In which we get to know our favorite writers and poets better by exploring the sacred and mundane
Award-winning poet, essayist, translator, and Orion advisor Jane Hirshfield is the author of nine collections of poetry. She has become increasingly known as a poet working at the intersection of poetry, science, and the crisis of the Anthropocene, which of course gets all of us here at Orion quite excited.
There’s a spider in the room; what do you do?
Watch it for a few days, usually, then offer it a wider world, outside. Unless it is very large. Then it goes out right away.
What is your most treasured comfort meal?
A slice of pizza, but only in New York or Rome. All other slices are biomimicry, for me.
Would you jump at an opportunity to go into space? Why or why not?
I’m immensely glad to have seen the images, but Earth in its intimate closeness is where I belong. I once, with great sadness, declined an invitation to see the ocean from inside a two-person submersible. Motion sickness. I suggested another poet. Space travel for me is out.
Have you ever been bitten by an animal, wild or domestic?
Numberless mosquitoes, a few spiders, two ticks. Most recently, the largest wasp I’ve ever seen, who turned out to be sharing a lovely Irish wool blanket I was pulling up in my sleep. A few warning nips from a few other animals—once, a sad, caged parrot in a Florida motel. An animal uses what language it has. But never by my border collie Maggie, a confirmed pacifist: when someone gave her a toy that squeaked, she picked it up, it made its noise, and she dropped it in horror.
Ocean, garden, desert, or forest?
Forest. May I add a big creek?
Nature would be better without _____.
First-impulse obvious answer: us. But in nature, there’s no counterfactual, no speculative verb tense, no “without.” There’s only what is, and that is this moment’s perfection—a word whose etymology means “a thing thoroughly done.” Even the grief of our human wreckage and plunder is nature, which feels no need to be “better.” Nature’s only built-in preference, it seems, is a general tilt toward being rather than not being.
What is something you’re looking forward to?
I’m hoping to see the 2024 total eclipse. And hoping no clouds. It would be my first.
Do you like scary movies?
The current state of the world—social, biological, atmospheric—is frightening enough.
Do you have any unusual hobbies, hidden talents, or superpowers you’d like to share?
I’m still amazed to have joined the pandemic sourdough bakers. Whole-wheat boules with those lovely white ring lines on them, focaccia topped with rosemary and feta, a rye bread with wild fennel seed as well as caraway. A person can learn to do this! With flour, water, salt, heat, time, and everyone who’s done it before you, and with the farmers, millers, truckers, shopkeepers, soil and air microbes lending a hand.
I also like to horse whisper, though I’m toddler-level at it. And long ago, I drove an eighteen-wheel Ford cab-over double-trailered lumber truck for a time.
Can you make any convincing birdcalls?
Not a one. But I can use this question to remember Luis Batista, from the California Academy of Sciences, who could speak with birds using their San Francisco local neighborhood dialects.
You have twenty-four hours suspended from time. Where and how do you spend them?
Basking, clambering about in existence.
What are some of your favorite words?
Amplify, augment. Words that hold the reminder that always there is more to see, to feel, to know. And then also: Question, uncertainty, humility, words that remind, if a bit differently, that always there is more beyond what a person can see, feel, know. I like amazement, too, and surprise, both of which chasten sleepiness and companion the numinous. But all these are here more for the contents than the sound and mouthfeel. Those matter also. So many words are simply delicious to say: thicket, squander, drenched.
I’ve also taken up a practice, each day on waking, to remember to greet the world with an Australian expression of general happiness: You beauty! Those two words, used in that way, I find transforming.
Are you a morning person or a night owl?
In childhood, night owl. Then I spent most of my twenties in formal Zen training, waking at 4:30 a.m. For three of those years, 3:40 a.m. That left me confused for the rest of my life.
Do you remember your dreams?
A few have been lifetime signposts.
Read more of Jane’s words on bamboo, wild ginger, and turtles in the moonlight.
Are you optimistic about the future?
Yes sometimes, though I have to keep refinding my way to that. No sometimes, but it doesn’t matter. To eat when you’re hungry, drink when you’re thirsty—these are yes-sayings to the future. The living cannot help but love the world.
Would you rather drink a piña colada or get caught in the rain?
Sweet or savory?
What is a smell that stops you in your tracks?
Wildfire smoke. When I was twenty-four, I lived in a Tassajara Creek canyon, in the middle of the 1977 Ventana Cone Fire. With maybe a dozen others, I cut firebreaks and then, when it arrived after three weeks of knowing it would, helped three Cal Fire professionals set a back-burn. What is entirely unexpected: how beautiful wildfire is. Watching one come toward you from a distance, at night, over succeeding ridges, you know awe in its fullness, both terror and beauty. Throughout that time was the scent of it—before, during, and after. The hearts of the trees keep embering on for weeks.
Where did you grow up?
On East 20th Street in New York, a post-WWII housing project, Peter Cooper Village.
Are you the same person you were as a child?
I hope so. I hope also that I’m not the same person I was when I started typing this sentence.
What song or album reminds you of high school?
Judy Collins’s Bird on a Wire.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
Here, now. As the old Irish story tells it, the most beautiful music in the world is the music of what happens.
Do you step on sidewalk cracks?
When I do, I notice. (And what could show better than that the lasting power of rhyme?)
What would you like to be most remembered for?
I’m content to be entirely forgotten. If a poem or phrase keeps proving useful to others beyond my own lifetime, my work will have done its work. If not, it will have become part of the general compost from which new words, phrases, lives, understandings, relationships to existence and one another arise.
If you could come back as any organism, who or what would you be?
Where is it you think I’ll be going? I’m already a community of organisms, a frog pond whose chorus members keep changing.