they herald the start of spring. There is much to be said about appreciating impermanence that might go beyond what your average UW campus cherry blossom viewer would know or care to understand. But so carelessly and thoughtlessly breaking branches off and taking them home with you… I don’t think of anything as “sacred” but I imagine this is how highly religious people feel when they see religious icons or buildings desecrated.
Of course the difference here is that, unlike, say, burning a church, there is no repercussion, no vengeful God, or even the threat of any such thing. Nothing is stopping anyone from tearing down all the cherry trees (although if you take it the extreme of deforestation, and the havoc it’s wreaked on the earth, the repercussion is climate change, which might be worse than a vengeful God). But there is still something lost, something at stake.
But even at that I’m not primarily concerned with the environmental aspect. A few girls breaking off cherry blossom branches will not be the straw that broke the earth’s back. What is so frustrating to me is that by taking those branches home, they won’t appreciate them in the way that the ought to be appreciated: as fleeting stages of beauty in the cycle of nature. They will take them home and maybe put them in a vase and let them wilt and then throw them away, far from the tree the came from.
Instead of leaving with a sense of wonder, and hopefully a yearning to look forward to the changing of the seasons and the arrival of cherry blossoms again and again in years to come, they break the spirit of wonder and make it their own. Of course that never turns out well. It will never be their own. It will never belong to anyone or thing, but to the process of change itself. Carrying those branches they looked more like kids leaving a fair clutching oversized stuffed animals. And there’s nothing wrong with that in the right situation. There is nothing wrong with holding onto certain things and memories. Some things aren’t so fleeting, even though they are changing.
Even though it made me mad to see them with the branches, I wasn’t mad at them. I was mad at their parents maybe, who should have known better. But most of all I felt sorry for them. Sorry that could have experienced something beautiful and inspiring but didn’t. And maybe it’s wrong to be so hopeful. Maybe they wouldn’t have appreciated it otherwise, and that’s not something that I can affect in any case. Maybe they’re just little girls who didn’t know any better and that’s okay. But their parents have no excuse. And even if they had experienced the cherry blossoms in a way that I never would have, or done things I would never do, that doesn’t matter. They’re not me, they shouldn’t repeat my actions. But I would hope that they would at least have experienced their own refraction of the source of the trees’ beauty.
I bought a book of poems today by the Zen master and poet Ikkyu. I like his poems because they express a spirit of Zen that is not quietistic or strictly monastic, but Dionysian, Nietschzean. His sense of passion and joy is not rooted in anything but passion and joy in and of themselves, and that comes through amazingly in his poetry. I read this poem today and it reminded me very much of the situation I saw with the girls:
That stone Buddha deserves all the birdshit it gets
I wave my skinny arms like a tall flower in the wind
The girls made a stone Buddha out of those branches, and themselves, and so did their parents. But tonight as I walked through the quad and stood in the middle looking all around at the cherry blossoms, I waved my arms, laughed, shouted! And then left before my mind even had time to quantify or reason what I had seen and experienced.