Mary Oliver: The Gift In The Woods.
As I walk along a forest path that will eventually take me up to a mountaintp and its breathtaking view, I am stopped by a large rusted metal spiral hanging from a branch covered in lichen.
You really cannot miss it as it spins in the gentle breeze. I had completely ignored it the first time, even the second time, if I remember correctly.
It was the third time I walked near it, bedazzled by sunshine and dewdrops on my way. On this large metal spiral were words. You had to go around it to read it in full.
This was my first introduction to the beautiful poetry of Mary Oliver as I became dizzy in her prose.
I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness…
~ from “Sleeping in the Forest,” Mary Oliver, 1978
When my eyes read those words, I couldn’t believe how lifted I had felt. No poet before had entranced me like this golden wordsmith. Who was Mary Oliver?
You would think I lived under a mossy stone for not knowing who this brilliant human was.
I searched her online and my eyes couldn’t leave the screen. Words upon words, line upon line, magical and inspiring.
Poetry was my first foray into writing. I didn’t like all the rules that bent my expression, so I created in a way that felt like I could breathe and fly freely. Mary Oliver’s poems are like thoughts fluttering in the wind and captured oh so perfectly on the ground as the thoughts land like leaves—offering colour and space in all the right places.
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…
~ from, “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver, 1986
Feel the soft heat blurring with the scents of wildflowers as you take in this one:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
~ from “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver, 1992
Mary Oliver was raised in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. She would escape a tough childhood by visiting the nearby forest and letting her imagination roam in nature and the poems she would create to honour all the beautiful things she saw in her view. That continued over the years as she moved to Massachusetts and shared glimpses of her Cape Cod life.
Her books and collections throughout the 80s, 90s, 2000s, and beyond garnered awards and awe. Mary Oliver passed in 2019, leaving her poems behind to mark our times of the wild as Emerson would have in his.
I will leave you with yet another gathering of words to touch your heart as you bond to your Creator in your whispers.
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
~ from “Praying,” Mary Oliver, 2007
How did I not know about Mary Oliver? I wasn’t looking, that’s why.
Had I been, I would have found her in many places. Instead, she found me as she spun in her wonderful web of words on that cool morning in the forest.