Reservoirs (of Joy)!

From Reservoirs by Alejandra Calvo

I was recently invited to be part of a collaborative multimedia exhibition at the Boulder Public Library called Reservoirs. The exhibition was conceived of and curated by my wonderful friend Michiko Theurer, and featured visual art by Alejandra Calvo, musical contributions by Liangyeh Tai, and a poetic invitation by me! The exhibition space was filled with empty containers of various kinds collected from people living in and around Boulder, each of which (through the magic of transducers) acted as a speaker, through which played recordings of Boulder Creek. Each container resonated a bit differently, and so being amongst them felt like being inside a stream. Around the containers were lots of river pebbles. My task was to write something that would invite people into connecting the exhibition with climate change, and into making collective commitments to taking some kind of action. Here’s what I wrote!

There’s a poem I often think of when I’m just getting to know someone, or some place. If I’m lucky, I get to read it to them, maybe during the second or third time we get together. You’ve probably heard this poem; it’s called Good Bones by Maggie Smith. I’m only just meeting most of you, but still, I want to read this poem to you today:

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

is at least half terrible, and for every kind

stranger, there is one who would break you,

though I keep this from my children. I am trying

to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

walking you through a real shithole, chirps on

about good bones: This place could be beautiful,

right? You could make this place beautiful.

The reason this poem comes up for me when I’m with new friends, new lovers, new kindred spirits is because it’s about hope and it’s about fear. In those early days of something new, hope and fear swirl together, and this poem helps me make sense of the swirling. It helps me realize that what matters is what we hold on to, and what we let go of. We must begin, as the poem does, by experiencing all of it, the fearful and the hopeful. In the swirl we see, we hear, we touch, we feel and then, we choose what to do. We see and hear and touch all of it, we feel all of it, and then we move forward by letting the universe tell us what to hold on to and what to let go of. We choose to listen to the universe.

We find ourselves together here today maybe because we saw a flier for this event. Maybe we contributed a container, maybe we were just passing through. However we got here, we have a chance now to embark on a journey together. If you choose, you can join us today in making a commitment to showing up for ourselves, for each other, and for our future.

You live here in Boulder or somewhere nearby, and so I don’t need to tell you how precious this place is, how fortunate we are to live nestled amidst rock and creek and wind. And you know already that we—the collective we–are risking this place, and our futures here and elsewhere, through our own behavior. The world is at least fifty percent terrible—we know that!

But often, we disagree when we try to identify what’s terrible; we disagree more when trying to agree about how to fix what’s terrible. Thankfully, that is the work of political organizing, not an art installation!

Which is not to say that our gathering here isn’t political. It is, but it lives in the realm of bridging the political with the personal, in a way that all of us here, all of us who belong in a public library which is to say all of us, can find common ground.

So here is something we can find common ground on: we all, to live our lives, depend upon things. The things we buy (or don’t), consume (or don’t), use (or don’t), and discard (or don’t) …these things organize our lives, our choices, and our aspirations.

In describing a 2020 study on the impact of our choices here in Boulder on carbon emissions and climate change, the City of Boulder says the following:

“One of the most important findings…was the true size of the embodied emissions of what we consume in Boulder — meaning the emissions associated with the whole lifecycle of products we purchase and use, from production to disposal. Embodied emissions are not currently included in our emissions inventory. [The study] found that the size of embodied emissions is larger than all local sources of emissions put together. This means that even a small change in circularity and reducing consumption can have an enormous effect on [our] overall impact.”

What do you feel when you hear these words about our impact, arising from our consumption choices? If you’re like me, you feel fear and hope swirling together. The fear: what have I been doing? Do my wants make me a bad person? What do I have to give up? And the hope: oh, we can actually change something here! We can do things differently!

The point is not that we are the problem; take a deep breath and gather in that breath the fear that lives in little corners of you; then breathe out. Let that fear flow through you. Not because the fear isn’t warranted; perhaps it is. But because the fear gets in the way of moving us forward, towards action.

