Tag Archives: Nature

Hiker’s Zen

We don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian Pipe plants along the trail and say, “that’s not good enough.”

I don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian pipe plant along the trail and say, “That’s not good enough.”

I like to mediate in the morning. I don’t have a shrine or even a particular belief system that I’m meditating for. I just get up early, sit down on a pillow on the floor of my dimly lit living room, pull my legs into a half-lotus position, and focus on breathing. I focus more on breathing out fully, as the inhale seems to take care of itself. I try to keep good posture, as if my body was suspended from a string affixed to the top of my skull (I read somewhere this is a good way to think of it). Sometimes it’s hard: my legs ache, my back aches. But I try to come to the meditation as if I’m going hiking on some new trail. Maybe this sounds strange; let me explain.

When I go for a hike, especially on a new trail, I don’t expect things to look a particular way. I set out walking to see what is there. Sometimes the trail will be flat and easy, sometimes rocky and full of ups and downs. Sometimes there will be water, other times I’ll see a moose. I don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian pipe plant along the trail and say, “That’s not good enough.” I say, “Oh, look, an Indian Pipe!” When I come to a bridge over a babbling stream, I don’t think, “I wish this stream were deeper and those rocks were more angular!” The stream has a natural beauty however it is. The trees are in just the right places. The grass is just the right color.

This is how I think about meditation, only instead of a trail, I’m moving through my internal landscape. It’s full of strange thoughts, old memories that rise to the surface like water from a spring. I encounter fears and aspirations, feelings of pride and embarrassment, high-priority items on my to-do list. Meditation is my time to let go of the attachments I bring to all these things. I see them, but I don’t assign them a particular value and don’t let them create anxiety inside me.

Some days I get stuck on an idea, and I don’t feel my meditation went very well, but then I remember that I’m just taking a hike. Some days on a hike, it’s cold and snowy, but who could deny that a snowy hike is as wonderful as a sunny one? Some days it rains, turning the lichen on the rocks a brighter green and making the leaves glisten like jewels. You wouldn’t think, “I wish these leaves would shine brighter and the rain make a sweeter music.” It doesn’t make sense. The mountain peaks we see on our hikes are rough and asymmetrical, but they are perfect. There is no argument against their form.

In life, every day we judge our actions and the actions of those around us. It’s very hard not to. But the idea of the hike can be useful here, too. On a hike you might twist an ankle far from shelter. You might get lost, or a big storm might make it hard to find the way. You could call this bad luck. Still, when you’re alone in nature, there is nothing to do but face the difficulty. You can get angry or scared, but for what? You have a challenge, and how you feel about it won’t change that. In fact, your strong feelings about things can be harmful, as panic tricks you into working against your own best interests.

Climbing a mountain is a big challenge, but we don’t resent the mountain. We look inside ourselves for the right mindset to go up, to deal with the difficulties we meet along the way. The challenge is actually what we love. Why should we see the other challenges in our life so differently?

A Trip to the Zoo

JKR_9201_sm

I went to the zoo this weekend, and as always I departed feeling a little ambivalent. When you see creatures like leopards, lemurs, elephants, and apes in those drab enclosures, mere simulacra of their natural habitats, it’s hard not to feel sorry for them. I doubt any faux rock cliff or pool of hose water will ever fully engage their wild intelligences. As I wandered the paved footpaths between continent-themed enclosures, I remembered how my sensitive, vegetarian friend Ben used to call zoos “animal jail.”

On the other hand, these creatures are safe — from predators, from food pressure, from droughts, from us. And isn’t safety what we humans have been striving for since the very start? Our drive to find shelter and protection, to isolate ourselves from the constant threats of the world (coupled with an overdeveloped prefrontal cortex), is the very thing that’s made us so successful on this planet. Maybe it’s because we’ve grown comfortable in our world of boxes that we feel animals will take some sanguine comfort in a zoo’s protection.

But why then do most of us assign a certain sadness to animals in zoos? Is it because we grok that it’s a fine line between being protected and being trapped? Personally, when I feel that boundary growing threadbare, a trip into the mountains becomes particularly important to my sanity. I can only imagine how the silverback gorilla feels as he peers through the glass day after day, at the gallery of baby strollers and hairless apes with cameras, while waiting for his food to be delivered.

