A celebration of cherry trees

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Last Friday, Sakai Middle School students packed the hillside meadow around their new – and two very old – blossoming cherry trees for the First Annual Cherry Blossom Festival, and to honor the school’s soon-to-retire principal, Jo Vanderstoep.

Students played Japanese folk songs and shared haiku read aloud and artistically written on decorated paper that fluttered among the blossoms. One read: “Pink cherry blossoms, softly swaying in the wind, floating in puddles.”

No puddles this day – though maybe a few happy tears! Eagles and billowing white clouds like giant blossoms filled a sunny sky. Two 76-year-old Yoshino cherry trees, originally given to the high school campus by the island’s Japanese elders and transplanted at Sakai last year, were in full bloom.

A new “Daybreak Yoshino” purchased by the fifth-grade class was dedicated to Vanderstoep, who was the school’s first principal. A stone marker commemorating her decade at Sakai was prepared by Molly Greist and unveiled by fifth graders Edie Madigin and Bailey Starbuck.

“Remember this day,” Greist urged the students. “You are the keepers of the memory of this historic event and the story of the Cherry Trees at Sakai.”

“I read about the cherry trees coming to Sakai last year in the newspapers,” student Starbuck said later. “The festival was part about Japanese culture and part about our principal. My teacher, Mrs. Haas, asked Edie and I to make a cover for the stone to surprise Ms. Vanderstoep and to give a speech. It was hard to keep it a secret!”

Teacher Shelly Minor shared a history of cherry blossom festivals around the world.

Kay Nakao, Sakai family elder, shared her thoughts on the day. “I always knew that there was a cherry blossom festival. Now I think more seriously about it because the cherry trees at Sakai mean so much.

“It is something special that every season when the blossom blooms, we have ‘hanami’ or ‘flower viewing.’ It gives you a feeling that is hard to describe – of peace and an appreciation of beauty. The Yoshino cherry – the old tree – has such big, marvelous blossoms! The (students’) haiku was just perfect. They should put it into book form and share it year to year. Everyone was awesome – ‘awesome as the blossom!’ Now that’s a haiku.”

Also attending the ceremony were Olaf Ribeiro, renowned plant pathologist, and appreciative islanders Sue Cooley and Bob Pierce.

Olaf oversaw “The Great Cherry Tree Transplant of 2007.” Many had told him that it couldn’t be done. “You can’t transplant a 24,000-pound cherry over a mile away,” they said, “not in May! Are you crazy?”

It was accomplished, however, with the help of many heavy-equipment operators, fellow arborists, caring students and islanders.

“It is important to save the things that make the island special,” Ribeiro said. “Many new people coming here know little about what has made this place unique. It is important to keep Island traditions and history alive. Saving the trees was just a technical challenge. We can do anything we set our minds to do – if we have the will. It was wonderful the way people stepped up to help get the job done. That’s an island tradition, too.”

Cooley rejoiced: “I was very impressed with the whole scene of the children beneath the cherry trees on their hill – a perfect spot – and the way the students bought a new tree to commemorate their principal and shared all of their beautiful haiku!”

Pierce, a U.S. Navy veteran living in Winslow, was one of the first ashore at Nagasaki at the end of World War II. He has dim memories of hills of blossoming cherries in Japan and Korea. At this day’s celebration, Pierce saw more than blossoms:

“I am so proud of those young people who made the festival possible. I really enjoyed them. It was beautiful to see us raising up such good kids!”

Vanderstoep enjoyed the event, too.

“It has been such an absolute honor to be the founding principal of this school and to help celebrate this community and its culture,” she said. “The day was priceless. I will hold it for a longtime.”

The festivities were topped with a cherry-popsicle treats for all, flavored by cherry harvests of the past.

Gerald Elfendahl is a local historian

Trees of Time:

The pear shaped D’anjou pear tree at Bainbridge Gardens was grafted from a single tree over 50 years ago by Zenhichi Harui, and stands not only as symbol of patience and garden mastery, but of Junkoh Harui’s rediscovery of his roots. Infrared recording enhances the contrast of the tree’s shape from the background.

The infrared quality adds further contrast between the plants and the man made objects

– Marilynn Gottlieb.

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