Nature’s Brutality in the Poetry of Mary Oliver

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Books, Kristen McCarty, Poetry, Religion | Posted on 20-10-2008

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by Kristen McCarty

"That God had a plan, I do not doubt.
But what if his plan was, that we would do better?"
                                    -Mary Oliver

In Mary Oliver's world of words and visions, Mother Nature is no comforting dowager. Brutal and at times devastating, nature in all her forms is as dangerous as it is inspiring, but that doesn't keep the poet from being fiercely protective of it.

Instead of trying to explain away the harsh realities of life as many poets and theologians have done before her, Oliver marvels at the fittest, who survive, and the death of their fallen prey. Admiring the lives of both predator and prey, she wrestles with which one she should feel sympathy for. Always present in her poems is the pull to understand a multitude of perspectives, which is a poet's highest work. We read poetry for many reasons, but to read Mary Oliver is to discover new idea after new idea, beautifully and originally phrased. These ideas change the way we think about ourselves and creation—enhancing the complexity of things often oversimplified.

She maintains that even in places of death, and aging, and destruction in the natural world, God whispers of transcendence and meaning. Loneliness and even helplessness are places where God keeps watch. Perhaps the state of our minds and souls, mirrors the state of Nature itself. We are hurt, misguided, lied-to and lying, we seem to be diminishing even as we rise, and all of this is a place where God waits for us to step forth—doing the right and holy thing for ourselves and others and the world around us.

Nature, who both hurts and heals, full of places in the wild where the beautiful crying forth of the ideas of God suffuses every moment. Lucky for us, the poet transcribes some of these ideas for us in her writing, but in Mary Oliver's world, the greatest crime against God would be to neglect to live and appreciate the natural world around us.

A Letter to Wendell Berry

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Books, Community, Family, Farming, Home and Garden, Kristen McCarty, Music | Posted on 26-09-2008

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Dear Mr. Berry,

Your
words gradually called myself and my husband from our city life, from
the tar and concrete roads, from long lines of cars and fumes, the
grind of engines marking the country like an audible map, from the
soul-splitting everywhere noise, from conveniences such as Wal-Mart and
fast food restaurants on every corner, to the beauty of a farm near
nothing and no place. Eyes and mind opened by your words and ideas, we
began to dream our own inescapable dream. We could not ignore or forget
the truth we found in your poems such as The Want of Peace and The Peace of Wild Things.

We
found a lovely bit of land. We designed a simple farmhouse and built it
together- singing through exhausting weekends and late nights to
complete it. Every board was chosen and nailed with love and joy and
frugality. My husband has built almost every piece of furniture in our
house, and I have sanded and stained and finished it. I want to live on
this land and in this house for the rest of my life. (Love has
conceived a house, and out of its labor brought forth its likeness- the
emblem of desire, continuing though the flesh fall away.
) Our porch
faces west, and in mornings and evenings we often sit and eat, talk and
read together or just enjoy a comfortable silence, and look down the
hill to our vegetable garden, a greenhouse, a clothesline, a chicken
house and a trail of walnut trees and a creek. (How fine to have a
long-legged house with a many glassed window looking out on the river-
and the wren singing on a winter morning
!) Our daughter and our
chickens run wild together through the yard and this summer they
learned to share watermelon with one another.

We
consider ourselves Mad Farmers, and we often chant to ourselves, as
well as his other words of wisdom, his Liberation Front. We consider
ourselves the keepers and protectors of our 12.5 acres of land, and do
our best to live the story of Eden in reverse. We are healed by putting
our hands in the dirt. Our faith is renewed by the seeds we plant. We
are driven wild with joy when we carry our fruits and vegetables into
the house to eat and share with friends. This is our third year of
farming- and every year we learn a little more about what we are doing.
We have had to learn mostly from books as no one we know can teach us.
The first time my husband killed a chicken, he held the book open with
his boot and followed the directions as he went about his work. This
summer we learned to can and preserve our produce, and our shelves of
jars are the prettiest thing I have in my house.

We
now have pigs, chickens, goats, turkeys, two hives of bees and a very
lazy cat. We milk our goats and gather our chickens' eggs. Our two year
old daughter loves to help, and I can't wait to teach her about the
miracle in a tiny seed. We wish there was a way we could support
ourselves totally by the farm, but at this point we haven't figured
that out, so for now Micah builds and I nurse. Then we farm and parent
as well.

I was twenty-four when I discovered your writing when a friend handed me Jayber Crow. That's where it all began. From there, I went on to your poetry, much of which I now have in my mind and heart. Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community was next, and I cannot say how helpful it was to read that so close after 9/11. Most recently, I finished The Memory of Old Jack,
and to date, though I am a voracious reader and lover of literature and
poetry, I have never read anything that created a desire in me to
improve my character and live a better and more meaningful life. We
have had to buy multiple copies of your books so we could loan them
freely and unbegrudgingly to friends who now love them as well.

We got married when we were twenty-one, and being young with many horrible reflections of marriage in the culture around us, The Country of Marriage
was invaluable to us. I cried the first time I read the section that
begins, "Our bond is no little economy, based on the exchange of my
love and work for yours…" I immediately sought out my husband, sat him
down and read it to him. Soon after, I had it memorized, and I know
that it has reminded me of precious and wise things at life-changing
moments throughout our marriage.

One
of our favorite sayings is, "Practice resurrection." A musician friend
of ours (Tim Youmans) wrote a beautiful song with the same title and
sentiment in mind. These words are helpful in a world that at times can
drive me to despair and tempts me to hopelessness. To be sane in a mad
time is bad for the brain and worse for the heart- yet still we carry on and do the small work we can do.

The
world is indeed a holy vision, and we work each day for the clarity to
see it. We have lived through many personal tragedies in the past few
years. Many mornings joy did not come. But we thank you and thank God
for opening our hearts to what the world and the soil can teach us
about ourselves, God and man. Thank you for your words that have
changed our lives.

Peace
and joy and healing to you as you practice resurrection. Perhaps we
will meet someday in that other Kingdom and sit and talk for a while
after our day's work is done-

With love,

Kristen McCarty