A mother tending lovingly to her young, a playful polar bear, a sad-looking gibbon — you can hear the children exclaiming in surprise how the animals are just like people. Through the fences and over moats, the creatures in the zoo always seem to remind us of ourselves, but rarely do we invert that logic and draw the conclusion that we are like them. Or not so much like them as are them.

Granted, it can be a problematic perspective to take. After all, when the boundary between “us” and “them” grows blurry, so do many things we hold to be self-evident. Better to do as I did and gaze with wonder at that enormous, flat face in the glass, with its black leather skin and dense fur and searching eyes, and then get back in your little box of glass and steel and drive away.

Walking on Lava: A Pedestrian Lesson from Hawaii

Lava sunset

Take the helicopter tour, one friend suggested. You can hire a boat that takes you right up to where the lava meets the sea, someone else offered. But when the guy at the hotel info desk mentioned a walking tour to see the Mauna Loa lava flows in Kalapana, on the Big Island of Hawaii, my wife and I decided immediately and in unison that was the way for us.

We signed up for the tour and drove the Saddle Road to the town of Hilo, on the other side of the island (walking this leg of the journey would have taken days — a little long for this trip). We ascended nearly 7,000 feet on the drive, passing over the southern flank of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world provided you measure from its base on the sea floor, and through several different climate zones along the way.

In rainy Hilo, we met our tour guide, a young blond girl from Massachusetts who’d just graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in volcanology. We were the only two on the tour that day. We followed our guide to the lava viewing area just outside of Volcano National Park, parked our cars, and started to walk.

Walking is by definition a human-scale endeavor, measured in footsteps. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking,” Nietzsche said, and maybe there’s something to this. I certainly use walking to clear my head when things get too crowded up there. Thomas Jefferson praised walking as a key to good health for the body and the mind. A slow amble puts us down in the landscape, on intimate terms with the real cost of getting from here to there. On foot, we get to experience the fine textures and details of a journey.

We crossed the expansive lava fields, our shoe soles the only barrier between skin and blasted black landscape. We trod on the cracked and crazed mounds of lava rock, wove in an out of big broken domes called tumuli, crunched over the fragile folds of ropy pahoehoe. The trek offered a sense of what the beginning — or maybe the end — of the world might look like.

Our guide stopped and knelt carefully. The ground was mostly silica, and can cut with a touch. She pinched what looked like a fine, straw-colored hair between thumb and forefinger.

“Have you heard of Pele’s hair?” she asked, handing me the fragile strand. “It’s lava that gets spun out by the wind and cooled into a thread… Who knew Pele was a blond?”

Three miles over this terrain and we felt it in our legs and ankles. Each step landed on a different texture or angle. In the distance, a plume of pure white steam rose from the lava entry at the water’s edge. We walked by homes and vehicles that had become embedded in the lava flows. Studded with little bursts of red flower, an ohia tree 10 feet tall stood as a measuring stick to the decades since the lava had passed that spot.

An hour and a half into the hike, we came to the sea cliffs. Here, molten stone broke through a burnt veneer and globbed into the foamy, chaotic surf, generating steam billows that rose up and black sand particles that filtered down.

“There aren’t many places you can see new land being created like this,” our tour guide said with a geologist’s indefatigable reverence.

Nearby, we found a fresh “toe” of lava that had broken through its crusty containment and bulged up and out, folding over onto itself repeatedly, like glowing red layers of hot fudge. It quickly cooled and sealed over, only to break through again. We poked it with long sticks, which burst into flame on contact. Our shoe rubber grew soft.

On the way out, it started raining, offering a welcome coolness. The sun set behind the shoulder of Mauna Loa and we clicked on our headlamps. Certainly, the different perspectives of a boat or a helicopter would have been interesting, more cinematic maybe, but we already observe so much of our world through screens and windows. Better, we thought, to go face to face with the lava fields — slow, with effort, scorched and soaked and awed by the primordial beauty of it all.

