Environmentalism and beauty

Rebecca Giggs writes: It is peak sakura — the short, spring season of cherry-tree flowering that so besots Japan. In Ueno Park in Tokyo, falling blossoms settle over the sleeping salarymen, recumbent on tarpaulins with traffic masks yanked down around their necks. Curtains of petals draw open and closed in the wind around huddled teenagers. The flowers land on bitumen and bare soil, sometimes drifting into the open food containers of gathered observers. A distracted child places a piece of yellow eel, festooned with sakura, into her mouth.

For all their abundance, these branches are more likely to produce the candied maraschino cherries used to trim cocktails than the grocer’s fruit with which we are familiar. Japan’s urban cherries are ornamental, neutered cousins of orchard varieties. Planted to mark out places or events of note, some of the trees are thought to be more than 1,000 years old. Despite their lack of edible fruit, for two to three weeks in late March or early April, the city’s cherries become the most important trees in Japan. The nation’s climatic range triggers a staggered cherry flowering — a ‘blossom front’ that is monitored by the Japanese tourism agency as it sweeps up from Fukuoka, through Tokyo and north towards Sapporo. The cherries, and late, slow-moving plum flowers, jostle as they race around the Japanese Alps (cold snaps advantage the plum buds). When the sprays of blossom finally break open through the capital, their momentum is as forceful as floodwaters returning. The cherries’ high, white foam pours through avenues that lead to shrines, into graveyards, over public lands, and then to the brink of rivers and lakes where great canopies of petals spread above koi fish the size of corncobs.

During sakura, families and other groups, from workplaces or social clubs, assemble to celebrate a tradition known as hanami: flower-viewing picnics. These picnics first flourished in the Heian period, and are featured in the 11th-century courtly novel The Tale of Genji. When the hanami are in full swing, it can seem as if Ueno Park — one of Tokyo’s most popular locations for the celebration — has become the staging ground for a hundred small re‑enactments of scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Young women in short crinolines, chalk tights and dark Rococo-era dresses dart between the trees like insistent fairies. Some carry lace umbrellas (‘Goth Lolita Wear’ occupies a whole floor in a nearby department store). Junior wage-earners, sent to stake a patch for their superiors, set to dreaming in intimately vulnerable postures; their arms and legs flung out to indicate an intention to occupy more space. Paired shoes in a row belong to no one nearby. Nihonshu (saké) turns cheeks ruddy and friends garrulous.

As the sun sets, the mood of enchantment reveals other themes: metamorphosis and attraction. Flash cameras twig at the edge of perception all through the night. The shots later come to colonise social media — sakura, stark and fibrous against the black sky. The flowers are extended electronically, long after they have withered, dropped, and ceased to be.

Gazing into the throats of flowers is surely one of the most trite, and universal, acts of environmental appreciation. From hand-picked posies displayed on a mantelpiece to the questing of the German Romantics for the impossible blue flower — a symbol of inspiration for the 18th-century poet Novalis — flowers induce an apparently effortless contemplation of aesthetic beauty in nature. Yet, for all the stock wonder of cherries crowned in blossom, contemporary Western environmentalism has an uneasy relationship with notions of the beautiful.

Political environmentalism has learnt to take a functional view of nature, turning a blind eye to cultural values such as beauty and to aesthetic practices such as hanami. In striving to establish an impartial, globally consistent means of gauging nature’s value, local forms of environmental imagination have been relegated to the work of poets. Nature is viewed as systemic and quantifiable, neither mysterious not resplendent. In an overburdened world, this is how we have come to debate the comparative significance of habitats and organisms: as ecosystem services.

Perhaps, for environmental thought to be accepted in the political mainstream, it was always necessary to discard the drippy spiritualism of a former age and embrace the numbers game. Yet, something important has been lost in the exchange. Sidelining the environmental imagination — particularly its manifold local variations in different cultures — has narrowed the green movement. Better science, accountancy and leadership might well be essential to confronting the realities of our current environmental crises, but without developing a way to talk about the unreal aspects of our environmental relationships and our imagined attachments to natural phenomena, progress will only ever be tenuous. Ancient as it is, the Japanese tradition of sakura offers germane insight into this very contemporary problem. [Continue reading…]

(There’s no sense reading about cherry blossom without being able to see it — and if not in real life, then at least on a video. For some reason, it’s near impossible to find a nicely made video that doesn’t have a saccharine soundtrack.)

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1 thought on “Environmentalism and beauty

  1. Óscar Palacios

    You can always turn down the volume, and watch it with that great Jeff Beck song right next to it!

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