On New Year’s Day five years ago, I planted a handful of seeds gathered from a Paulownia tree that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, fifty years before. The seeds were given to me by Japanese peace activist and painter Mayumi Oda, who was a small child when her country was bombed.
It was freezing cold outside that New Year’s Day. Black hail pelted the roof of the Green Gulch glasshouse where we worked. We mixed oak-leaf mold and old forest soil together in a redwood seed flat and took off our gloves to plant the tree seeds. They fell in silence that frozen morning, dark tears on dark soil. Outside, the ice wind moaned and sucked at the seams of the glasshouse.
Mayumi had received these Paulownia seeds (Aogiri seeds in Japanese) a few months before from Suzuko Numata, a 73-year-old native of Hiroshima who lost her left leg in the atomic bombing. The Aogiri tree had been growing at the epicenter of the blast, not far from Numata-san’s place of work. Although the entire area was destroyed by atomic poison fire, some years later the Aogiri tree resprouted from its anchor roots, rising again like a green-feathered phoenix out of charred ground. When she retired from employment, Suzuko Numata took her place at the base of this Aogiri tree to tell its story to the waves of peace pilgrims visiting Hiroshima every year.
“A tree says, ‘a kernel is hidden in me, a spark,'” wrote Hermann Hesse. When the Hiroshima Aogiri tree reignited into growth, half the plant was deformed by radioactivity and half was clean. Tree-surgeon healers ministered to the tree until its healthy limbs took hold and the Paulownia began to produce viable seed. Numata-san entrusted some of this seed to Mayumi to sow in our Western dharma center.
Paulownia wood is highly prized in Japan for its fireproof qualities. The most valuable scrolls of old Japanese art and culture have long been stored in chests made of Paulownia wood. The tree has its origins in China, where it is called the princess tree. In Japan, it is customary to plant an Aogiri tree when a baby daughter is born and to fashion the wood of this Princess tree into a hope chest for the young woman when she first leaves home.
Our Paulownia tree seeds sprouted three months after they were sown. Like sparks blown to flame, the germinating trees split their seed flat apart with wild fiery vigor. We tended to the young trees, graduating them to larger and larger pots as they took hold. When it was time, we gave away the healthiest phoenix trees, one by one, to peacemakers gardening in a widening ring of fire.
One Aogiri tree went to a member of a Vietnam veterans group restoring a section of eroded Sierra forest. One tree went to a family that welcomes inner-city kids to its organic farm in the summer, one went to a native village in the war-torn highlands of Guatemala, and one went to the Paleaku Peace Gardens on the big island of Hawaii, about 170 miles southeast of Pearl Harbor.
Gardens have their roots in remembering and passing on the flame. Last summer, on August 6, we planted our own vigorous, four-year-old Princess Paulownia tree at Green Gulch Farm, just outside of the meditation hall, overlooking the zendo pond.
This Paulownia tree just dropped its last deciduous leaf of the season a few days ago. I walked by the bare tree this morning on the way to the garden. It stood by itself, a kernel hidden at its core, a spark. For a moment, like the 2,200-year-old Ashokan bas-relief trees carved in the stone gates of the Buddha’s stupa in Sanchi, India, the young Aogiri tree from Hiroshima stood aflame, with fire ignited at its roots and branches blazing, in the cold morning light.
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