Seeking Distance

Lake Hyatt ~ Tyler County, Texas

As conditions around the world have changed and phrases such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ have become more common than any of us would like, I’ve found myself thinking again of a well-loved poet.

For Mary Oliver, social distance wasn’t imposed. It was freely chosen, and the solitude it offered became a cherished part of her life. Perhaps my favorite of her poems, “How I Go to the Woods” always makes me smile. It stands as an affirmation of one of life’s deepest truths: when in nature — whether that nature be woods, prairies, or a backyard garden — we’re never truly alone.

Ordinarily I go to the woods alone, with not
a single
friend, for they are all smilers and talkers
and therefore unsuitable.
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to
the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree. I have
my way of
praying, as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone I can become
invisible, I can sit
on the top of a dune as motionless as an
uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can
hear the almost
unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me,
I must love
you very much.


Comments always are welcome.

173 thoughts on “Seeking Distance

  1. Going to the woods reminded me of Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

    1. That’s such an oft-quoted passage, and yet it’s too often truncated: reduced to the first sentence. The entire passage is marvelous, and applicable to a whole variety of situations. It surprised me that I laughed at this: “nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.” It may be that’s the sort of assertion that requires a few decades of living before it’s found to be humorous.

  2. Good morning Linda. Her words nurture my soul. I’ve not read this one before. I am a solitude kind of person myself, who also talks to my apple trees, our laying hens, and our honey bees. Just sitting here this morning writing an e-mail to my mom when a notification for your post came in. Take care. DM

    1. I suspect there are a lot of us talking to the world: to cats and dogs, to flowers, to spiders and bees. Even if we’re not aware of any direct benefit, it doesn’t hurt a thing, and there may be ways that it helps. I was thinking about you this morning in the grocery store while selecting some apples. I recently read this article, and thought it might interest you.

  3. I really do have to acquaint myself more with Mary Oliver. I have looked in local bookstores (before COVID-19) of course, but found nothing. Perhaps second hand bookstores would be more fruitful. This poem is absolutely gorgeous and reflects my own practices for years. Over the past twenty years or so, the social aspect of birding and nature study has become more important in my life, but I look back fondly on those days of solitude. Mary talks of the foxes going by unconcerned; my most vivid memory of an an encounter of that kind, while quietly sitting on a rock in a forested area of the Canadian Shield, was to have an Ovenbird walk over my foot. I have also had encounters with American Bittern, where I could have reached out and touched the bird. Becoming part of nature, rather than imposing oneself on nature is the key. As soon as this virus is over I will be searching for books! Thanks very much for this post. To say “it made my day” is a bit of an overworked cliché, but this post really did.

    1. After her death, it was hard to purchase any of Oliver’s books; they often were out of stock, even on Amazon. But they’re available now, and Misti’s recommendation of Upstream is a good one. It’s more a collection of essays and notes than poetry, but it’s one of those books that can last a long while, since nearly every page requires some thought, and contemplation.

      I so agree that becoming part of nature, rather than imposing ourselves on nature, is key. Another writer who develops that theme, beautifully, is Annie Dillard in her fabulous Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard has a story about an encounter with a muskrat that yours about the bittern brought to mind.

      I’m really glad you enjoyed this. I’m always happy when someone else appreciates a writer who’s become important to me.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Beth. It’s a fine poem, and one that isn’t published as often as some she’s written. Still, I thought it fit our circumstances very well.

      1. I’ve been thinking about.the last three lines. They come as a surprise, mainly because of the word “must,” as if the person talking isn’t really sure. It would be off-putting to actually hear that in a conversation. Maybe the possibility of taking it that way is a reason the poem doesn’t appear in print (if that is the case; I haven’t read that much of her work) as often as others that may not be as ambiguous in addressing the listener.

        But I’ve decided that it doesn’t bother me because I think the person talking is also smilng just a bit. She (and we readers) know the contradiction involved. She prefers being alone yet she invites us along. And she is talking in an odd way for a conversation. So I think there is a secret involved, an understanding. This is a love which is not personal, yet it can be enjoyed together by its very distance.

        (Sorry to go on like this. I do like what I’ve read of hers, so I needed a way to like this one better than I did at first. Thanks for putting it out for us to see. I don’t think I’ll forget for a while the possibility of experiencing “the almost
        unhearable sound of the roses singing.”)

        1. It’s interesting how differently people respond to the same poem. I found those last three lines perfect: tender, almost shy, and filled with affirmation. And one of the things I like about it is that it’s not a general invitation to come along with her — it’s a way of saying, “If you’re here, you’re clearly special.”

          In fact, I didn’t read it as a conversation. Instead, it seems more like a soliloquy: a pondering, a glimpse into privately held thoughts while with someone who’s with her physically, but clearly familiar enough with her preferences to be quiet.

          Anyway. When I said it doesn’t appear in print so much, I meant that it’s hard to find online. Part of that is that many of her poems still are available only through books. Eventually, more of her work may be released from copyright restrictions, but there’s a lot in the books that appears online only in excerpt.

