Hiking Haibun: Early Birds In Photos and Words

Winter is retreating as ambitious waterfowl start making their way back to the St. Croix River.

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3 minute read

Haibun are short essays of prose punctuated by haiku poems.

[soliloquy id=”10215″]

hidden from my eyes
under grass, mud, and water –
winter’s cold holds fast
its grip weaker with each day –
under ice, spring takes root

Two people and two dogs wander along the banks of the St. Croix one warm afternoon. Even though not much snow is visible amidst the flattened grasses of the wetlands, our steps thud on ice and frozen mud concealed below. On the sunny bluffs, the top quarter-inch of soil is soft and slick but the ground underneath is solid. It makes for treacherous footing, and I slip and fall once walking down a ridge.

The bright spring sun shines above. The river is covered in softening ice where ducks, geese, and trumpeter swans cluster near the open water created by spring seeps. These birds are the early arrivals, the eager ones whose drive to return to their land of mating and breeding was too strong to ignore, even when the water they want is covered ice.

We saw free birds fly
We saw freedom in those birds
We should fly like them
– haiku by Ryan

We are walking in an area where the river flows through a vast maze of islands and narrow channels. Another river pours in here, and the soil it carries has been deposited in a broad delta. That is the territory of the birds now, the ice not trustworthy, we humans confined to the brushy banks where water gushes from the base of the bluffs.

Our course takes us through wet areas that we high-step and splash through in waterproof boots, and through thorny thickets, making our way toward a beaver lodge, pausing often to watch swans flying over, or to wonder at the clear water tumbling from bluff to river, or simply to stand quietly and marvel at feeling far from other people. I keep thinking of something I read recently, about skiing down to the St. Croix along the Kinnickinnic, the impassive attitude of the river, and the isolation experienced in winter. In a blog post titled Living with a Wild God, Jim Nelson said he realized the river didn’t care whether he lived or died. He wrote, “I felt held. It was an enormously peaceful feeling.”

My to-do list for the afternoon seems irrelevant, my worries about the future pointless, my regrets inconsequential. I am here and I am happy. I also briefly convince my friend that beavers are omnivores and will take down a deer.

silent and still
no noise of humans nor wind
early birds, dogs, friends

At the beaver lodge, we stop amidst a chewed-off thicket willows and alders. These beavers have been busy, with a long dam stopping up springwater and creating a big shallow pond. They were also smart, making their home in this buffet of tender brush, which sends up fresh shoots from low clumps of stumps. I wonder if the beavers are in their lodge right now, separated from us by 10 feet and a thick wall of mud and wood.

This is as far as we’ll go, so we stay quite a while. Turning back holds no appeal. We watch the river and talk. Where the pond drains into it, open water pokes into the frozen river, and there, a couple dozen assorted waterfowl stand on the ice. Every so often, one of the swans trumpets softly. Way across the river an eagle sits on a branch, and another white head pokes up from a nest.

Reluctantly we retrace our path. Where we come to a broad seep, a tangle of green where maybe 25 gallons of crystal clear water rushes forth from the soil every minute, we decide to go back on the bluffs. The steep slopes are covered in hardwoods, last fall’s leaves blanketing the ground. Angling toward our trailhead, we slowly ascend a series of ridges. In some places, they are too steep for trees, covered in grasses and shrubs. My legs burn climbing up these exposed knobs.

leafless trees conceal
sap running up the maples
frost still in the soil


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7 responses to “Hiking Haibun: Early Birds In Photos and Words”

  1. Lisa Schlingerman Avatar
    Lisa Schlingerman

    What a delightful way to start this early spring day waiting for the snowdrops to bloom.

    1. Greg Seitz Avatar

      Thank you! It is a beautiful season. I love “snowdrops.”

  2. Bill McCarthy Avatar
    Bill McCarthy

    I’d never heard of this writing form. Really like it! Thanks, Greg.

    Bill

    1. Greg Seitz Avatar

      I highly recommend “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Matsuo Bashō if you want to read some of the original and best haibun – and a great story of a zen monk traveling around northern Japan in the 17th century.

  3. Kristie Anderson Avatar
    Kristie Anderson

    Love this exercise of exploring the beauty with pics and words!!

  4. Deborah Huskins Avatar
    Deborah Huskins

    It’s great to hear you, Greg. and read your writing–I look forward to more. Happy Spring!
    Deborah

  5. kate Avatar
    kate

    Beautifully written and funny. Thanks!

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Hiking Haibun: Early Birds In Photos and Words