Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly commentary feature on some of your favorites among the best contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. This week’s poem, proposed by Scott Metz, was:they have a list of demands redwoods — Cherie Hunter Day MILES DEEP IN A DRUM SOLO, Backbone Press, 2022
Introducing this poem, Scott writes:
Like a great Bob Dylan song this poem has roots that reach into the past, present, and future. To me, it usually feels like it’s being whispered. Sometimes I read into its menace. Other times it’s the desperation—or sometimes the sacred spirit—of the personification that pulls.
There are shades of difference between animism, personification, and anthropomorphism, with the latter two often frowned upon these days in haiku although there are precedents in the verses of the finest. Here, the reader has a choice between seeing the ‘redwoods’ as ‘they,’ anthropomorphosed, or as a separate symbol juxtaposed with ‘they,’ indicating perhaps the qualities of strength, obduracy, standing tall, in an unspecified group (of people) firmly imposing their interests.
The use of generic pronouns in haiku/senryu is becoming very frequent but it does offer opportunities to open up space for speculation. In this verse ‘they’ is given emphasis by being unspecified: they have a list of demands: they, from whom ‘we’ are by implication separated. The natural way of reading the verse is that ‘they’ are the redwoods asserting their case for survival as ‘we’ encroach on their habitat and our actions threaten deleterious climate change. Redwoods with their magnificence and (so far) long lifespan, their collective association, are an ideal symbol to be respected. They are mute. Who will speak for them?
The verse has that hard-to-define feeling of haiku authenticity that comes from a direct experience of the poet rather than the poetic imagination. To me, it’s a haiku even though there’s no indication of season. I look forward to comments after the post. Altogether, a verse of plain and accessible words with plenty of suggestive scope for introspection and meditation. Which is a primary aim of the art, achieved.
After reading this poem, I was intrigued.
Very brief ~ just 9 syllables.
L1 -is mysterious. Who is the ‘they’? Is it family members, spouse & kids and a domestic scenario? Or is it a professional one related to work colleagues & the boss or it could be factory workers/labour unions who have a list of demands? Lots of space for the reader to imagine and fill in.
L 2 – the tone could be an annoyed one or it could be just a statement. But, there appears to be a sense of frustration brought in by the word ‘demands’. On further reading, it seems to me that the protagonist is in a position of authority and is facing a list of demands from his/her juniors or subordinates.
L 3 has this juxtaposition with an image from Nature ~ redwoods. They could be just a group of trees or a redwood forest.
This juxtaposition reveals the presence of the human element along with nature. Both exist simultaneously. The contrast is effective in as much as it creates a mood. Redwoods are magnificent trees, known to withstand the onslaught of harsh conditions like floods and strong winds. Here, the comparison seems apt. And the contrast is one of peace, of patience, that even the most trying times will eventually come to pass.
Nairithi Konduru (aged 8):
Children have lots of demands, pets also have a lot of demands and the list of demands could be big or small. Similarly, trees need a lot of care in the form of perfect soil and right climate and these are the trees’ demands.
I simply LOVE this poem. The very notion of a group of sky-high wizened trees convening a community meeting to set forth their demands is simultaneously whimsical and deeply poignant.
It harkens an image to me of tribal leaders coming together to discuss the state of the world and what can be done about it. The Native American notion that land and nature cannot be owned and that we all have a responsibility to be Earth’s caretakers would likely be a part of the tree-discussion.
My random brain also flashed on several Far Side cartoons by Gary Larson. He could be the illustrator to this poem, with the trees standing in a circle and writing a list of their demands on paper … that came from them. And in the background would be playing a line from Woody Guthrie’s folk song, “From the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me.”
My silly side wonders what those demands might be. “Paper will be abolished” might top the list. Probably closely followed by “No more driving through the redwoods.” I think they might demand that all versions of The Three Little Pigs be rewritten to only have straw and brick houses. No wood allowed.
