Tag Archives: cherry blossoms

My Book Proposal on Eliza Scidmore Wins Biography Prize

In Boston with Gayle Feldman, awards committee chairman, who presented me with BIO’s Hazel Rowley Award for my book proposal for a biography of Eliza Scidmore (Photo: James McGrath Morris)

My book project on Eliza Scidmore was awarded the 2017 Hazel Rowley Prize, given by the International Biographers Organization (BIO) for the best proposal for a first biography. I received the award May 20 at BIO’s conference in Boston.

BIO was born around the time I started my book project, and the organization has been a terrific resource for a novice biographer like me. The members, ranging from Pulitzer Prize winners to beginners, offer a wonderfully democratic network of encouragement and support.

The prize is named in memory of Hazel Rowley (1951-2011), born in London, educated in England and Australia, and a long-time resident of the United States.

Hazel Rowley was an enthusiast of BIO from its inception, understanding the need for biographers to help each other.

Before her untimely death, she wrote four distinguished books: Christina Stead: A Biography, a New York Times “Notable Book”; Richard Wright: The Life and Times, a Washington Post “Best Book”; Tȇte-à-Tȇte: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, translated into 12 languages; and Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, an NPR pick.

 

 

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‘On the Hunt’ for Cherry Blossoms With a Japanese Film Crew

Japan’s TBS network aired an hour-long program March 18 in its  “Mystery Hunter” series in which I discussed Eliza Scidmore’s role in bringing cherry trees to Washington. I was interviewed for the show last month.

From left, reporter Nakada Asumi, assistant director Hoshuyama Aki, me, production coordinator Keiji Jinn Nishimura (in glasses, center), director Suzuki Yohei, audio man Sakuma Toshimi and camera man Fukumoto Noriyuki.

I spent several hours with the film crew on the weekend of February 4. What a hard-working bunch they were. They arrived at our house in Falls Church, Va., just a few hours after flying in from Japan–then did four hours of taping, including translations! Our yellow sun room felt cozy. Birds at the feeder outside the picture window made a nice touch in the film.

The group was thrilled I had a first-edition copy of Scidmore’s 1892 book Jinrikisha Days in Japan.” I found it on eBay a few years ago for fifty bucks, and though it’s fragile and crumbly, it’s wonderful to see in the original form.

For the TV program — a mix of game show and field adventure — I discussed Eliza Scidmore’s vision of creating a “Mukojima on the Potomac,” inspired by a mile-long avenue of cherry trees in Tokyo a century ago. I visited Mukojima in 2013.

We met again on a chilly Sunday in Potomac Park, where the original cherry trees donated from Japan were planted in March 1912.

Potomac Park in mid-winter was bleak. And the weather was especially cold for Washington. Fortunately, as production coordinator Keiji “Jinn” Nishimura (back center) told me, they also filmed the cherry trees in bloom last spring, so they have footage of the peak blooming season.

It was a joy to meet and work with such talented professionals.

After leaving me at mid-afternoon on Sunday, they headed off across town to film … the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl!

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Filed under Biography, Cherry Trees, D.C. History, Eliza Scidmore, Japan, Media & Outreach, Research

When Will the Cherry Blossoms Open?

Our weirdly warm winter in Washington means the cherry blossoms could bloom much earlier than expected. The National Park Service initially gave April 4 as the expected peak date. Now, we could see them well before that. There are many varieties, however, so the blooming dates will vary somewhat.

The Washington Post produced a clever video showing how to follow the progress of the buds to estimate the blooming time.

 

 

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‘Drain the Swamp’ Gave Us Potomac Park

Donald Trump rode a populist wave to the White House vowing to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Earlier, President Ronald Reagan made it a catchphrase of his vow to reduce the federal bureaucracy.

In Eliza Scidmore’s day, residents complained about the “pestilential swamp” along the Potomac riverbank, near the Washington Monument. Everyone called the marshy area the Potomac flats.

It was a tidal wetlands that for many years served as a place of run-off for sewage and refuse carried by the Washington City CanalThe canal, which ran parallel to the northern edge of the National Mall, had been built as a major commercial waterway to carry goods into the city. But it fell into disuse and became an eyesore in the middle of the capital. During the blitz of city improvements under “Boss” Shepherd in the 1870s, the canal was paved over and is now Constitution Avenue.   

