This 390 year old bonsai survived an atomic bomb.
Walked out to West Lake yesterday morning & visited two famous temples, one Taoist & one Buddhist. I’ve been to both before & in fact Tran Quoc–the Buddhist one–figures in my poem “What I Like about God,” which came out in the Georgia Review a couple of years ago. It is located on a narrow peninsula that juts out into West Lake. The present buildings are from the 19th century & are in fact getting some restoration now, but there has been a temple on the site for three-hundred years & a predecessor temple in another part of the city. In the pictures below it is the one with the tall brick stupa. Quán Thánh has one of the most architecturally perfect courtyards I’ve ever seen anywhere, though it is quite modest in size & the actual temple building at the end opposite the entrance gate is small, though beautifully proportioned. Perhaps the courtyard is so inviting because after going through the ornate gate, you descent several steps below the entrance level. Even though there are busy main thoroughfares on two sides, the traffic noise seems to fade as you go down the steps into the courtyard. After crossing the courtyard, you can stop to light incense before going up several steps to enter the temple with its initial alter & then, behind a screen, the sanctuary of the Protector of the North, who is represented by a three-ton bronze statue. The God of the North would have been very important, for China, Vietnam’s perpetual antagonist, has applied economic, cultural, political, military, & imperial pressure from that direction for 2500 years. The huge black figure sits with one finger raised in a sort of mudra, but to me it looks like he is saying to potential invaders, “Don’t even think about it.”
To get up to West Lake and the temples, I walked through the old French administrative quarter north of the oldest part of Hanoi and the Citadel, guarded by the Bac Mon (Northern) Gate, which the French breached with cannon fire in 1882, pretty much completing France’s colonial project in Vietnam. The Vietnamese commander of the Citadel hung himself in the guard tower of the gate, using his mandarin’s turban. The gate, as well as other parts of the old citadel, have recently been restored and archaeological efforts continue. A large hole made by a French cannonball has been left in the restored gate. The French were essentially bandits in Southeast Asia (to say nothing of Africa), but they lived well. Their broad tree-lined avenues contrast sharply with the narrow alleys of the Old Quarter.
One does not need to romanticize the old Imperial system of the Vietnamese emperors–some were better & some worse in following the Confucian mandate to care for their people–to feel the rapacity of the French. The French of course are long gone and the Vietnamese military now inhabits their old administrative buildings and much of the Citadel. The country prospers & when the country prospers the leaders retain the Mandate of Heaven, though the mandate is held, the old Confucian scholars would say, only as long as the virtues are upheld. Vietnamese modernity is an astonishing hybrid of old & new that continues to surprise me every time I return. It is a modernity quite distinct, I think, from that of the West & no one should expect that it will conform to Western forms & expectations.
As the institutions of the empire crumbled, I spent a glorious fallÂ morning in the northern provinces tending my bonsai. The smaller of the two pommegranits has survived a bout with fungus & is doing well. I have trimmed the rosmarys’ summer growth to reveal the sinuous structure of their branches. The ficus & the plum sit in a sunny southern window ready for the long cold months. The effects of the crisis will reach us, of course; even in the provinces of the empire we cannot escape the coming chaos. This week, though, we are to have sunny days & cool nights.
The days have been fairly warm, but the nights cooling. The leaves on some of the maples have just begun to shift toward yellow. Cassiopeia rises in the northeast at the end of our road in the gap where the tall trees open on the riverbank. There are still coneflowers & black-eyed-susans in the flowerbeds, but not much else. In the ditches the late blooming asters & fleabane proliferate; the milkweed is setting its alien-looking seedpods.Â The sounds of geese gathering on the river. Last week the flycatchers along the river seemed to be doing twice as much hunting, gathering strength for their migration; this week, most of them are gone. Now that they have stopped growing, I’ve been trimming back excessive summer growth on some of my bonsai, especially the rosemary, but also the pomegranates & natal plum. Waves of hard rain this morning.
Carole & Amy are up in the mountains tonight doing an art thing with SLU students. They took Angel the lab with them, who is no doubt in 7th heaven soaking up the love of hippie girls with no terriers around. I’m home with the terriers. Almost built a fire tonight. Rainy & damp all day & it’s going to get down into the 30s tonight, though no frost is forecast. Brought the more temperature sensitive bonsai in onto the porch tonight. Won’t be long before I have to harvest my chili peppers & basil. Still lots of gravel & mulch to move around outside before the snow flies. We usually get our first snow around the end of October.
I just ran across these amazing photos of bonsai by Walter Pall, who has developed what bonsai purists call a “naturalistic” style, though the viewer unfamiliar with the formal styles of traditional bonsai might not choose the adjective “natural” to describe these tress. All that apparently lifeless wood, by the way, called jin, is part of the living tree. What one calls natural is, clearly, a matter of perspective & relationship. There is no one thing that is nature, of course, over against which there is something else, presumably a mind observing nature as if from the outside. There is no outside. Nor any inside, either. Can you tell I’ve been reading Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope in between the Patrick O’Brian novels? It is one of those books that tells me what I already have already thought intuitively, but which gives me contextualized & clearly argued reasons for my sense of things.