Walking is not the fastest way or the easiest way to do just about anything. Humans have invented countless modes of conveyance to spare ourselves from the drudgery of conducting our many chores and journeys on foot. But in this age of acceleration and expediency, walking remains important. It gives us a chance to think or, if walking with another, to discuss, unhurried by the relentless ticking of The Clock.

We returned to our cars in the drizzling darkness, dreading the drudgery of the slow, winding drive back across the island, but happy that we’d chosen to go by foot. Walking is a great reminder that the journey is, at the very least, as important as the destination… If there even is such a thing as a destination, after all.

 

Bouldering Alone

When from our better selves we have too
Been parted by the hurrying world, and
Sick of its business, of its pleasures
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude

— William Wordsworth, The Prelude

LCC_solo

For the most part, climbing is a pursuit of two or more individuals—climber and belayer is a typical arrangement—and many a word has been written about this unique relationship. Among climbers, few things are held in higher regard than the so-called brotherhood of the rope, the mutual trust and interdependence of two people whose fates are literally tied together. (On the other side of this equation, few things are less appealing than partnering with one you do not fully trust or respect, or with whom you share no natural connection or understanding. At best, such a pairing is annoying; at worst it’s dangerous.)

Bouldering is a particularly social sort of climbing. Many boulderers feed off the energy of a small crew and push higher and harder when cheered on by others. It is not uncommon for a herd of boulderers to descend on an unassuming rock, liberally pad every inch of exposed ground, flick on an iPod speaker, and commence to crack some brewskis. Such gatherings are as much about hanging out as they are about climbing, which is all well and good, but…

But bouldering is also a perfect activity for those seeking solitude, as long as you can manage to find some rock away from the crowds, which isn’t always easy. In such settings, I seek reprieve from the ceaseless piling on of responsibilities that grows only heavier as years advance. A man “must sequester and come again to himself,” writes Montaigne in his essay “Of Solitude.” For me, few things are as suited this task as a cool day among the smaller stones, the trees and sky, where the only sound of humanity is the distant passing of a car, or not even that, if I am lucky.

One short week has passed since images of the bomb-ravaged Boston Marathon and the smoking ruins of a Texas fertilizer plant filled the news. Only a few months since the Newtown school shooting. North Korea continues to posture, Guantanamo is still open, the drones are buzzing, the gun lobby screeching, half the nation cries for one thing while the other half cries for the opposite. Deaths in the family, work overflows its nine-to-five boundaries, the lawn needs mowing, the dog wants a walk… sometimes, I find, a solo mission to the boulders is as necessary as sustenance or sleep.

I drive into the canyon known as Little Cottonwood, its spring-lush slopes littered with pale granite blocks cast off from the soaring slabs above. A slow Sunday, cool and breezy, I park on the snaking road’s narrow shoulder and wander into the trees, just as two other climbers take their leave for the day.

Perfect.

I lay down my old crash pad, faded by sun and chalk dust and beaten soft by the repeated compression of falling bodies. There is no one here for me to converse with or consider. The air is free of ego or competitive spirit, of the half-urge to make a connection or ask some question.

Alone, the simple acts, typically done with haste and mind churning on some distant task, expand to fill my consciousness. Tying my laces, arranging the pad with the predicted plumb line of my fall, placing the pointed toe of my climbing shoe on a little cluster of crystalline points. Without distraction, I explore the granite texture with my fingertips and consider its implications. I begin to puzzle out these physical koans, minutely controlling seldom-used muscle groups and the position of limbs in space. Such thought just to move! But the mind can only get you so far; the body must come to its own understanding.

A quick rest. Chalk particles dance in an angled bar of sun. I taste my water, lukewarm and metallic as it rolls from the lip of this old stainless steel bottle. Thoughts traverse the space of my mind, twirling, frictionless, and disappear. I reside in each dust-laced breath like a yogi. Maybe on this day I climb better than usual. Maybe I complete the climb I’ve been working on…

Or not. Either way. In solitude, it’s easier for everything to be just right, or to be alright with everything.

