On Nature and Mary Oliver

by Cecilia Nowell, ’16

mary-oliver
Mary Oliver (pc The Poetry Foundation)

I woke up from a nap today, disoriented but refreshed, and wandered outside to grab a late-night snack from the campus center. The sun had long since set, and the stars greeted me as I walked through the quad. Something about the combination of staring up at the stars and wearing my mother’s raincoat, reminded me of family camping trips. Of the peace of the outdoors. Though peace, of course, is not the right word. I tried to describe how I feel in nature a few weeks ago while walking around Walden Pond, and could only say that it makes me feel brave. Somehow, the combination of knowing that I am but one person scattered among trees and constellations but also someone who can survive in the wilderness makes me feel dangerously safe. Many poets have reflected on this feeling of awe, of the sublime, in nature, but perhaps none so well as Mary Oliver.

The times in my life when I’ve felt the most like praying have been in the outdoors—when I’m trying to find my place in the physical universe. Mary Oliver echoes the same sentiments in her poetry, like in “Wild Geese” where she reminds the reader that we “do not have to be good” or “walk on [our] knees/for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” Reading her work reminds me that I do not need to agonize over my place in the universe or worry about being one person in a forest of trees, I “only have to let the soft animal of [my] body/love what it loves.” In soothing, rhythmic poetry, Oliver chants “Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain/are moving across the landscapes,” “Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,/are heading home again.” These wild geese “[announce our] place/in the family of things.” Mary Oliver’s words remind us lovers of the outdoors that we belong, that we fit into the rhythm and seasons of nature. But perhaps more importantly, she reminds us of the creative power of nature. That the natural world is not a space to be feared, but rather revered: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely/the world offers itself to your imagination.”

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

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