Traditional Solace in Tragic Times (Photos)

April 4, 2011 Updated: September 29, 2015

NEW YORK—The horticultural heritage of Japan bespeaks a quiet and contemplative relationship with nature. A Japanese garden is a work of art with traditional symbols embedded in every tree, stream, and pond. The outer form is graceful and soft; the inner meaning is one of strength and perseverance.

Less than a month after natural and nuclear disaster struck Japan, as the Japanese continue to endure great hardship, the delicate, rosy petals of the cherry blossoms have begun to bloom at Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG).
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The short life of the blossom symbolizes the ephemeral for the Japanese. Though quickly passing, the burst of beauty that heralds spring is exuberantly celebrated. The month-long tradition of Hanami, viewing each phase of the bloom, began April 2 at BBG. It will culminate in the 30th annual Sakuri Matsuri Festival on the last weekend of the month.

The celebrations will include workshops on how to make paper cranes, which will be sent to Japan. Cranes are a symbol of happiness and prosperity.

Endurance of a Bonsai

Cherry blossoms are ephemeral; bonsai trees, on the other hand, outlive the hand that shapes them. The art of bonsai is an art of patience. The philosophy of bonsai is one of endurance.

“The most enduring trees in nature can be found in some of the most extreme environments, quietly persevering in the unpredictable locations where a seed has fallen and grown,” reads the introduction to the BBG bonsai exhibition.

“Gnarled trunks and twisted branches speak of years of hardship and adaptation,” continues the text.

The ancient art of bonsai took root at the BBG after WWII, when soldiers came back from Japan with the dwarfed, potted trees. The garden’s first bonsai master was Frank Okamura. He came to New York in 1947 from a wartime internment camp in California. During the war, many Japanese Americans were interned in camps all over the United States, but especially on the west coast.

The BBG now holds the largest collection of bonsai trees outside of Japan, with 350 trees rotating in the permanent exhibition.

“We hope the bonsai exhibit becomes a place of quiet contemplation for people in light of the recent tragedies in Japan,” says Kate Blumm of BBG. A sign at the entrance asks viewers to take a moment to remember the victims of the earthquake and its aftermath.

Haikus written by Japanese poets centuries ago are printed on placards amid the gnarled and bent trees.

“Pine wind, needles falling on water’s, cool sound,” wrote Matsuo Basho (1644–94). The words stand next to a 110-year-old Japanese white pine, whose roots once held onto a Japanese mountainside. Just as the bonsai is meant to capture a moment in nature, so too does the haiku. Few words are needed to create a vivid scene.

Blumm says the haiku and bonsai, though not a traditional pairing, seemed a natural combination to the BBG interpretation team. Both speak to “the themes of longevity, stamina and beauty in harsh conditions,” explained Blumm.

Outside the bonsai greenhouse at BBG, a Japanese garden leads one past waterfalls of constant change, past pines of longevity, around evergreens of permanence, and to the bank of a pond shaped in the Japanese character for “heart.”