This weekend found me scrutinizing the thin branches of the weeping cherry tree in my front yard. The blossom buds were frustratingly tiny, not surprising given that our nights have still been falling below freezing more often than not. Blossom watching is a springtime obsession of Washingtonians, who often will banter about the different varieties of cherry trees and, most importantly, attempt to predict when they will bloom. First come the classic yoshinos, usually in the last week of March or the first week of April, then the weeping cherries, and finally the double-blossomed cherries, which do not appear until the trees leaf out in May.
We got hooked on this drug of spring by the Japanese back in 1912 when they sent us a gift of over 3,000 cherry trees, which were planted on national park land around the Tidal Basin. Similar gifts brought cherry trees to New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other U.S. cities. But however much we may fuss over them, our fascination with cherry blossoms pales like a fading petal compared to the Japanese themselves. In Japan, the northward march of the blossoms is the only thing to rival baseball on the morning national news coverage each spring. And hundreds of thousands of people spread out their blue tarps in city parks like Tokyo’s Ueno Koen, take off their shoes, and kick back with a boom box, a light beer, and maybe some squid jerky. Even when the blossoms start to fade and fall, you’ll still see groups of office co-workers taking a rare and much deserved break in the park together, hoping for that lucky moment when a blossom petal falls into their sake cup.
This spring of course is a heartbreaking one in Japan. City parks served as a more literal refuge on that terrible day, much like San Francisco’s Dolores Park did during the 1906 earthquake. News coverage showed rattled office workers huddled together in Tokyo’s parks, looking for a place to rest, regroup, and perhaps attempt to call loved ones. The overall scope of the disaster is still unclear, except for the fact that it is very, very bad.
As we are prepare for our rites of spring, let us do what we can to aid in the relief effort for a people whose joy in this season of rebirth has been washed away like so many petals in a rainstorm. Let’s try to give some beauty and hope back this spring.
Elizabeth Beard is the Managing Editor for Parks & Recreation magazine.