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Blossoming cherry trees with blue sky and white clouds behind them. Dan O’Sullivan

When the cherry trees bloom for no one

Faced with the prospect of months indoors, I tried to find some solace in flowers.

This story was published in partnership with Epic Magazine.

On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, an hour after a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck the Pacific seabed 43 miles off the coast of Japan, a colossal ocean wave crashed ashore.

The resulting tsunami killed more than 15,000 people — washing away entire cities and surging over sea-walls, including those around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. With several employees drowned and the surrounding areas evacuated, the plant suffered three meltdowns, and hundreds of workers remained behind to stave off further damage. Later known as the “Fukushima 50,” these men — still largely unidentified to the public — slept on floors, cooling reactors with seawater while subsisting on starvation rations, unable to spare even enough potable water to heat up an instant ramen bowl.

It is largely thanks to their efforts that, despite the decades of nuclear clean-up ahead, some semblance of life would again return to Fukushima. And it did: Last spring, for the first time since the disaster, locals returned to a forbidden zone of the prefecture to witness the bloom of 420 cherry trees. Only a year later, however, a very different disaster is now keeping people away once more.

At the moment, on the other side of the ocean, even the changing of the seasons largely feels like a theoretical event. Looking through my front window, spring has sprung in my garden and down the street, but I only brush against it on quick walks or on a furtive trip to the grocery store.

I am one of the lucky ones; for many people, the most they will commune with the outdoors will be en route to a doctor’s office or even the emergency room. In the grand scheme of things, the worst misfortune I’ve faced has been trifling — our global lockdown coming as it did on the cusp of something I’d never seen but always wanted to: the bloom of those cherry blossoms.

The sakura, the cherry tree in bloom, holds a singular place in the cultural tradition of Japan not merely as a national metonym like the rising sun, but as an aesthetic and spiritual symbol of deep power. The Buddhist-inflected concept of mono no aware — a bittersweet pathos born from the recognition that all things are impermanent, all beauty fleeting — is most memorably exemplified in those few days of springtime when cherry trees reach full bloom. Hanami, or flower-viewing, becomes a social event. While peach, plum, and pear trees may also sprout beautiful flowers for us to marvel at, it’s the cherry blossoms whose petals fall within days, their transience making the sight all the more precious.

So what happens when the cherry trees bloom for no one? With shelter-in-place orders confining so many of us at home, our living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms have become the unlikely battlefield where the spread of the coronavirus is to be halted. To combat a threat we cannot see, touch, or taste, most of us have to stay indoors, forgoing the things we’d most love to see, touch, or taste. The result this spring — at least, for eager viewers like myself — has meant forgoing the long-awaited cherry blossoms.

Unless, of course, I could beat the clock and find a blooming cherry tree somewhere in Los Angeles, one I wouldn’t have to scale a fence or vault over a wall to see. After just a week or so of sheltering in place, I needed to get out of my apartment and out of my head. Even a frenzied grocery store sounded like a compelling destination, despite the confusing welter of mixed messaging and clashing information about how best to socially distance. Having only ventured outdoors for short evening walks, I realized that I needed a longer stretch of time away from home, in a way that wouldn’t endanger myself or others. Like a thirsty plant, I needed to store nutrients — memories, images, scents — for the many dull weeks yet to come.

Weeks on, as ICUs grow crowded, memorial services are held via Zoom, and impoverishment spreads, there are much graver concerns than flower-spotting. When still just socially distanced for a week, I reviewed a list published in the Los Angeles Times of gardens in Southern California where a full bloom could be seen. If I was going to see the sakura in person, I’d have to move fast. It was already mid-March, the bloom was peaking, and while the rest of society had shut down, parks and outdoor recreational facilities around LA County were still wrestling with how to respond.

It was an unprecedented question. The close confines of restaurants, bars, and museums were obvious vectors for the transmission of the virus. But would outdoor attractions, like Griffith Park’s hiking trails, be too dangerous to keep open? The La Brea Tar Pits? The ocean overlook at Point Dume?

