Fifteen years ago, compelled to escape the stressful urban environment where I had lived and worked for over thirty years, I moved to six and a half acres on a mountain, on an island in the Salish Sea—4 ½ hours from the nearest city, and an hour by ferry from the mainland. In winter, due to the high elevation and steep windy road, I was often snowed in for over a week. In some ways the isolation wasn’t so different from where I grew up: a remote corner of the prairie in North Dakota, also isolated from neighbors, with an even harsher climate. My parents were struggling wheat farmers and we lived without indoor plumbing until I was eight years old. Of course I had more amenities in my place on the mountain, and for 15 years I worked hard to grow plants for ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) and to teach this art form to island students. This love for all things Japanese was born when I lived in Japan. During that two years in the early ‘90s I taught English conversation, edited Shinto texts and visited as many Buddhist temples as I could fit in on any given weekend. Those two years gave birth to my interest in Zen, nature and ikebana, a triad that would come together thirty years later in The Language of Flowers in the Time of COVID.
I traveled to Japan many times since those first years being a resident, often to continue my practice of ikebana at my school’s headquarters in Kyoto. I didn’t like to travel just to be a tourist, so I was always coming up with new and purposeful reasons to go back to Japan.
When the pandemic hit, I had planned to spend the month of April in Kyoto and Nara researching a flower temple pilgrimage route. These travel plans had been in the works for years, all stemming from an article I’d read in a magazine about the “25 Flower Temples of the Kansai,” a route put in place by various abbots of Buddhist temples who had been experiencing low attendance. Their idea was to entice people to the temples with beautiful flowers, referred to in their literature as “little Buddhas.” As a practicing Buddhist and an ikebana teacher the Flower Temple Pilgrimage couldn’t have been more perfect. I had already experienced one of the Flower Temples—the Cosmos Temple or Hannyaji—on a previous trip during the month of October. Nestled in a quaint little neighborhood temple in Nara, Hannyaji was filled with every possible color of cosmos. Ultimately I wanted to visit Japan to experience the four seasons and take in all the Flower Temples. My first endeavor, scheduled for April 2020, would include cherry blossoms, azalea, wisteria, peonies and kerria. All the reservations had been made, the plane ticket bought, and the travel clothes purchased, but the virus had the last word.
When we went into lockdown, I turned to my own garden rather than temple gardens to engage mind, body and spirit. Writing The Language of Flowers in the Time of Covid was a life saver—from boredom, isolation, outrage over American politics, and fear over climate change. Looking at flowers, doing ikebana, tuning into seasonal changes and ultimately writing The Language of Flowers were my creative coping mechanisms in our worldwide crises. Of course, I had to stop teaching for safety reasons, but it didn’t stop me from creating my own arrangements and photographing them to share on Facebook or other venues.
The story for me during the pandemic became one of finding solace and comfort in nature and ikebana. It was also a time to focus more intensely on my Zen practice and stay connected with my teacher and sangha via Zoom. I stopped procrastinating about taking Buddhist precepts, and during 2020 I started sewing my symbolic robe, or rakusu in preparation for my Precept ceremony. A year later I received the Buddhist name Kanka Kyoshin, which roughly means, Generous Flower, Harmonious Faith.
Although I didn’t fulfill my wish of visiting the Flower Temples in the Kansai, the first year of the pandemic was fruitful nonetheless, even despite all the calamities of political upheaval, natural disasters, and racial protests bombarding the news channels. On my mountain top I felt removed but not indifferent. I saw that nature would have the last say. It would survive and thrive whether we as a species did or not. I saw that as long as we’re still here, the greatest consolation lies in the beauty and bounty of nature with its myriad forms, especially the never-ending display of seasonal flowers. We shouldn’t take nature for granted, without it we couldn’t be here on this planet. In this regard it’s important to really cherish nature, to look at the forms of nature, not just in passing, but to really look and see how plants grow; how they turn toward the light; how they unfold from the earth; how they die. What is their shape? What are the lines? What mood or feeling do they evoke? In ikebana this is the practice of Kado: the Way of Flowers.
Writing The Language of Flowers in the Time of COVID saved me from total despair during the pandemic. It kept me focused on the beauty of symbol and metaphor; it preserved my sanity in the midst of so much unprecedented political, social and climate upheaval in the United States. The year between February 2020 and February 2021 was one of the most tumultuous in recent memory. Writing The Language of Flowers gave me a sense of purpose and occupied my mind in ways that were healing. Being immersed in nature, flowers, poetry and meditation, plus doing research on these subjects, were all medicinal activities.
The Japanese love of nature and seasonal flowers continues to inspire me, even though for the last three years I’ve only been able to partake of Japan’s nature activities via the internet. During the third year of the pandemic someone sent me a video of Japanese viewing plum trees blossoming at famous temples in Kyoto. Everyone wore a mask even though they were outdoors. I like that about the Japanese, that they are careful and considerate of others; they look out for the community not just themselves; it shows up in so many ways, including their great respect for nature and its beauty. Ikebana is often considered a Zen Buddhist art form, but it’s also infused with Shinto: the original spiritual expression in Japan. In Shinto everything—stones, trees, flowers—has a spirit or kami. Some people, and in particular the Japanese I think, can feel or sense this energy or kami that radiates from natural objects. They appreciate nature on a deep level. I hope that The Language of Flowers in the Time of COVID conveys my own deep respect for nature and inspires others to take a closer look at the flowers and plants all around them.
The Language of Flowers in the Time of COVID: Finding Solace in Zen, Nature and Ikebana
by Joan D. Stamm is available from www.mantra-books.com and from wherever books are sold.