This poem will have me wondering and will stay with me for a long time.
A thought-provoking short poem that looks most ordinary and innocuous, but no reader can escape the spell that binds mentally with its charm. There’s no way out of the deviation once the lines are read and (mis)understood as they appear as an expression of some line of sight situation causing the mind to take note. But then afterthoughts stay on, even as one closes the book and departs on the daily routine of ‘non haiku’ business. A haiku challenge that irritates the mind haunts for a long while disrupting your inner workings causing unrest.
Reading these three lines must be enough to catch a glimpse of what the authors mind ‘saw’ when jotting them down. But, perhaps the range and location too plays a vital role in projecting the image from author to reader for the very real nature of diversity that separates the two.
Coming back to the haiku it’s probable that the first two lines offer no big challenge, some realism of mundane living, for a start. But even at the first reading my eye leapt towards the last line, ‘redwoods.’ Now though I felt here was a haiku woven around redwoods I realized that the last line would not relate so intimately to the image the preceding two lines brought up, in terms of time honoured haiku etiquette! The Haikuist (perhaps an avatar of the publishing author here) is frustrated by the merciless demands of their establishment whatever it is:- family, profession or society, gazing out in desperation towards the open space in front of her. She sees only the hazy horizon covered in fog and discerns faintly the redwood territory many many miles away. A peaceful silent domain takes shape in the poet’s long-suffering mind and for an instant the serene tranquil state of being in meditation is a starting point for relief. In the redwoods the Haikust has had a feeling of Nirvana, the end of ills and suffering. A beautiful work and a noble outcome.
This seven words nine syllables poem exhibits assonance and uses the technique of comparison.
Who’s the they? Whose demands are high? We can interpret as we want depending on whose demands we think are high in our lives. The poet has left it open-ended for us. Someone at home or at work, someone in a higher position, or may be even our househelps (as in India). Also, the dowry system still exists in India albeit in a concealed fashion. It is openly demanded too, in many communities. There are a list of demands from the groom’s family which the bride’s family is left to oblige to at all costs, many times even in well-educated families. The demands of the ‘they’ are compared with that of the redwoods. High demands mean being unable to flourish in ordinary conditions. Here I wonder, why only redwoods, why not any other plants or trees? Most plant life need appropriate conditions for their growth and survival.
However, the juxtaposition with redwoods is very interesting. Coast redwoods range from southern Oregon to central California, extending not more than fifty miles inland – a combination of longitude, climate, and elevation limits the redwoods’ range. Fog plays a vital role in the survival of these trees, protecting them from the summer drought conditions typical of this area. (The cool, moist air created by the Pacific Ocean keeps the trees continually damp, even during summer droughts.) They also need abundant winter rain and moderate year round temperatures. California’s North Coast provides the only such environment in the world. In ideal conditions a coast redwood can grow 2-3 feet in height annually, but when the trees are stressed from lack of moisture and sunlight they may grow as little as one inch per year.
An interesting piece of trivia I found is that there is a Tirunelveli redwood tree (Gluta travancorica) in the tropical evergreen forests of the southern Western Ghats of India. Clustered populations of this majestic tree grow to a height of 35–45 m. This species belongs to the family Anacardiaceae, commonly known as the cashew family or the sumac family.
Reading this poem took me straight to Tolkien’s Ents! Those tall gangly, gnarly, old creatures with deep roots, who would rather sleep and will harm no one. Their motto? Don’t be hasty!
I could feel love for redwoods behind these enigmatic words. It is as if they are family for the poet.
Structurally, for me, the poem reads as a sentence with two pauses: a small one after “they” and a longer one before “redwoods”, at the juxtaposition. The one after “they” happens probably because it’s the only word on that line, and thus the reader would automatically wait for half a breath.
they/ have a list of demands// redwoods
With “they”, one would think people, but the twist comes at the end, with “redwoods”. Trees are of course living things that are known to communicate with each other. Their roots, sometimes, intertwine under the ground, giving mutual support at all times. But in this poem, they have been almost humanised with a “list of demands”, as if they are children wanting something and bent on acquiring it.
