Tag Archive for the journey itself is home

The Beauty of Bare Winter Trees: Haiku & Bill McKibben

Admittedly, I am contrarian by nature. I’ve always bristled at the idea of “peak season” when it comes to fall foliage. This idea that there’s a perfect weekend when the deciduous trees of the Northeast look their best. Sure, the colors are spectacular, no doubt. But I like the trees all the time, any day of the week.

Especially in the winter.

That’s when I can most admire their scaffolding, the structure and shape and enduring strength of the creature itself. They drop their leaves and apply their resources to more pressing matters, hunkering down to survive another long, cold winter.

These days, I frequently find myself driving from Delmar to Saratoga, up and back, about three times a week. My daughter, Maggie, rows for the Saratoga Rowing Association — and the water’s up there. So in the car we go. It’s more travel time than I’ve ever had in my life. I’m one of those people who gets excited every single time I see a hawk — or maybe it’s an eagle, it’s hard to tell. On a travel day, I spend about 90 minutes cruising on 87, listening to music and admiring the trees. And in winter, I can really see the random hawks perched on the limbs, feathers puffed up against the cold, giving them the appearance of jolly, fat assassins.

On most days, I’ll compose a few lines of haiku as I drive, hoping to jot them down later. I realize it’s a form derided by some literati, but I enjoy writing most of my haiku in the traditional 5-7-5 form, even though it’s somewhat out of style nowadays. I like the wordplay and rigor of it. Often my focus is on those trees, the winter weather. Here’s a few, like a fistful of almonds:


In the winter trees

her bony grip, long fingers

twisted and wind-whipped.


The wolf’s moon hangs low

beckons through bare branches, come:

a headlight drives past.


Where a branch broke off

the grandfatherly red oak

a barred owl now nests.


The plump winter wren

moves through the understory,

trills and whirls, tail down.


The tall trees lie down

in shadow across sunlit

snow, ever patient.


Amidst the white field

a stand of resolute oaks,

but not forever.


The sparse silhouette

against a gray winter sky

declares: hickory.


The beech holds its leaves

shimmering like winter moons

papery and light.


Steel-gray buckets tapped

into maples; the crows watch

from snow-covered limbs.


Crows seem skeptical

of melting snow in cold rain,

perched on bare branches.


The bare winter elms

reveal the assassin’s shape:

hawk perched on a limb.


Anyway, whatever. I don’t worry too much about ideas of quality — whether they are “good” or not — more interested in the process of attending to things, getting out of myself, and seeing. Basho’s “the journey itself is home.”

It made me happy to read the following passage in Bill McKibben’s most recent novel, Radio Tree Vermont.  I’ve been a huge fan of his work since reading his landmark book, The End of Nature, when it came out nearly 30 years ago. In this scene, Vern Barclay muses on Vermont’s trees after the giddy explosion of autumn colors has passed:

And when it was over, it was even better. The leaves were down by mid-October, and you could see the shape of the land again, see the late sun silhouetting the trees along the ridgetops as it set. You could sense the architecture of the hills, every hollow and creekrun and knoll visible from the road. When people thought of trees, they thought of leaves — that’s how a child would draw them. But the natural inclination of trees at this latitude was bareness — seven months of the year, at least upslope, they stood there stoic. Leaves were the fever-dream exception to the barren rule, and Vern felt calmer once they were down. 


AN ASIDE: My first book of haiku, written for children, comes out in the Fall of 2019, illustrated by the great Mary GrandPre (of Harry Potter fame). It is titled All Welcome Here and celebrates the community of the classroom on the first day of school.

Fan Mail Wednesday #77

Let’s cut the preamble and get right down to it.

Dear Mr. Preller,

I am an English Major. Your novel, Bystander was brought back by my professor as a ‘prize” when she attended an annual English Teacher Conference. I didn’t get the book then, but I had a chance to read the inside description, and asked for it for Christmas.

I only just now began to read the book, and I’m on chapter 8.

In addition to having an interest in English/Writing, I’m a filmmaker also. And, I wanted to know if you have thought about selling the rights to your book. I’m pretty intent on writing a screenplay based on your book. But, in order to even show it to people, I need the rights to do so. This may not even be possible, as I know rights can be very expensive and after all, I’m only a college student.

But, it’d be really cool if I could write a screenplay of your story.  My family thinks I’m crazy, asking you, but I thought I could at least try.

If this request can not be fulfilled, I totally understand.

But, at the very least, I am enjoying your story immensely and think it really has the potential to make a great film.


I replied:

Dear Eric,

You flatter me. And if you think I’m vulnerable to cheap ploys like that, then you’re exactly right. I loved your letter.

Business first: I don’t have film rights to give. It’s something that’s handled by my publisher, Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. You can write to them at: Feiwel and Friends, Rights & Permissions, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010. I don’t know how they handle that stuff, but I’m guessing you’re right, it’s probably involves money (but much less than you’d think).

Regardless of how the legal folks respond, I’m honored that my book inspired you. I’ve often had similar thoughts when reading stories, “Man, I can see this as a short film.” I think it would be a worthwhile project for you, going through the process of moving a story from paper to film. You’d learn a lot, I’d think. Even if you just tried to figure out one scene, made a little three minute film, it could only help you grow as an artist.

I recently visited a few schools and gave the older kids, grades 4-6, my quick “Show, Don’t Tell” lesson. We discussed how a successful writer attempts to paint a picture with words, and how as readers we see that movie in our heads. Good writing is extremely visual, concrete; it conjures images. Now I’m not saying that I’m an accomplished writer by any means — though I’m trying my best, and still learning — but your reaction really touches me because it speaks to my goal as a writer. I want readers to see it. And if they see, then they will feel.

I was an English Major in college, like you. I went through a phase when I walked around with a tape recorder, documenting conversations between different people. Then I’d go home and type them out exactly as I heard it on tape: people interrupting each other, speaking in half-broken thoughts, fragments, the conversation working in layers, backtracking and taking sudden leaps forward. I wanted to understand how dialogue really worked, Eric, so that I could one day write fictional scenes that sounded realistic, true. It was a great time in my life, feeling all those possibilities opening up to me. Maybe you feel some of those same things.

Oh, and hey, while I’m thinking of it, I’m LOVING the new Patti Smith book, Just Kids. It touches on those same feelings, the artist as a young man or woman. Recommended!

Back to my book and your film: I think you should do it anyway. Just a scene or two. Don’t get bogged down in the whole book. But go through that process, honor that inspiration, even if it only leads to nowhere much. Every time you make something new you learn from the experience; you grow. Don’t worry too much about where it will all end up. That’s not the job of the artist. Your job is to follow your enthusiasms, take that path into the deep dark woods. And let’s not completely forget food, clothing, shelter, all that good stuff. You’ll have to figure that out, too. And the thing is: you will.

Again: Follow your enthusiasms. And remember, like Basho said, “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

My best,


P.S. Stay in touch!