HAILSTONE EMBRYOS ~ Tricycle

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Buddhism meets ecology in the winning poem from the Tricycle Haiku Challenge.

By Clark Strand

SUMMER 2021

Hailstone Embryos
Illustration by Jing Li

In his 2012 keynote address to the Haiku International Association, Akito Arima (1930–2020) spoke of haiku as a form of animism: the belief that all things—plants, animals, stones, even weather—are sentient and alive. According to Arima, a nuclear physicist who was also an accomplished haiku poet, all forms of spirituality, including Buddhism, are animistic at their core. Animism is where Buddhism meets ecology, and haiku has always occupied that space.

But it is not a static space. Modern writers have found uses for the traditional themes of haiku that classical poets would never have imagined. In her 2009 book, A Crown of Roses, the Japanese haiku master Kamakura Sayumi writes:

Riding the shoulders,
the head, and back of the wind—
many dragonflies

Dragonflies are an ancient topic in Japanese poetry. Millions of haiku have been written about them, but never one like this. This is the poem of a modern person used to getting weather updates on her phone. For Sayumi, the wind arrives not at the whim of some god but as the result of changing pressure systems. Though invisible, the air has a shape that can be seen using modern imaging techniques. Sayumi’s haiku genius—what poets of earlier generations would have called her “haiku humor”—lies in creating an imaging technique of her own . . . using dragonflies!

Now we can “see” the wind as a living thing again. Sayumi has reanimated our world.

Lorraine A. Padden, the winner of the Summer 2021 Tricycle Haiku Challenge, employed a related technique with the season word “hailstones”:

dropping its full weight
the sky no longer bearing
hailstone embryos

Although the use of “hailstone embryos” in a haiku is strikingly original, that term is not the poet’s invention. It comes from meteorology. Embryos are ice particles that form around microscopic “seed” matter in the atmosphere, serving as the core of a hailstone’s initial growth. When the conditions are right, embryos can fly upward through a cloud column at speeds as high as 120 mph, gathering mass until they become too heavy and finally fall to earth.

Until recently it was believed that the onion-like layers of hailstones developed as the result of falling and flying back upward repeatedly through super-cooled air. That theory has now been discounted—with one exception. In multicellular thunderstorms, a hailstone can be ejected from the bottom of a “mother” cell only to become caught in the updraft of a lower “daughter” cell.

The atmospheric sciences are peppered with expressions like “mother,” “daughter,” and “embryo.” These words are only descriptive. Meteorologists don’t believe that clouds have daughters, or that hailstones are alive. But haiku poets do—even if those animistic beliefs are now informed by ecological ways of thinking.

Hailstones are the only form of ice that summer pro- duces and are doomed to melt quickly in the warm season. With their rounded, semi-opaque appearance, they really do resemble embryos. That “borrowed image” from the sciences feels both dark and strangely tender.

This is the “disquiet beauty” one often finds in haiku written in an age of extinction and climate collapse—beautiful . . . but also sad. After her labor, the sky is empty. And soon the hailstones, too, will be gone.

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