Filed in Environment, Koans

Dust of Snow: Awakening to Conversation

In a world of transience, is conservation just another form of attachment?

John Elder

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We sometimes assume that art is the expression of an original, isolated imagination, often amplified by a spirit of estrangement. But there is a great tradition in poetry, running through poets like Basho, Wordsworth, Rilke, and Frost, and extended by contemporaries like Mary Oliver, that celebrates moments of refreshment and consolation in the larger natural world. This is not a linear, continuous tradition. Wordsworth and Rilke would never have read Basho, for instance. But this landscape of kindred perceptions and revelations has become available to us today, just as the study and practice of Buddhism, for instance, flourishes here in New England in ways that our ancestor Frost could never have anticipated. Those poems spangling in the trees around the Basho-an, like “Dust of Snow,” can continue to gust and swing in our minds. They remind us how others, too, have found moments of release into the presentness on which we, too, depend every day of our lives. Within every community of effort there is a community needing to awaken, over and over again, to the world beyond our projects and expectations.

A poem can serve both as door into a more spacious world of natural beauty, and as a reminder of the long history of human sensitivity to it. Master Hakuin’s “Zazen Wasan” (“Chant in Praise of Zazen”) contains the lines

How near the truth
yet how far we seek,
like one in water crying “I thirst!”
Like a child of rich birth wandering poor on this earth,
we endlessly circle the six worlds.

(trans. Philip Kapleau)

Within the landscape of poetry we find both a prompt to immediate sensation and a reminder of the larger story to which we belong. The dust of snow shaken down from a hemlock tree removes us neither from history nor from the human community. It reminds us that those realities exist within an interwoven world, in which isolation is always an illusion and a misdirection of our efforts.

Frost’s poem echoes not just Vermont’s winter landscape but also a particular haiku by Basho. Here it is in Japanese characters, in transliteration into the spoken Japanese, and in a literal English translation. (The characters and transliteration come from Blyth; the translation is mine.)

Kare eda ni karasu no tomarikeri aki no kure

On a bare branch
a crow alights—
autumn’s end.

This branch releases no snow, but it does bounce under the weight of a large bird settling brusquely onto it. The Japanese word tomarikeri includes both the root of the verb “to stop, stay, or settle” and two syllables—keri—added not for any grammatical reason but just to signal the branch’s springy up-and-down on the level of sound. Startled, we look up into a honed world—black silhouettes of tree and crow sharpening the edge of a season. We can find the dramatic outline of that tree in each of the haiku’s first two kanji. Kare combines the radicals for “tree” and “old,” while eda is formed from “tree” and “limb.”

I appreciate Peter Milward’s translation of the last line (aki no kure) as “the fall of autumn,” an acknowledgment of the seasons within seasons so essential to a Zen perception of nature. Something is always ending, something always beginning. Here in Vermont, too, autumn has its spring, when the maple leaves first turn yellow and red and the sumacs flame up; its summer, when the maples’ crimson and orange flood the mountains, with russet contributed by the oaks and gold by the larches; and the hush of its fall, when branches are bare but the snow has not yet arrived. In that moment of suspension before the next big event, a crow flexes a leafless branch, reminding us that life continues on its way, unregulated by our calendar of human expectations.

How fortunate we are—conservationists, environmentalists, lovers of wilderness, earnest citizens—for moments in which we forget our language, our projects, and even our names. Soon enough, we will turn back to our lifetime projects and our daily work. But it’s always good to remember that our path is leading home, under branches shimmering with unexpected but familiar life.


John Elder teaches English and Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and is the author most recently of Reading the Mountains of Home and The Frog Run. His wife, Rita, and he live in Bristol, Vermont, where they operate a maple sugarhouse with their three children.

Image: Antique Japanese Woodblock Print Courtesy of Ukiyoe Gallery,
Poem 1: "Dust of Snow" from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. © 1923, 1969 by Henry Holt and Company, © 1951 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Poem 2: "Zazen Wasan" Reprinted with permission of the Rochester Zen Center.


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