Category Archives: observed

Capturing a Plum Blossom

Our first plum blossoms-- photo taken on April 9, 2011

Sung Po-Jen's "tilting bowl" plum blossom

In preparation for the birth of our daughter, we thought it might be fun to plant a tree.  Somehow it took four years for this plan to actually be accomplished, so I planted four trees across our front yard instead of just one.  We have two apple trees, a cherry tree, and a plum tree which have now survived their first winter, and during the first week of April I was happy to see the first blossoms appear on the apple and plum trees.  It reminded me of one of my early introductions to Chinese poetry, Sung Po-Jen’s Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom.  The book is described as what might possibly be the world’s first printed book of art and literature– it was first published in A.D. 1238, and the image above is reproduced from the edition of 1261. The poems are composed of just four lines, but are packed with complex references, implications, and shades of meaning.  Translator Red Pine was kind enough to follow each poem with a commentary through which we can gain some insight into the mind of a 13th century scholar.  I include one of my favorites, below, which relates to the blossoms in my front yard as I so recently saw them:

39    Tilting Bowl

fill it and it empties

more or less are both mistakes

all things have a balance

don’t think this one isn’t right


This “bowl-on-a-swivel” was placed next to the throne to remind the emperor that whatever was full would soon be empty.  Only when the bowl was half-full was it stable.  According to Hsun-tzu, Confucius saw a device like this in the ancestral hall of Duke Huan: “An attendant poured water into a container that hung at an angle.  As the water level approached the midpoint, the container became upright.  But when the attendant went beyond the midpoint, it tipped over, the water poured out, and only after it was empty did it resume its former position.  Seeing this, Confucius sighed, ‘Alas! Whatever becomes full becomes empty!'”

— Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, by Sung Po-Jen,  The Chinese Classic Translated with Commentaries by Red Pine, Introduction by Lo Ch’ing

a selective memory

catepillar before blog

tobacco horn worm, speckled with fate

caterpillars blog

Florence's drawing

the husk of the host

the husk of the host

In September we found a few tobacco horn worms on our tomato plants, and decided that we were willing to share our produce in exchange for the privilege of seeing the world at work in our front yard.  But the wonder and beauty turned macabre when two of the worms were parasitized by Braconid wasp larvae.  Our 4 year old was not prepared for this plot shift.  One morning soon after this discovery, I went over to see the drawing that Florence had been making.  She told me that she was making a drawing of the caterpillars so that she could remember them as they were before the wasps got to them.  I could hardly think of a better reason to make a picture.  In an academic context it is particularly easy to lose track of the fundamentals which would otherwise guide my creative action.  I am distracted by nuance.  To see things in a particular way, and to convey that vision–to drag a selective past into the present with insistence, relevance, and a joy clarified by sorrow– is something worth doing.

between oceans and rivers

tidal flats wedged between the ocean and the intercoastal waterway

the marsh, wedged between the ocean and the inter-coastal waterway

marsh wood blog

weathered salt (red) cedar trunk with perennial glasswort

While at the beach in North Carolina, I like to turn my back on the long row of beach houses and follow the winding game trails out into the marsh.  It is a type of selective experience not unlike the viewing of a painting– a decision to forget about what is behind you, and to be absorbed into that which fills your cone of vision.  The differences between distant observation and actual immersion are striking.  Everything is crisp and bristly in the marsh.  What seemed solid now compresses, and what seemed still now moves.  With each crunching step I play the role of mythic monster as thousands of fiddler crabs flee before me, comical in their bumping and stumbling.  The marsh is a subtle topography of low and lower, the subdivisions most noticeable in firmness of footing and shifts in flora.  Glasswort gives way to cord grass, which then inches up into black needle rush.  The plants tolerate varying degrees of immersion during tidal flooding, so small shifts in elevation can result in significant shifts in plant life.  The marsh is well stocked with edible plants, including the glasswort pictured above.  More seductive is the passion fruit, which unfortunately was not yet ripe. I saw passion flowers for the first time while living in Key West, FL.  Initially I mistook it for a fake flower, so strange and wonderful was the bloom.

a passion flower, in all of its ridiculous glory

a passion flower, in all of its ridiculous glory

passion fruit hanging from the vine

passion fruit hanging from the vine

a gulf-fritillary catepillar devouring the leaf of a passion flower vine

a gulf-fritillary catepillar devouring the leaf of a passion flower

Southern Fox Grape

Southern Fox Grape
Pindo Palm fruit

Pindo Palm fruit

Southern Fox (muscadine) grapes lined the marsh invasively, climbing over anything and everything available.  They ripen to a deep purple, but even the green ones can be refreshing in the heat of summer.  The fruit of the Pindo Palm is also quite good, and the tree is often used residentially for landscaping.

yellow and blue

tree and sky blog

yellow and blue

leaves on car blog

yellow on blue

blue on leaves blog

blue on yellow

It is pretty bad when an entire season passes between posts,  but I am pleased to return with one of the most striking aspects of autumn in St. Louis– the unlikely blue of the cloudless sky.  And if you stand a yellow ginkgo tree in front of that blue, you are fortunate to observe what might very well be the most distinctive color contrast available to human vision.  We have a 1993 Ford Explorer.  It is my “occasional use” vehicle, perfect for hauling materials.  It suffers from one of the most dated paint jobs available, and the color never made any sense to me until I came outside the other morning and saw it covered in leaves from our maple tree.  Now I think of it as the most suitable of colors for St. Louis.  Those two moments would have been enough for me, but I was blessed with one more when I returned home later in the day.  Someone from the utility company had come by to mark the water lines on our street, and in a classic “not my job” gesture they had applied their blue spray paint to the shifting leaves instead of the asphalt.  Standing there under the strange blue sky, next to my strange blue truck, looking down at the strange blue leaves,  the looking felt like a good day’s work.