THE WINTER SOLSTICE DRAWS NEAR. Now is the “standstill of the sun.” Germinid meteor showers of early December claim the night sky, obscured only by the huge disc of the Wolf Moon. This is the best season to see the bones of garden plants.
More than twenty years ago, at Green Gulch Farm we celebrated our first annual tree planting with Dr. E. F. Schumacher, author of Small Is Beautiful. Dr. Schumacher encouraged us to plant trees and to get to know trees in every way. He reminded us that the Buddha exhorted his disciples to plant, and see to the maintenance of, at least five trees in their lifetime. In this way stable forests were planted throughout northeastern India, all along the pilgrimage routes of the Buddha.
Planting and maintaining a tree takes time. It takes your whole life. Good gardening depends on following your affection and on protecting what you love. “The tree says, a kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought,” Herman Hesse writes inWandering. This winter I sit under our ancient ginkgo tree, planted just outside the garden gate. The translucent golden leaves, the “fingernails of Buddha” in Asia, fell off months ago, revealing the hulking skeleton of this prehistoric tree.Ginkgo biloba, or the “maidenhair tree,” is more than 200 million years old, one of the oldest living species on earth. For the last 150 million years the ginkgo has not altered its structural design one bit. Here is a being that simply refuses to evolve. And yet extracts from the ancient fan-shaped leaves and seed kernels of the ginkgo have been potent in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 5,000 years.
Our craggy ginkgo holds up the leaden winter sky. This brontosaurus will never be tamed. During the last ice age, ginkgos nearly became extinct. They survived only in the mountain eyries of easternmost China. There, more than 1,000 years ago, Buddhist monks protected these living fossils by planting ginkgos inside their monastery gates. The prehistoric maidenhair tree owes its survival to a handful of cloud-and-water wanderers who were bound to plant and maintain trees for the sake of future generations.
Today, the Urasenke tea school of Japan has the ancient ginkgo leaf as its crest. The fan-shaped leaf signifies felicitous and ever-expanding good fortune. In seventeenth-century Japan, the third-generation tea master Sen Sotan planted a ginkgo tree outside his tea house, Konnichian. Many years later, a fire raged through Kyoto, burning some of the oldest buildings in the Urasenke compound. Konnichian was spared. Legend has it that heat from the fire melted the snow on the topmost branches of the towering ginkgo and thus Konnichian was saved. Every year in late November, tea ceremony students celebrate the birthday of Sen Sotan by enjoying sweets made from the pounded fruit of his legendary ginkgo.
Nowadays, this pungent fruit of the fertile female ginkgo is rarely seen; sterile male trees now predominate. But the ginkgo trees growing along Fifth Avenue in New York City are old trees. There is nothing sterile about them. They come from China. More than any other tree in the world Ginkgo biloba tolerates and transforms air pollution. In late summer the female ginkgos of Manhattan are heavy with their rancid-smelling fruit. When the Japaneze Sen master Soen Nakagawa Roshi first came to prBuddha in the Market actice Zen in New York City, he fanned out across the five boroughs with an enlisted band of disciples and collected bags full of foul-smelling ginkgo nuts. Then, all alone in the kitchen of the New York Zendo, wearing his tattered golden robes, Soen cracked open hundreds of ginkgo kernels and roasted them until they turned brilliant emerald green. He hid these ginkgo nuts in the sleeves of his monk’s robes and surprised dour Zen students by offering them bright green fruit from the age of the dinosaurs.
When Thoreau walked through the winter forests of New England, he followed his affections. A town is saved, he reflected, not more by the righteous people in it than by the woods and swamps that surround it. This winter, take the time to wrap up in a blanket and sit under a tree. A kernel is hidden there, a spark, a thought, an echo from the bottom of time.
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