In 1997, Robert Strand published Seeds from a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey. When you first browse through this little volume, it seems simple, easy. And on many levels it is. Its 188 pages are comprised of short, easy to read chapters that capture anecdotes, historical details, and direct instruction on writing haiku. Even its cover is simple, sparse–offering black on white to capture a snippet of birch trees.
Its seeming simplicity, however, is actually its magic. And that magic becomes the true lesson of the book. Two authors quoted on the jacket cover explain the book’s true essence:
“An old but true rule for good writing is ‘show, don’t tell.’ With the directness and simplicity of the art itself, Clark Strand ‘shows’ haiku in a way that tells more about nature, humanity, writing, and Zen than one would think possible in such a concise volume. Like a good haiku, this book is an acorn in which you can see the whole tree.” D. Patrick Miller, author of The Book of Practical Faith
“By means of haiku and his own simple heart, Zen Buddhist monk and haiku teacher Clark Strand shows us not only a way into nature but how to make a way through nature into the heart. Seeds from the Birch Tree is a vade mecum of spiritual wisdom, a small book that, like a haiku poem, keeps opening the more we journey there.” Father Murray Bodo, author of Francis, The Journey and the Dream
I received this book as a gift not long after it was first published. I read it then—and enjoyed it. But I re-read it recently, and it resonated with me in a much deeper way. There are three parts to the book: The Way of Haiku, The Haiku Mind, and The Narrow Road. Threaded throughout these parts are elements that prove both useful and instructive. One thread—Strand telling about his journey of becoming a Zen Buddhist monk and a haiku writer—helps the reader see that struggles are part of the journey, not a reason to end the journey. Other threads include pieces of the history of haiku as an art form, anecdotes about others as they work to write haiku, and samples of actual haiku—both from masters and novices.
Of course, instructions are also given to start the reader writing her own haiku. The haiku’s structure of 17 syllables (three lines, one each of 5-7-5 syllables) gives each author a way to capture the moment. It is the moment, the capture—not the poem—that leads to the lessons about life. Strand explains that by venturing deliberately into nature with an eye toward observing the moment and perhaps capturing it in a haiku, the reader gains an appreciation for nature and life itself. But Strand cautions not to get too mired in the form and technique—that path leads away from haiku and spirituality. For him, “It is better to retain the wakeful, open mind of a beginner than to accumulate mere knowledge about technique.” This concern does not mean that writing haiku does not take practice or does not honor form—it does. But technique and structure will not create a poem.
For me, the central core of Seeds from a Birch Tree is the reminder to stay open—to life, to nature, to writing haiku. Openness is both the process and the product, the journey and each step, nature in the moment and the poem. Strand offers this explanation on “Openness”:
“I often say that haiku come out of the place where objective description overlaps the heart. In other words, where the image itself expresses precisely how we feel. At such moments we do not know whether nature came first, and then the feeling, or whether the feeling was there already and simply found its proper expression in a scene from nature. In either case, it is important to realize that this can only happen when we make space enough in the heart for nature to overlap it, and space enough in nature for the play and exercise of the heart.”
If you want to travel a spiritual path, learning life lessons from slowing down and observing nature, then this book is for you. If you want to learn about haiku and begin writing your own, then this book is for you. If you want a glimpse into the journey of a Zen Buddhist monk, then his book is for you. The wonder of this book is that it blends instruction on the technique of writing haiku with guidance on pursuing your own spiritual journey through nature. The book is provocative and creative, insightful and thought provoking. It’s a good read. Give it a try!
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
While I was writing this book review, I needed a break so took a little walk outside. Having started the practice of being mindful in nature, experiencing the moment, and thinking more and more in the structure of haiku, I wrote the following poem. It is not terrific, but it is going into my haiku journal.
A chirp brushes by,
A red flash darts around trees.
Then, a hummingbird.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
OTHER BOOKS BY CLARK STRAND
The Wooden Bowl: Meditations for Everyday Life (2000)
Meditation without Gurus (2005)
How to Believe in God: Whether You Believe in Religion or Not (2009)