A SYMBOL OF THE SEASON
This time of year, even in a winter as mild as this one, 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 ofJapansent 3020 cherry trees to theUnited Statesas a gift of friendship. According to the story I read, President Taft’s wife and the wife of the ambassador fromJapanplanted the first two cherry trees. (These two original trees are still standing today near the John Paul Jones statue at the south end of17th Street.) The cuttings were grafted from trees growing along the banks of theArakawaRiverinTokyo. From that small beginning, thousands of cherry trees, all gifts from the Japanese government, were planted around theTidalBasin.
During the Second World War,Tokyolost scores of cherry trees in the allied bombing raids; after the surrender, horticulturalists took cuttings from the trees inWashingtonand sent them back toTokyo. Years later, some of theWashingtontrees died, andTokyosent 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.