. . . in my New York garden

FOR many years, I have been inspired by the plum blossom, the small, five-petaled, white flower which, because it is winter-blooming, is considered by the Chinese to stand for strength and courage. Whenever I encounter it -- in Chinese painting, poetry, porcelain, jade, or textiles -- it impresses me, despite its diminutive size, with the marvel of its message. One of the ancient symbols in Chinese thought, the plum blossom has a distinguished history. And wherever I run into it, it proffers the same wisdom. ``Be strong,'' it seems to say. ``Flower, as I do, in the winter time, in your winter time.''

Suddenly, a few years back, I became eager to place a plum tree in my garden. I wanted to enjoy its blossom in nature, as well as in art. After unsuccessfully combing the Eastern nurseries of the United States in search of one, I was overjoyed to come across it in a nursery in the West, down the road from my native San Francisco.

It was not too surprising to find it there, since the month of February lines the streets and roads of northern California with plum trees -- their purplish leaves a brilliant foil to the dainty flower.

Feather-light and packed in dry root, the small sapling accompanied me on the plane back to my New York home. I planted it, watered it, and watched it grow at a slow but steady pace. I looked forward to the time when, flower-laden, it would present in actuality what countless artists have portrayed in art.

So long a devotee of the plum blossom, I was fascinated recently to come across one of the most beautiful paintings of it that I had ever seen. It was hanging in a corner of the Fogg Museum at Harvard University. It is entitled ``Lady Leaning on a Blossoming Plum Tree,'' and for several reasons it appears extraordinary. It is anonymous. It yields remarkable artistic satisfaction, with its effect deriving in part from the union of opposites. The twisting format of the tree seems to balance the structural simplicity of the figure.

It also seems that the painting, though done in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), is as ``modern'' as tomorrow. Often I've leaned, mentally if not physically, on a plum tree (or a bamboo or a pine, cohorts of the plum as ``friends of winter'') for sustenance and for the great gift of serenity that nature provides.

The convoluted plum tree seems almost like a writhing dragon (symbol of power); while the lady -- quiet, preoccupied, serene -- suggests the sensitive scholar groping with a problem and finding herself buoyed up by the blossoming plum.

One sunny morning, just this year, I walked out to my porch. I thought the sun was playing games with me. There were strange shadings on the plum tree. I walked over for a close inspection. The shadings were not the sun. They were plum blossoms. And in myriads of small, five-petaled clusters. They looked exactly like all the pictures I had long admired. I could not believe it. It was the moment I had hoped for, with wonder, with doubt, since I had, several years ago, carried the bare root with me like an infant on the plane from San Francisco.

All the false alarms, all the trips I had made outdoors to gaze vainly upon it, all the disappointments I had had when buds flowered only into foliage, were forgotten. Now I look forward to the day when my plum may achieve mature gigantic turnings; and when I, too, may lean upon its strongest early branches with equanimity and poise.

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