"Tree" by Jane Hirshfield + Roasted Pepper and Lentil Soup

The California coastline is a long stretch of cliffs jutting down to the sea, but depending on exactly where you are in the state, the landscape can be quite different. Southern California is calmer, I think. Lighter blues, softer sand, golden rocks. Palm trees and eucalyptus trees bend over the edge, close enough to feel the mist of the sea. Once you climb north, the sea turns a deeper blue. The water is rockier, the waves rougher, the landscape more rugged and unforgiving. It's beautiful, wherever you are, but Jane Hirshfield, who wrote the poem I'm sharing today, is writing from the north.

Jane Hirshfield is one of my favorite contemporary poets. She is a master of illuminating the quiet places and finding meanings in the simple gestures of our daily life. Her poems are often greatly profound and spiritual, reminding us of connections beyond our physical bodies. I find myself returning to her poems often, never tiring of their beauty and insight.


by Jane Hirshfield

It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.

Even in this
one lifetime,
you will have to choose.

That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books—

Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

From Given Sugar, Given Salt (1992)

A tree stands stoically, purposefully and with great strength in front of the house. I imagine the speaker standing at the kitchen window, staring at this tree. Even though the branch is touching the window, she shudders as if it is touching her own skin. Redwoods are trees of longevity, history. They go on being as they were before, silently entering the lives of those who make a home nearby. In the last stanza she speaks of immensity, both with respect to the tree, but also as a metaphor for her life. In a way, the poem is somewhat haunting. As a reader, you feel the intensity with which the speaker is almost hesitant to ask the questions, What am I doing here? What is my purpose?

There is a single reference to "the great calm." In other words, the physical objects we surround ourself with that help us along, giving order to an otherwise chaotic existence. In her short list is a soup pot. Soup, of course, is one of the most soothing of foods. It's warm when it slides down your throat, and the act of preparing soup can be a calming, comforting ritual, ideal for when immensity comes tapping at the window and you're unsure whether or not to let it come inside.


I adore croutons with soup, but sometimes nuts make an ideal substitute. Toast sunflower seeds with some extra-virgin olive oil, salt, paprika and cayenne pepper (if you like a little kick) and sprinkle over the soup just before serving.

1 pint mixed clamshell peppers, halved
4 Roma tomatoes, quartered
4-6 carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
2 cups red lentils
3 cups vegetable stock, or as needed

Heat your oven to 425 degrees and lay out a sheet pan. Place all the vegetables on the tray and coat them with extra-virgin olive oil, plus a sprinkle of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Toss with your hands to coat. Roast for 30-40 minutes, or until the vegetables are fragrant and caramelized. Set aside to cool.

While the vegetables roast, make the lentils. Fill a large stock pot about three-quarters of the way full and bring to a boil. Add the lentils and boil for 15-20 minutes, or until tender; drain.

In a blender, puree the lentils. Add some vegetable stock to loosen everything and be sure it's silky smooth. Pour lentils back into the stock pot. Next, puree the vegetables (in batches, if necessary), adding more stock to loosen everything; add to the lentils. Stir the soup to let the components combine and taste for seasoning. Add more stock to thin to your desired consistency, and let cook on low heat for about 15 minutes, or until the flavors are well combined.

Serve with a dollop of Greek yogurt and paprika-toasted sunflower seeds.