The fleeting message of cherry blossom season
What the glory of springtime in Washington may teach about our political culture
Cherry blossoms ring the Washington Monument earlier this week — perhaps still a few days before their full peak spring display. (Photo by GYYS)
The species of cherry trees that line Washington’s Tidal Basin was bred not to yield the tasty fruit of jams and jellies, which comes from different species, but to display abundant clusters of delicate pinkish white flowers. Just now, the nation’s capital is alive with breathtakingly beautiful blooms. It is the peak of what the Japanese call Sakura hanami — the season of viewing the cherry blossoms.
But the beauty is fleeting: The cherry blossoms last for only a couple of weeks before they fall lightly to the ground in the spring breeze. Washington is to most eyes always a beautiful city, but compared to the magical few days when the cherry blossoms display their efflorescence, every other day is ordinary.
It’s good to have such beauty, then, to temper the ugliness that takes hold within some of the corridors of power that are shrouded by those cherry blossoms. This season can make you briefly forget the nasty rhetoric, the assaults on fundamental democratic norms and the eagerness to demonize political opponents that has become almost normalized by many in public life in recent years. Unless you’re addicted to the imaginary world depicted by Fox News, you can’t fail to notice the offensive behavior.
Most shake our heads at the irony of the effort by a congressional committee — one formed to investigate supposed “weaponization” of government — to impugn the character of Joe Biden and his family, and to undermine an independent prosecutor’s investigation of Donald Trump, which are in both cases cynical examples of weaponization of the power of Congress.
We recoil at the growing influence of right-wing radicals like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, who advance outrageous notions of conspiracies while dismissing the 2021 Capitol riot as justified in light of a supposedly stolen presidential election.
We’re incensed by the encouragement of anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the guise of advancing parental control over local schools, as aides to leading Republican presidential candidates assert that opponents of their anti-LGBTQ initiatives are “groomers” of children for pedophilia.
We can’t tolerate the emerging effort to criminalize the actions of women who want to control their own bodies by retaining access to abortion.
We are offended by the lies that have become the common language of most (though not all) Republican politicians, as well as the influential commentators on Fox News who give the right wing its talking points and skew the nation’s conversation and its policy agenda.
We could go on. There’s so much that is sordid about the American political scene these days that an aware citizen can’t help but feel discouraged. So it’s good to turn to beauty where we find it — such as in the cherry blossoms that stand as contrast to the turmoil around them.
Small consolation, you may think, especially since the beauty is gone so swiftly — to be replaced by the latest offensive news, and more generally by a season of clammy humidity across Washington. Yet it is their very impermanence that gives the blossoms their full glory. If they could defy nature and bloom continuously, we may not marvel so much at their radiance.
America’s capital city is graced by cherry blossoms because of a gift of 3,020 trees from Tokyo in 1912, as a token of friendship between the people of Japan and the United States. First Lady Nellie Taft, whose advocacy had raised the idea of cherry blossoms in Washington to a reality, planted the first two trees, which still stand alongside the Tidal Basin.
But it is no coincidence that the cherry blossoms came to America from Japan. The cherry blossom tree is cherished as a national symbol in Japan, in no small part because of the influence of Buddhism, which counts about two-thirds of the nation’s citizens as adherents. The transitory nature of all things, which the cherry blossom represents, is a fundamental teaching of Buddhism. “Decay is inherent in all compound things,” Buddha taught.
Americans generally tend to be uncomfortable with the notion of tolerating, or even welcoming, decay. You see that in our neat lawns, our disrespect for aging and our inclination to build new rather than restore the old. It’s even obvious in how we approach horticulture: Last week, when a powerful late-winter storm felled trees in our neighborhood, we were grateful for a helpful neighbor with a chainsaw. Yet while we were eager to make our property look neater, we know that the ecology of our land might have benefited more by allowing the downed wood to remain, where it could host countless other organisms as it rotted, feeding the cycle of life.
Americans, though, are less likely to follow the words of Buddha than the sort of imperative laid out by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whose popular poem that begins, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” concludes with the refrain, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” (The poet’s own version of that rage culminated in the 18 shots of whiskey he is alleged to have consumed on the last night of his life, in 1953, at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, just a few steps from where I lived for a couple of years. Yes, I sampled the whiskey there, but I didn't try to share the poet's raging.)
