Updated: May 4
We're 3 months into a new decade---markets are crashing, humans are hoarding toilet paper, global warming continues to kill polar bears, and those surgical masks Michael Jackson wore during his crazy phase---aren't looking so crazy anymore.
Unless you're a celebrity doing extended meditation in the middle of a desert to better align your chakras, you're likely very aware of COVID-19 and the craziness which has ensued as the virus propagates its way through humankind. Back when craziness was only 50% of current levels and social distancing was a thing of the future, I did something I've been wanting to do for years---I made the trek down to Washington DC to see the blossoming cherry trees.
Admittedly, I'd been so excited by the thought of the blossoming trees that I'd neglected to do my research on why they are there. Sound familiar? Have no fear---I did some ex post facto research and compiled some history behind the white and pink blossoms that paint DC (and surrounding areas) every spring. But first, why cherry trees?
The trees were a gift of friendship to the People of the United States from the People of Japan.
In Japan, the flowering cherry tree, or "Sakura," is an exalted flowering plant. The cherry blossom is a potent symbol---the evanescence of human life---the epitome of cultural transformation through the ages.
On with the history:
In 1885 Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, upon returning to Washington from her first visit to Japan, approached the U.S. Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, with the proposal that cherry trees be planted one day along the reclaimed Potomac waterfront---nobody listened, nobody cared. Sad.
Starting in 1906, low quantities of cherry trees began arriving in the Capital Region. Most of these trees were selfishly planted by a USDA official on his own property. Later that year his icy heart melted and he shared saplings with each school district in DC. In subsequent years, he became obsessive and essentially demanded the entire city to be transformed into a giant cherry tree grove because, apparently, allergies didn't exist yet---or they did---further confirming my allegations of an icy heart.
In 1910, 2000 cherry trees arrived from Japan. After close inspection, USDA officials realized every tree was infested. Naturally, they had a massive bonfire with the trees and roasted weenies and mallows.
In 1912 a colossal shipment of cherry trees arrived in Seattle, WA. 3,020 of these trees were put on insulated freight cars and sent across the country to Washington, DC. The president took a liking for the "Gyo-i-ko" variety (of which there were only 20) and being a complete a-hole, planted all of them on the White House grounds. The rest of the trees were planted throughout the city with large concentrations around the Tidal Basin and East Potomac Park. In March, a celebratory ceremony occurred. This ceremony evolved and grew over time into the Cherry Blossom Festival we know and love today.
In 1941, a bunch of gutted hooligans cut down several trees as if to give the Japanese a big "F-U" following their attack on Pearl Harbor.
In 1945, another bunch of gutted hooligans decided to detonate nuclear bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This "F-U," as opposed to the first, was substantial.
In 1954, the Japanese forgive us and decide we are worthy of their superior automobiles---the first Toyota Crown arrives in the United States.
In the late 1960s sushi became cool.
If you find the abridged, wandering, and slightly fabricated version of my account to be insufficient, check out the NPS's page on the history of the cherry blossom trees.
On the day of my journey, the weather was warm and skies were overcast. The sidewalks lining the tidal basin were covered in large puddles---remnants of morning showers. The winds were variable. The strongest of gusts blew petals off branches. Like large flakes of snow, the petals floated aimlessly in the air. For, this aimless journey ended on the surface of the Basin's dark waters.
Considering the Cherry Blossom Festival draws hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of visitors annually, the pathways this year were eerily empty. Puddles, which would normally serve as a turbulent stomping ground for the blossom-peeping hoards, were now perfectly still.
Masks and gloves were commonplace. The scent of alcohol-based hand sanitizer wafted in the air. Unknowingly, ducks drifted close to potentially disease-riddled humans. A cough. A quack. A public health crisis. A nation in peril.
It was hard to be not to be happy around the blossoms and the new life that comes with an impending Spring. Those donning masks hid any smirk, smile, or hint of cheer. For the mask-less, the happiness, like something else on everyone's mind, was contagious.
Camera: Kodak Retina IB
Film: Kodak UltraMax 400
When: March 2020
Where: Washington, DC + Frederick, MD