When you breathe out, let yourself taste a freedom from fear. Let this freedom leave, in its wake, a true sense of responsibility. Find, in the debris of fear, a real sense of hope that we can do more.

It won’t take just one breath; it’ll take many. So begin this breathing here, as you wander through this space amidst the sounds of the creek resonating through everyday objects. Find the pocket of sound that feels like home to you. Settle in, and pick up one of the river stones you find nearby. We invite you to hold onto your chosen stone for this month. Carry it with you, and let it witness your life—all you already do to make our world better, and all your intentions to do more. Each time you remember what you’re moved to do, breathe again. Fill this breath, and this stone, with the strength, the resolve, and the sparks of joy that remind you of what we are capable of doing together.

And when, inevitably, you find fear, or guilt, or anger, or despair, springing up within you, let it flow, like water over rock. You know how sometimes when water flows over a rock, it clears and sharpens, and sometimes it eddies and froths. You needn’t make sense of this, just watch it, and let it go. Come back to what helps move you, and hold on to that.

Carry this stone with you, and with it in your hand, cast a new eye on what you see, place a new palm on what you touch. Are there things in your life, actual things, that you can hold on to for a little bit longer, find new use of and new meaning in? We make meaning with our imaginations, with our attention, and by forging connection. So when you pause to really be with something, can you see its place in this whole flow of carbon and energy and precious minerals that make up our world and our lives? Hold on to that bigger picture, and then ask the universe: what is the right thing to do with this plastic bag, that cardboard box, this twice-worn shirt, that years-old can of beans?

Maybe, imbued with new meaning, you hold onto this object longer. Or maybe, imbued with new meaning, you find a better home for this object than you can give it, a different place where it will have a longer life, or where it sparks more joy. Our hope is if we all do this, over and over, in time we will let go of our wants that are forged in fear, and hold on to what we actually need. And most importantly, fueled by hope, we will see what we can bring to each other. We hope you’ll join us again a month from now, with your stone, to tell us what you found, and how you will move forward.

We can make this place beautiful.

A version of the text above was printed in these little invitation booklets that folks could take home with them

We gathered again a month later, and I wrote something for our closing celebration too. The event was called Reservoirs of Joy, to link up with One Book One Boulder‘s pick for 2023, The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (from which I’ve taken the quotes [in italics] below). Here’s what I wrote, it’s called Can We Let Joy Save Us?

When we gathered here a month ago, we were each invited to take a stone with us to hold onto until today. Our hope was that this stone would be your guide, your friend, as you brought awareness to your journey of commitment to acting with kindness and peace towards our world. I asked you let this stone remind you that you have choices about what to hold onto and what to let go of, be those material objects, feelings, old patterns or new convictions. We hoped that this attention to our choices would bring us closer to ourselves and to our truest needs and wants, shedding some layers of the fearful impulse to consume that so often masks those truest needs and wants.

Here’s the stone I took, and ironically enough, I’m a little sad and scared to be letting go of this stone today. We’ve had some good moments, this stone and I. Just a few days after our opening event, I had this moment of very strongly feeling like I needed to take an impulsive trip to New York City to see a play that’s based on a book that I love. But this stone was sitting on my desk as I searched for flights and hotels, and the stone jolted me into pausing. The stone asked me to ask myself if I really needed that specific, energy-intensive, expensive, carbon-emissions-heavy experience, or was there some other absence in my life underlying this impulse, an absence that could be tended to more simply, more kindly, and with less impact? There was, it turns out. All I needed to do was spend time reconnecting with a friend, the friend with whom, some five years ago, I had shared this book that I so loved.

Perhaps it is a question of priorities. What is it that is really worth pursuing? What is it we truly need? According to the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama, when we see how little we need—love and connection—then all the getting and grasping that we thought was so essential to our well-being takes its rightful place and no longer becomes the focus or the obsession of our lives.

