Japanese culture fascinates me. I am fascinated by their love of art, poetry, gardening, anime, food, and everything weird or cute. There is just something different about how the Japanese perceive the world, and there is almost no detail they overlooked. Moreover, I am fascinated by their love of cherry blossoms. A culture that embraces the fleeting nature of something so ephemeral speaks volumes to my sensitive soul. I love that the Japanese language even has a word for the act of blossom viewing: Hanami. They also have a word to express their awareness of the impermanence, or transience of things: Mono no aware. The act of hanami is to visually see what mono no aware means. Because cherry blossoms last so briefly, they are often seen as a metaphor for life. They are a symbol of the transient nature of being, but they are also the symbol of new beginnings. To be mono no aware is to know that life is beautiful but all too brief. To be mono no aware is to revel in the beauty of the cherry blossom, but to feel a gentle sadness when the blossoms fall.
Before Covid-19, I was an avid traveler. I’ve visited Japan, but not during cherry blossom season. I’ve always wanted to experience the feeling of being mono no aware, so I traveled to Washington D.C. once for their cherry blossom festival. The weather was unseasonably cold, and the cherry blossoms were not in bloom. The festival went on, but the cherry blossoms themselves were not in attendance.
I’ve since been stuck at home in Arizona for the last 15 or so months, and during that time, I developed a new hobby: cactus collecting. I’ve always had several cacti lying about, but most of them rarely, if ever, bloomed. Except for one. This one:
It’s an echinopsis subdenudata, and I’ve had it for years, decades, even. It’s the oldest plant that I own. I’ve always taken good care of it because I’ve always loved its brief but intoxicating flowers. It blooms every spring, and the scent is something that should be bottled and sold as perfume.
When Covid-19 grounded me, I decided that I wanted more cactus flowers in my life. It wasn’t an epiphany that I decided that, but instead, it was just a total fluke. I’ve been stuck in Arizona for too long, and have been roaming around the state more than usual. I’ve ended up in Tucson a few too many times this year and wandered into more garden nurseries that are safe for my wallet. I’ve amassed a small collection of cacti solely because I have run out of garden space. The only thing that lasts in pots here are cacti, so I started buying them because all my yard space is already taken. I didn’t know it right away, but I stumbled into my new passion.
I am certain that if the Japanese culture had been born in the American Southwest, the concept of mono no aware would still have naturally developed. In fact, I think that it would have developed even more intensely.
Life in the desert is harsh. The intense heat of the sun is oppressive and unrelenting. Yet, life somehow manages to exist here. Intense life. Brief and beautiful life. A life that needs flowers and pollinators to keep that life going.
Most cacti bloom at night. Their flowers are typically white to attract nocturnal moths and bats. The blooms last very briefly, for they use up too much water and energy. Once the sun hits a cactus flower, most of them shrivel.
The blooms of cherry blossoms last for about two weeks. Most cactus blossoms last for only one day, many for only one night. I believe the Japanese would have appreciated the incredible beauty and acute sadness of a cactus flower, and their culture would have developed the concept of mono no aware all the same.
Staying close to home has allowed me to experience that which I always thought that I had to travel far away for. I now see the beauty and the impermanence of things every time I watch a cactus bloom.
Please enjoy this time lapse video of beautiful cactus flowers.