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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Bones of Jade, Souls of Ice

Wang Mian's "Blossoming Plum"

On my bike ride through Bidwell Park this afternoon, I noticed the first several blooms on one of the dozens of Wild Cherries scattered amongst the bays and oaks of the woodland. Only a couple of flowers on one spindly branch, mind you—but they made my heart sing. You may be in the middle of winter, but when the Prunus trees begin to blossom, it’s a promise from the universe that spring is beginning its slow amble toward your part of the world.

In Japan, of course, the Japanese Cherry ( Prunus serrulata) is the center of national attention in the spring, as its bloom is tracked from Kagoshima on the southern tip of Kyushu island northward up the entire island chain, with thousands of people thronging the parks and Shinto shrines featuring this harbinger of spring.

In China, for over a thousand years the blooming of the Chinese plum ( Prunus mume) has been eagerly anticipated in January and February. This tree can live for over a hundred years, and its branches are suitably black and craggy, adorned by patches of snow in winter. The mid-winter flowers of the Chinese plum burst from these black branches, delicate five-petaled flowers braving the worst that winter can do. They laugh at snow and frost, asserting that even in the midst of what appears to be death and hopelessness, purity and life can yet assert itself.

For century after untold century Chinese nature-lovers would bundle up and hike or ride mules deep into the mountains in search of the first flowering Chinese plum, and when they found it they would sit enraptured by the courage and beauty of the flower as they sipped their hot tea from the portable stove and composed a poem. Here’s one by Zhu Dunru, from the early twelfth century:

“At the old creek, a single flowering plum / It escaped being locked in a garden or park / The road is far, the mountain deep / It does not mind the cold / It seems to play hide-and-seek with spring / Hidden thoughts—who knows them? / Contracting friendships it’s always hard to hit it right / Lone romance, lone fragrance -- / The bright moon comes to look for me.”

As the last line hints, nighttime viewing by moonlight was considered the height of the flowering plum experience. Court nobles with ample means planted entire orchards of flowering plum in their gardens and every year hosted parties on the full moon at the height of the bloom, hiring musicians and professional courtesans to entertain the guests. Much wine was drunk, and poetry contests held to properly celebrate the occasion.

Others celebrated in other ways, moving their beds outside beside the trees during the bloom, waking throughout the night to admire the sight. And of course to write a poem about it. Here’s Su Shi, from the vicinity of Huizhou in Guangdong province, on 5 January, 1095:

“In Flowering-Plum Village at the foot of Luofu Mountain / The flowering plums’ bones are of jade and snow, and their souls of ice / In their multitude the blossoms seem moonlight hanging from the trees / In their brightness they are alone with Orion on the horizon at dusk.”

What a tree, to have bones of jade and souls of ice!

In the early years of our marriage, Tammy and I lived in a home with an almond tree in our backyard. Believe it or not, almonds are also in the genus Prunus, and quite closely related to peaches. (The almond itself is not in fact a nut, but is rather the seed secreted within the hard covering of the “pit”.)

We’d sit under the tree in the evenings during its February bloom, enjoying the subtle fragrance and the view. From there, it was but a step to moving our bed outside beside the tree. Well, not our actual mattress: I fabricated a plywood shelf resting on cinder blocks at four corners, and put a futon-like bedding material upon it. The mosquitoes were unpleasant, so soon I had a framework above the bed over which I’d drape netting from our local army-surplus store. Though it took half an hour to set the situation up every night, it was well worth it in starlit and moonlit nights. This pleasant habit came to a crashing and complete halt when kids came along, of course (tho I still sleep on a cot in the backyard on full-moon nights in spring and summer).

Among the most famous lines in the staggeringly huge corpus of Chinese poetry come from “Small Flowering Plum in the Garden on the Hill,” by the Song poet Lin Bu, written in the early eleventh century from Hangzhou. In the poem, he says of the tree and its flower-bedecked branches:

“Its scattered shadows fall lightly on clear water / Its subtle scent pervadaes the moonlit dusk.”

Recite these two lines (which others translate as “Its sparse shadows are horizontal and slanted—the water is clear and shallow / Its hidden fragrance wafts and moves—the moon is hazy and dim”) to any educated Chinese of the last thousand years, and they will instantly recognize them, much as we in the West might recognize the Mona Lisa (or, today in America, a famous line from a movie, such as “Go ahead, make my day” or “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”)

Beyond poetry, the Chinese flowering plum became emblematic of the talented man who spurned official positions in the political snakepit of the Chinese imperial court, to devote his life instead to the study and enjoyment of nature in seclusion. Like the flowering plum deep in the mountains, he was an example of purity and beauty in his self-imposed exile from what others called “civilization.” The recognition of the “Flowering-Plum Hermit/Recluse” dates back to Tao Qian in the early fifth century. Perhaps the most famous of these was our friend Lin Bu, author of the famous lines quoted above, who lived on Gushan (“Lone Mountain”) Island in the West Lake of Hangzhou, of whom it was said that the many flowering plums he planted and tended were his wife, and the red-crowned cranes he raised were his children.

Ever since Lin Bu, the man of uncompromising integrity in China, indifferent to fame or riches, daring to be eccentric and devote his life to nurturing the plain enjoyments of the natural world, has been regarded as a Plum-blossom recluse—and admired and understood as such. Blooming, as it were, in obscurity, but happy none the less.

So my sighting today of Bidwell Park’s first Prunus blooms makes me happy. Even tho it’s only early February, I know that in a couple of weeks the park will have scattered wild cherries shining with flowers amongst the wintry oaks, sycamores, and bays. The almond orchards surrounding Chico (and the remnants of orchards remaining in neighborhoods throughout the small city) will be resplendent with blooming trees. The local bicycle club will host its Almond Ride through the blossoming orchards. And best of all: spring will soon be here, drawing us all outside more to enjoy the wildflowers, the air, the sky, the mountains. Feeling great to be spending more time back home in the natural world.

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