But the real trick is to carry that self-contained peace of solitude back into the world of people, to hold it, undisturbed like a fragile, gem-like flame in the wind and chaos. That’s the long game, but in the meantime, a quiet wood and a fine chunk of granite to puzzle over will do.

 

 

The Importance of Respect

respect

The first precept of karate is that it begins and ends with a bow of respect. If you respect your opponent, you respect yourself. If you respect yourself, you respect your opponent. Similarly, one of the four principles at the heart of the Japanese tea ceremony, rooted in Zen, is Kei, or respect

I don’t physically bow to the rock before I climb, but perhaps I should start. I’m sure it would draw some funny looks, but it would also be a good reminder of what I’m doing there in the first place: looking for a challenge to help me deepen my knowledge of self and broaden my understanding of the possible.

When mountaineers speak of conquering or doing battle with a mountain or using siege tactics, they use the language of colonialism and war. They confuse the matter by implying that there is some sort of victory or ownership to be won on a peak. Words are easily disregarded as mere labels, but they influence our thoughts and our perspective even as we speak them. When a climber says he wants to “crush” or “take a dump on” a climb, it is funny in one regard, not serious. But on another level, it makes it harder to come to the climb with respect.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a great lover of nature. He saw it as our first teacher and a mirror to the self. “Nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part,” he wrote in his oration “The American Scholar.” “One is seal, and one is print. Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind.” Climbing is an intimate interaction between human and stone — it teaches us through direct experience. Rock and body, nature and mind — all spring from the same source. When we puzzle out the lessons of the stone, we can’t help but learn something of ourselves.

Or at least, we can learn something if we approach the matter with an empty cup. When we come to a climb without respect or an interest in learning, we see nothing but a goal to be achieved. In such a state, we might wish to skip to the end by any means, as a child who moves his piece to the final square of a board game and mistakes himself the winner. We might want to announce our accomplishment or log it on a scorecard, but what we have really learned cannot be verbalized or assigned a numerical value.

I have never physically bowed to a rock, but perhaps I should start. Or at least make the bow in my mind. If nothing else, such a gesture will serve to remind me why I am here in the first place.

Hueco Lessons

Hueco Tanks

I tendered my resignation via email from the computer in the Hueco Rock Ranch.

The year was 2007, and I found myself stranded in the Texas desert. My flight back to Ohio, back to my job writing words I didn’t mean for companies I didn’t care about, had been delayed due to ice storms slicking the country’s midsection. The upshot was a few extra days spent among the cactus and creosotebush, honey mesquite and soaptree yucca. I got to see the rock art of Cave Kiva and the Starry Eyed Man with his unique green pigment. With held breath, I spied a family of mowhawked javelina trotting through low vegetation. From the front deck of the Rock Ranch, I regarded the star-sprayed flank of the universe, sublime in the crystalline February night, and the neon yellow and orange sunrise in the morning. As I climbed, my bones and sinew played a tune on the textures of eons-old syenite porphyry like the needle of a music box clicking over its patterned wheel.

How could I go on doing something that didn’t inspire me in a world where places like this exist? I knew I had to make my way towards something more fulfilling, even if that meant multiplying the uncertainty in my life. I sat down at the small desk by the door of the Ranch and clacked together an explanation of my decision for my boss, certain in a way I rarely have been in my life.

What I take from this story is the power of a place like Hueco, where all kinds of time — geologic, cultural, and personal — intersect on an extra-dimensional plane not unlike “The Dreaming” aboriginal Australians speak of. I’ve felt a similar intensity of being in places all over the country and the world. Looking out over the autumn fire of trees gone red, yellow, and orange in the Shawangunks in upstate New York; staying in the deserted Mount Stapylton Campground in Australia’s Grampians National Park; hiking the serpentine trails of Antelope Island, populated with long-eared jackrabbits, bison, and antelope like some sort of parallel reality afloat in a great saline lake.

In a 2012 New York Times article, Eric Weiner talks of “thin places” — spots where the atmosphere separating heaven and earth narrows so much we can see to the other side. In such locales, Weiner writes, “for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again.”

