Paulownia Trees & The Moonee Ponds Creek

The City of Melbourne has a wonderful website called Urban Forest Visual where you can look up the species of all the trees planted in the streets and parks of Melbourne. Browsing this website the other day I was surprised to find that there are paulownia (or pawlonia) trees planted in Chelmsford Street, Kensington, only ten or fifteen minutes walk from my house. A paulownia tree was referred to in a haiku by Ransetsu in my post on Japanese Death Poems.

Here is a slightly different translation of the same haiku from The Classic Tradition of Haiku edited by Faubion Bowers:

A leaf falls;

Totsu! a leaf falls,

on the wind.

Ransetsu (trans. William J. Higginson)

Bowers offers the following explanations:

Just as “blossom,” when not modified, means cherry flower in haiku, “one leaf” is code for kiri. Kiri, a member of the figwort family, is the Pawlonia or Empress tree, named after the daughter of Tsar Paul I of Russia (1754 – 1801). A fast grower, it reaches a height of 20 feet in two seasons. The faintly perfumed wood is used in making clogs and clothes chests. The leaves drop throughout the year. They shrivel, turn yellow, and yield to gravity. Their falling symbolises loneliness and connotes the past. The large purple flowers in early autumn are deeply associated with haiku because the three prongs hold 5, 7, and 5 buds respectively. The blooms and their bracket of leaves form the crest of the Empress of Japan. Totsu is an exclamation supposedly uttered when a Zen student achieves enlightenment. The sound also imitates the dry crackle the pawlonia leaf makes as it scratches the ground on falling.

Paulownia is also mentioned more than once by R. H. Blyth, in his famous four volume work on haiku. Blyth seems to disagree with Bowers’ interpretation of the word “totsu”. When discussing the Rensetsu haiku in his first volume, Eastern Culture, Blyth writes: “Totsu is a Zen exclamation, expressive of grumbling, of anger”.

In volume three, Summer-Autumn, Blyth has this to say on the paulownia: “The flowers of the kiri or paulownia have something in them harmonious with what is old, low, spread out, peaceful, monotonous”. These haiku by Shiki are given as examples:

Flowers of the paulownia blooming;

Old mansions

Of the Capital.

Shiki (R. H. Blyth)

The low roof

Of the store-house;

Flowers of the paulownia.

Shiki (R. H. Blyth)

There are no old mansions in the area of Kensington around Chelmsford Street, but there are plenty old store-houses and factories (mostly being converted into residential apartments), and at the bottom of Chelmsford Street runs the Moonee Ponds Creek. The Moonee Ponds Creek … it sounds like an idyllic little waterway doesn’t it? And probably it was before the European settlement of Melbourne. Now, for most of its course it is a concrete drain; poisoned by the tannery that used to be at Debney’s Park and other heavy industry; and overshadowed not by ancient gum trees, but by the massive concrete towers of the the Citilink overpass.

Paulownia trees 
near the Moonee Ponds Creek –
no leaves left at all. 🌵

References:

Haiku, Blyth R. H., The Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.

The Classic Tradition of Haiku, Bowers, F. (Ed.), Dover Publications, 1996.

Urban Forest Visual, http://melbourneurbanforestvisual.com.au