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Seeds from a Birch Tree: A Book Review

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

Seeds from a Birch TreeI 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!

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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.

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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)


A Day at the Grand Canyon

It was a glorious day. One of those afternoons that captured a moment in time. Simultaneously, it was over too quickly but seemed to last forever. It was the end of several weeks of traveling.  I had been exploring the Grand Canyon’s South Rim for several days, but I was heading home.  I left early, deciding to take the long route to Las Vegas, my evening’s destination.  That route meant I could stop at the North Rim—for a quick look.  I wanted a bit of a preview for a future trip. Being May, there were not many tourists around yet, especially at the North Rim that typically has fewer visitors than the other side.

The differences from the South Rim to the North Rim were remarkable—foliage, temperature, even wildlife.  Of course, the overlooks were impressive. I even had a great lunch.  As I was getting ready to leave that afternoon, I noticed a storm brewing—across the canyon, at the South Rim.  It had been sunny there yesterday, but things change quickly in this climate. I decided to watch for a bit.  Then what seemed like 10 minutes turned into several hours.  The breeze was steady enough that I could follow the clouds being moved to the north, pulling the rain along. The storms were short-lived—and most initially seemed to be virga, the droplets that start their trip downward but never make it to the ground. The shadow-play across the canyon was mesmerizing.  At times, lightning would flash as the storm intensified.  The photo I snapped is not terrific, but it captures my memory of the day.

As the day darkened and the air chilled, I looked up and noticed I was alone—most others had sought refuge from the impending storm that was barreling across the 10-mile expanse between the two rims. I stood transfixed, watching the literal transformations going on around me: light to dark, calm to windy, sunny to cloudy to rainy.  It was glorious.  I have been aware of such transformations in nature before.  Haven’t we all wondered at the glories of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly?  It’s a powerful image.  As one proverb notes:  “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, she became a butterfly.”

On a different trip through the Arizona desert, rain again was what I noticed. Rain was coming—that was obvious. You could sense it, see it, smell it, feel it . . . and those sensations built up a huge expectation. But the rain itself was again quick and short-lived.  I saw it ahead on the road—the black streaks indicating the rain was pouring down. It stayed stationary as I approached in the car.  There was a moment when I entered the storm, seeing and hearing the droplets at they hit the dusty windshield; the back of my car was still dry. As I kept moving forward, the car was quickly drenched with the torrent, and then within two or three minutes I had driven out of the storm and continued on my way.

Gary Paul Nabhan wrote a great book titled The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in Papago Indian Country that explains how this awareness of nature—especially rain—and its role in life is a key component of the Papago Tribe’s view of life, of its very survival.  Without the rain the short growing season doesn’t exist—the rain keeps the tribe alive. Much like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, the transformation must take place—and it will whether we are cognizant of the change or not. It simply must.  My North Rim afternoon was unique in that it lasted long enough to be noticed and appreciated.


It was around Easter when I visited the Strange Bird website, hosted by PCAdams. The entry that caught my eye was titled Living in Liminality.  I knew the term, vaguely.  It was not part of my everyday lexicon.  It intrigued me, so I started exploring.  I was not surprised to realize that liminality is basically—as I expected—about change. But more than that.  It is about crossing a threshold, moving from the old to the new, from what is known to the unknown, from what is evident perhaps comfortable to the promise or possible dread of something else. It is a time of change or growth that often carries a religious connotation. Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest, talks about liminal space as being a period of displacement. It is that feeling of upheaval or displacement that makes change so hard to embrace at times, even if God seems to be calling the person forward on a new journey.

As I explored the concept of liminality more fully, I started to see its presence everywhere. It is not the mundane changes of life like wearing new shoes or putting on a hat to go to church.  It is the change that is all around us, that we cannot avoid. Liminality is standing at the threshold of a major life change, poised to cross through that door, but we are hesitant about what we are giving up and fearful of what’s to come even as we are excited about the adventure or hopeful for the future. Some of these major life changes are planned events:  weddings, births, graduations, adoptions, sometimes even surgeries or job changes. Others just happen, as we are displaced because of natural disasters, deaths, loss of a job, or some sort of accident.

Too often, in the face of such vast change, people find themselves frozen at the threshold, in the moment of transition.  I am reminded of Trudy, one of the characters in Lily Tomlin’s one woman show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.  Trudy is the bag lady who spends most of her day standing at the corner of Walk/Don’t Walk, worried that if she leaves or crosses the street, she will miss something important.  But we cannot afford to stand still.

I am not saying to move quickly through life, no matter what.  On the contrary, it is important to take time and reflect on each transition; the key is to keep moving forward. Zen teachers talk about experiencing the moment.  It is a principle they call mo chich ch’u or going ahead without hesitation. Laurence G. Boldt, author of Zen Soup, offers this advice:  “Just do what you are doing without thinking about it.  Just be where you are without holding on or running away. Give up judging and speculating and dive into this moment.”   The underlying point here is the awareness, the reflection on accepting what is being experienced—and on the implied intention to keep moving forward, to experience the next moment, and then the next.  That’s the power of liminality.