There are two coffee shops within a ten minute walk of where I live, and communing with my stone over the last month has helped me realize that I am in very different moods when I want to visit each of them. When I go to one, where, to be honest, the coffee and pastries are solid but not amazing, I go because there’s a reasonable chance I’ll run into the kind-looking man who told me once about a conversation he had overheard, right there outside the coffee shop, between a raven and a sparrow. He’s there often (so are the birds), and I like that we can reliably look into each other’s eyes and smile just for a second. When I go to the other coffee shop, it’s because the coffee is really very good. In the last month, my stone has helped me see that I need moments of joyful connection more than I need good coffee.

The more we turn towards others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others. The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves but, as the Archbishop poetically phrased it, “to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.”

I want to be a reservoir of joy. I like the journey I’ve begun with this rock, and I’m somewhat nervous that when I let go of the rock the journey will end too. But it doesn’t have to. We can, each of us, keep moving slowly closer and closer to living in alignment with our deepest convictions, convictions that I know, at their heart, are life-affirming, peaceful, and joyful. We’ve gathered here today to let go of our rocks—let’s instead make today’s shared experience the thing we carry with us going forward. Let us be each other’s rocks.

I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed about climate change, about the state of the world and how quickly we seem to be destroying it, and I’m not going to pretend we’ve freed ourselves entirely from overwhelm in the last month, any of us. But I have a feeling that we may have gotten a little bit closer to seeing how we save ourselves—through joy.

And the thing about joy is that it needs to flow. It needs to flow among us, and for joy to flow freely we need to trust completely that we will never run out of joy. As Brother David Steindl-Rast reminds us, quoted in The Book of Joy:

When you are grateful, you are not fearful, and when you are not fearful, you are not violent. When you are grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not out of a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share. A grateful world is a world of joyful people.

I am grateful to you all for joining us here today. I’m grateful for this journey we are on together. I think we’ll be okay, if we let joy flow through us, and in flowing, let it truly change how we connect with each other and the world we live in.

A Column in Catapult, and Book Plans

I have a new essay out in Catapult! Those of you familiar with my lizard territoriality work will recognize a lot of the science in this piece, though I haven’t written about the personal elements much before. And the specific sociopolitical emphasis here is newly applied to this work—it only fully came together last week thanks to some glorious editing from Allisen Lichtenstein 🙂

I realized I also forgot to link to my previous essay about antlions published in Catapult in February. Here it is! The essay is adapted from this zine, of which I still have copies in case you want some. Let me know.

These two essays are the first in a Catapult column called Our Animal Lives; there will be three more essays after this: on grieving and birds’ nests, on social spiders and labor organizing, and on corvids and freedom. I’m feeling really grateful and lucky that this strange human-animal dimension of my work has found a home that’s filled with care and attention.

In writing this second essay, I found myself, thanks to gentle and sharp editing, pulling away many different connecting threads that we simply didn’t have room for. Threads on paradox, and queerness, and freedom, and rationality. There is only so much you can do in 2500 words, after all. But I made sure to write down all the shorn threads, so I can pick them up and weave them back in when I have more room to lay out this whole tapestry in the making.

I’ve been writing essays with intention for about ten years now. About five years ago, I told Ned with great conviction and no real plan, “I think I have a book in me”. It’s been a whole thing coaxing this vague-yet-certain feeling into a shape, and then into a shape that feels like me. It’s been a whole thing because along the way I’ve had to discover what feels like me actually means. BUT! Thanks to a pretty incredible weeklong retreat/workshop, the book project finally has a shape I love! I’m very excited about this.

Delightfully, the shape of the book has aligned perfectly with not only the essays of Our Animal Lives (Part I of the book will collect and expand these essays) but also with this year’s work of completely revising the Animal Behavior curriculum to be critical, cross-disciplinary, and joyful (Part III of the book will be notes from the classroom; Part II will be something of a manifesto, a bit like this one).