After an initially agnostic view toward the shutdown of such natural spaces, Los Angeles ended up doing precisely that. Following a weekend in which people had dangerously overcrowded the beaches and trails, I heard a lot of frustration, on social media and from friends, that these “irresponsible few” had ruined things for everybody. I don’t know about that, but thinking of blossom-gazing, I could understand the temptation to think so. In a time dominated by perfectly curated and aesthetically pleasing Instagram grids, so many activities today have become just another mean, fast, cheap kind of accumulation. That has often come at the expense of the experience. Gardens are trampled, paths choked, petals prodded.

Of course, the ground has shifted underfoot since that Times list’s publication on March 12. Pasadena’s Huntington Library, home to a stately Japanese garden rife with Pink Cloud cherry trees, first closed its indoor exhibits, then all its gardens soon after. Descanso Gardens, in La Cañada Flintridge, began broadcasting its Pink Star and Yoshino Cherry trees flowering on its lovely online “bloom tracker,” but it will be closed to in-person visitors for the duration of the show. The annual cherry blossom festivals held in West Covina, Torrance, and Monterey Parkcities with some of the largest populations of Japanese Americans in the country — were delayed until late spring or canceled altogether.

This was no local trend, of course. Washington, DC, officials felt it necessary to actively discourage tourism, pleading with gawkers to avoid visiting the magnificent cherry trees ringing the Tidal Basin there. While the Melania Trump urged visitors to satisfy themselves with the National Park Service’s “BloomCam,” overseas sakura-gazing took an even bigger hit. Currently, the cherry blossoms of locked-down Wuhan, China, can be most safely viewed via drone, and Japan is missing a massive influx of international tourists eager to see the country at its most beautiful. Foreign tourism numbers dropped 50 percent this year for Japan, right at the time they should be tracking upward. This, combined with the news that the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics would be pushed back a year, was surely a devastating blow not only to Japan, but to its long-serving, ultranationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who’d looked to the Games as a capstone to his efforts rejuvenating the nation’s economy.

Sitting here on the other side of the Pacific, wondering where all the flowers had gone, the economic situation didn’t (and doesn’t) feel so rosy, either. With some experts estimating the US unemployment rate could reach 30 percent — exceeding the worst joblessness of the Great Depression — the other obvious contagion most of us seem to be facing right now is fear. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I suspect, for those still working or facing incipient financial ruin or simply going stir-crazy trying to homeschool their kids, that sitting alone in a room sounds pretty idyllic right now.

Still, deprived of all of the normal routines of life and all of the diversions and responsibilities we find in the world outside our homes, I’ve certainly found myself encountering a similar question: How are we to live in such strange, frightening times? What are we to do, shut up in our rooms, solitary or not, until this passes? After all, I was lucky enough that boredom was my main problem. With no children at home or elderly relatives in the house — still employed, living in a space of my own — I had the luxury of simply going outside.

After eating all the perishable food I could hoard and playing video games till I had two black eyes, a change of scenery was sorely needed, if only to stop dwelling on all the new questions I kept thinking up in solitude. What if things did not return to the way they were before the pandemic? What if some of the restaurants or movie theaters or bookstores I love didn’t reopen in a couple of months, if ever? What if all of those working-class institutions — the ones that give communities actual character and personality — are pushed into the dustbin in the ceaseless effort to make every city, every neighborhood, equally mediocre and overpriced? It had never occurred to me that a plague might descend to not just kill our neighbors, but to also change the landscape forever.

I had to bank some credit, and there was one last garden in Los Angeles still open to the public where some cherry trees might still be blooming. But if I waited much longer, perhaps even a day, it, too, could be shut down. It was already mid-afternoon, and I’d wanted so much to see the cherry blossoms this year. Putting on a belt for the first time in 10 days, along with gloves for the first time ever in California, I started my car and pulled onto an unnaturally placid freeway.

Driving for the first time in weeks, I again thought about sacrifice. Despite the bitterness some Japanese felt toward the Fukushima Daiichi workers, employed as they were by a corporation guilty of wanton negligence, it felt hard not to concede their crisis efforts had not embodied the Japanese ethos known as wa — a notion of mutual aid and communal concern. This had kept these men working, at a time when it was most needed, on behalf of their neighbors and communities. How were Americans now stepping up and doing the same?