Some speculate that the sense of authenticity inherent in truly experiencing liminal spaces can help individuals see the value of what they have to offer, of what the change could mean.  Sue Monk Kidd, author of When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions, talks about how it took her some time to value her writing as an activity worthy to be engaged in, acceptable to acknowledge to others.  If we are to live in liminality, we need to be true to ourselves, just as the rain must fall and the butterfly must struggle to shed its cocoon. For Kidd, “The spiritual journey is one of becoming real. Waiting can offer us the gift of authenticity. It can help us give birth to a new way of being true to ourselves. As we wait, we discover that it’s okay—really okay—not only to imagine who we truly are inside but to say who we are, welcome who we are, and even be who we are.”

These thoughts about waiting, transformation, patience, hope, expectation, moving forward, all eventually helped me remember my wondrous afternoon in the rain on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Patience is not one of my virtues—as my frustration over incredibly long recovery periods from major surgeries can attest.  I am not always an easy patient. [Hmm, funny noun, I am realizing now.]  But that day on the North Rim, I was content to just be, to experience the rain as it moved forward.  I need to capture that sense of authenticity and expectancy as I stand at the threshold of major life changes if I am going to make the most of the liminality that is around me everyday.  Simone Weil says, “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”  For me, spirituality comes from an appreciation of the nature around us and the awareness of or reflection about who we are and what we are going through; it comes from being able to make sense of our existence, deciding how we address each threshold as we proceed through life. When thresholds become apparent, we must accept that we need to go through that door—no matter where it leads.

Of course, making that statement is fairly easy. I know I have lived a rather sheltered life.  I have experienced strife—several major life-threatening surgeries, problems with work and family.   I have experienced death, but not of a spouse or a child, not even of my parents who are both still relatively healthy at 90+ years of age. When I see people grieving, crossing that threshold of living without someone special in their day-to-day lives, I know that simply saying, “Be patient, experience the moment, move forward” is not enough. A couple books I’ve read lately suggest the message is the same no matter how traumatic the change; the crossing of the threshold and thus the recovery just take longer. Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces talks about her own grieving process as she worked her way across Wyoming:  “The tears came and lasted for two years.”  But it was her everyday actions in the desolation and community of sheep herding and rodeos that brought her through her grief.

Ann Voskamp in One Thousand Gifts talks about how as an adult she is finding her way back to God by developing an enhanced sense of gratitude. In the first chapter, she is an adult still grieving from the tragic death of her younger sister when they both were very young. A grieving friend, who maintains his belief in God even though death has claimed two young sons within two years, offers this simple explanation:  “Maybe. . . I guess . . . it’s accepting there are things we simply don’t understand.”  His confidence, his assurance gets her thinking. Liminality suggests that crossing that threshold even—maybe especially—when we do not understand is what we need to do to find solace, to embrace life no matter what the changes.

Keep Hope for the Future

These thoughts remind me of another day at the Grand Canyon, this time on the South Rim.  It was January—cold and snowy. I was driving back to California and the route would take me right by the Grand Canyon.  My choice was to get to a hotel sooner rather than later, or to detour to the national park for a few hours enjoying the view. I took the latter option.  But when I got there, many other visitors were disgruntled.  You see, there was fog.  Serious fog.  Fill the canyon and not be able to see the bottom or the other side kind of fog.  I was ecstatic—what a glorious event to witness. But then I knew what was there, and I trusted the sun would probably burn the fog off pretty quickly.  Some who were at the Grand Canyon on their very first visit were angry, demanding the return of their entrance fee.  They left in a huff, having a very bad day.  I stayed, hiked a bit, saw some deer—and then the sun came out and the glorious views were back!

Having hope about the unknown, cherishing the expectation of what is to come is a challenge, but it can lead to brilliant experiences. It’s not easy. But I hope—as I face the changes, the liminality in my life—that I move forward with anticipation and expectation, even if I do not know what is beyond the fog. It’s like the rain—a storm might bring problems, even destruction, but it’s needed for life and the only way we can see a rainbow. If we are going to live with the liminality that makes up life, we must embrace change—or at least keep moving forward, one small step at a time.

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“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”  Joseph Campbell

 “It’s a sad day when you find out it’s not accident or time or fortune but just yourself that kept things from you.”  Lillian Hellman

“The spirituality journey is one of continually falling on your face, getting up, brushing yourself off, looking sheepishly at God, and taking another step.”  Aurobindo

“Sorrow fully accepted brings its own gifts. For there is alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmuted into wisdom, which, if it does not bring joy, can yet bring happiness.”  Pearl S. Buck

If you wish to adapt to life in the desert, “ancient knowledge can serve as a guide. Yet the best guide will tell you: there are certain things you must learn on your own. The desert is unpredictable, enigmatic. One minute you will be smelling dust. The next, the desert can smell just like rain.”  Gary Paul Nabham

“The best advice I received on this subject [others’ reactions to personal change] was from an older woman who’d been through many cocoons and many pairs of wings. I told her, ‘People won’t let me change.’ (As if people could really do that.) What I was actually saying was, ‘I’m afraid of people’s reactions to my changes.’ The woman touched my cheek with her hand and said, ‘Love your wings.’”   Sue Monk Kidd

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”  Alan Watts

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