Anyway, I’m off to work! I don’t think I’ll be writing much else for a bit, though you never know. I’ll link to the essays in the Catapult column as and when they come out. See you on the other side, stay well in the meanwhile ❤

three kinds of loss: a poem

The man with whom I loved some poems

Is losing his mind; three days ago

I suddenly saw how blue his eyes can be.

His words have come undone

From threads that tie him to the rest of us.


I’ve come undone from you, in time.

I’ve known for years how blue your eyes can be

But threads between us snag in branches

Out of reach; the kite I lost on Mission Hill

Last summer. I guess it’s still there. I could visit it.

Alone unfed inhabitant of our unlikely zoo.


I didn’t know him, if his eyes were brown or blue;

He died. I found out on the day

When someone said that growing older

Happens when we keep not dying.

Those of us who’ve faced that choice,

We know the weight of days on which

We find ourselves still here, tied down.

Rest well, my friend; I’m going to hope my eyes found yours sometime

In some ungodly hallway, and that it meant something.

‘someone’ in the poem is my dear friend and fellow traveler, Squirrel.

Little Thoughts: Dance

I have been learning to dance since I was 8 and since then I have felt, without words, that I am most fully myself when I dance. As you’ve seen from these pages, I often discover myself through writing, but when I dance, I simply am myself. It’s an indescribably joyous thing.

I’ve performed as a dancer a reasonable amount. To this day, I can tap into a genuine smile within seconds because two decades ago, I needed to learn how to smile through my dance performances and it felt better in this context to practice accessing real happiness than learn how to pretend it. But the vulnerability of a performance only goes as far as I am willing to let it go; it can only go as far as I know my own self.

some old photos from my very first dance performance, at age 11 🙂

I’m back in New Delhi, and have been here for much longer than I thought I would be, waiting for my passport to re-emerge from an opaque vortex within the U.S. Embassy. In this time, I’ve been working through some big, old, scary feelings, and now that I’m out on the other side of them, I know myself much better. In this time, I’ve also been finding again the first dance style I learned—bharatanatyam.

I went to a bharatanatyam performance the other day, and was delighted to discover that one of the performers had been trained by the teachers who taught my favourite teacher, and she performed a piece I had seen her teachers (my grand-teachers) perform when I was 16! I took a tiny video recording, just 20 seconds of the minutes-long piece, and have been teaching myself to perform the little excerpt. I love it so much! It’s rhythmically interesting and visually exuberant, so much packed into such little time.

When I first drafted this post, I’d planned to make a little recording of myself performing the piece to share with you. I practiced and practiced, but then suddenly the plan to share it stopped making sense or feeling right. Maybe its precisely because I know myself much better now that to share a dance performance would be to share too much.

If you’ve read this essay, you’ll understand why, growing up, I never let my parents watch me dance. But unbeknownst to me, they watched my very last performance in front of a live audience (the event was streamed, at some ungodly hour in India) and I’m so glad they did. Just some weeks before she died, when we weren’t otherwise talking very much to each other, my mother (a visual artist) and I (someone who draws very rarely) had this exchange:

There’s something to be said for holding our fullest selves close, and there’s something to be said for sharing ourselves. Always, we have a choice.

Little Thoughts 2: Altars

Altars: the physical reminders of that which we often forget but cannot do without.

Brass statuettes, pebbles, pieces of wood. My mother and her mother worshipped at all manner of altar, and now I do too. I know which rock to reach for, which shell, when I’ve lost touch with some essential thing. A consciousness spread—through me—across all that surrounds, more a lake than a cup of water.

Art, tattoos, certain clothes—all imbued with meaning and yet none more than scaffolding for a soul that’s settling into place.

Candles lit, invocations, invitations to a favourite god to come and rest within, and stay. The word “trappings” makes more sense now.

