The beauty of San Piedro is often mentioned, and its landscape is symbolically important. The lush green is provided by the many trees, mainly cedar, on the hills, with rain “the spirit of the place” (Chpt. 1, p. 5). The trees were part of the island's lumber economy in the beginning, until they became scarce. Ishmael's childhood and adolescent days spent with Hatsue on the beach, swimming or gathering clams, becomes the central core of his life. In the center of this memory is their secret cedar tree, the only place they can hide and meet, creating a world outside of the social censure of their interracial love. Their love is thus associated with the beauty of nature and solitude away from people. Hatsue loves the cedar forest where she can be herself. Ishmael sees Hatsue as the spirit of the forest, and she associates him with cedars, saying that he smells like cedars, while her husband, Kabuo, smells like the earth. At first they see their tree as their secret place of freedom, but as they grow up, Hatsuess understands it is limiting them: “We're trapped inside this tree”(Chpt. 14, p. 262). They cannot tell their families or go anywhere in public. Ishmael, on the other hand, feels a mystical union with Hatsue there and cannot understand why she would break that bond for the world.
Hatsue goes to the forest to practice silence and gain tranquillity. She sees the “forest floor was a map of fallen trees that had lived a thousand years before collapsing.” The “dead and dying cedars” are “defeated trees” (Chpt. 14, pp. 257, 258). These ancient decaying trees are an association with her tradition in this context, as she takes lessons in pouring tea from Mrs. Shigemura. The ancient Japanese traditions are going to be defeated in the war. In the end, the war pulls the lovers apart, and their cedar forest is no more a refuge. Their hollow tree, however, remains important. It is where Ishmael goes during the trial to regain his moral memory so he can help the Miyamotos.
Snow falling on cedars is the title but also a major symbol of the book. The phrase evokes the impression of a Japanese woodcut or haiku, with a sense of fated beauty. During the trial, as Ishmael drives the stranded Hatsue and her father home in the snowstorm, he watches the storm's destruction but mentions its beauty to them, and this makes Hatsue look at him in the rear-view mirror. The storm is a symbol of the fate that has come to swallow them. The storm is “beyond their control” like their lives (Chpt. 17, p. 324). It is a metaphor for the cold that has fallen on the lives of the main characters after the war, especially for Hatsue and her husband on trial, but also on Ishmael. The snow symbolizes that the trial is a disaster for the community, freezing human sympathy and warmth. The island is used to being pounded by wind, rain, and the sea, but it never regained its balance after the war, and the snow's destruction mirrors the island's malaise. All those who were in the war have become cold and withdrawn (Ishmael, Kabuo, Carl, Horace). A metaphor for the trial itself, the storm shuts down the services on the island, bringing life to a halt. Ishmael thinks that squinting in the snow “ foreshortened their view of everything” (Chpt. 12, p. 214), as does the testimony during the trial. The storm is “frigid and elemental” proving nature is more powerful than humans (Chpt. 27, p. 492). The snow's whiteness obliterates everything on the island, so in a way, it also gives a chance to start over.
Sea vs. Land
The sea is a dangerous place. The fishermen go out every night alone on their boats and never know what might happen. Carl is an expert fisherman, but he is killed on a night of fog, when his battery runs out, and a large ship passes him in the dark. Both Carl and Kabuo fish but desire to become farmers. There is a constant fear of the sea, and when Carl's dead body is brought up in his net along with a live salmon, the symbolic meaning is obvious: humans do not control the sea but become its victims. When the sheriff is on the way to investigate Carl's boat, he sees some children in a canoe with life jackets, and he thinks, “They're innocent” (Chpt. 2, p. 19). They do not yet know what the sea or life means. They feel protected by life jackets. Fishing becomes a symbol of an isolated and fated way of life, while strawberry farming appears as a wholesome earthy and integrated calling. We see the children innocently picking berries together, and the Strawberry Festival with its young princess. The farmers can make good money, and they employ everyone on the island to pick the berries for harvest. The land and strawberry farming are paradisal, while fishing is like a one-man war against the sea. Thus, the fight for the Heine farm makes sense and explains why feeling runs high among the Miyamotos and Heines, feuding over the same piece of land.
The sea is associated with accidents and fate. The lighthouse was built to stop the many boat accidents, but it is explained that the lighthouse could not prevent accidents. Instead, the lighthouse begins to keep records of the accidents. The association of the sea and fate is also made with the seagulls. The behavior of seagulls is a portent among fishermen, as in “The Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The old mariner in Coleridge's poem had brought bad luck to the ship by killing a seagull. Similarly, Kabuo knows he is in for a rough time when he sees dozens of seagulls landing on his boat. He kills one, just before the sheriff arrests him.
The sea is also used as a metaphor for the differing philosophies of Hatsue and Ishmael. He wants to see their sameness, so he calls on the ocean as a symbol of eternity and union. She tells him there are different oceans, and he says no, the oceans are all connected underneath, so there is only one ocean. From his point of view, there is nothing wrong with their love; they are both human. She knows that there are different races and traditions, something Ishmael has not really understood in his training, as she is being taught in hers: “[The four] Oceans don't mix . . . They're different temperatures” (Chpt. 8, p. 120). She is trying to teach him that the races can't mix, as they find out.