As a longtime Washington resident, Eliza Scidmore followed the efforts to clean up the flats and fill in the land. The work began in the 1880s and continued beyond the turn of the century.

In this 1863 photo, the stump of the Washington Monument in the far distance is surrounded by the swampy Potomac flats, which were filled in beginning in 1882. (Photo by Titan Peale, U. of Rochester Rare Books Collection)

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‘She Persisted’ Was True of Eliza Scidmore

From website of “Eliza’s Cherry Trees,” by Andrea Zimmerman (Pelican, 2011)

Thanks, Andrea Zimmerman, for adding Eliza Scidmore to the Internet meme of “women who persisted.”

On the floor of Congress this month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren opposed Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination as U.S. attorney by attempting to read a letter written by the late widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell cut off Warren, saying:

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

“She persisted” quickly became a bumper-sticker slogan on social media, prompting references to trailblazing women of the past. Women like Eliza Scidmore.

Andrea Zimmerman, in Washington for a book reading

In a Facebook posting, Andrea Zimmerman, author of the children’s book “Eliza’s Cherry Trees,” added Scidmore to the list of history’s defiantly successful women. As Andrea noted, it took Eliza 24 years to win support for her idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in the Potomac Park.

Eliza Scidmore was a young woman with a crazy idea, and the male park supervisors she approached with her suggestion brushed her off. Several times.

But she persisted. Eventually, she got her way by securing as an ally another gutsy woman of her day: First Lady Helen Taft. The cherry blossoms we enjoy every spring in Washington show how things turned out.

 

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‘Mukojima,’ the Tokyo Park Behind D.C.’s Cherry Trees

Hand-colored photo of cherry-blossom viewing at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

Hand-colored photo of cherry-blossom viewing at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

“No other flower in all the world is so beloved, so exalted, so worshipped, as sakura-no-hana, the cherry-blossom of Japan.”
— Eliza Scidmore, The Century Magazine, May 1910

It’s now blooming season in Washington. That means cherry tree fever along the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park. It’s our own “Mukojima on the Potomac,” as Eliza Scidmore envisioned it more than a century ago, inspired by a popular cherry tree park in Tokyo.

Bruce and I made our annual pilgrimage to see the cherry blossoms on Saturday morning, under a clear but very chilly sky. We’ve learned over the years it’s best to go at early daybreak, when the huge crowds of tourists are just waking up or at breakfast. We can usually zip into town and find off-street parking not too far from the National Mall.

Today is the official birthday of the trees. The first ones, from a shipment of 3,000 donated by Japan, were planted on March 27, 1912.

Eliza Scidmore started pushing the idea of cherry trees in Potomac Park during her extensive travels to Japan beginning in the 1880s. She loved the ancient ritual known as hanami, or cherry-tree viewing, when all the Japanese people turned out to admire the blossoms and mingle beneath the branches.

One of her biggest inspirations was Mukojima, where cherry trees stretched for a mile along the east bank of the Sumida River in Tokyo.

Below are some photos of what Mukojima looked like around the time Eliza went there. See more wonderful images at this website featuring vintage postcards of old Tokyo.

Ramble under the cherry trees, around the time when Eliza Scidmore traveled in Japan (Takashima, 1897)

Ramble under the trees at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)

 

Hand-colored postard of Mukojima

Hand-colored postcard of Mukojima

 

Hand-colored photo from Frank Brinkley’s Mukojima, from Frank Brinkley's 10-volume “Japan”

Hand-colored photo from Frank Brinkley’s 10-volume illustrated book “Japan”

Mukojima was originally a royal hunting grounds during Japan’s Tokugawa era. The area was a short ferry ride across the river from a temple district, and after one of the shoguns planted an orchard of flowering cherries, common folk went every spring to admire the trees in bloom.

The country’s literati visited Mukojima for inspiration, and the wealthy elite built retreats nearby. But the site also remained popular with the public.

Early in the 20th century, Scidmore described Mukojima as something of a “people’s park” that drew hordes of Japanese from all walks of life. They picnicked under the trees and drank saké; pinned poems to the branches and let the tissue-thin strips of paper blow away in the wind. Entertainers and vendors gave it a carnival-like atmosphere. Eliza loved the joviality and spirit of goodwill that hanami seemed to bring out in people.