“Thin places are often sacred ones,” the article goes on. It lists churches and mosques rich with history. Other thin places on Weiner’s list include airports, bars, Rumi’s tomb, the Buddhist village of Boudhanath, in Nepal… All very human places — places made by our hands and our conscious ingenuity. I too have felt a transcendental pulse in such places, but more often I find it in coördinates that evince little trace of human busywork.

This year I returned to Hueco for the first time since I wrote my resignation email. As I circumnavigated the giant jumble of textured stone known as East Mountain, our tour guide offered to take us to another of the area’s ancient petroglyphs.

“Can we please hurry up and get to the rocks you climb instead of the rocks with drawings on them?” said one of the other climbers on the tour, sounding like a spoiled kid. It pulled me out of the moment and reminded me that we climbers must approach the beautiful places where we ply our trade with eyes, minds, and hearts open. From the most broke dirtbags to the richest trustafarians, we do ourselves and each other a disservice when we climb with nothing but the masturbatory self-satisfaction of ticking projects in our hearts. We must remember that reverence and respect don’t stifle the mood of climbing but deepen it. In an era of rapid growth in our little sport, the time to live and teach this lesson is evermore upon us.

At Hueco, regulations abound. You can’t climb until the park is open and you must be out before 6 p.m. You need guided tours to travel in most of the park and must reserve spots for self-guided tours in the rest. Newcomers are required to watch a 20-minute instructional video before entering the park and several of the most popular areas — the Mushroom Boulder being only the most recent — are closed indefinitely to protect the fragile environment and cultural artifacts. Climbers, like artists, are an individualistic bunch. We chafe against rules and restrictions — I’m certainly no exception, but I also believe in the strange magic of places like Hueco. For me, the thing that makes such places thinner than the those I inhabit on a day-to-day basis is their natural state, the possibility of solitude, and the lingering echoes of eons past.

As climbers, we find ourselves in such places more often than most, and more than most we should respect and defend them. Thin places are keys to understanding important things, though what those things are differs greatly from person to person.

Back in 2007, Hueco helped me to see deeper into myself and make a simple decision that I’ve never really doubted since. “In thin places, we become our more essential selves,” Weiner writes. Once you realize such places exist, it’s no waste to spend the rest of your life questing to find them again and again.

A Moon for Halloween

Moon and Tree - photo: © Justin Roth

 

The night before last, I was standing in an empty field just as the full moon rose through the branches of a tree. I took this picture. A grand, pale orange form as it mounted the horizon, the moon appeared to shrink smaller and smaller as it rose, until it hung like a bare bulb in the sky above us. The sight conjured a Zen story from Zen Flesh Zen Bones, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. The lesson, as always, is one of perspective:

The Moon Cannot Be Stolen

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you shoud not return emptyhanded. Please take my clothes as a gift.”

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow, ” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

Happy Halloween…

- The Blockhead Lord

Photo Friday: Living Creatures

As an aspiring photographer, science and nature lover, and generally curious fellow, I find few things more fascinating and aesthetic than the forms of living creatures. They are at once alien and familiar. A strange mirror, they show us something of ourselves we are quick to forget.

Look at the frog, with its smooth, glistening folds of skin — can you not see some obtuse hint at our own origins? Look at the long muscles of its leg, not so unlike our own quadriceps. Look at the bulge of the belly, the short, chubby forelimbs; do they not remind of that rotund man at the gas station with his tight watchband and straining shirt? Regard the wide-set eyes and broad mouth; are they really so different from ours? View a frog from head on, add a jaunty hat and a pair of spectacles and what do you have? The gent you passed on the street the other day, grinning with a distant look in his eye.

The deer, the grasshopper, the squirrel, the snail, the giraffe… they are our not our charges; they are our brethren. They eat, mate, seek shelter from the elements and from predators. Had they only the words, can you imagine they would express sentiments so different from our own? But as they cannot speak, the best we can do is observe them closely and learn the lessens their ancestors have been teaching our ancestors for time immemorial.

A frog at a birthday party in New York.

A frog at a birthday party in New York.

Male deer in suburban Boulder, Colorado.

Male deer in suburban Boulder, Colorado.

A grasshopper in my yard in Salt Lake City, Utah.

A grasshopper in my yard in Salt Lake City, Utah.

