A Vancouver Hanami – from winter into spring

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I feel as if I’ve been waiting for it for months. Even as far back as December I was noticing the first tiny leaf buds on the shrub willows, so tiny as to be nothing more than bumps smaller than my little fingernail, but I knew what they were. The seasons would change. No matter what else was going on in the world, or in me, the seasons would change. It was a kind of daily anchor as I allowed myself to be embraced by the bare forest. Striding forth with hiking poles, intent on serious sweaty exercise to help me through the long days of winter, I would make careful note of the green, grateful for the green, the green that stays all winter – holly, ivy, thick chartreuse moss, sword ferns, periwinkle, and other plants I cannot name. All winter the tiny leaf buds, and those plants that defy the season and hold tight to their leaves and their colour sustain me. And yet, And yet. I am also aware of the bare branches, the untidy tangle of blackberry brambles without their green dresses to cover the scruffy mess, and the brown; apart from the plants that stubbornly retain their green, all is a forlorn brown, and grey. Brown bare plants, brown bare trees, and grey skies.

I long for spring. I long for summer. I long for heat. I long for blue skies and trees so bright with leaves that they shout to the world Look at me! Here is Life!

It has felt like a long winter. Canadian winters are always long, and here on the west coast we have it easier than most in that the winters are mild and we get little snow, but Don and I are usually away in February and March. Away to warm places like India and Malaysia last year and India and Japan the year before. There was no travelling this year of course, and the winter went on and on, the forest showing me what muddy beauty it could, showing me what muddy beauty I was willing to see.

We can’t spend money travelling so we spend it on cut flowers instead.



Finally in March at the prompting of a friend we go snowshoeing! It feels like a revelation. It feels like a holiday. It feels like an adventure, a trip to another land. We’d never have thought of it ourselves. It’s a forty minute drive from home, and inexpensive to use the trails and rent equipment, but we were too stuck in the winter rut, in the Covid rut, to think of such a thing until our friend mentioned it. We’d barely discovered it, barely challenged ourselves to try the harder and harder trails, when they shut down for the season. Still it was good while it lasted. It was amazing while it lasted! Next year we will buy our own equipment and go more often.

Initially we stick to the green (easy) trails, intoxicated by the snowbound beauty that surrounds us.









On subsequent visits we progress to the blue trails and make it up to the warming hut where cross-country skiers



and snowshoers alike hangout for a break in the sun. Well for us it’s in the sun. We’re not obsessive; we only go on sunny days.



At the warming hut we meet someone who tells us that the black (most difficult) trails are not that hard, just longer, and this gives us the information and confidence we need to tackle them. She was right and not right. A short way along one of the black trails we’re faced with a loop that would give us a little extra distance. It’s so steep Don doesn’t make it up and comes down the only way he can – on his butt.





But soon after we are high enough that the Coast Mountains are a glorious shining backdrop.

Photo by Don Read



We continue on without that extra loop, still on black trails, longer, more challenging, more negotiation with narrow sections, places where it drops sharply off on one side, steep up and steep down, twisting and turning through the forest – on the same day there is a sign that bears have been seen in the area, which gives an extra frisson of tension; I am aware that we are all but alone out there. But on we go, until finally we are rewarded with the sight of Hollyburn Lodge,



where will stop for hot chocolate for Don, coffee for me, a treat for us both, and high-fives all round! We did it! We discover how much we can do if we just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Isn’t that a metaphor for life?

Back down off the mountain in Vancouver by now the shrub willows are full-dressed in green, always the first to arrive, and I begin to see hints of the tunnels they will form across our hiking trail as the sturdy stems grow longer and longer and bend under their own weight. Day by day more life emerges.