I had a chance to visit Mukojima during a research trip to Japan in 2013. The setting is certainly more modern, but the spirit apparently hasn’t changed.

Today, the crowds that circle the Tidal Basin in Washington photographing the blossoms and taking selfies in front of the trees — the Washington Monument or Jefferson Memorial looming in the background — are enacting that same ritual of hanami.

It’s the very experience Eliza Scidmore wanted to re-create in Washington.

Surviving Japanese cherry tree planted in 1912 on the grounds of the Library of Congress, between the Jefferson and Adams buildings (Photo: D. Parsell)

It took three decades for her to see her dream become a reality, thanks to the support of First Lady Helen Taft. Scidmore — then in her 50s — was one of only three special guests at the small private ceremony by the Tidal Basin when Mrs. Taft planted the first cherry tree by the Tidal Basin, and the Japanese ambassador’s wife, Madame Iwa Chinda, planted the second one.

Remarkably, those first two trees are still standing. They are west of the John Paul Jones statue, just south of a Japanese lantern donated later  by Japan. A plaque marks the historic event.

The life of cherry trees is typically about 40 years, so these two are real survivors. Gnarled and misshapen from lost limbs, but gallantly hanging on, thanks to the loving attention of the National Park Service. Many of the original 3,000 trees have had to be replaced over the years.

There’s another hardy survivor on the grounds of the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill, where I go often to do research for my biography of Eliza Scidmore. The tree is so old and unbalanced it’s heavy surviving limb is propped up by a crutch.

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Eliza Scidmore, Jokichi Takamine and ‘Homecoming Trees’

Plaque describing the role of Jokichi Takamine and Eliza Scidmore in Japan’s cherry tree gift to Washington (Photo: D. Parsell)

Eliza Scidmore is popping up all over the place here in Japan. Her cameo appears on plaques marking the presence of cherry trees grafted from trees in Potomac Park — scions of the 3,000 trees Japan sent to Washington a hundred years ago. A couple hundred saplings of these “homecoming cherry trees” are being planted around Japan.

It’s one of many U.S.-Japanese projects celebrating last year’s centennial of Washington’s cherry trees. Japan is also planting 3,000 dogwood trees that were a gift from the United States.

On the plaques, Eliza Scidmore is paired with a famous Japanese chemist named Jokichi Takamine. It recognizes their dual effort in bringing flowering cherry trees to Washington. Eliza had come up with the idea many years earlier but failed to win the support of park supervisors. Dr. Takamine had similarly tried in vain to have cherry trees planted in a park in New York City, where he lived.

Jokichi Takamine

A fortuitous moment came when Eliza encountered Dr. Takamine and his travel companion, the Japanese consul in New York, at social events in Washington in the spring of 1909. When she informed them of Mrs. Taft’s plans to have some flowering cherry trees planted in Potomac Park — a move Mrs. Taft took up at Eliza’s suggestion — Dr. Takamine offered to personally buy a couple thousand trees for the project. Continue reading

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Cherry Blossom Viewing at ‘Mukojima’ in Tokyo

On Saturday I literally walked in Eliza Scidmore’s footsteps when I went to Tokyo to see the cherry tree viewing (hanami) at Mukojima. The original mile-long stretch of cherry trees lining the Sumida River was the chief inspiration for Scidmore’s idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in Washington. She envisioned, she wrote many times, a “Mukojima on the Potomac.”

Picnicking and cherry tree viewing at Mukojima in Tokyo, an inspiration for Eliza Scidmore in the late 19th century (Photos: Diana Parsell)

It wasn’t just the blossoms that Scidmore wanted to import. She loved the celebrations when the Japanese turned out in droves to see the trees in peak bloom.

The most festive place was Mukojima. It was like the “people’s park,” where Japanese from all walks of life mingled in a carnival atmosphere. There were jugglers, acrobats, orators and vendors. And lots of saké drinking and picnicking.

The place is much changed today, of course. Most of the original trees were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and had to be replanted. The Sumida River today is wider. Tall buildings tower above one side of the riverbank, and the other has a raised freeway running parallel to a stretch of cherry trees. But the display is still glorious, and the spirit of hanami remains the same.

It was a joy to be there and experience it. The trees bloomed about two weeks earlier than expected here in Japan, so my timing was perfect!

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