AUTUMN LEAVES

Beijing, 23 October 2013

It’s that time of the year in the northern hemisphere when the trees begin to lose their leaves. If we’re lucky, depending on where we’re perched on that hemisphere, we can witness the glorious spectacle of leaves turning intensely red, orange or yellow before they expire and finally float to the ground. My wife and I had such luck some thirty years ago, when we went “leaf peeping” in Vermont.

vermont fall foliage

We had such luck an equally long time ago in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan

hokkaido fall foliage

And I had such luck, alone this time, on my recent trip to Qinghai province, where the poplars were turning bright, golden yellow.

trees in fall

Alas, we have no such luck in dirty, dusty, smoggy Beijing. The leaves here go a little bit yellow, or just plain brown, before dropping miserably to the ground.

The partial exception is the ginkgo.  Ginkgos are popular trees to plant along streets. They tolerate well pollution and confined soil space, admirable traits for a tree growing in Beijing. And they look handsome, in the summer

ginkos 001

but even more so in the autumn

gingkgo trees autumn

Strange trees, ginkgos. The name already is odd. It was years before I realised that the “k” actually comes before the “g”. Who on earth came up with that spelling? A Dutchman called Engelbert Kaempfer, that’s who, back in the late 17th Century. He was the first European to see a gingko – sorry, ginkgo – in Japan. When he reported it to the European world, he seems to have stumbled over his transcription of the Japanese name ginkyō: what should have been written “ginkio” or “ginkjo” somehow got written as ginkgo.

That double-lobed leaf is odd, too.

Ginkgo Leaves summer

In fact, it’s unique among seed plants. Unique, because the ginkgo is a living fossil. This fossilized ginkgo leaf

fossil ginkgo leaf

is 40 million year old, although the ginkgo is far older. It first appears in the fossil record some 200 million years ago. It did nicely for the first 100 million years or so but then it went into terminal decline. Its range shrank and shrank, the various ginkgo species disappeared, until only ginkgo biloba survived, and survived only in China.

In fact, even the ginkgo biloba probably wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for Buddhism coming to China. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not the ginkgo trees currently found in the wild in China are truly wild or simply feral, that is, grown from seeds that wafted away from domesticated trees. What is sure is that Buddhist monks took to planting ginkgos in their temples as their local version of the bo-tree, the sacred fig tree under which it is said that the Buddha attained enlightenment.

sacred fig

and of course the ginkgo then got included in the Chinese Buddhist iconography – look at those ginkgo leaves peeping behind the buddha:

maitreya buddha under ginkgo

The ginkgo, having thus gained enormously in stature as a sacred tree, was carefully nurtured by all and sundry and survived – and got carried by Buddhism to Korea and Japan, where our friend Engelbert saw it.

So I suppose it’s really best to admire the ginkgo in the environment which saved it from probable extinction, a Buddhist temple like this one, Dajue temple in the western hills near Beijing.

ginkgo fall dajue temple

___________________

Vermont fall foliage: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/dam/assets/120911072551-leaf-peeping-vt-jenne-farm-ed-sharron-story-top.jpg [in http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/21/travel/fall-leaf-peeping-autumn/%5D
Hokkaido fall foliage: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-HK-XCKr055I/UGvr1pwda3I/AAAAAAAAGc8/oe2ckytpNRk/s1600/%E7%A7%8B%E3%81%AE%E9%AB%98%E5%8E%9F%E6%B8%A9%E6%B3%892.jpg [in http://talk-hokkaido.blogspot.com/2012/10/autumnal-foliage-around-daisetsu.html%5D
Qinghai fall foliage: my picture
Ginkgo trees along the street: my picture
Ginkgo trees autumn: http://chinatour.net/member/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/gingkgo.jpg [in http://chinatour.net/beijing/tour/autumn/%5D
Ginkgo leaves summer: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f5/Ginkgo_Biloba_Leaves_-_Black_Background.jpg/400px-Ginkgo_Biloba_Leaves_-_Black_Background.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkgo_biloba%5D
Ginkgo leaves autumn: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/78/GinkgoLeaves.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkgo_biloba%5D
Fossil gingko leaf: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c5/Ginkgo_biloba_MacAbee_BC.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkgo%5D
Sacred fig: http://img.xcitefun.net/users/2009/09/117740,xcitefun-sri-maha-bodhi-tree-2.jpg [in http://forum.xcitefun.net/sri-maha-bodhi-sacred-fig-tree-sri-lanka-t38289.html%5D
Maitreya Buddha sitting under ginkgo: http://www.asia.si.edu/collections/zoom/F1911.411.jpg
Ginkgo Dajue temple: http://images.chinahighlights.com/2012/11/4c1ed9eaebda4d74a20d96f4.jpg [in http://www.chinahighlights.com/beijing/article-see-golden-ginkgoes.htm%5D

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Abellio

I like writing, but I’ve spent most of my life writing about things that don’t particularly interest me. Finally, as I neared the age of 60, I decided to change that. I wanted to write about things that interested me. What really interests me is beauty. So I’ve focused this blog on beautiful things. I could be writing about a formally beautiful object in a museum. But it could also be something sitting quietly on a shelf. Or it could be just a fleeting view that's caught my eye, or a momentary splash of colour-on-colour at the turn of the road. Or it could be a piece of music I've just heard. Or a piece of poetry. Or food. And I’m sure I’ve missed things. But I’ll also write about interesting things that I hear or read about. Isn't there a beauty about things pleasing to the mind? I started just writing, but my wife quickly persuaded me to include photos. I tried it and I liked it. So my posts are now a mix of words and pictures, most of which I find on the internet. What else about me? When I first started this blog, my wife and I lived in Beijing where I was head of the regional office of the UN Agency I worked for. So at the beginning I wrote a lot about things Chinese. Then we moved to Bangkok, where again I headed up my Agency's regional office. So for a period I wrote about Thailand and South-East Asia more generally. But we had lived in Austria for many years before moving to China, and anyway we both come from Europe my wife is Italian while I'm half English, half French - so I often write about things European. Now I'm retired and we've moved back to Europe, so I suppose I will be writing a lot more about the Old Continent, interspersed with posts we have gone to visit. What else? We have two grown children, who had already left the nest when we moved to China, but they still figure from time to time in my posts. I’ll let my readers figure out more about me from reading what I've written. As these readers will discover, I really like trees. So I chose a tree - an apple tree, painted by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt - as my gravatar. And I chose Abellio as my name because he is the Celtic God of the apple tree. I hope you enjoy my posts. http://ipaintingsforsale.com/UploadPic/Gustav Klimt/big/Apple Tree I.jpg

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