And what could these demands be? Water? Soil? Sunlight? Air? Space? The right temperature? Isn’t that too small a price for what they give back in return? Like shade for cooling down the effect of the sun, providing oxygen, or a home for wildlife, the list is endless. They purify the very air we breathe, so necessary for our survival.
Most importantly they speak to our souls, as they give a rare kind of soothing beauty for the eyes to behold. Imagine looking up the red bark, upwards, almost to the sky, tall and silent as they are, their leaves forming patterns on blue, or whatever colour the sky is that day! Enough to fall in love.
To revisit my thoughts, later revised, on first reading this poem: L1 — “they have” offers nothing to engage the mind or senses. With L2 I’m looking at a simple declarative sentence — “they have a list of demands” — that could be a line in a newspaper article reporting on a teachers’ strike. Enter L3. A single word — “redwoods” —changes everything. Now I am getting that wow feeling. It looks like the redwood, that noble and tallest of trees, that skyscraper-high, giant storage tank for carbon dioxide, is lobbying support to combat the effects of climate change. In the case of redwoods, this would likely be drought and warming temperatures.
The poet nudges us to imagine what redwoods might say about their plight, how they would express their demands. Being the majestic beings they are, what persuasive rhetoric might redwoods bring to the table to convince a jury of humans to save them?
Along these lines —Imagining what endangered species might say in their defense —environmental activists Joanna Macy and John Seed created a communal ritual in 1985 and called it a Council of All Beings. It was — and is —a solemn, dramatic ritual — think Greek tragedy — in which, one by one, participants speak in defense of an endangered species, making a case for their protection before a human audience. Each speaker wears a mask —made for the occasion —that represents a generic being struggling with life-threatening challenges — acting as, for example, swan, beaver, algae, quail, honey bee, and so on. Each being presents its “list of demands” as well as lessons humans can learn from it.
The poet, too, invites us to creatively enter the inner lives of an endangered species —redwoods — and by extension, all planetary life. I take “redwoods” in this ku as a symbol not just of high intelligence in a non-human species — but as the tree of life itself. Each form of life, including humans, is a leaf on the tree. Each has a unique intelligence and shares the same life energy. Life itself — represented by redwoods — is pleading for its continuance on earth.
Anthropomorphism is effective here; the poem hinges on it. How else can we care about nature if we do not connect imaginatively to the hardships of all beings? Cherie Hunter Day has written a profoundly impactful poem that, yes, is about redwoods, but so much more.
When I was a child growing up, I sat often in the backseat of my family’s station wagon, traveling from lower to upper Michigan for vacations. I would watch the mostly fir trees on the sides of the road pass quickly, as if swirling and enjoying a folk dance. I always thought of them as villagers, or communities, with elders and younger members. When I first read this haiku, I needed to learn more about redwoods, as these giant, majestic trees grow far from my own lands.. I learned that redwoods can only grow in the right conditions – 50 feet from the ocean and in the climates from Southern Oregon to Central California. As with all growing things, “we” thrive if we have the right conditions, or, “demands.” These were my associations. “A list of demands”, however, conjures a strong directive. It made me think of tribes of people who have absolute requirements for their survival. Given climate change, and the sometimes ruthless exploitation of the land upon which trees grow, redwoods, and other species, and human groups must actually put forth a “list of demands” so that they/we remain. Perhaps there’s some anthropomorphism at play here, but it’s extremely subtle, and therefore seems allowed. An amazing haiku with only 7 words, a 2/5/2 syllable structure, and a simple, strong, majestic sound. Certainly to maintain the tallest trees on earth, it’s imperative for these giants to have a “list of demands!”