It's not that we should envy the frailty of the cherry blossom as much as we might take comfort in the notion that impermanence attaches alike to what thrills us and what troubles us. In politics, especially, today’s champion is quite likely to be tomorrow’s chump. That isn’t just a product of voters’ capriciousness; it’s also a likely result of the complexity of life: What works for a while soon enough stops working, and then we turn in another direction.
So we won’t always have Donald Trump and his lesser acolytes, like Margery Taylor Greene, to torment our sensibilities and threaten our republic. They’ll soon enough be gone — and, in that, there’s another lesson of the cherry blossom, one that might help along that process.
That is, in the fluttering of blossoms to the earth, we may perceive not so much a justification for complacency as a call to activism. The Australian philosopher Dean Rickles has written books around the theme that he summarizes neatly thus: “It is life’s very shortness that makes it meaningful.”
In the context of history, our own time is as brief as the cherry blossom’s, a fact that suggests why we must imagine how we can make a difference. That might mean planting a tree, as Nellie Taft did, or joining a political campaign. It might require writing letters to the editor or working for a church group or donating to a charity. Or giving time to a child or offering hope to a friend.
One more thought: The cherry trees alongside the Tidal Basin need cultivation and care, of course. The National Parks Service makes sure that they are regularly pruned, fertilized, mulched and treated for wounds and disease.No less do we need self-care, both physical and emotional, if we hope to sustain ourselves. Taking time to admire the beauty around us, and having the wisdom to accept the limits of what we can do, surely must be a part of that.
The cherry blossoms are reaching their peak in these last days of March and first days of April this year — a bit earlier than usual — and so these are the days of glory in Washington. Thank goodness for them, and for those beautiful folks among us who likewise stand apart from what’s unlovely and unsettling in our political culture.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Orlando, Fla. (Pensacola News Journal, pnj.com)
Salina, Kan. (Salina Journal, salina.com)
Bergen County, N.J. (The Record, northjersey.com)
Abilene, Tex. (Abilene Reporter-News, reporternews.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes each Wednesday, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
State NAACP calls for travel advisory
The Florida NAACP has called for the national civil rights group to issue a travel advisory for Florida in response to the adverse impact on people of color from policies of Gov. Ron DeSantis. But the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s Zac Anderson reports that DeSantis has labeled the move “a pure stunt” and vowed to continue his policies. The NAACP noted that DeSantis pushed the Stop WOKE act, which critics say will force schools to whitewash ugly aspects of the nation's history on race, and banned a new advanced placement course on African American studies. The governor also formed a new elections police force that has mostly targeted Black Floridians so far, and is pushing to eliminate all diversity, equity and inclusion programs at state universities. "Somebody’s going to have to stand up against the governor and his policies,” the head of the NAACP Jacksonville branch said.
Zoo taking steps to help visitors with sensory needs
Many people have trouble receiving and responding to information that comes through our senses, reports Kendrick Calfee in the Salina Journal: Common sounds, lights, crowds and certain smells might be overwhelming and even physically painful for some individuals. So the Rolling Hills Zoo, home to more than 100 species of animals in a rural area of Saline County, has put all of its employees through training to make it a “sensory inclusive” facility. About one in six people have a sensory need or disability, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, dementia or the after-effects of a stroke. For those visitors, Calfee reports, the zoo and wildlife museum has added quiet zones and rest areas, and offers a sensory bag, which contains such equipment as noise-cancelling headphones and fidget toys.
Drink touted by YouTube stars is dangerous for kids, principal says
Prime is a popular new sports drink that has been touted by online influencers, and was featured in a Super Bowl commercial. But as Liam Quinn reports in NorthJersey.com, a middle school principal is warning parents that it could be dangerous for their kids. Prime Energy, which comes in a can like a soft drink, contains 200 mg of caffeine — about the same as two cups of coffee. The principal wrote to parents that the drink could be unhealthful for young people, especially those on medication to treat ADHD.