Suddenly one day in early March I notice, as I walk through Periwinkle Grove, so named by me for obvious reasons, that the periwinkle is in bloom. First a single flower, then as the days go by, more and more tiny purple flowers appear out of nowhere also proclaiming in their quiet way, yes! There is life here! I notice in another part of the trail that the bluebell leaves have arrived, though there are no flowers as yet. But right at our back door there is a riot of electric blue grape hyacinth! In suburban gardens on the way to the forest – daffodils, and tulips, and hyacinth drowning me in its swooning scent. Spring has arrived. Hallelujah! And with it the first hints of soft chartreuse green, my favourite colour of spring, appear on the big weeping willow down by the river. This is spring for me, this delicate colour that so briefly dresses the willow before the leaves grow bigger, denser, darker. At the same time the magnolia bursts forth – white star, or bright pink, or deep red, the magnolia fairly shouts to the world that spring has finally arrived.





Everyday I’m on the lookout for the blossoms. All of Vancouver is on the lookout for the blossoms! The city is famous for its plum and cherry blossoms; maybe almost as famous as Japan. And we have Japan to thank for it. The Vancouver tradition started with a donation from Japan of 500 cherry trees in the 1930’s to honour the Japanese Canadians who served in WWI, and a further donation of 300 trees in 1958 as “an eternal memory of good friendship between our two nations.”

Today there are more than fifty thousand plum and cherry trees lining the streets and filling the parks of Vancouver, and someone is posting photos on the Gram and I want to know where they are. In my own neighbourhood they are not fully out yet. The photographer on the Gram tells me 46th and Kerr. We live really close so make a trip there only to find we’ve been duped. There are no blossoms at all along 46th, or anywhere in the area.

I fall back a bit into Covid stupor. I know I could take my camera and go searching all over the city but it feels like too much, a fools errand. We do drive on one such trip and are too early, or in the wrong part of town. Besides, I must storm my way around the forest trail and see what has emerged there! New leaves on the blackberries – soon all the untidy tangle will be covered in green, and then the white flowers will come with their promise of sweet fruit in the fall. And on three separate days, deep in the forest, on what I call the Inside Passage, a tiny narrow hidden trail that almost no one uses, I see a hummingbird. It dances from branch to branch sipping nectar from flowers so tiny, so insignificant as to hardly be noticed at all. But I sure notice the hummer.

There are blossoms close to home! We just have to wait for them to be willing to present their full glory to the world. At the end of Rupert Street as it dead-ends and butts up against the start of the forest trail around the golf course there are two of them. I watch them daily. It’s a moment of pure joy as they come fully into bloom.



There are some along 56th Avenue on the way to Rupert, more at the end of 55th where it disappears into the huge co-op housing complex,



and the two in our own back garden. Our own back garden! Every year they bloom; and every year they surprise me. Oh look! We have this beauty right here just by stepping out the back door. How could we ever forget?



Finally they are here, a daily reminder of the beauty of the world, and that life returns and returns and returns.

And at last it is time. Hanami time!

On a perfect blue-sky warm spring day we get together with four friends and have a picnic in Queen Elizabeth Park next to the lower grove of fully-bloomed cherry trees.









Every year we go to see the cherry blossoms in Queen Elizabeth park, but this year, having been lassoed by Japan and its lovely people and traditions twice now, I am determined also to have a hanami picnic.

Hanami is the Japanese custom of enjoying the transient beauty of nature, particularly focused on cherry and plum flowers, and more specifically now referring to a picnic party under the cherry blossoms. And so that’s what we do, we have our very own Vancouver hanami.

Usually this place is crowded with Vancouverites of Japanese heritage having picnics, but I suppose Covid restrictions have made them reluctant. Anyway, although we are the only picnickers, and at the edge of the grove, not directly under it, there are others around.







What better selfie could there be than right in amongst it?!






Today it feels like summer. And today on the trail a tiny dancer; once again there’s a ruby-throated hummer. It flits before us for a couple of minutes before it takes off. We stand and gape at its ethereal ephemeral beauty. Unseasonal temperatures they say. But it won’t last. Next week we’ll be back to spring again. By then the dark red cherry blossoms will have arrived. And like the pinks that are out now, they won’t last either. Already the ground is carpeted with their delicate petals, a reminder of the transience of life. And of its beauty.









Next post: I hardly dare say since I thought this post would be the final post about our 2019 trip to Japan, but snowshoeing and cherry blossoms shouted louder. So maybe a post about Japan, or maybe something entirely different.






All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.