Loveliest of Trees at Risk

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A young weeping cherry tree blooms in the author’s yard. Photo: Clover Carroll.

Growing up in Washington, D.C., I looked forward every spring to the glorious blooming of the 3,000-plus cherry trees that surround the tidal basin in front of the Jefferson Memorial, and the annual Cherry Blossom Festival that celebrates it. Millions of visitors come to D.C. each year to enjoy the exquisite beauty of these trees. During my childhood, we would watch the Festival parade from the window of my grandmother’s K St. office in the YWCA.

A 1912 gift of friendship to the U.S. from Japan, the first two cherry tree saplings were planted by First Lady Helen Taft and the Japanese ambassador’s wife. But a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) revealed that these venerable, 100-year-old trees are at serious risk from sea level rise due to climate change.

Over the past 25 years, scientists have observed a sea level rise of about three inches. Over the next 30 years, this rise is expected to reach nearly a foot. As a result, flooding is already occurring around the Tidal Basin, in Old Town Alexandria, and in Annapolis. “Twice a day at high tide, the water … overlaps the walkway” (around the tidal basin), said Mike Litterst with the National Park Service, which sponsors the Cherry Blossom Festival. “We, in fact, moved the walkway a little further inland a number of years ago. But a couple of times a month, we will get tides high enough that even that rearranged path winds up under water. You can see the cherry trees that are close to the shore, their root systems wind up going underwater twice a day… [they] are not doing particularly well. And in fact, you can see an open area where we had to remove 12 or 14 trees a few years ago.” The loss of these glorious spring sentinels would be nothing short of a tragedy. 

This shocking news has caused me to reprise a column I wrote for the April, 2011 issue of the Gazette. The beautiful, short-lived blooming of these, as well as the many flowering cherry, peach, apple, and pear trees right here in Crozet, always calls to my mind the poem “Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now,” by British classicist A.E. Housman (1859-1936). The poem is from A Shropshire Lad, his popular collection of 63 lyric poems published in 1896 (which includes another favorite, “To an Athlete, Dying Young”). The understated simplicity of this poem captures well the fragile beauty of the pale pink blossoms, which is truly beyond words. Housman adopts the fictional persona of a young farm laborer (or “lad”) to give voice to themes of innocence, nostalgia for the past, and the transience of life. Its regular iambic meter and rhymed couplets deliver an emotional impact belied by the simple language. For example, “things in bloom” (line 9) is a decided understatement for the rare beauty of the delicate cherry blossoms.

To begin, the young speaker describes the blooms as adorning the tree branches like ornaments “hung” by an invisible hand, and emphasizes the present moment by placing the word “now” at the end of the line to create an enjambment (a phrase straddling two lines). He personifies the cherry trees that “stand” about the woodland “wearing white for Eastertide,” just as young women might wear white dresses to Easter Sunday services. Thus the speaker, rather than feeling alone in the woods, is surrounded by fellow sentient beings. The mention of Easter not only places us in early spring on the calendar, but also suggests the rebirth that the earth undergoes in this season and establishes a tone of innocent purity. The concision of Housman’s language is exemplified in his use of “ride” as a noun; we immediately understand that the speaker is travelling through the woods and fields on horseback. In four short lines, the poet has used straightforward, plain diction to paint a vivid landscape in our minds. 

In the second stanza the speaker engages in some playful arithmetic which, while seemingly objective, masks the emotion evoked by the ephemeral beauty of the cherry trees. “Of my” in line 5 does not, as first supposed, refer to the speaker’s current age, but rather to his allotted time on earth. With a “score” equaling 20 years, threescore becomes 3 x 20, or 60 years. Assuming that he will be granted the average late 19th century lifespan of 70 years (“threescore years and ten”), the speaker subtracts his current age of 20 to arrive at the balance of “only” 50 more years remaining to him in which to enjoy the beauty of spring—and other unnamed earthly pleasures. The word “only” here is ironic, because we typically consider 50 years to be a long time. However, when he contemplates the intensely brief glory of the cherry trees’ blooming, he realizes that this is hardly enough time to enjoy them properly. Implicit in this computation is the acknowledgement that the speaker’s life, like that of the blossoms, is limited—and his youth even more so. This is a somewhat ingenuous method for the speaker to arrive at the fact of his mortality—and ours. 

Through this reflection, the speaker realizes that he has “little room” in which to enjoy all the beauty and wonder that the earth has to offer. The joy he experiences in looking at the lovely blossoms is heightened by the knowledge that they are short-lived. In a sort of epiphany, the preciousness of life and the importance of living fully become clear to him. We can easily follow the speaker’s reasoning as he decides to seize the day and not miss the chance to drink in the splendor of spring. Instead of spending all his time on labor, he will take his time riding among the lovely trees. The startling metaphor in the last line comparing the white blossoms to snow reinforces the chill of death that will eventually claim us all. In this artful poem, Housman reminds us from across 100 years to cherish the beauty of nature and to experience the power of each fleeting moment fully. 

 

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.

A.E. Housman
(1859-1936)

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