Sleeping Beauty

Beneath drifts of snow
The future lies in hiding,
But in the branches
The wind stirs.  Might it whisper
Some secret of spring?

That spring and even the autumn harvest lie in potential under winter snow is a theme in Japanese poetry from the earliest times.  The paradigmatic Naniwazu poem, dating from the eighth century and identified in the Kokinshu as one of the “parents” of all subsequent Japanese poetry, alludes to this phenomenon:

In Naniwa Harbor
The flowers have come to the trees;
They slept through the winter,
But now it is spring–
See how the blossoms have opened!

(translated in Twenty Plays of the Noh Theater, edited by Donald Keene)

And the Manyoshu includes a poem of the same vintage, “composed at a snow-viewing banquet” at what was then the capital city of Nara:

On this New Year’s Day,
The beginning of the year,
It promises a fruitful autumn,
This snow that lies so deep.

–Fujii Moroai (translated in 1000 Poems from the Manyoshu, Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai)

Tree peony in bloom

In San Francisco, where the lemon tree in my backyard bears fruit even in early January, the idea that spring flowers might depend on a period of rest under frozen earth can come as a surprise.  It was surely news to me when, some years ago, I decided to plant a tree peony alongside my house.  Flipping through the pages of my favorite nursery catalogue, I admired one stunning cultivar after another but in each case found a notation indicating that the plant was hardy only in zones 2 through 8.  According to my garden book, San Francisco was in zone 10.

What could it mean for a flowering plant not to be “hardy” in the mild climate of the San Francisco Bay Area?  The riddle was answered by a patient lady at the nursery, who explained to me that, while California has enviable growing conditions for many plants, peonies produce their lavish blooms only where winter affords them several weeks of hibernation in pronounced cold weather.  She suggested that I create a trough around the plant and pour ice into it on a regular basis.  Every evening, was it?  I no longer remember.  I tried but did not succeed in fooling the peony into flower.

Amaterasu looks out from her cave (print by Yoshitoshi)

In parallel with nature, the Yugen ensemble is in a state of covert preparation—our regular season does not resume until spring, with Sorya! A Minor Miracle 2—but in the interval, we invite all those interested in the innovative work we have in progress to come to the NOHspace on Saturday evening, January 28, at 8 pm for a tantalizing glimpse at the growth taking place under the proverbial snow.  As part of our free Worklights series (and so close to Groundhog Day as to make metaphorical comparisons difficult to resist), Theatre of Yugen will present a preview of Mystical Abyss, an original production conceived and directed by founder Yuriko Doi and written by playwright John O’Keefe.   Members of the ensemble will be joined by traditional performers from Japan, as well as by musicians and dancers representing the Blackfeet tribe and the Mohawk tribe of the Iroquois, in a multimedia performance event that explores commonalities between Japanese and Iroquois myths of creation and renewal.  Watch this blog for more detailed posts about various aspects of this international collaboration.  Participate in a multicultural discourse that will extend through this spring and summer, culminating in the world premiere of Mystical Abyss this fall as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival.   But most importantly, come to the NOHspace on January 28 and help us charm the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, who figures prominently in the play, out of her hiding place; if we make enough noise, perhaps spring will arrive early!

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