          1. I found it in her 2013 book, Swan, which I am going to order. Also, she liked the poem well enough to include it in her last book, Devotions: Selected Poems of Mary Oliver. Fortunately for me, our library has an e-book version.

            Liking the poem more and more here. Conversing about art is not as intrusive as chattering away in nature.

    1. You’re welcome, indeed. Oliver’s a fine writer. Not all of her poems appeal to me, but that’s to be expected when a writer’s as prolific as she was, and the ones that do appeal are gems.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Linda.
    I think that might become one of my favourites (of Mary Oliver).

    I suspect we might have lots in common with her if she were still alive.

    1. I agree. Her work certainly resonates with me, as I suspect it does for most people who love nature. She’s far from “just a nature poet,” of course, but she has a certain touch when it comes to those topics.

    1. There is, indeed. She was tested in various ways in her own life, and it seems to me that it gives much of her writing a special flavor. There are critics who find her — bland — and from time to time I see their point, but there’s a kind of quality control that can only be found in factories: not in art.

    1. I agree, Peter. I also think some anxiety associated with the need to stay at home is rooted in thoughts of what it will be like when we’re not able to get out at all: age and its impediments being what they are. Learning to enjoy a window and a backyard as much as a hike in the woods isn’t easy, but it can be done.

    1. That line always makes me smile. I know the experience. Beyond that, “unsuitable” just amuses me as a word choice at that point. It’s almost prim; can’t you see the just-slightly-pursed lips?

  5. A poem that resonates. I imagine those who are very social will/are having a difficult time at this distancing thing. For myself, it doesn’t hamper the listening to birds, the watching of blooms. I’m fortunate to have this bit of space and am grateful, each day. Lovely photo, Linda!

    1. I’ve been pleased with my new digs from the beginning, but I’ve never been more pleased than in the past couple of weeks. While I don’t have that gorgeous garden of yours, I do have insects and birds and squirrels. Not only that, I’ve noticed my duranta putting on some new growth, and tonight I noticed some sort of woodpecker on one of the trees. I couldn’t get a closer look or a photo at the time, but the red head was obvious.

      We are fortunate, and like you, I’m grateful. The changes that have come are stunning in their suddennness, but there are grace notes if we listen.

  6. Wonderful!
    It’s funny – while I feel more isolated and occasionally antsy about my ability to get out and see people in theory, overall my life feels pretty much like it did before. A solo run or walk, reading, writing, working from home, more puzzles, more housework! I love the line about the unsuitable friends who are smilers and talkers; I’m always wrangling my way out of walking with friends for this very reason! (I do love them – just not on my walk or run, please!)

    1. It’s true that some routines are easier to bend into the new shape that life is taking. Those of us who are accustomed to working in solitude or pursuing interests that tend toward solitude, like your running, probably will have an easier time of it. I’m most worried about the economic dislocation so many will suffer, and the complications for so many high school and college students: especially those who need ‘hands-on’ time for projects that won’t be completed in time for them to graduate.

      The only thing worse that smilers and talkers are incessant gigglers and compulsive talkers: may we be spared such forever!

  7. Mary certainly knew what she was talking about here. There’s a time for being social and a time for being solitary. Nature is probably best enjoyed by being alone. Love her lines about hugging the tree and sitting motionless on a dune. She must have been a true introvert!

    1. Your comment about there being a time for being social and a time for being solitary seemed so familiar, but I couldn’t say why for a few minutes. Then I remembered: it could have come from Ecclesiastes 3:

      To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven:
      A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
      A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
      A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
      A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing…

      Oliver’s poetry suggests she knew both sides of many of these pairings, including your social/solitary. That may have been what contributed to her equanimity.

  8. Thank you!!! This poem spoke to my soul. I have never been touched so deeply. That’s ME! and how I feel in nature. I’m grounded when my feet are with nature.
    The other day Wylie and I were out walking, and as always everything was all right. The wheat fields are a beautiful green and lush, birds were singing, trees are leafing out…
    Thank you for such a beautiful post.
    Blessing and Peace

    1. For me, one of the best things about Mary Oliver’s poetry is that it can bring back memories of wonderful times in nature. You and Wylie have shared some wonderful days — no question about that. And best of all, even if he smiles from time to time, he’s not much of a talker! I hope the rest of your spring is beautiful, and that you have many, many days to enjoy it in good health.

  9. I love this poem. Us introverts, or those of us who are extroverted introverts, find the social distancing and isolation easier than others (but I do miss the hugs). I also miss the woods but our practice lately has been to go deep into the desert up against the mountains. I could not go alone, but even with four of us it’s a sacred quiet place, the only sound the million bees working the brittle bushes covering the rocky hillsides. We drove yesterday morning and I felt close to tears—so sad at the state of our world—came back tired but feeling more at peace.

    1. Obviously, the desert can function perfectly well as a metaphorical woods: as can a shoreline, a prairie, or a backyard garden. And just as certain sounds seem to deepen silence (think frogs at night), certain companions can heighten the pleasures of exploring the natural world. Of course, certain companions can get on one another’s nerves, too — yes? But the rewards of being able to share the mountains and the desert are so, so real.

