I think most artists and photographers and others who look deeply at things are familiar with the term wabi-sabi. The book that most people know is Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren which came out in the mid 90s. More recently, Koren penned Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts. In this volume Koren explains the origin of wabi-sabi, saying: "Sabi is an ancient word. It is found in the Manyoshu ("Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves"), the oldest extant Japanese poetry anthology." He goes on, "Sabi, a concept borrowed from Chinese poetry, then meant "to be desolate."" The meaning also included "taking pleasure in that which is old, faded, and lonely" and "the beauty of things withered." Beauty, he says, also resides in things that are worn, incomplete, imperfect, obscured, muted and mismatched.
Wabi has a root meaning: "to apologize deeply, humbly." But the meaning of both wabi and sabi often overlapped.
Koren says that "wabi-sabi is a perceptual event; it is not an inherent property of things" but rather how the viewer sees them. "The beauty of wabi-sabi involves perceiving something extraordinary in something that might otherwise be regarded as quite ordinary, undistinguished, or barely there." This type of beauty might be "faint, tentative, delicate and subtle." Easy to pass by or overlook. The elegance in wabi-sabi "refers to a graceful acceptance of restraint, inconvenience, and uncertainty."
Architect Tadao Ando gives us this description:
Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It's simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.
Winter seems an ideal time to experience wabi-sabi. It's very inward, costs nothing, and helps us develop a pared down winter-seeing.
In winter, there are fewer colours, growth has of course been stilled but decay has also been slowed. Our seeing must be delicate, subtle, persistent.
The winter palette is one of restraint. Asymmetry prevails. But there is a grace and elegance that surprises.
There is nothing more uncertain than the settling of snow in winter. It falls and lands and then drifts down, alights, is blown. It drifts and meanders, collects and disperses. It sinks and subsides, rises and floats, fades and crystallizes, sticks and slides and skates along.
Whenever I see snow cupped by a tenacious leaf, I think of it as a cup of blessing, from the line by Emerson: