We get so busy in our yards and gardens that too often we fail to pause, to just be there, and really look. Doing so is essential, not only for the sake of our own enjoyment, but also for our communication with the landscape. If we don’t allow ourselves to be fully present, we treat the landscape as we expect it to be, rather than as it is, and so fail to address its real needs. We miss the details of what is thriving, and what isn’t. We miss the clues of what wildlife has been visiting, or not, such as the pollinators that ensure the fruitfulness of our flowers, fruits, and vegetables. We miss so much.
Recently, though, I discovered a powerful tool for scrutinizing the landscape, thanks to poet Susan Brearley. She has been teaching workshops in haiku writing at one of my favorite gardens, Innisfree in Millbrook, N.Y. Innisfree, which consists of a 150-acre valley centering on a small lake, was the estate of Walter and Marion Beck and its transformation was a 55-year project of the visionary landscape architect Lester Collins (1914-93). Collins worked with the Becks to create within this setting a “cup garden,” a series of related but distinct experiences inspired by traditional Chinese design but reinterpreted in a sustainable fashion that presaged contemporary ecological gardening. Susan finds in its meticulously constructed details rich inspiration for her own work and that of students.
In her recent poetry, Susan has concentrated on haiku in part because of this poetic form’s traditional focus on nature. Originating a thousand years ago in Japan as the introduction to a type of collaborative poem known as renga, haiku consist of three lines, one short (traditionally of five syllables), a longer one (of seven syllables), and finally another short one (five syllables). Included in a haiku, classically, is some detail that reveals the season of the composition, typically an observation of nature.
One of my favorite garden haiku was written by an 18th century Buddhist nun, Kaga no Chiyo: "The morning glory! / It has taken the well bucket, /I must seek elsewhere for water."
This encapsulates the freshness of a summer morning, the fleeting beauty of the morning glory blossoms, and the observer’s sense of wonder. (Readers will note that this translation does not observe the rules of line length but has compromised to reproduce better the sense of the verse.)
Modern American iterations of the haiku don’t always observe the traditional line lengths, but Susan likes the discipline of keeping to them and the poetic compression they ensure.
One of my favorite features of the Innisfree landscape are the many rugged, large stones. Collins found them in the surrounding woods, had a crew collect them, and then carefully placed them for maximum impact. This is something that Susan also appreciates, and celebrated in one of her haiku, focusing on a particularly striking example near the entrance to the garden.
"Secret messenger / Stationed by lake and trail head / Greeting all who come."
Or more broadly:
"Ancient rocks speaking / In tones of muted sound waves / Silent to many."
She has resolved to write a haiku a day, although she notes that on days she visits Innisfree she may write several, while other days she may skip. Still, she has already accumulated a portfolio of over 300.
Rebecca McMackin, director of horticulture at the Brooklyn Bridge Park, acknowledges that the common understanding of a city park is of a lawn, picnic tables and sports fields, and her park has all those things. But, she adds, there is much more there as well. Brooklyn Bridge Park is one of the most innovative urban landscapes in the United States, an example of how humanity can be accommodated in partnership with wildlife and native ecosystems, with all these elements shaped by a concern for sustainability.
When I ask her how a gardener might get started with haiku, she replies “Well, just start. In life, you know, the hardest things are starting and finishing. The beautiful thing with haiku is that you really only have to get over the start. Because it happens so quickly, the finishing is much easier than for most projects … you find yourself counting on fingers, you can tell haiku poets, you can see them walking around in a garden, touching their fingers and counting syllables.”
As to the rewards, writing haiku is like gardening in that the rewards are shared.
“I find,” says Susan, “that the very best haiku take your moment, the moment that you’re experiencing right now, translate that into this compact poem such that when it’s re-read, the reader experiences the moment exactly as you experienced it.”
Being in the moment can yield long-lasting rewards.
For more information about Susan Brearley’s garden haiku and haiku workshops, listen to the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Growing Greener podcast at thomaschristophergardens.com/podcast.