I am one of those who has no trouble imagining the sentient lives of trees, of their leaves in some fashion communicating or of the massy trunks and heavy branches knowing it is I who have come, as I always come, each morning, to walk beneath them, glad to be alive and glad to be here.
I didn’t know Mary Oliver wrote essays. I know her as the writer of many of my favorite poems and a woman in love with and who embodies the natural world.
In this collection, she shares her early experiences of wandering through the woods of her Ohio childhood and the writers and poets she discovered, whose works illumined her inner and outer worlds from a young age,
As a young person, I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door—a thousand opening doors!—past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.
and her relationships with the animal, bug, bird and plant worlds of the Provincetown of adulthood, and how she created her writing life.
I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.
As a Young Adult
In high school, she counted Walt Whitman among her ‘friends’ with whom she would skip school for the woods “with a knapsack of books.” Warned she might not graduate, her parents let her ‘go her own way.’
Down by the creek, or in the wide pastures…I spent my time with my friend: my brother, my uncle, my best teacher…Whitman’s poems stood before me like a model of delivery when I began to write poems myself….The oracular tenderness with which he viewed the world—its roughness, its differences, the stars, the spider—nothing was outside the range of his interest….But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing….I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company.
Her experiences in nature became part of her psyche, then translated into a visceral experience. It is fair to say, she is a ‘hands on writer’ as she describes an hour spent in the woods walking on all fours.
I had seen the world from the level of the grasses….I was some slow old fox, wandering, breathing, hitching along, lying down finally at the edge of the bog, under the swirling rickrack of the trees.
You must not ever stop being whimsical.
Besides Whitman, other sources of influence were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe and Percy Bysshe Shelley. She writes of their personal stories of sorrows and challenges and what fueled their creative impulse. I am always fascinated to read what one writer thinks about another and how or why they were of influence.
Of Emerson she writes. I think of him whenever I set to work on something worthy. And there he is also, avuncular and sweet, but firm and corrective, when I am below the mark.
That we are spirits that have descended into our bodies, of this Emerson was sure. That each man was utterly important and limitless, an “infinitude,” of this he was also sure. And it was a faith that leads, as he shows us again and again, not to stasis but activity, to the creation of the moral person from the indecisive person.
Of Poe: For are we not all, at times, exactly like Poe’s narrators—beating upon the confining walls of circumstance, the limits of the universe? In spiritual work, with good luck (or grace) we come to accept life’s brevity for ourselves. But the lover that is in each of us—the part of us that adores another person—ah! That is another matter….In the wide circles of timelessness, everything material and temporal will fail, including the manifestation of the beloved… This is Poe’s real story. As it is ours. And this is why we honor him, why we are fascinated far past the simple narratives. He writes about our own inescapable destiny.
In several essays she describes encounters with nonhuman inhabitants of the natural world around her: the mating and mothering habits of a female spider whose web Oliver finds in a stairwell and whose 6 egg sacs she watches as “the uncountable number of progeny have spilled” out of them; a rescued injured seagull she brought back to her house whose rehabilitation became part of the routine and pattern of her life during the several months it lived; the observation of a female snapping turtle as it struggled to lay its eggs on land against its natural predators, including Oliver, who will come back to this spot where the cache is and dig up half the eggs to scramble for breakfast. “I ate them all, with attention, whimsy, devotion, and respect.”
Poet and Literary Critic
As a writer, her word choices and phrases in these essays are as lyrical and expressive, wild and intense as the poetry she writes. I found myself reading many passages out loud envisioning the world she is describing. Her attention to the details of the flora and fauna she writes about in her poems make these essays powerful, visual and captivating to read. Here are two:
But the great horned [owl]…if one of those should touch me, it would touch to the center of my life, and I must fall. They are the pure wild hunters of our world….I know this bird. If it could, it would eat the whole world….When I hear it resounding through the woods,…I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life—as, for example my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry.
She found an injured seagull on the sea shore and took it home to care for and named it, Bird:
He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so. This is not fact: this is the other part of knowing something, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief. Imagine lifting the lid from a jar and finding it filled not with darkness but with light. Bird was like that. Startling, elegant, alive.
Finally, in a wonderful passage connecting her spirituality and the bond she has with the nonhuman beings around her, she calls them a company of spirits, as well as bodies:
I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves—we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.
Title: Upstream: Selected Essays
Author: Mary Oliver
Publisher: Penguin Press
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Challenges: Library Love