Lauren Lucy Caddell '23
Back in my family’s local tourism phase, we had a tradition of seeing the cherry blossoms every year. Even if you don’t actively make an effort to go see them, it’s impossible to avoid noticing the many blossoms around the district for those few days each spring. It’s one of the aspects of DC that feels genuinely unique and has become part of the city’s culture over time. Every year, thousands of tourists come specifically to see the cherry blossoms due to their acquired fame over the years.
A little bit of history – cherry trees were first planted in DC in 1912 to symbolize the camaraderie between the United States and Japan. Cherry trees have been ubiquitous in Japan since the beginning of the nation’s history. In Japan, the cherry tree symbolizes both impermanence and renewal, and are part of many viewing festivals, a practice that has been adopted in the US also.
Similar to Japan, DC has cherry blossom season down to a science. The peak of the season depends on the weather, although it normally occurs in late March to early April. Temperatures are tracked starting at the beginning of the year to predict, down to the day, when the season will begin and the blossoms begin to emerge. When the weather is warmer, as it has been in the last few years, the season begins earlier. Perhaps season is a strong word, because the blooming can last as short as a few days and never more than two weeks. To someone who has never before seen the cherry trees, it can be difficult to explain the obsession with flowers that bloom only once a year.
All flowers are temporary, but cherry blossoms are the briefest of them all. A very windy day, or even, as occurred a few years ago in DC, a surprise late-season snowfall, and the blossoms are gone. They have an unusual ability to cover trees, roads and lawns as they fall, throwing what looks like a blanket of white-pink over the landscape. It is programmed into human disposition to appreciate more dearly what we know will soon be gone, which is part of what makes the cherry blossoms so beautiful to us. There is a Japanese term for this, mono no aware, that has no direct English translation. (Many thanks to the STA French IV class for introducing me to this term.) It refers to the awe that strikes us as we look at something before we even have time to process what we are seeing, a spontaneous and inexplicable feeling of sadness at the passing of time. Some Japanese scholars take this idea further and argue that the term applies not only to the appreciation of temporary things such as the moon and the seasons, but the understanding of the essence of all parts of nature.
I have never been a huge believer in the transcendence of mankind, but there is a certain kind of peace that strikes an observer of a cherry tree in bloom. It’s almost like we are tapping into the ancient well of emotions and thoughts that have been trapped in the branches of these trees over the generations, and adding our own contributions. If you do find yourself visiting the cherry blossoms this year, let yourself focus on them for a few moments. It is a widely practiced form of meditation to truly attempt to see and reflect on them, and their transient beauty.