I am walking along a curving path next to my sister Erika, silent with expectation. We are in Kenroku-en, one of Japan’s “great gardens.” It is morning and the park is quiet, hushed by a blanket of fog. We have traveled to Japan to spend two weeks in this strange country, and here we are now, visiting this garden in Kanazawa for my sister the horticulturalist. I am content to follow her to Japanese parks and gardens. Their order soothes me.
“Ohhhh, wow,” she breathes from just behind me. I turn around to see her gazing at a towering, fat, ancient pine tree. She is already besotted.
The tree is mesmerizing, its trunk a rich, woodsy red and its roots braided and rising up from the moss. So many others around us are also looking up into the tree’s height, snapping photos, smiling in the foreground. Why aren’t they approaching it? I wonder. I look over at Erika and she points to a wooden fence encircling the tree. Oh. It’s protected from us. What a radical concept.
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This wasn’t the first time we had seen trees tended to as though they’re royalty. It wouldn’t be the last, either. Back in Tokyo earlier in the week, we stood in a park framed by skyscrapers, staring in wonder at a 300-year-old pine tree that was propped up carefully, its long branches supported with bamboo splints and stakes. The tinny voice speaking through our tour headphones told us that the tree is pruned—by hand—twice a year. This process takes about three weeks. Erika confessed she was “obsessed with” the tree. So are the Japanese, and my only response is reverent silence.
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After I returned home, friends would ask, “Why Japan? What was so interesting about it?”
I would attempt to wrap some words around our experiences, to explain the dichotomy of tradition and innovation that we encountered over and over. I can’t explain the multitudes that Japan contains, but I do know that beyond the cartoon mascots and bullet trains, this country taught me a lesson, clear and simple: the wisdom of nature is not to be ignored.
There is a holiness in the way the Japanese tend to their natural surroundings with such respect, such deference. They tie ropes from the crown of a tree to its lower branches so the snow will slide to the ground and not break the limbs. These rope cones, these wooden splints say: the planet does not belong to us. We belong to it. It is our mother and our sister and it gives us things we cannot replenish.
Perhaps this is why we’re fenced out. Why the Japanese lay hands on trees instead of slashing them with chainsaws and snipping them with pruning shears. Why one afternoon in a Tokyo city park, I found my sister standing next to a pine tree, her hand flat on its bark. Listening. Learning. While I had been busy framing a street musician just so in a video clip to post online.
I can be proud and arrogant. I want to shape my experiences for myself and others, not let them shape me. But I was reminded so often in the silent places of a crowded country that trees have wisdom. When I consider this, and other unusual ideas, I learn to listen. When my eyes are open and clear, I can become receptive to the curiosity of children, the love of animals, the beauty of uncertainty.