(I know I was) it’s easy enough to take yourself down the Mosholu Parkway to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. However, the place’s Cherry Collection –sounds like a high-end clothing line – might not be in full bloom yet. That’s okay. Cherry trees are spectacular even if they are just barely flowering. Like Prunus cerasifera var. divaricata.
Why did George Washington chop down a cherry tree? Unsure, and it might be a myth, but that could be another strike against him along with the facts that he sic’d his Revolutionary soldiers on the Indigenous peoples of the Northeast, also that he blew off spunky and beautiful Mary Philipse, and also that he had severely scarred skin from the smallpox he contracted as a youngster. That last was not his fault, so we’ll forgive him. And he does score a few points for freeing the 124 enslaved people that were his “property,” albeit after his death.
But I digress. My friend Barbara and I were kvelling somewhat yesterday over the first few blossoms at the NYBG on an early spring day as crisp as a Granny Smith apple. Well, I was kvelling, but Barbara was shivering.
Even on a cold afternoon with a milky sky like yesterday’s they were lovely. Or perhaps especially on a day with clouds! The blossoms show up better. On a blue-sky day everything cherry-related almost overwhelms with sugary sumptuousness.
We saw just a whisper of blossom, a smudge of pink…
Trees on the verge, holding on to their promise, most of them barely in bud. The sense of expectation was palpable.
In a week or two this cherry orchard will be mobbed. Yesterday, there was no one around. Silent, and under the cottony clouds all the more mysterious.
Without all the frou frou of flowers, you become aware of the skeletons of the statuesque mature ones. The weepers. Their bone structure.
You could really notice the lenticels on the bark, the raised pores — the elegant horizontal stitchery that helps the tree breathe. Among the older, wizened specimens we saw a young one, no longer a sapling but more a teenager in cherry years.
Barbara and I ventured from our usual haunts along the Hudson River just for these trees. They’re about the only things that could pull a sane person away from our habitual perambulation, the River is so beauteous, so perfect.
In Japan during sakura season over 1,000 locations around the country showcase cherry blossoms and millions of people take themselves out into groves to worship the trees and ponder the ephemeral nature of being. American arborists like to make a joke: How many trees does a regular person think there are? Christmas trees, and everything else. But there is one notable addition. Almost everyone knows these pink-white clouds of blooms every March and April along the eastern seaboard. They are just about the only trees people actually make pilgrimages to see. Even people who are not tree people become converts.
Barbara’s not only my walking buddy but my writing friend. Between our effusions over these flowers we talked of words and our experiences putting them on paper. The rare triumph when you succeed. The disappointment when you fail. The need to get what you care about out there to readers. We don’t have to explain why we need to, it’s so integral to each of us.
We stood at the edge of cherry blossom way. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? I asked. Barbara’s father before her wrote novels. He had a bestseller, after which the family moved into a nicer house. When she was little, Barbara said, she had wanted to be a painter. Her father presented her with a gift when she was 10 years old. “I’m going to give you the best present you’re ever going to get,” he said. She opened it and found a blank book, pages empty for her to write her own words.
When I was in elementary school I filled blank notebooks with my childish loopy signature scrawled over and over because that’s what I believed writers did. I seem to recall my parents feeling I was wasting paper. Only much, much later would I come to know how rare the honor is for a writer—actually signing your name in a published book for some reader who thinks your work is valuable.
Sometimes people came to their life’s work early. I’ve been reading a biography of the ornithologist John James Audubon in which he recounts one of the curious things which perhaps did lead me in after times to love birds, and to finally study them with pleasure infinite. A nanny kept several parrots and a monkey as pets, and when the biggest parrot demanded its breakfast one morning – Milk and bread for the parrot Migonne! — the monkey up and murdered it. The sensations of my infant heart at this cruel sight were agony to me…
Barbara’s knee sometimes hurts her. My foot aches. We are neither of us young. On the outside. Inside we are sixteen, or twenty one. The authentic age, the age when words flow one to the next uninhibited, unencumbered by physical defects. The life of the mind, of the senses. You could be in a wheelchair and kvell over cherry blossoms. In actuality writing and kvelling are synonyms. Ways of encountering the world. Appreciating your environment. Taking its measure.
With cherry blossoms we celebrate not only the perfect flowers on the branch but the petals as they fall and drift off in the breeze. As they perish. No tragedy, just the way it is. Life and death, the whole kaboodle in a brief breathtaking moment.
So Barbara and I talked about writing. We always talk about writing. It’s what we do. Yes, we talk about health, husbands, idle gossip about people we know. But it always comes back to the experience of stringing words together and then, secondarily, the sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating effort to get those words out into the world.
Barbara runs a program called Story Shop, a creative arts workshop that’s all about the intersection of art and writing, in which she encourages kids to create original stories but not necessarily on paper – the narrative can be assembled out of found objects, drawn, mapped, acted, sung. A key piece these days, she said, is building miniature worlds.
She explained that the kids she knows in middle school tell her that today, teachers say that when you write you must only do so from your direct personal experience – not employing the voice of another gender, race, even an animal. One student told her that she was dissuaded from making up a story about aliens because she’d never been to outer space.
So you couldn’t write a story from the perspective of a cherry blossom, I suppose, like this Prunus ‘Hally Jolivette.’
That, my friends, is tragic.