Ruth Happel — a haunting poem:
Redwoods once lived in much of North America, Europe, and Asia. The first fossil redwood is over 200 million years old, sharing the earth with dinosaurs. Today they are very restricted in distribution with only three surviving species- coast redwoods and giant sequoias in the U.S. and the dawn redwoods of south-central China.
Redwoods are both incredibly powerful and at the same time extremely vulnerable. They have evolved to grow in areas with specific climates. Although the world’s tallest tree is a redwood, if they don’t get enough water through rain or fog, they may only grow an inch in an entire year.
When I have visited the redwoods on a few occasions, there is a quality to these forests that really inspires awe. There is something so majestic and ethereal about them, wise elders rising literally and figuratively above human concerns. It seems appropriate they would provide a list of demands and not simply a request.
Reading this poem, on a basic level it can be interpreted as noting that redwoods need certain conditions to grow. Beyond that, the phrase “a list of demands” implies that they are sentient, and perhaps pleading with us to provide what they need, as climate change and increasingly intense wildfires threaten their existence. Though some people may frown at giving human characteristics to the action of plants or animals, there is a long tradition of anthropomorphism in haiku dating back to Basho.
I found this a haunting poem, a call to action by trees themselves. It is our challenge to find a balance between human needs with the many plants and animals sharing our planet. With haiku’s focus on moments in nature, this poem captures the poignancy of the conflict between nearly timeless trees with our relatively recent arrival and often brash behavior as a species. In this moment, where people and ancient trees coexist, can we meet a list of demands so we can all thrive together?
Author Cherie Hunter Day:
This haiku is straightforward—a poem to clarify that there’s a cost to living with redwoods. The surprise in the third line is that it’s the redwoods with a list of demands. We live among them, not the other way around. The only change that was made between the poem’s initial publication in Modern Haiku 50:3 (2019) and the collection Miles Deep in a Drum Solo (Backbone Press, 2022) was the removal of the em dash from the second line. There was enough of a pause with the line break.
Visiting and walking among redwoods is a magical experience—pastoral, serene. Redwoods National Park and the three California state parks featuring redwoods host around 1.5 million visitors annually. However, living among them is a lot of work. They shed feathers (terminal branchlets) year-round, and thousands of small cones collect on our roof and clog the gutters and downspouts. Redwoods buck branches as big as birch trees. We had to buy a chainsaw. At times it feels like I’m held hostage cleaning up after them, which is the genesis for this poem. Not much grows under redwoods. The feathers they drop contain a phytotoxin that suppresses other plants. In addition, their roots intertwine and form a dense wooden mat. It helps keep the whole grove stable. Those same roots are invasive and will come up through drainage holes in garden pots and circle around to sop up every drop of water. It takes a massive amount of water to keep them healthy and it is getting harder and harder for them to survive with the rising temperatures and extreme drought. Water rationing last summer was inconvenient for us but much tougher on the redwoods. And without these giants the ambient temperatures will rise even faster. There’s a cost to all of this and the trees make that abundantly clear.
Thanks to all who sent commentaries. As the contributor of the commentary reckoned best this week, Ruth has chosen next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. All with respect for the poet. Out-takes from the best of these take their place in the THF Archives. Best of all, the chosen commentary’s author gets to pick the next poem.
Anyone can participate. Simply use the re:Virals commentary form below to enter your commentary on the new week’s poem (“Your text”) by the following Tuesday midnight, Eastern US Time Zone, and then press Submit to send your entry. The Submit button will not be available until Name, Email, and Place of Residence fields are filled in. We look forward to seeing your commentary and finding out about your favourite poems!
Poem for commentary:stillness not even a peep from the peepers — Robin White Frogpond volume 43:1, Winter 2020
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Cherie Hunter Day’s excellent haiku are widely published and awarded. Her bio and several examples may be read at the Living Haiku Anthology.
Lately she won a Touchstone Distinguished Books Award for her collection, Miles Deep in a Drum Solo, from which this week’s poem was taken. Copies are available here.