I thought about our nurses, some of them my relatives, working tirelessly, entering wards full of people struggling for breath, as we all isolate. Our neighbors — bus drivers, postal workers, nursing home caretakers, gardeners, social workers, grocery stockers — are keeping society together, even if their aim is just to make rent. Yet I couldn’t help feeling that the initial reaction from the masses had been quintessentially American. Our first response had been: We must buy ourselves out of the problem.

But for the first time in my life, even after all the previous economic calamities I’d lived through, the shelves had gone bare. Amid all the miscommunication, bad info, and the near-collapse of supply chains under the strain, scared consumers rushed to get not just what we need but everything we could get. Stopping by four supermarkets near Palos Verdes, most lacked bread on the shelves, and none had any paper goods left at all. How long could everyone still working to keep society functioning go on this way, I wondered? Would life ever resume its normal tenor? Should it? And are there any cherry trees in bloom at this garden?

This last one I asked out loud, to the ticket vendor at South Coast Botanic Garden. She wore thick rubber gloves. It was about 3 pm. A sign exhorted visitors to keep distance from others. She explained the heavy rains from the previous days might have knocked all the blossoms off the cherry trees around the koi pond. I should try the Sakura Meadow, which she circled on the map.

I walked along the path to the meadow, under the shade of a heavy banyan grove. The roots of the vast trees twisted under the asphalt, powerful enough to bunch up and crack the paving. Reentering the afternoon sunlight, two crows flew overhead, each clutching a twig in their beaks. And then, in front of me, the Sakura Meadow.

Standing a foot away from the tree, it was the color, the pale pink color, which popped out at me, these fine little flowers in a constellation. The few other visitors had strolled away. As I stood there, before the tree, a hummingbird, with a green velvety breast, flitted to the tree. For the next two minutes, he buzzed from flower to flower, his little beak moving like a threading needle, my jaw slack.

Dan O’Sullivan

Gazing into the petals of the cherry tree, an impossible number of blossoms crowding each branch, all I could think was how last admission was at 4:30 pm. The park would close at 5; knowing the way things were trending, who knew when it might reopen. It didn’t seem possible these trees could be walled off, kept away from people. I felt greedy, seeing so few people around me in the park — more hanami for me, if I could only figure this time thing out.

But perhaps I’d missed something important.

As eager as I’d been to see the cherry blossoms, I realized they were just one delicate, beautiful symbol of a truth I could have received anywhere: There is precious little on Earth I have control over beyond how I choose to live my life. I may not be able to kick the door in on the storage units where price gougers have squirreled much-needed supplies — though I daydream about it — but I can buy only what I need, when I need it, and maybe even go without at times. The cherry blossoms will fall, whether I want them to or not, whether my timing is fair or poor, whether I visit or am confined to home. Their beauty may bud for nobody at all, but even without an audience of day-trippers and Instagrammers, they will bud all the same — if not for a human audience, then at least for all the young rabbits and hummingbirds I’d seen in the park.

Taking one last look at the cherry trees in bloom, the sun now beginning to set, another rabbit hopped out of a bush and through a flowerbed. Many people, outside the walls of this garden, were already sick and did not know it. Many more, in the coming weeks and months, would fall sick and die. As painful as it might be to forgo the springtime this year, I know that slowing down life is nothing short of a godsend for humanity if it prevents or at least slows this devastation.

How many, many things

They call to mind

These cherry-blossoms!

How right Matsuo Bashō was. The 17th-century haiku master often wrote of “our cherry blossom nature,” that mindset sought through meditation, when a person is one with the Earth. You never arrive at that point permanently. At best, you rouse yourself back to attention and realize you’d been there for a minute or two. I can’t know what exactly was in that hermit poet’s heart, centuries ago, as he trudged the roads of Edo-era Japan, but I felt sure, standing in front of those pink blossoms, the wind taking some of the petals with each gust, that I was feeling the same things he felt. It was unshakable, this feeling — that 300 years later, that same emotion, that awe, that wistfulness, was gripping me as it had gripped him. In this garden, reclaimed from an old pit mine and LA County landfill.

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