Hello All,

Here in the northern hemisphere, it is high spring and the first warm weather is arriving. I hope that you have been enjoying many of the beautiful ways that the earth has reawakened into new life as we begin to anticipate the coming of summer.

One of the things that made an impression on me this spring is wisteria. A venerable, thick-trunked vine of it climbed up the side of my childhood home, garlanding the window of my bedroom each April with cascades of headily sweet and peppery-scented hanging purple clusters. Wisteria is a favored garden presence both in Berkeley, California and Florence, Italy, the two main settings of my childhood, forming a bridge of fond associations between the two.

Although some varieties of wisteria are native to eastern North America, most cultivars originated in Asia and were brought to the West in the 1810s by early British botanist Thomas Nuttall. The horticultural name he gave the plant, known as zi teng in China and fuji in Japan, honored his friend Kaspar Wistar, a Quaker physician, appreciated by his contemporaries for, among other things, the lively gatherings held in his Philadelphia home where current topics in what we now call the knowledge professions were discussed.

Wisteria had long been seen as an auspicious plant in Asian Buddhism prior to its popularization in the West, its longevity and downward hanging blossoms symbolizing wisdom and humility and twining vines, the cyclical nature of existence. Due to an early and brief, yet vivid, flowering season, the plant was also taken as a reminder of the transitory nature of beauty and all things. 

At the beginning of April, I visited the gardens of Villa Bardini in the hills above Florence and was enchanted by a wisteria-wrapped pergola there just beginning to flower (below left). A week later, a friend shared a photo of the same arcade now in full bloom (below middle). Back in California the following week, the wisteria blossoms scrambling up a fence behind the local taqueria were already fading (below right). In the withered cluster, fuzzy seed pods already emerged from the dying petals. The arc of arising, fullness, and passing away, only to begin again, exemplified in the life of a flower.

Another highlight of my time in Florence was attending the Scoppio del Carro (Explosion of the Cart), a wonderfully idiosyncratic Easter celebration originating in the Middle Ages. In it, the Brindellone, an ornate cart loaded with firecrackers, is drawn into the Piazza del Duomo by white oxen decked with flowers. During the Easter service, the archbishop of Florence lights the fuse on the Colombina, a paper mâché dove loaded with more firecrackers–a carnivalesque emblem of Catholicism’s Holy Spirit. He does so by striking a spark from two sacred stones said to come from the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Once ignited, the flaming bird zips down a wire extending from the main altar inside the cathedral to the Brindellone outside. Elaborate pyrotechnics ensue, accompanied by a wild mix of choral music emanating from the cathedral; trumpeting and drums from Renaissance-clad foot soldiers in the piazza; and enthusiastic cheering from the crowd.

Witnessing an event so deeply rooted in Florentine history, ritual, and civic pride, both joy and sadness came up related to themes of belonging and not belonging. Italy has been  both a vital part of the course of my life and is the site some of my fondest memories, while also the setting for states of outsider-ness and disconnection. Moving between places, cultures, languages, and identities can invite a kind of dual consciousness, familiar to many of us, and arising due to all kinds of factors. Sometimes it can feel like being on the outside looking in; or on the inside looking out; or like having one foot out and the other in; or as if poised on the threshold between two worlds.

These states are not unrelated to our widely shared experiences of difference and separation. Separateness is illusory, though believing in it can generate real, sometimes even tragic consequences. Societally, war, oppression, exploitation, and marginalization depend on the strategic cultivation of perceived differences by systems of power. Individually, believing in our own other-ness or that of others can lead us to wander for years, sometimes a lifetime, in what writer Toko-pa Turner calls “that raw fissure of our lostness, the ache to find our place in the family of things.” 

Finding our way out of this place is to undertake a journey in search of a homecoming. Exploring, naming, and making are among its many expressions. Back to early naturalist Thomas Nuttall, journeying far from his Yorkshire birthplace to, across, and beyond the still unspoiled American continent, with all the devastations of manifest destiny he was a harbinger of yet to come. He went as far as the Hawaiian Islands, deploying a kind of scientific colonialism by collecting and cataloging the specimens he encountered. Botanical and ornithological taxonomies are full of his “finds,” including Nuttall’s Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii), Nuttall’s Yellow-Billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli), Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii), and Nuttall’s violet (Viola nuttallii). After establishing himself in the newly formed “United States” and becoming the director of the Harvard Botanical Garden, he later returned to England to claim an inheritance it was stipulated he could only benefit from by remaining on his family’s Lancashire property nine months out of the year. He spent his last years at his estate of Nutgrove Hall and was buried in the nearby village churchyard. 

A fellow explorer of nature and his relationship to it was Impressionist painter Claude Monet. The Impressionists popularized the practice of painting “en plein air” (in the open air) rather than in the studio, the better to capture real time effects of shifting light, weather, and seasons. Monet’s best-known works are his series of haystacks, cathedrals, and water lilies that do just this, yet late in life he also painted canvasses of wisteria hanging over the “Japanese Bridge” in the garden of his beloved home in Giverny, outside Paris. For over forty years, Giverny was Monet’s primary subject; a haven for his creative process; an ode to the gracious comforts of the affluent domestic life that his commercial success afforded him; and a retreat from the more jarring impacts of the capitalist industrialization unfolding around him over the course of his lifetime.

By the time of the wisterias, Monet was in his eighties and almost blind. As with his late water lilies, these works verge on abstraction with the paint deeply colored and as thickly laid and tactile as a child’s finger painting with the premise of a distinction between subjective experience and what it perceives falling away. Home is the nature within and without, his last works seem to say.

T.S. Eliot, another wanderer and immigrant, has this to say on searching and discovery.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The goal of this pilgrimage then, is a sense of arrival, of belonging. In what ways, where, and how do we seek to belong? What kinds of journeys, be they geographic, intellectual, relational, artistic, or spiritual, speak to this endeavor? Where do discovery, freedom, authenticity, and connection lie? Our seeking draws us into cycles of life, nature, and meaning, circling and twining like wisteria vines. As Eliot also wrote, “in my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.”

Speaking of circles, I’ll be circling back soon with a meditation on the four elements of nature, since ultimately nature is who we are and to what we all belong. I’ll also share some news about upcoming events. Meanwhile, I wish you rich experiences of exploration and discovery as you navigate your own interesting and sacred journeys.