When I planned this essay in my head some hours ago, I was happy. Then, a few little things happened, and I’m no longer there. This ebb and flow of feeling is something the poet Mary Oliver knew well. What her poetry reminds me to do, always, is to reach outward from the specifics of what I’m feeling into a more enduring connection with the world around me, with something divine.
In the latest installment of his weekly poetry essays, Devin Kelly writes beautifully about Mary Oliver’s sentimentality. He celebrates her depth of feeling, and the big revelations she comes to from what she sees in the world. But these lessons are never hers alone—they can be ours too, and she offers them to us. As Kelly puts it,
There’s something about Oliver’s work that lets you know, almost intuitively, that she is living in the house she has built for you out of her poems. And that she is inviting you in — not to stay forever, but to stay for a little while, just to see what you make of it. And that’s why I love Mary Oliver… Because Mary Oliver is Mary Oliver, and you know, when you crack a book of hers open, that you’re apt to find the complicated world and the complicated heart rendered in generous and beautiful terms.
When I was in college, I wrote an essay about poems that reckon with transitions and transience in nature. Somewhere in the essay was a little idea that I still think about often: that nature poems work because we too can experience the same thing that the poet was experiencing when they wrote their poem. And for this reason, my favourite poems about nature stay with me. I think of Wilbur’s Crow’s Nests every time I see a crow’s nest, or of Robert Frost when I see a spring pool or new bud. I think of Ada Limon’s Instructions on Not Giving Up too, every spring, and it carries me.
In a long essay I wrote last year about nature, loneliness and the science of behavioral ecology, I thought of Mary Oliver, in a way that I hope will give you a sense of the kind of kinship we can forge with one another, through nature and through poems. Part of that essay is going to be published soon (!!), but this section didn’t make it into the soon-to-be-published version.
The poet Mary Oliver described herself once as “one of many thousands who’ve had insufficient childhoods.” She spent a lot of her time as a child walking around the woods in Ohio, which she says saved her life, that she was saved by the beauty of the world. Like Mary Oliver, so many of us who come from difficult homes find our healing in nature, in its reliability and abundance.
When she writes about nature, Mary Oliver invites us to engage with the world, in all its difficult complexity and wondrous beauty. She insists, gently and yet unrelentingly, that we can see ourselves in nature, that we can see our lives reflected back to us and so we can connect. That we too are worthy of connection.
It is 2009. Somewhere else, at a different time, Mary Oliver is writing of the world that “offers itself to your imagination,” a world that “calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-/over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.” I am barefoot, standing in the grass of a baseball field in Amherst, Massachusetts, looking up. Rain drizzles onto my upturned face, a breeze nudges me gently into acknowledging it, and overhead, flying geese call to one another, heading somewhere home-like, together. I am more myself than I have ever been.
In 2009, I am not yet a fully trained behavioral ecologist, but I’ve begun to learn the questions that a behavioral ecologist must ask of these geese. Why don’t they just fly alone? What might each individual gain from this coordination? Why does one goose fly at the tip of their V-shaped formation, even though to lead the way is to face the worst of the buffeting wind?
It is 2017. At some other time, in a different place, Mary Oliver is writing of loss and loon-song, the leaden feeling of the world and of a bird dead upon the shore. The feelings that break your heart open, irreparably and for the better. I am on a foggy grey beach in Santa Barbara, California, feet sinking into sand. The wind chilly, despite the summer. I am standing above the corpse of a loon. Scavengers and decomposers have left little behind but feathers, beak, and bone. Once, far away and a while ago, I had seen and heard a loon in its full living magnificence, its black and white patterning stark against greenish Vermont water, its long call, resonant with eerie sadness, carrying clearly across the lake’s expanse. And now, one of its kin is here, dead.
In 2017, I am a fully trained behavioral ecologist, and I am told by my profession that the task before me, as I stand in front of this dead bird, is a reckoning. Did it live a successful life before it died? Did it bear chicks of its own, ensuring the persistence of its lineage? Did it die before the other loons, from some fault that its peers did not suffer? These questions circle my mind as I walk home from the beach; I am sad, but I do not notice how the questions stoke my sadness.
I’m glad I planned this essay when I was happy; I’m glad I wrote it sad. I don’t feel happier having written it, but I do not feel alone.