Kids barred from drag show, protests continue anyway
Abilene used to host drag brunches that were popular for families, until protests last summer forced them to close, according to reporting in the Abilene Reporter-News by Ronald W. Erdrich. Last week a benefit for a local theater group was switched to bar attendance by anybody under age 18 after protests, but and handful of protesters still showed up outside the event. Organizers said the show was supposed to be about empowerment. “Music that really sends a message to women and to Trans and queer people in general — that you have strength, that you have presence and that you are seen. That's what this show was going to be about,” they said. The demonstrators said they didn’t know about that, but they were sure it was pornographic and that it had no place in Abilene. But the MC of the show told Erdrich, “It's so silly to think this is new, that queer people are just popping up from California or whatever. We're West Texans!”
What Fox News reveals about your community newspaper
The upheaval in the journalism industry, which has reduced the number of U.S. journalists in all media by about one-third over the last 15 years, can mainly be traced to the digital revolution, which upended the advertising marketplace. Local newspapers have been especially hard-hit, since advertising used to provide about three-quarters of the revenue of a typical newspaper. Technology also pushed consumers from print to screens, where the profit margin is much lower.
Notably, the small newspapers that served most communities are struggling to hang on, but each week sees the shuttering of two newspapers, most of them local weeklies.
That has enormous implications for the communities affected. The loss of a local newspaper removes some of the stitching from the fabric of community life. It was the local newspaper that published photos of the 4-H champion pigs and lambs at the county fair, the Little League teams competing on fields at the county seat and the big fish caught by local anglers in nearby reservoirs. I know; that was what I got paid to do when I started reporting at a tiny Midwestern community seat newspaper. It’s an opportunity — and a type of reporting to the local community, rather than just about it —that is vanishing.
That place isn’t being filled by cable news networks, or even by the also-diminished regional newspapers that fight to pick up the coverage of outlying communities even as their own staffs shrink dramatically.
Beyond the local news overage, though, what is also lost is the credibility that journalism was able to sustain because the journalists were friends and neighbors. It’s hard to believe that the dad of another boy in your son’s Cub Scout pack, who lives the next neighborhood over and edits your community newspaper, is really an “enemy of the people,” as Donald Trump labeled American journalists — but you don’t know the guy on cable TV who gets a fat paycheck, and you have no idea who produces the news you find on your smartphone.
Then come the stories of the deliberate distortions of the multi-millionaire Fox News hosts, who presented as valid news content that they knew was poppycock, and who were privately disparaging of sources they touted on the air. Once the “anchors” you believed are revealed as liars, how can you believe any journalist? No wonder you’re dubious about legislative effort to rebuild local journalism through targeted tax breaks (like those offered to other critical industries).
This is one more way that Fox News has emerged as a destructive force in American society. The divisive posturing of Fox’s primetime and daytime hosts has made it harder for local journalists thousands of miles away by geography, and an even greater distance ethically, to regain their footing. Behavior that would get a cub reporter fired by any reputable newspaper editor is embraced by Fox’s 92-year-old boss, Rupert Murdoch, and the nighttime Fox talkers who display the worst behavior are rewarded with millions of dollars to keep that behavior going.
It’s why many of us in journalism who may have never before rooted for the plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit are thrilled with what’s happening in Dominion Voting Systems’ suit against Fox News. Somebody needs to hold the defendant to account for just a fraction of the damage it has done not only to national dialogue, but also to communities of hard-working people across the nation..
They deserve shame and scorn, but we’ll settle for a huge financial penalty.
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Having grown up in the DMV (DC, MD, VA - a term coined long after I moved to the Capital Region of NY) walking among the Cherry Blossoms was an annual ritual (when winter’s late frost didn’t take them out before they could bloom). There was something that felt spiritual about being in their presence, awash in their beauty and the awe they inspired. It was grace and light and hopefulness and I’ve missed that special rite of spring all these many years I’ve been a “New Yorker”. It is the time of year I miss my hometown the most.
Thank you for the reminder of not only appreciating what we have, as fleeting as it may be, but also finding some way to take action to ensure the future holds what we want it to hold for our children and grandchildren. I said this week to my dear friend that time alone does not heal everything. It is time and effort that will bring about the difference we long for.
You said it so much better than I could. I’m sharing your essay with him and many others too.
And PS - I’m heading to DC on Monday and will hopefully walk among the Cherry Blossoms for the first time in 30+ years. I can’t wait!
Good thoughts, Rex. Yes, they too will pass. The damage they wreak, perhaps not so quickly.