I think about those people who leave behind the things that matter, confident that the quiet within them will remain regardless. To release their altars as a true test of faith. And I wonder if even they sometimes fall prey to the egoic myth that one must find calm all by oneself, without even the help of an altar. Sometimes it’s foolish to refuse the help we need to remember what’s important and true. At other times, the way forward is to let go.

I am starting to let go of my altars. I do not carry a rock in my pocket every day, as I did six months ago. More often than not, I forget to wear my rings. And in this time, the quiet has only grown. Debris have washed to the shore and, at any moment, can be swept back into the sea; for now, the waves roll clear.

Little Thoughts 1: Project Shapes

I think often about finding the shape of a project, the form it needs to inhabit.

In academic science, it is possible to avoid searching for the shape of a project altogether. The system hands us an acceptable, legible form—the scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal with a particular subject-matter scope. Of course, predetermined shapes constrain. If we only had bundt tins, we would only make one shape of cake.

Bundt cake pan by David Benbennick, Wikimedia

These days, most of the ideas that move me are not just wildly cross-disciplinary but are also built from threads of connection between the academic, the personal, and the political. Many luminous writers before me have worked with some of the same ideas as me. Many of them have placed these ideas into the form of scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals. I could do the same, but I’ve realized that if I did, I’d largely be replicating their work.

I’d rather work in concert with them—I can see what they wrote, the impact their work had, and then ask myself, “how do I move us further towards our shared goal, from my particular vantage point, at an angle that plays to my strengths, in the direction of the audience that I think I can reach, want to reach, needs reaching?”

Asking myself this question has taken me far from the form of the scientific paper into a land of few, new, and confusing constraints. Exploring this land of possibility has been weird. I’ve learnt that the only way to navigate it, in the absence of a prescribed path, is to tune into the inner voice telling me which ways to go and the outer voices showing me the consequences of choosing those directions. More on listening to these voices another time 🙂

Little Thoughts: A New Series

Hi everyone!

I’ve recently decided that I would like to be someone who has written well about many different things. For better or for worse, the only way to become that person is to write about many different things! So this is a series dedicated to little thoughts on many different things. Knowing me, topics will include nature and science and people and spirituality, but expect to be surprised!

The nuts and bolts: once a week at minimum (because regularity is important) but up to three times a week, 300 words per post at maximum (because brevity is important).

Ethos: in writing about many different things, I’m specifically avoiding the aura of expertise. I’m an expert in maybe one or two things, simply by virtue of having done them a lot. But I want to write about many things! And so I will write not from a position of authority but with the intention of bringing rigorous thought and feeling to a diversity of facets of human experience.

How to follow: Subscribe to my blog by email (look for the box on the right side of this page) and you’ll get an email in your inbox when I post here. You could also follow me devotedly on twitter, where I will link to all these posts, but that sounds like quite a lot more effort. Finally all posts will be under the “Little Thoughts” category, which you can click on when you visit this page.

Thanks as always for your time and attention, your responses are always welcome!



a concrete representation of little thoughts

What We Say When We Speak of Puzzles: Part II

On one of my last long walks in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I had spent six long years getting a Ph.D., I found a jigsaw puzzle on the street. It was in a sealed box, never opened, never made whole. The image was of a Van Gogh painting, not one of my favorites but a good one nonetheless. Grinning, I quickly picked up the box and found myself hugging it close—I couldn’t believe my luck. I had been so worried about missing Cambridge—physically, viscerally—when I moved, in a few days, all the way across the U.S. to Santa Barbara, California. I could immediately see how this puzzle would give my hands a way to work out the fear and loneliness that I had always known, now heightened by the impending change in circumstances. I didn’t know what to expect from my new job as a postdoctoral scholar in behavioral and evolutionary ecology, from a new city in a new state. And so I packed the puzzle into my suitcase, ensuring that I’d have it as soon as I reached, just in case I needed it. This gift from the streets of Cambridge, the city I’d reluctantly grown to love, would travel with me. It would be the bridge I needed, from the familiar to the less known.