  10. I like the idea of being able to go into the woods, but find that getting to a woods in which to walk is tricky. Doable, of course, but takes planning. I think of myself as Thoreau when I do get there. Now I shall also think of myself as Mary Oliver.

    1. If you don’t have a woods, search out a prairie, and if a prairie’s not close at hand, perhaps there’s a river bank, or a front yard just loaded with things to explore and enjoy. So what if the neighbors think you’ve gone over the edge, out there on your hands and knees talking to a ladybug? It’ll give them something to gossip about and ease the boredom of their quarantine!

      1. Actually we live on a heavily wooded lot on a ravine so I see the woods all the time, I just don’t go into it often. The hillside down to the ravine is too steep for me. However crawling around in the front yard is entirely doable.

        1. I suspect a couple of those pink drinks might make it even more fun. Maybe you could set a pitcherful on the curb and invite the neighbors to join in — at a proper distance, of course.

    1. I’m glad you do, Lavinia. It’s one of my favorites. I especially like the line about hearing the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing. I’d be willing to be that you’ve heard the roses sing a time or two.

  11. It is indeed a blessing to be an introvert in a time like this. Plus, my dog is thrilled at how much time I get to spend with him now! As horrifying as this all is, I’m grateful to have the obligations fall away as my studio beckons me with serenity. And the woods, of course.
    Mary Oliver’s poems always seem to say the perfect thing, don’t they?

    1. I’ve heard several pet owners comment about their dog or cat’s perplexity. It may be a happy perplexity, but still — having the human around all the time disturbs animal schedules, too: nap, eat, nap, nap, eat, nap. That’s how cats do it, anyway. Dogs may differ.

      I’ve always loved this poem, and have thought about using it from time to time, but just didn’t. Then, the time arrived, and it seemed perfect for what we’re experiencing. I would have preferred a different context for it, but here we are; thank goodness we have people like Oliver who can express things so well.

      1. And you~you always seem to put into words what I’m thinking but cannot seem to articulate. Yes, many times I’ve been grateful to Oliver.

  12. As you know, I love going into the woods alone. Social distancing comes easy for me. Coincidentally I just tweeted a photo of the expanse of nature and mountains just a stone throw from my home. And, Mary Oliver is an inspiration.

    1. I’d forgotten that you were on Twitter. I’ve found you, and refollowed. At once point I removed all my tweets and was ready to leave the site forever, but then I decided to stay. I almost never tweet, but I follow various weather people, county officials, and such. And now, you, too.

      I did see your photo, and that melting snow. Soon it will be even easier and more pleasant for you to visit the woods. The swallows have arrived here, and the white pelicans are one. It won’t be that much longer before they arrive in your part of the world.

      1. But this spring won’t be the same as before. Covid-19 has changed everything. We’re the epicentre of our Province with the most cases. Staying home most of the time cause even the woods now are crowded with people trying to get out of their homes to breathe some fresh air. This is the world war of our generation I’m afraid.

        1. I went out Saturday afternoon, and the places I went were quite deserted. Of course, it was cool, drizzly, and gloomy, so that probably played a role. Going to my favorite spots during the week may not be the answer for a while, since the distinction between weekday and weekend crowds may not be as substantial. There are a lot of unknowns, and only time will reveal what’s workable and what isn’t.

    1. None of us expected such a sudden, world-wide shift in how we live our lives. I’m especially grateful now that I moved when I did. With bird (and squirrel!) feeders part of my life now, there’s far more activity around here than there would have been at my old place, and despite the cancellation of festivals centered on the spring migration, the birds still will be arriving. That’s something that can provide pleasure, even at a distance.

    1. Indeed it is, and you’re well situated to be able to do some of that listening. I hope your world’s well supplied and peaceful, and that Elsa does her part to provide companionship — and amusement!

  13. I often go to the woods alone, and appreciate, and need that time. And sometimes I go with company, and that’s a different experience, and also great in its own way. Strolls in a park seem like they’re designed for companionship, and I hope, smiles and good talks.
    And maybe sandwiches.
    Which can also be a wonderful and poetic experience outdoors! :)
    In “Mont Blanc,” one of my favorite Shelley poems, he writes of receiving “fast influencings” and an outdoor walk, down a city street, or in a busy park, can really stimulate a good conversation, about human nature and eccentricities, if nothing else. But when you’re walking alone, and not distracted, you’re more open to all sorts of subtle influences from nature, that see, hear, or breathe in.
    And if you can find someone who’s content to enjoy a companionable silence, that’s wonderful too, a rare thing.

    1. You’re right that most of us need both solitude and companionship. Some are naturally inclined more toward one end of the spectrum or the other, although societal pressures (at least here in the U.S.) tend to push us toward herd behavior. That’s where perspectives like Mary Oliver’s can be so helpful, reminding us that there are options, and that some of them can be immensely satisfying.

