Long ago, about the same time that the American government was considering creating a drainage pond to deal with the swampy land south of the White House, the British poet A. E. Housman (subject of Tom Stoppard’s fine play The Invention of Love), penned the following famous lines:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Housman, a fine lyric poet and a finer scholar, touches here on the odd juxtaposition of spring and death, a consciousness that evokes intimations of mortality from the very beauty of new life.
Perhaps it is that consciousness, in part, that draws us to that nineteenth century drainage pond, now the Tidal Basin in Washington D. C., to see the cherry hung with snow. Snow with a decidedly pink tinge, since the varieties of cherry which grow here have pink blossoms. They come from Japan, many of them a gift from the Japanese government in the 1920s. They promise new life, beauty, friendship. Not far away on the National Mall stands, among other monuments, the World War II Memorial, to which the Japanese government also contributed in the 1940s. Intimations of mortality and the beauty of precious life.
Housman’s math is sobering for somebody like me. On the basis of the biblical “three score and ten” (though why we’re using mortality tables three millennia old I can’t say) I am already living on borrowed time. Perhaps I’m borrowing it partly from my brother and father, who undershot their allocation by a total of twelve years. But then, my mother overspent hers by twenty-one. The sanest thing to say is that I can only hope I have enough of her strong Dutch genes to get me through a score or so more years of watching things in bloom.
To do that watching in this town, though, takes some effort. We were at the Tidal Basin
exactly one week ago, at a time when the blossoms were at full peak. The temperature hit 87˚ at National Airport that day. It was our first toasty day of summer. Two days before, the high temperature was in the 50s. In usual D.C. fashion the pendulum swung sharply, and one can assert only semi-facetiously that Spring 2013 occurred in Washington on Monday, April 8, between the hours of 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. We were at the Tidal Basin at about 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon. So were hoards of other people. The paths were so crowded you could hardly walk five steps without having to duck out of somebody’s way or circumvent an avid photographer and/or his or her subject, standing with a smile in front of boughs cascading with pale pink blossoms. Not the experience of the solitary sensitive soul strolling along the woodland ride. I learned from a friend that he had cycled down the same morning to arrive at 6:15 a.m., and it had been just as crowded. He said you couldn’t get a photo of the Jefferson Memorial without somebody extraneous in the foreground. At that hour I’m not awake enough to tell a derailleur from a bottom bracket. “The light is so great at that hour,” he said. “Yeah, well give my regards to Ansel Adams,” I thought.
But it was fun being there. My daughter and her daughter were in town, and we all rode the Metro, walked through museums, took pictures of each other, strolled all over the National Mall and a bit along the Tidal Basin, and ate Rocket Popsicles, soaking in an epic D.C. experience. I even got photos of the cherry trees without other people in them, including one (see above) that reminded me of the Fourth of July. For this day, at least, even a casual photographer could get a spectacular image. Nature was too gorgeous to allow failure. And if she will allot me even more time, since even threescore springs and thirteen are little room to know such beauty, I and my loved ones will make our pilgrimage many times again.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.