Sometime later, after my move and after about a month of heartbreak, he and I entered our first of many movings apart and comings together. We’re in each other’s lives now, and our break was not an ending but an essential segment of apartness in our unusual growth together. And it was in this first apartness from my first love, so unmoored and slipping into yet another of the spirals that had dogged me since adolescence, that I opened the Van Gogh puzzle. Instead of trying endlessly to reposition the pieces of my life after the excision from it someone I had grown to love, I laid out the individual pieces carefully onto the kitchen table and worked on smaller challenges, like fitting together these rolling fields of yellowed straw or finding the perfect match to that particular piece of blue sky. Spending time with the puzzle between calls to therapists, I began to appreciate how it let me be silent, how it helped me be alone when I wouldn’t otherwise have chosen to keep myself company.

The puzzle lived in our kitchen for about a month, I think—had I guessed how long it would take to finish, I’d have balked at the inconvenience to my housemate, and may never have laid it out. But after just a few days, she too fell into little holes of puzzle-solving, mostly while I was asleep or out. She tackled the parts I’d dragged my feet on, and so this effort was no longer just a reflection of my sadness. Seeing our work grow through unplanned collaboration surprised and delighted me. We had found a way to share space in the slowly-solved puzzle.

When my housemate and I finished the Van Gogh puzzle, I wasn’t quite ready to break it apart, and so I framed it. I was amused at the idea of the “breakup puzzle” hanging up unbroken, in part because he and I were back in contact by then and in part because the puzzle was now more than just a symbol of a bad time. It was the start of a meditation, of finally seeking some kind of peace.

In a model of understanding the human condition called internal family systems, we think of ourselves as a family of parts. Some of these parts are protectors and other parts are exiles. The exiles have suffered some sort of trauma, and remain stuck in those moments of suffering. When faced with reminders of this trauma, the protectors try to save the exiles from getting hurt again. But in doing so, they also stop the exiles from healing, and from expressing themselves fully. In internal family systems therapy, you understand the limits, boundaries, and contours of your parts, helping them move out of their roles as protectors or exiles and into their more fully realized selves. In some ways, we are all our own puzzles, and what matters is finding ways for our pieces to fit together with ease.

Through this process of working with my parts in therapy—delving deeper into my fears and pains to uncover more and more of who my parts are, how they had been held back and how they can fit together once they are free—I have always come home to a jigsaw puzzle. I’ve distracted myself from the hardest parts of healing with the calm attention that is demanded by the tasks of pattern recognition and color matching, by becoming present in the reality of what and where these pieces are, and an irrefutable sense of where they need to be.

When you fit together two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, there is no interesting explanation for why it is the right fit—it simply is. There is no way to arrive at a solution through understanding; one simply searches, notices, fits pieces together, and moves onward. I have come to realize that one does not solve jigsaw puzzles, one builds them. 

In time I moved from Santa Barbara to Berkeley, and my new housemate was a quick convert to puzzling. She and I sometimes spent full days, in our sunshiny plant-filled home, working together on a puzzle in silence, growing consideration and trust between us. I bought a puzzle to do with him—an imagined drawing of oranges and metallic starlings, his favorite birds. He and I started the puzzle together, but my housemate and I carried it on. Some of her friends finished it when they came over to celebrate her birthday. It hangs in our living room now, unbroken. There are all kinds of community to be found in building a puzzle.

Two Christmases ago, he gave me an impossibly complex puzzle of the Earth—edgeless, unintuitive, and unending, it insists that I constantly find new ways to attend to it. More than any other, this puzzle feels like life. My life, too, is coming together with time.

Last Christmas, he gave me a puzzle that I found impossible to build, but it had the colors of a sunrise; this Christmas, a simple puzzle of a leafy fern that nearly fits in the palm of my hand.

Form and Feeling

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.

Wild Geese by Kinsey Brock

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.