      I’d never read “Mont Blanc.” A couple of things struck me immediately. The second section recalled Longfellow’s “Evangeline” — not the story line, of course, but pieces of description like this:

      Thy giant brood of pines around thee clinging,
      Children of elder time, in whose devotion
      The chainless winds still come and ever came
      To drink their odours, and their mighty swinging
      To hear—an old and solemn harmony…

      And of course there’s this ending:

      And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
      If to the human mind’s imaginings
      Silence and solitude were vacancy?

      Now I’m trying to decide what to take on that picnic lunch. I found a good Vermont cheddar and apples yesterday — there’s a start.

  14. This is the most beautiful poem. Oh, yes. She says it well. “If you have ever gone into the woods with me, I must love you very much.” That one takes my breath away.

    Thanks for this. This is far more meaningful than any Sunday morning homily could ever be.

    1. She does have a way of putting things, doesn’t she? There’s no avoiding the virus or its consequences for our lives, but it’s so important to keep a certain distance from it, too. I worry especially about the front-line health care workers — so dedicated, and so often confounded by political leaders with agendae but no expeience with in their fields. I hope they can find their moments in the woods, too — solace to keep them going.

  15. Thank you for helping me think about the current situation in new ways. To me, the words “social distancing” and “self-isolation” have somewhat depressing connotations; whereas, the word “solitude” gives me a sense of enjoyment and peace.

    1. I felt the same about those phrases as you, Sheryl. Another phrase that’s been used by some Houston area officials is ‘shelter in place.’ That’s equally unfortunate, since people usually are advised to shelter in place because of hurricanes or plant explosions; people are experiencing enough anxiety without bringing back memories of those events. No — there’s room in solitude for birdsong and roses: thank goodness.

  16. I love Mary Oliver. Her poetry is just so accessible and good! I really wish I had found some woods to be in yesterday – it was a glorious day. I did sit outside for much of it. Today is cool & drizzly. Ah well, there’s always next week.

    1. Lazing in the sunshine can be as good as a walk in the woods — just ask any cat! Add in a book or a bit of crochet, and time slows down, or disappears, and contentment sets in. We all need a little more of that, however we find it.

  17. I can see from the comments how much this selection from Mary’s work has resonated with folk.
    Indeed, I had to learn how to not self isolate for most of my life, so this is no hardship.
    I tried small group photo walks a couple of times, as part of my learning, but I never took a photo worth keeping. I am what I am.

    1. I tried some of those photo walks myself, and found them frustrating. Even going out with my camera and a friend can be problematic. It’s not the friend’s fault; the ones who go with me enjoy the outdoors and are patient as can be. Still, having the ‘vibes’ of another person around is distracting; I don’t see as well, or concentrate as fully. Now, Fred? Pixel? I think that might work out all right.

      1. When we lived on a large property we could do great walks together and no disturbance to my photography. These days with Fred mostly on a lead, I spend less time on shots, so have to adapt to that in other ways. Fred hears click of shutter and then is ready to move on, too smart!

    1. I just picked up some eggs from a friend this morning. When the grocery store shelves are empty, having a friend with chickens is a very good thing. And good for you, spreading that wealth around. A little boy I know swears that “home-made eggs” are better than store-bought, and he’s right.

      It’s been interesting to see so many more neighbors outdoors recently. Usually, it’s only been the dog-walkers, but more and more people are discovering that a little outside time is good. Would you be able to keep up your deliveries if the sort of “stay at home” order that we have here is instituted?

      1. Forrest is considered essential in his workplace, so he would still be able to sell at work. If not, people can come to the front gate for eggs. We don’t use nearly as many as we get, so just offering them to the neighbors is a good way to keep people nourished.
        I know farm-fresh eggs are better. In the winter when the hens don’t lay many eggs or during a molt, we have had to buy eggs from the grocery. Cracking an egg with a pale yellow yolk where the white runs in the skillet, kind of makes me sad. Ours have bright orange yolks and the white is firm. The only irritating thing is fresh eggs do not make for great hard-cooked, so peeling the shell off never yields pretty results! I’m glad you have friend with chickens! For us, having these extra eggs has helped us get to know a lot of neighbors. One neighbor has just had to take in their daughter and two grandchildren because of loss of work. Eggs might seem like a little thing, but they are a great source of nourishment and can be prepared so many yummy ways!

        1. It took me a while to learn why my fresh eggs weren’t peeling well. Now, I always set aside a dozen and let them age a bit before boiling. It helps considerably, and certainly reduces my frustation level.

        2. Also: one of my friends had to close his restaurant yesterday. The reasons are a little complicated, but what’s not complicated at all is that dozens of people — cooks, waitstaff, event managers, and so on — are now without work. It’s going to be an extraordinarily hard time on small businesses, and a lot will simply disappear.

  18. I think this is what we must do in these dark times. Get back to nature and enjoy what she has to offer. I can’t go to the woods, but I can go into my garden and take comfort in the activity there.

    1. That’s exactly why I included “gardens” in my post. Yosemite and the Pacific coast are what many people think of when they think of nature: grand, imposing, and large scale. But there’s a good bit happening in a garden, too, and it can be fascinating to watch.

