Can you live a spiritual and material life? An analysis of Jane Hirshfield’s poem ‘Tree’

Can you live a spiritual and material life? An analysis of Jane Hirshfield’s poem ‘Tree’

If you’ve ever wondered if it’s possible to live both a rich spiritual and material life, I think you’ll really enjoy todays analysis of Jane Hirshfields poem Tree.

(First published June 2018, edited November 2021 with additional resources)

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

But what do poems actually mean?

Well, 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.

When I read a poem I’ll sometimes find that it touches me immediately.  At the first reading 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 person’s perspective to help get things moving a little. 

And so, due to popular demand, here is a commentary on Jane Hirshfields poem ‘Tree’. My aim isn’t to fully explain it or offer the gospel truth about it, 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.

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

Living a spiritual and material life, a commentary and analysis of Jane Hirshfields poem ‘Tree’

Ok, so on one level I think 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 rainforest? 

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 branch tips brushing at your window is quite touching. It really adds to the sense that something is growing that will soon require action.

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

The redwood tree (one of the largest trees in the world), with its calm immensity, represents the spiritual path and the house represents worldly knowledge and 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 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 attachments, 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 my material life (my life situation) no longer complimented my 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 as a therapist at Mind charity in England, and I was fortunate to have many lovely people in my life. It was a subtle incongruence, 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. Yet to choose the tree, or put the tree first, felt like a risk. 

I wanted to put that at the heart of my life but I didn’t really know how to go about it. But I did know a few things I didn’t want. For example, 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?

In the years that followed I did change my life but 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!

I feel It’s quite common to want to bring certain parts of your life inline with your new perspective. For some, this might mean large upheavals, but I see no reason why it can’t also be a natural, gradual, comfortable process.  

But can’t you have it all? 

Can you 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. 

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

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

Considered from this perspective, spiritual life is no longer something that’s over there, like a keep fit class or a second language we’ve been learning in our spare time — with our everyday life taking centre stage and happening independently of our spiritual life.

Spiritual life and material life are part of the same thing. The tree and the house are one.

The poem then, having taken us on a metaphorical journey could become literal once again:

‘It’s unwise to let a young redwood, grow next to your house’. One day you will probably have to choose between the two because redwoods can grow up to 110m tall.

That’s the end of my commentary of Jane Hirshfields poem Tree. I’ve read it at various stages in my life and I’m sure I’ll keep revisiting it for years to come. And I hope each future visit opens me to new ways of seeing 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? Do let me know if you’d like to see more features like this. 

Shop: Jane Hirshfield, Given Sugar, Given Salt

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