OCTOBER 23, 2019

Class Reflections: Mary Oliver & the Art of Observation in Nature, Class One

“When the high school I went to experienced a crisis of delinquent student behavior, my response was to start out for school every morning but to turn most mornings into the woods instead, with a knapsack of books. Always Whitman was among them.” – Mary Oliver, from “My Friend Walt Whitman”

Image source: amazon.com

In the first class of the “Mary Oliver and the Art of Observation in Nature” series, we try to establish at least two important points as an introduction to her work. We take a brief look back at some of those influences such as Walt Whitman, who Oliver tells us she held so dear to her development as a young poet, and to set out ahead of us a framework of possible themes that allow us to hopefully enter into the mindset of a poet who has so distinctly chosen nature as her subject over the course of her writing career.

We make the brief point that when it comes to nature studies we can commonly grasp what it is that the naturalist might be seeking when she enters into the wetlands, forests, or seashores – natural data, phenology, growth patterns, wildlife – but what about the poet? Is there some kind of similar list compiled and used to seek from? Throughout the class, we continue to talk about the fact that for the poet it seems that observable facts serve more as starting points of reference. They offer images and actions that allow pause and inspiration for some other less scientific, more personal, list of unfolding themes of observation which often aspire to fuse together nature and human experience. Every new poem comes to show us one more thing that we too can look for when we go ‘mind roaming.’

Oliver pulls us through this transcendental flow nature appreciation in one of her wonderfully lyrical short essays “Comfort,” where she recalls several hours of a night spent considering the meaning of a rainstorm along the narrow cape where she lives:

And then, thinking of those bodies of water, I go mind roaming. I could name a hundred events, hours, creatures, that have filled me with delight, and fructifying praise. Experience! experience! – with the rain, and the trees, and all their kindred – has brought me a comfort and a modesty and a devotion to inclusiveness that I would not give up for all the gold in all the mountains of the world. This I knew, as I grew from simple delight toward thought and into conviction: such beauty as the earth offers must hold great meaning. So I began to consider the world as emblematic as well as  real, and saw that it was – that shining word – virtuous. That it offers us, as surely as the wheat and lilies grow, the dream of virtue.

I think of this every day. I think of it when I meet the turtle with its patient green face, or hear the hawk’s tin-tongued skittering cry, or watch the otters at play in the pond. I am blood and bone however that happened, but I am convictions of my singular experience and my own thought, and they are made greatly of the hours of the earth, rough or smooth, but never less than intimate, poetic, dreamy, adamant, ferocious, loving, life-shaping.