  19. Enjoyed Mary’s poem, thank you for bring her to my attention. Reminds me of the words “be still and know”…

    1. Exactly — and learning to be still can be very, very difficult for some people. On the other hand, when we discover how full and satisfying stillness can be, practicing stillness gets easier.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, rethy. Things are a little complicated around here just now, but as we sort out new routines and find ways to nurture ourselves (poetry and nature being two!) life will settle into all the ‘newness’ that’s required. I hope you and yours are well!

  20. Ah, Mary Oliver. Know exactly what she was talking about. I’ve been known to stick my nose into tree bark and interrupt conversations with “Look! That’s a [something my companion cares not a whit about]” or “Did you hear that? That was a pileated woodpecker. Let’s look for it…it’s very near.” Only one companion has actually joined in the looking–and we saw it flitting in the trees. But perhaps we’re meant to go into the woods alone. Stay safe.

    1. I suspect many of us have had your experience. It can be disappointing to discover something wonderful, point it out, and have someone respond with a distracted, “Uh-huh…” That’s one reason I began Lagniappe, which is essentially a photo blog. It’s a way to share things I think are wonderful, with people who are a little more attuned to wonderfulness than some of my beloved but not nature-loving friends.

      1. On a pre-craziness hike with a friend I pointed out two women, one was focusing a camera on a flower and the other was standing with arms folded. I said, “Behold: plant people and non-plant people. One saying Look at this! and the other thinking not again…”

  21. Lovely poem that invites one to “try it you might like it.” I believe I could handle it for an hour or so. Then I’d be yelling “Mary Oliver, tell me again how nice this is. I need to know quickly, there are bugs in this tree bark.” Thanks for exposing me to her works. I do love them, as I sit here at the computer hearing my husband’s tv in the background, knowing I can get up and turn the thermostat up if I get cold.

    1. To each her own, as they say. Any exposure to and early love of nature I developed came thanks to my father. My mother couldn’t stand to get her hands dirty, which often meant she directed while Dad dug and planted our flowers and veggies.

      I’ll confess I used to regard certain creatures with enthusiastic “uggs,” but a little familiarity has bred some acceptance. I still can’t deal with millipedes, though. Well, or scorpions. I have my limits.

  22. Dear Linda
    I have to say I love this self-isolation. It gives me much more time for everything I love to do, more time to think, to write and being in my garden. Self-isolation shows me how many unnecessary social contacts I have normally and how much time they cost.
    Thanks for sharing this poem which reminds me of Thoreau
    and the rest of The Fab Four of Cley

    1. Klausbernd, a friend recently said that she expects life to be different for some people once we’re beyond the present difficulties. Many are tasting those joys you mentioned for the first time, or remembering them from the past, and some will reorder their priorities as a result.

      Now that things are sorting themselves out, we’re getting some clarity about what’s allowed and what isn’t. In truth, my daily routine isn’t much changed. Outdoor activity is being encouraged, which means that my work can go on — at least for those who aren’t nervous about spending discretionary income on a boat varnisher!

      I often think of Thoreau when reading Mary Oliver: also, Aldo Leopold and Ansel Adams, whom she greatly admired. They all provide wisdom for a time like this.

      I hope all is well with the Fab Four — my best wishes for an easy time for you!

      1. Dear Linda,
        in a way we are priveledged to experience a modern form of revolution. Our lifes will be different after this crisis. We change from experiencing reality more or less directly to experiencing virtual reality. That’s safer and more ecological. This will change our lifestyle quite basicly. Some people will cope with it easily and some will have their problems.
        Take care. Stay healthy and happy
        The Fab Four of Cley
        :-) :-) :-) :-)

        1. Speaking only for myself, I find the thought of an increasingly virtual world distasteful. That said, the truth is that while people speak easily of working from home and such, there are certain jobs that require a hands-on approach, and that’s not going to change any time soon. In the meantime, our first task is to get through the current unpleasantness! My best to you all!

  23. Thanks so much for that. I also love self isolation:

    “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
    -John Muir

    “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.”
    ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

    1. “Standing on the bare ground,–my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
      ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

    2. What wonderful quotations. The words of Muir reminded me of something Annie Dillard wrote:

      “Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

      And the Emerson, too, reminds me of Dillard:

      “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.”

      I don’t think there’s any doubt that Oliver and Dillard both knew the writing of these men; the echoes are everywhere in their work.

  24. My son couldn’t fall asleep last night. He’ll be four next week and was sad that he wasn’t a little baby anymore. After a good talk, the three of us, as his older sister slept, I read to him from Mary Oliver. Black Snake. The Hummingbird. Mockingbird.

    When it’s time to stay inside, as it is at bedtime, nature still soothes when captured and shared by one such as her.

    1. Some of my best memories are of being read to at bedtime. It’s such a simple thing, and yet so powerful. My love of reading surely was born of those bedtime stories, long before I ever entered a classroom. Your son (and his sister) are lucky that they’re being introduced to fine writing in such a warm and supportive way.

  25. What a lovely thing to share with us, what with all the stress and scary news we’re dealing with right now. It reminds us that the world will be there for us after this storm passes.

