Can you live a spiritual and material life? An analysis of Jane Hirshfields poem 'Tree'

Each time you revisit a poem, perhaps over several years, you view it with different eyes and find fresh meanings. Consequently, it’s impossible to finish a good poem. And when you think about it like that, they are incredible value for money! 

But what do poems actually mean?

You can sometimes get a commentary from the author which tells you exactly what their poem is about, but most of the time it’s left up to you the reader to decide. For this reason, poems are a participatory art form - which is kind of amazing!

I generally try to keep myself a little naive to details about poets and their lives as I find that once I know a lot about them or their circumstances it changes my experience of the poem. Absolutely there is a place for knowing about the poets, and sometimes I do dabble, but all in all I try not to know too much.

Sometimes a poem touches me immediately.  I read it through and it’s clear in both my heart and my head what the poem means to me. But there are times when I really would appreciate another persons perspective to help get things moving a little. 

And so, due to popular social media demand, here’s my commentary on Jane Hirshfields poem ‘Tree’.

My aim isn’t to fully explain it or offer the gospel truth, I simply wish to open the poem up a little bit. Just enough so that anyone with a glimmer of interest can better enjoy it.

Great Redwood Tree spotted in North Wales

I went on a camping trip to North Wales recently and the farm we stayed at had a huge redwood growing next to the house. (Pictured above) Redwoods are the biggest trees in the world. Living to the ripe old age of 3,500 years and growing up to 115 m tall; you may indeed be foolish to let one grow next to your house. 

The farmer told me it must have been planted several hundred years ago by the previous land owners. It was fashionable back then, she said, to bring exotic trees home from your travels abroad and plant them in your garden. She was concerned, however, that the tree was growing quite so big right next to her house. The boughs were huge and apparently they tended to fall off from time to time - seemingly without a cause!

Her comments and the beautiful great big redwood reminded me of the poem 'Tree' by Jane Hirshfeild.

Tree

It is foolish
to let a young redwood   
grow next to a house.

Even in this   
one lifetime,
you will have to choose.

That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books—

Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.   
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

by Jane Hirshfield, Jane Hirshfield, “Tree” from Given Sugar, Given Salt. Copyright © 2001 by Jane Hirshfield. via Poetry Foundation

Commentary and analysis of Jane Hirshfields Tree poem.

Ok, so on one level this poem is about nature…

How do we live alongside the immensity of nature?  It’s so big! Do we respect it? What effect does humanities nest feathering have on the environment and the planet?  Which are we putting first? commodities and luxuries, or the amazon rain forest? 

On another level the poem is a metaphor for having to make a choice or change in life…

For example perhaps you’re at a good-money job that pays the bills but you yearn to do something more meaningful for a living. Or, maybe you need to have a conversation with someone in your life, and that’s what is tapping at the window. Or perhaps you have a health issue or habit that’s niggling you. 

The last line about the the branch tips brushing at your window is quite touching. It really adds to the sense that something is growing and that it will soon require action.

And on another level, it’s about spiritual and material life 

The redwood tree, with its calm immensity, represents the spiritual path and the house represents materiality, our everyday ‘clutter of soup pots and books’.

It’s foolish, the poem says, to let the redwood grow next your house, perhaps referring to to starting out on a spiritual path, because one day you’ll have to choose between the two. To devote yourself to your spiritual path or stick with material comforts and ambitions?

When I first encountered this poem It spoke to me deeply.  I was at a place in life where I’d begun my spiritual journey, or awakening if you like, and I felt that my material life (my life situation) no longer complimented my ever expanding awareness of and interest in the truth of things. 

Mind you, it wasn’t a large incongruence. I was already working in the helping professions and I was fortunate to have many lovely people in my life. It was subtle, but I still noticed the branch tips tapping at my window, with a gentle but firm Rilke’esque  refrain, ‘You must change your life.’ 

I wanted very much to make more room for that great calm being, I wanted to put that at the heart of my life but I didn’t really know how to go about it. At that point I didn’t want to give up my normal social, business and recreational endeavours to go and live at a commune or an ashram somewhere. Where would I get my hair done? What’s more, I’d spent a lot of time building and decorating my house, so to speak, and to choose the tree, or put the tree first, felt like a risk. 

In the coming years I did change my life. It happened very naturally and in a subtle way that allowed for a definite reorganising of priorities.  It wasn’t a walk in the park, but it was worth it!

It’s not uncommon to feel an urge to bring certain parts of your life in line with your new perspective. For some this might entail large upheavals, but I see no reason why it can’t also be a natural, gradual, comfortable process.  

Material or spiritual life? 

Must you choose between the two? Can’t you have it all?  Pray, meditate, be mindful and still raise a family, love shopping, get into DIY on the weekend or run a business?  Does it have to be one or the other?  These are fundamental questions many spiritual practitioners or people on a path, wrestle with. 

My answer, (and the premise of my first book) is yes, yes, yes honey! Why not have it all. 

For sure, we may well need to make a few adjustments here and there along the way so that we can put love first, but what could be better than an integrated path? One that celebrates the radiance present as all things. One that sees all parts of life as practice, maturation and celebration. 

From this perspective, spiritual life is no longer over there, like a hobby or second language we’ve been learning, with our real material life of jobs and friends and fashion, happening separately and independently.  Spiritual life, material life, it’s all part of the same thing. The tree and the house are one.

The poem then, having taken us on a journey, may become literal once again: it’s unwise to let a young redwood, grow next to your house. One day, like the Welsh farmer, you will have to choose between the two.

That’s the end of my little interpretation of this poem. I’ve read it at various stages of my life and I’m sure I’ll keep revisiting it only to discover new choices to be made, new facets within the poem and new understandings within myself too.

I’d love to know your thoughts on the poem, let me know in the comments so that we can all broaden our view together. 

Last but not least, did you enjoy reading this commentary, was it helpful? Do let me know if you’d like to see further features like this. 

Emma

Jean, sitting by the redwood
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