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February 29, 2012

Several years ago, I wrote about the cherry trees that bloom every spring in our nation’s capital. I shared how they are forever linked in my mind to books and the pleasure of reading. When I re-read the post, I felt a longing for something that could reach across the deep divide we’re experiencing now. I know it’s simplistic to think we can solve the very real problems facing us by talking about cherry trees and books, but maybe if we could stop shouting for a few minutes and take time to think about nature’s many gifts  and the great ideas found in books, we’d remember how much we have in common.

I think most of us yearn for spring and look for signals of the renewal that the season promises. We all rejoice in the sight of the first tiny shoots of green that poke through the soil. We delight when a wren couple chooses the house we left for them. The cherry trees blooming in our nation’s capital is another symbol of spring – a special favorite of mine.

Every year there are dozens (maybe hundreds, even thousands) of photographs of the cherry trees in bloom, but no matter how artistic and original some of them are, the image that sticks in my mind is the first one I remember seeing. It was the picture on the award they used to give to kids who had read a requisite number of books during the school year. For every five books we read, we were given a small, rather plain certificate – not, in itself, a very impressive document. The real prize came after we had collected five of the small certificates: an award with an imposing dark blue cover and, on the inside, a photograph of the cherry trees in full bloom and a large certificate with our name written in flowery script and the words “Reading Achievement Award”. I still remember how I cherished those awards and how proudly I presented them to my parents, who in turn showed them to aunts, uncles, and grandparents while I pretended modesty. The cherry trees in bloom were a tangible symbol of the intangible reward I gained for doing something I loved. As a child, I had no idea that they are also a symbol of something much larger.

I was an adult before I learned the history of how the cherry trees came to be planted in Washington, D. C. In 1912, (100 years ago!), the people of Japan sent 3020 cherry trees to the United States as a gift of friendship. According to the story I read, President Taft’s wife and the wife of the ambassador from Japan planted the first two cherry trees. (These two original trees are still standing today near the John Paul Jones statue at the south end of 17th Street.) The cuttings were grafted from trees growing along the banks of the Arakawa River in Tokyo. From that small beginning, thousands of cherry trees, all gifts from the Japanese government, were planted around the Tidal Basin.

During the Second World War,Tokyo lost scores of cherry trees in the allied bombing raids; after the surrender, horticulturalists took cuttings from the trees in Washington and sent them back to Tokyo. Years later, some of the Washington trees died, and Tokyo sent cuttings back across the Pacific.

I love the ebb and flow of the story of humble tree cuttings being exchanged by two proud nations. It inspires me to know that a gift of friendship survived a terrible war and became the centerpiece of an annual festival in the capital city of one. (The 2012 Cherry Blossom Festival will be celebrated from March 20 through April 27.) Those first cuttings have become a symbol of the season of renewal and, for me, they are still a symbol of the rewards of reading.  It seems a fitting combination.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 1, 2012 9:00 AM

    Sandy, how lovely! I knew the trees arrived here as a gift, but I had no idea the two nations have been exchanging them back and forth like that. What a wonderful thing. And what a nice symbol of your reading success as a child – to know the beauty of the trees and their life enrichment transcended differences between US and Japan, in a manner similar to the way reading can transport us to other places, and a good story transcends cultural differences.
    Okay, that’s kinda philosophical. What I mean to say is: how pretty!!! *vbg*

    • March 1, 2012 9:10 PM

      Philosophical is good, Jennifer. Thanks for sharing. I agree nature has a way of transcending artificial differences.

  2. March 1, 2012 9:00 AM

    I never knew the story of the cherry trees. I love when there is a history behind things we see and often take for granted.

    Like reading.

    Great post Sandy

    • March 1, 2012 9:11 PM

      Kathye, I just learned about the history of the cherry trees recently and fell in love with the story. I too love it when I discover some seemingly simple thing turns out to have a complex history.

  3. March 1, 2012 4:49 PM

    Very thoughtful piece, Sandy. Enjoyed reading it!

  4. March 2, 2012 10:02 AM

    Sandy your lovely blog is so timely. I will be visiting Washington DC for two days in May which I have been assured is the cherry blossom season. My cousin who lives in San Diego (the next leg of our trip) said that we had to stop over to see the cherry trees. I had no idea of the history though. Now I will look at them from a whole new perspective and I will also remember you gaining your Reading Achievement Award certificates too. What a lovely picture that makes.

    • March 3, 2012 9:35 AM

      Thanks for your comment, Sheila. I hope the trees are still blooming for you in May. Whether they are or not, Washington is a wonderful city and I hope you have a wonderful time.

  5. March 2, 2012 11:03 AM

    What a wonderful story, Sandy.

    And it fits so well in how authors take stories from other authors and make them their own, and others reading them and so on. A flow of knowledge (or trees) partaken.

    Thank you for this reminder of spring.

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