    1. Yes, it will. It’s there for us now, as a matter of fact. We’re just being forced to experience it a little differently than we usually do. One good note: people in my complex are getting to know their neighbors for the first time. Usually, it’s only the dog walkers that chat with one another, but now everyone’s out for walks; it’s rather nice, even at a distance of six feet.

    1. Your current photo of the mantis certainly shows a creature that seems to be unconcerned. Tonight, after an extended ‘getting to know you’ period, I walked out on my patio and surprised a squirrel busy with the peanuts. This time, he didn’t run — just gave me a look, and went back to noshing. Hand-feeding will happen eventually, I suspect.

      1. Our little red squirrels in Minnesota are so shy that I’ve only been able to hand-feed one (and yes, with peanuts). The chipmunks, on the other hand, are far easier to tantalize. There are (unfortunately, to my way of thinking) no squirrels here in New Zealand. But (also unfortunately) there are Australian possums, which efficiently devour songbird eggs, and other fauna, and other introduced predators, chief among which are feral cats. Sorry–don’t get me started!

  26. Lovely Mary. I really feel sorry for people who cannot tolerate solitude, for whom the quiet is unbearable. It is such a haven for me.

    1. Silence and solitude can be experienced as pure absence: no question about that. But generally, I’ve found silence to be resonant, and solitude a necessary partner to the experiences of life. Action and reflection belong together, and solitude allows for it.

  27. Personally, I find being outside to be the perfect way to cope with this social distancing. I feel so terribly sorry for Italians, as I heard as of yesterday they are no longer allowed to go outside for walks. I think their emotional health will really suffer from that one, and they’re so stressed already as their nation seems to be hit the hardest with this. Thanks for a calming and reassuring post!

    1. I’ve read a number of articles about the importance of spending time outside during this odd time in our lives. In fact, many of the governmental officials who’ve been responsible for the orders to isolate (however they choose to phrase it) also are encouraging use of outdoor facilities. While playgrounds or other facilities with equipment that could harbor the virus are closed, beaches, hiking trails, and such still are accessible; hiking, running, bicycling, and other outdoor activities are recommended as ways to deal with the new stresses we face.

      As for those times when calmness and reassurance are needed, better a few verses from Mary Oliver than any number of pronouncements from the ill-informed or agenda-driven.

    1. Your point about choice is exactly right. People begin to chafe when restrictions are imposed, unless the need for them is obvious and they’re well-presented. And cabin fever is more than metaphor: ask any northerner in serious snow county, or any coastal Texan in September, when the heat refuses to break. As for the news — much of it isn’t. Even our highway alert signs have moved from advising against texting to exhortations to wash our hands. Enough, already.

  28. As a child, I learned the beauty of going to the woods by myself, Linda. It is a lesson I have never forgotten. All nature seems to come alive when you sit quietly for a while. –Curt

    1. You just reminded me of lines from a favorite childhood hymn: “All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.” All that’s needed is someone willing to listen.

      1. Yes! I am sitting out on our back porch doing just that right now. Three flickers are twitterpated, a doe is grooming her teenage daughter, and western tanagers are bellying up to the bird feeder. Nature is doing her thing, and I am privileged to be a part.

  29. I‘ve wanted to read this poem again for a while, but l didn’t know where to find it – happily, you found it for me. So much of my life has changed in these strange times, but solitary walks in the woods (looking for mosses!) remains a steady habit. And one I can continue here in Massachusetts, unlike California, which is shutting down some access to open spaces.

    1. I’ve sometimes thought that looking for a ‘lost’ poem is akin to looking for a lost book in the house. It’s only after I stop searching that the thing turns up — I’m glad I turned this one up for you.

      Out of curiosity, I looked at a couple of the California orders, and noticed the differences between theirs and those in my counties: particularly, the affirmation for us that outdoor activities are not only permissible, but even advisable. Where constant sanitizing isn’t possible, as on children’s playgrounds, they’re closed, but hiking, biking, and other outdoor activities are fine. I’m glad you’re still able to get out. It’s a way to keep enjoying life, and perhaps preserving sanity.

        1. Ah. Well, we had some problems of that sort here, too. Before more stringent restrictions were imposed, there was concern about the crowds on Galveston Island, as well as at other spring break locations like Padre Island. Louisiana, and especially the New Orleans area, is rife with cases. It’s impossible not to wonder about the role that the huge crowds at Mardi Gras might have played.

    1. I just checked your school’s website, and see that you’ve been closed down. For some reason, I was surprised to see so many cases in the province. I suppose we’re hearing so much about things here in the U.S. there’s no time for news about Canada — although I’m sure our bordering states are more aware of how things are.

      It made me especially sad to see the concerts cancelled. There are ways to continue classwork online, but there’s no good substitute for singing. I presume even rehearsals are cancelled now.

      We are being allowed and even encouraged to participate in outdoor activities: albeit as individuals or in very small groups. Some have taken to the water in their boats — how long until yours can go back in the water? There’s some sanity there, too.

      1. All of my classes have gone online, which has been a learning curve, and not ideal. But at least the students can keep their studies going. I just got a note from the marina, and our boat launch -in for early May will likely be late May or early June. Everything is up in the air – aside from my boat which is decidedly in its cradle!

