I used to love listening in the evenings to the sound of geese flying overhead. That was in Madison. According to the ancient calendar, it was the Eleventh Month--in the time of Frost Falling (霜降).
Imagining Autumn Leaves, I always like thinking how the frozen dewdrops of November were in ancient times posited as one of the possible causes for why the leaves changed color so dramatically during this time of year. I mean, there had to be a reason, right?
How is it
that dewdrops of pure white
stain the leaves of
these Autumn trees
so many, many colors? ---Toshiyuki no Ason
How is it
Known in Japanese as "Koyo,"or "red leaves" (紅葉), in very pre-Heian times the word koyo was written using the character for yellow-- as in "yellow leaves" (黄葉) This was a convention taken from ancient classical Chinese texts. By the mid-Heian Period, however, yellow was replaced with the character for “red” attesting to the preference the Japanese of the time felt and still feel for the particular beauty of the red color maple trees-- which in Japan, rival the beauty of the famous maple trees of New England. Indeed, some two-thirds of the worlds maple tree species are to be found in Japan and China. Nowadays in common speech, just like the word for "flower" (hana) is used interchangeably to talk about the cherry blossoms, so too is the word for maple tree (momiji) used interchangeably to talk about the autumn foliage- such is the maple tree's preeminence among trees in Japan.
In what is yet another ancient battle-- this battle of the seasons--the cherry blossoms and autumn leaves were often paired off. There are many well-known seasonal pairs- the spring rains versus autumn rains; the May wind versus early autumn wind, as well as the elegant battle of the seasons (between spring and autumn); therefore this pairing of the autumn leaves with the spring cherry blossoms should come as no real surprise.
This “battle” was played out most famously in The Tale of Genji, between the Lady Murasaki who favored Spring and Lady Akikonomu, whose very name means “being fond of autumn.” Toward the middle of the Tale, when all four of Genji’s ladies were being installed in to their respective quarters- Murasaki in the Southeast (spring); Akinonumu in the Southwest (autumn); Lady of Akashi in the Northwest (Winter); and Hana Chiru Sato in the Northeast (summer)- on a cool autumn evening, when Akinomu’s garden was in its fullest Autumn splendor, she sent apoem, placed in a beautiful box decorated with maple leaves and autumn grasses from her garden to her rival Lady Murasaki:
“Though longing impatiently for spring,
Will not your garden at least admit
These autumn leaves which come floating in
On the wind from my garden”
Needless to say, Murasaki is not amused and sends back a poem remarking that, though Akikonomu’s leaves are beautiful, so soon are they too likely to scatter....
Probably most people are like me-: wishywashy. Every year, I decide that autumn is my favorite season of all-- only to change my mind yet again when spring rolls around and I catch sight of my first peony.
In tea ceremony, there is a famous Edo period teabowl that every practioner knows. A favorite design motif, which is used especially on ceramics but also on lacquerware and in textiles, it is a pattern of interconnected cherry blossoms and maple leaves. It is said that the pattern was first introduced by Kenzan (1663-1743), but it was truly made famous by an Edo Period bowl by Nin’ami Dohachi (1783-1855) another Edo Period potter, who created many works in the style of Kenzan. This particular bowl had one side decorated lavishly with an explosion of brilliant pale cherry blossoms and the other side of the bowl just as lavishly adorned with bright red maple leaves. The design has come to be known as “clouds and brocade” (unnkin-de 雲錦手）because it is thought that cherry blossoms, when gazed at from a distance look like clouds covering the mountains, and likewise the autumn foliage of reds, oranges, yellows and greens resembles beautiful brocade:
Frail indeed are these
cross threads of frost
and drawn threads of dewdrops-
For no sooner are they woven then
do these mountain brocades scatter
-Sekio, Kokinshu 291
Clouds like flowers and leaves like brocade, brocade was a metaphor borrowed from Tang Period poetry. This is one of my favorites, by Li He (790-816):
frost walking in the wind
autumn leaves, gorgeous as brocades
in heaps along the roads
Autumn is so beautiful in Japan. What could have caused such moving beauty? The autumn leaves are known as momiji and the etymology of the word momiji, can be traced back to the belief that the autumn colors were somehow “rubbed out” (momidasu 揉み出す) of the leaves at that time of year. Perhaps it was the the gem-like dewdrops or the icy frost that affected this transformation. Or maybe it was the long autumn rains that gradually seeped into the trees at night, staining the leaves all those vivid colors.
Another explanation-- my personal preference-- was that it wasn’t the dew at all which was to blame, but rather the tears of passing geese:
Might it not be that
the dewdrops forming on Autumn nights
are only just that- dewdrops
And that it’s the tears of passing geese
which stain the fields red
- Mibu no Tademine
Shimmering snow by moonlight, flowers falling like rain, windless summer heat, and the tears of passing geese. 4 seasons: