The poem refers to an entry in The Pillow Book, by Sei Shonagon, a diary detailing events and random musings in the life of a Japanese noblewoman between 986-1000 CE. “Of the trees that grow far away in the hills the so-called white oak is the least familiar; in fact about the only time one sees even its leaves is when they are being used to dye the robes worn by gentlemen of the second and third ranks.” Such allusions are common in Heian poetry; they are a sign of education, similar to being able to quote Shakespeare is today. The allusion is meaningful in several ways. First, in heraldry white is synonymous with silver; therefore a white oak is the same as the silver oak. Second, the leaves of the white oak produce tannic acid; when mixed with iron, a black dye is produced for the robes of certain ranks.
A good friend of mine, Kimiko, was inducted into the Order of the Silver Oak, the first level award for Science or Research, at Baron Wars. I happened to be serving as a guard during Court, so I was able to hear the exchange. In recognition of her award, Kimiko was permitted to wear the color red: previously, her persona was restricted by period sumptuary laws from wearing most colors not derived from indigo. While not a high rank, the reference to the dye used for ranks does indicate a change in rank for her.
The poem is hokku, Japanese in origin with a 5-7-5 pattern of syllables, and is the opening verse of a renga. A hokku is supposed to have a kigo (seasonal word) that establishes when the poem was written, and a kireji (cutting word) which is difficult to describe in English – it basically creates an invitation to add verses to the poem. The idea of a renga is to cooperatively write poetry in groups, each person composing a verse that links to the previous verse, in an alternating 5-7-5 and 7-7 pattern. A late period form of renga is closely associated with the origins of the tea ceremony, and Kimiko and I spent several hours that day discussing those two topics.
Event held 15th day of 5th month, AS XLVIII. This poem was composed for the Pentamere Pilgrimage Challenge, the 10th poem in the series; in addition, Calum has written several amusing takes on his experiences at an event.