            1. Just click on the link! (It works for me — sometimes YouTube links don’t work in Canada. Who knows why? It’s Jimmy Buffett’s “I Love the Now.”)

  30. Yes, I love, too, the solitude and sounds of the woods when I’m there alone, but no longer have the opportunity to indulge myself in going there — and the sounds of streams rushing by.

    1. The sound of water always appeals. We’re a little short on pleasant, rushing streams here, since our bayous flow flat, and muddy, and not much given to any sort of sound unless there’s been a storm. But in the hill country, where elevation changes affect the flow, it’s lovely.

      You’ve reminded me of a favorite Wendell Berry poem titled “Our Real Work” that also suits the times:

      It may be that when we no longer know what to do
      we have come to our real work,
      and that when we no longer know which way to go
      we have come to our real journey.
      The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
      The impeded stream is the one that sings.

  31. Her words and emotion ring true for me. I choose my wooded rambles based on lack of visitation by others. The experience of the woods needs silence, in my opinion, otherwise so much is missed. Senses are distracted if one is called to the front. Solitude allows them all equal time.

    Your image depicts a scene I enjoy finding…a cluster of trees set apart from the background by a little distance. Sometimes the separation isn’t there but you captured it in this shot.

    1. What an interesting thought — that all of the senses become engaged in silence. That’s true. Perhaps the simplest example is being with someone given to chatter while outdoors. There’s no way to hear a dove taking off, or the rustle of a lizard in the grass, if someone’s always talking.

      The photo’s from that lily pond lake I mentioned: the one next to the rare plant preserve. In fact, all those little white spots are water lilies. I found the first ones of the season near a Brazoria County bayou on Saturday — a photo will appear. It was a gray, gloomy day, but a water lily’s a water lily!

  32. There is a big difference between social distance that is imposed and that which is freely chosen, isn’t there. I often like the latter, but now when it’s almost mandatory I want to break out of isolation. I still understand the need for the society to impose regulations in these times. Hope you are still doing good and staying safe, Linda.

    1. I read just this morning the comments of someone who had chosen to self-isolate. She was perfectly fine with it, until two days later, when the government mandated the same behavior she already was engaging in — and she suddenly felt constricted and angry. I’m being cautious, and really have no need to visit stores, but last night I went on a mission. An aunt who lives in the Kansas City area hasn’t been able to find a certain candy she likes, so I went to our local drugstore to see if I could find it there. I did, and today I’ll mail it to my aunt, who’s 93 and pretty much locked down. Was it worth going out to a store “just for candy”? It sure was, and I’m still alive!

      1. It makes a big difference, mentally, whether isolation is self-imposed or ordered by authorities. Nevertheless, in these times we need to respect whatever decisions come from health authorities. We should still be critical, but not dumb. And I think, taking care of each other and particular the old and vulnerable is worth taking the “risk”.

        1. You make an important point — particularly, that the advice of health authorities should be primary. Political leadership doesn’t always have the needed expertise to advise the public on health issues; they need to recognize that, and not promote other agendae.

    1. It is a wonderful poem, isn’t it? We’ll all get through this, and even though I suspect much will have changed by the time it’s either “over” or we’ve adjusted, the world will continue to offer itself to us for our pleasure. Wishing you and Marla all the best — I know your enjoyment will continue, unabated.

  33. I liked ‘the almost / unhearable sound of the roses singing’ and the last stanza. Reading through some of your responses prompted me to think of T.E. Lawrence’s anthology ‘Minorities’ and his comment about how when choosing the types of poems he included in it, he didn’t ‘put brain-work above feeling’.

      1. No, that’s new to me, but it made me smile. I suspect I’ve been tying some of Shakespeare’s sonnets to a chair over the last few weeks and will take note to treat them in a more mannerly fashion from now on.

      2. Thanks, Linda, for the references to the poems and poets above. Such loveliness.
        I’m afraid I have that annoying tendency to beat a poem with a hose…I don’t tie it down though and before long it gets away from me, and the inevitable bafflement sets in, and I cease and desist from my chase!
        (Until the next time.)
        But hopefully I’m not at the same time completely blind to the poem’s beauty and spirit.
        Stay well!

  34. Personally, I crave some alone time each day! That being said, having the choice taken away is stressful. But I remind myself that it’s temporary and for a good cause, and also that I don’t live entirely alone. I feel sorry for those who do, and hope we all remember to reach out to them. And here’s to a time it will be our own choice again, which will surely come!

    1. The freedom to choose the degree of solitude we enjoy certainly is a gift. Take it away, and life can feel out of kilter very quickly. As for living alone, the elderly and disabled in that situation have some complications to deal with, but I also think of entire families who suddenly are having to cope with working from home, online classes, and such. Togetherness is a wonderful thing, but unplanned-for and mandatory togetherness can bring its own stresses — as you know!

  35. My talks are solitary walks and always were.. I’d take my dog but she never chattered, she was too busy following her own thoughts.
    Mary Oliver is a friend I search for in times of the greatest need, there is solace to be found.
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful is many of us recovered this sense of solitude for good, not just now. Our precious world would only benefit.

