In 1972, the year when the UN designated 5 June as World Environment Day at the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, a quiet revolution was taking place in another corner of the world. The American poet and essayist Mary Oliver had just published her second book, The River Styx, Ohio And Other Poems. At 37, she was moderately well-known, but only three books away from winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. In 1992, she would win the National Book Award, too, followed by countless honours that secured her a place among the pantheon of great American writers.
Half a century later, the environment is worse for wear but Oliver’s legacy shines ever brighter. Her books remain robustly in print, lines from her poems are ubiquitous on social media platforms, quoted by people of all ages, with the kind of ardour usually reserved for the likes of the Persian poet Rumi—who, as it happened, was one of Oliver’s great favourites too.
Since her death in 2019 at the age of 83, the mystical halo around the poet has only grown. It’s tempting to perceive Oliver as a later-day Romantic, tracing her intellectual origins back to the American transcendentalists. To lay readers, she is almost a saintly figure, who celebrated the natural world in exquisite detail. Hers was a sensibility extraordinary for its capacity for joy, a mind that was ever ready to ask all the questions that matter.
“What does it mean that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?” Lines such as these, from her essay, Long Life, typically stand in for the Oliver we encounter on the internet. But behind such utterances of heartfelt sincerity lies the long shadow of influence, going back to the barrage of urgent questions we encounter in the early pages of Leaves Of Grass (1855), the epic poem by Walt Whitman, one of Oliver’s lifelong heroes. It’s also easy to overlook the tough, inner core of her personality, shaped by childhood trauma at the hands of an oppressive father. Hints of it come through in some of the prose pieces collected in Upstream (2016), which is the subject of this column.
Oliver’s lament for the destruction of the earth was deeply tied with its transformative effect on the self. And the self in her poetry, as she told the writer and podcaster Krista Tippett, includes everyone who reads her: “I wanted the ‘I’ to be the possible reader.” It’s a strategy Whitman also uses to powerful effect.
As nature is wiped out, so is the force that nourishes all humanity. This is the premise on which Oliver operates. Like some of her literary predecessors, she believes in the interconnectedness of all creatures big or small. In the essay Winter Hours, she elaborates on this idea. “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.” If such articulations of the infinite oneness of the world sound familiar to the point of being clichéd, they also conceal the complex and conflicted moral universe Oliver inhabited.
Never did she give in to the lazy temptation to “other” the non-human. Oliver was keenly aware of her part in the cycle of life and death, her complicity with the violence that is inseparable from the gentle kindness of the natural world. In Sister Turtle, my favourite essay in Upstream, she dives headlong into the troublingly embarrassing demands of her appetite. One day out on a walk, she stumbles on a red-tailed hawk feasting on a pheasant, “its breast already opened, only a little of the red, felt-like meat stripped away”. As Oliver continues, “It simply flew to my mind—that the pheasant, thus discovered, was to be my dinner!” But then, she quickly catches herself having this thought and begins to walk away with this epiphany: “I know how sparkling was the push of my own appetite. I am no fool, no sentimentalist! I know that appetite is one of the gods, with a rough and savage face, but a god all the same.”
Not long after this encounter, one day, Oliver observes a turtle burrowing into the sand on the beach in Provincetown, her home for many years, to lay eggs. Keeping a watch while walking her dogs, she comes back when the mother turtle is away to dig out the soft-shelled globules. There are 27 of them, Oliver counts. She carefully pockets 13 for herself and leaves the rest in the nest, covering her act of pillage with sand. Later that day, she scrambles the 13 turtle eggs and makes a delicious meal out of them. “I ate them all,” she writes, with joy and gratitude, “with attention, whimsy, devotion, and respect.”
What are we to make of Oliver’s gesture from the lens of 21st century climate change activism? Does her wilful robbery of the turtle’s eggs, or the hunger with which she regards the carcass of another creature’s prey, make her love for nature questionable? For Oliver, neither the act nor the intention is a sacrilege, it’s an acknowledgement of her inseparability from the natural world. As a poet with little means, Oliver told Tippett, she had long learnt to subsist on fish, clams or the mushrooms she chanced upon in the wild, especially during morning walks. Foraging for food is a recurrent theme in her poems. Like animals in the wild, Oliver goes seeking out a nourishing meal in nature; it’s the way of life to feed on life.
In Staying Alive, yet another powerful essay on subsistence, Oliver graphically describes her attempts to feel closer to the flora and fauna she is surrounded by. “Deep in the woods, I tried walking on all fours,” she writes with more than a twinge of glee. “At the end, I was exhausted and sore, but I had seen the world from the level of the grasses.” The paragraph concludes with a serio-comic note to herself: “You must not ever stop being whimsical.”
This is golden advice, one Oliver took to heart, giving herself permission to step across boundaries, to bridge the gulf between humans and animals, humans and plants, such that her consciousness expands beyond its narrow, human limits, her suburban, play-safe self is erased and throbs with the pulse of the wild.
On World Environment Day, as global temperatures continue to rise, habitat is steadily lost, and species become extinct, we must return to Oliver’s best-loved lines, in The Summer Day for instance, to remind ourselves of the layers she carried within herself and to read her right. “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is./ I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down/ into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,/ how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,/ which is what I have been doing all day./ 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?”
Not one to state her politics or label herself an environmentalist, Oliver would probably have asked us to never stop being playful in our pursuit of pleasure and meaning. And above all, not to see ourselves as being separate from all the lives that surround us.
Somak Ghoshal is a Delhi-based writer.