Naturalist Poet Mary Oliver Reminded Us to be Devoted to Life

When one of poet Mary Oliver’s beloved dogs died, she retraced the steps through the forests where they’d walked together, dragging branches, bark and leaves to cover the dog’s paw prints that remained in the sand, “so they would last, would keep from the wind for a long time,” she wrote in her 2016 book Upstream. “Then, overnight, after maybe three weeks, in a dazzling, rearranging rain, they were gone.”

It’s the kind of scene—the precise natural details charting a loss, mapping the breaking of a heart—that has won Oliver the loyalty of her many, many fans. And the kind of ode to the transience of life on Earth that makes us grateful that her writing will continue, even as we mourn her passing yesterday.

Born in 1935 in Ohio, Oliver survived a childhood characterized by abuse and neglect, finding solace in both literature and nature. She found comfort—and her writing voice—during her long walks in the wilderness. And for six decades, her own words shared that solace with countless readers, earning her many awards, including a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.

If you’re familiar with just one line of Mary Oliver’s poetry, I’d bet money it’s the ending of “The Summer Day,” where she asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Odds are, you’ve at least seen it on Instagram or Pinterest—or a cute decorative wall hanging. It’s the type of line—so perfect for pop consumption—that made Oliver beloved, but also vulnerable to criticism.

I won’t pretend to be a poetry critic. I won’t even pretend I read poetry regularly. But I’m a fan of Oliver’s writing partly because those qualities that might make it a target for critical distaste—its simplicity and earnestness, and focus on the natural world—are exactly what I think the world needs a little more of right now.

In a moment where deep cultural divisions, climate change, and ecological destruction could easily weigh a sensitive person down into darkness, Oliver has the boldness to speak of a light—“Maybe faith, but not a shaped faith—only, say, a gesture, or a continuum of gestures. But probably it is closer to hope, that is more active, and far messier than faith must be. Faith, as I imagine it, is tensile, and cool, and has no need of words. Hope, I know, is a fighter and a screamer.”

When it’s easy to read headlines, frown at our bank accounts, get depressed and feel helpless or full of blame, Oliver’s exhortation, in Upstream, to “not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life,” feels particularly sharp. It’s a call to personal emotional responsibility. And also a sweet release.

In one of her most famous poems, “Wild Geese,” Oliver contrasts the sensation of deep, personal human despair with the—potentially indifferent—wilds of nature: the “clear pebbles of the rain” moving across the landscape, the wild geese, “high in the clean blue air are heading home again.” But instead of leaving the reader alone as a desperate observer, she pulls them out, welcoming them into the embracing wild:

“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.”

While attention, as a commodity, seems to be in extremely short supply, Oliver’s quiet noticing of the minutia of pure existence feels exceptionally rare, and very important. She notices the goldfinches, gathered for a musical battle (in “Invitation”):

“believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing

just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world …”

As we hurry through our days, faces bowed to screens, what do we notice? “Attention is the beginning of devotion,” Oliver wrote. Which begs the question, what are we giving our attention to?

Perhaps the greatest gift a writer could give to a reader is simply to help them notice—to pay attention—that they are alive. If that’s the case, many of us have received a very special gift from Mary Oliver.



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