    1. I think Millie would have been the very best sort of walking companion. Dixie Rose, not so much. There’s a fellow here who walks with his cat on a leash, and I know a few people who walk with their cats off leash, but dogs are much better for walkies.

      It seems to me that the value of solitude may be newly appreciated, but there’s another effect of all this that’s very interesting: neighbors who’ve never seen one another are getting acquainted. The urge to connect seems to be stronger; partly because so much of our ‘busy-ness’ is no longer possible. We’ll see. At minimum, we may come to appreciate a quieter, less frenetic world.

  36. I can SO relate to Mary Oliver’s reflections, Linda. Occasionally I bird with friends, but I have my most wonderful experiences when I am in nature by myself. Thank you for sharing this poem.

    1. I just don’t think it’s possible to focus in the same way when others are around. It can be great fun to go out with friends on exploratory trips, but one thing I’ll sometimes do is go one day with a friend or friends, and then go back by myself the next day. It’s easier with flowers, of course. They tend to stay put from one day to the next, absent any mowers or other unusual disturbances.

        1. Exactly so! I just heard today that there’s a new bit of jargon going around: ‘ambivert.’ It apparently means someone with tendencies toward both introversion and extroversion. I’m not sure we need the new jargon, but it’s a fact that there are times for solitude and times for community.

    1. Like a good song, a Mary Oliver poem can do many things: provoke, soothe, amuse, heal. We’re lucky to have these resources to draw on. I hope all’s well in your world, Thom, and that you and yours are keeping safe.

  37. Thanks so much, Linda, for sharing this lovely poem of Mary Oliver’s. Beautifully written, as are all her poems. You bring it to us at the perfect time. My warmest thanks. Best wishes to you, Linda, during this peculiar time.

    1. This is a peculiar time, for sure. Your word choice seemed perfect, and I wasn’t sure why, so off to the Online Etymology Dictionary I went, and what I learned surprised me.

      The use of ‘peculiar’ to mean ‘strange’ dates to about the 1600s. Before that? In the mid-15th century, it meant ‘belonging exclusively to one person.” It came from Old French peculiaire and directly from Latin peculiaris — ‘of one’s own (property)’ — a word rooted in peculium or ‘private property.’ The literal meaning was property in cattle: from pecu (cattle or flock), related to pecus, or ‘cattle.’

      In these days when so much activity is meant to be undertaken exclusively as a lone person, and entreaties to stay on one’s own property are everywhere, ‘peculiar’ really is the right word for our time. I’m glad you enjoyed Mary Oliver’s poem, and I’m glad you sent me off on a little learning excursion!

  38. I enjoy Oliver as well. The woman who edited my Lake Poems manuscript loaned me her Dog Songs book because she thought many of my lake poems were complimentary to Oliver’s style. I’ve been writing darker stuff about the virus lately and working to complete the third draft of my novel. Happy writing!

    1. I’ve only read one or two bits from Dog Songs, mostly because I’m more of a cat person, I suppose. I ought to give it a read, though. If nothing else, it might make a great gift for some of the dog lovers I know.

      As for writing darker stuff, you certainly did succeed with the poem you recently posted. I suppose if I were to say anything to some of the preppers and virus-avoiders, it would be the same thing I’d say to some of the younger generation who want rooms filled with Teddy bears and soft music: there isn’t any wholly safe space in this world, and the sooner we learn to cope with that fact, the happier we’ll be.

  39. Thank you for more from Ms. Oliver — to whom, I believe — you introduced me. I’m hopelessly behind in following what you’ve been writing. “Distracted” is my only rationalization.

    1. There’s a lot of distraction going around these days, Brad. I’ve been suffering myself, but I’m hoping to get back on a more predictable writing schedule. New routines are hard to establish, and of course there’s a world of difference between self-chosen solitude and imposed isolation. Yesterday, it occurred to me that a lot of people will have as much trouble re-adapting to ‘normalcy’ when it arrives as we’re having adjusting to our new circumstances. Being thrown back into classrooms, or into offices with those irritating cubicle mates may not be as easy as we think!

      1. Both things you say have occurred to me. The Counselor and I innately spend a considerable amount of time at home, since we work from here. But there’s a big difference in eliminating a jaunt to the store for that ONE thing or a drive to the busy walk along the ocean bluffs and nearby park. And, yes, getting back to some structured routine involving work, school, will be hard for others. I know you’ll bring that considerable intelligence and resilience to bear!

  40. Here’s a little quatrain, an early verse by Archibald Lampman, “Why Do Ye Call the Poet Lonely”:

    Why do ye call the poet lonely,
    Because he dreams in lonely places?
    He is not desolate, but only
    Sees, where ye cannot, hidden faces.

    1. That’s lovely, and so appropriate. Somehow it triggered the memory of this, from Tolkien:

      All that is gold does not glitter,
      Not all those who wander are lost;
      The old that is strong does not wither,
      Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
      From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
      A light from the shadows shall spring;
      Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
      The crownless again shall be king.

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