A mother squirrel looking for her baby, who fell from a tree in suburban Boulder, Colorado.

A mother squirrel looking for her baby, who fell from a tree in suburban Boulder, Colorado.

A snail on my dinner plate, or Ce n'est pas dîner.

A snail on my dinner plate, or Ce n’est pas dîner.

A giraffe in the Denver Zoo.

A giraffe in the Denver Zoo.

The Doodanglies of Spring

I’m walking my blue heeler, Bodhi, through the serene grass and pavement matrix of our Salt Lake City suburb, when some creature issues a short, high cry from up above. It’s a mysterious call that could well have come from some denizen of a distant, cacophonous rainforest, but here it is a lone, wild voice against the ticking and hissing of sprinklers and the lawnmower’s drone.

I’ve heard this vocalization before and know what it means. I scan my surroundings and within seconds I spot them: a family of California quail, teardrop shaped puffs of grey strutting around in someone’s front yard, pecking the ground in search of seeds and shoots. My fiancée has given these beautiful birds, with their scale-patterned feathers, rust-brown caps, and white-limned black faces, the name “doodangly” birds, after their flapper-era black head plumes that wiggle with every step. It’s now the only way I refer them in conversation, leading to much confusion.

The family — a mother and six chicks — putters onto the sidewalk just as their high lookout, perched on a roof peak a few houses down, detects my presence and issues his warning. They hasten into a single-file formation and hightail it away from me, legs swinging in a blur, road-runner style. Doodanglies almost never fly unless startled at close distance. They opt instead for more pedestrian means of locomotion and can move surprisingly fast over open terrain.

The family ducks into a driveway and behind a little rise of grass. I stand and watch, waiting to see if they’ll reemerge, and they do. I’ve noticed that these strange little terrestrial birds are seldom dissuaded from their course. They scramble whenever a human, cat, or car comes too close, but soon, with caution, pluck back towards their original course. Like pigeons and doves, they are well adapted to the grid-paved wilderness of the burbs.

Every spring, the doodanglies begin to show themselves in the Salt Lake valley. They are my favorite local nature sprites, embodiments of some ancient energy that humans have been endeavoring to bury in layers of concrete, glass, and metal for the past hundred-odd years. The doodanglies appear first in pairs, but soon in families. Their chicks are precocial, meaning they’re ready to roll straight out of the shell. Still, the parentals shepherd them closely when they’re on the move. It is common quail practice to have one scout posted up on a fencepost or tree branch, watching for threats like Bodhi and me. Of course, we’re not really a threat (or at least, I’m not), but they don’t give us the benefit of the doubt, and I don’t blame them.

If I’m lucky, I’ll make doodangly sightings every day, when I’m out walking my dog or running. Their simple, wild presence in the spaces between our houses and our cars, like that of the baroque, green-armored grasshopper or the flashing, iridescent hummingbird, reminds me of the way the world once was, and still is in our ever-shrinking preserves of  natural places. It reminds me that no matter how far “above” nature we try to arrange ourselves, we are and always will be a part of it. As Emerson says in his essay “Nature,” “The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable.” He could just as well have said  “man and the birds.” It reminds me that we humans, the rich and the poor among us, must make a life for ourselves one day, one year at a time, just like the doodanglies, plucking towards the future powered by an innate stubbornness that I can only see as nature’s beautiful, irrational argument against the chaos of the universe.

You Haven’t Heard of Mary Oliver?

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver

This isn’t my first blog post about the poet Mary Oliver, but it’s the first to see the light of day. I abandoned the others because they kept straying into the realm of dry, academic analysis. When writing about serious writers, you see, I tend to get an inferiority complex — do I dare comment on the work of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet with anything less than polished, incisive, and heavily annotated prose? Do I have the right to even utter Oliver’s name without having read and considered carefully her entire oeuvre? And the words of the many critics who have critiqued her work? And her biographical information? Soon, instead of a quick blog about a poet I rather enjoy, I felt like I was looking down the barrel of a graduate thesis.

But then I reminded myself of a few things:

  1. We are all going to die someday. Maybe soon.
  2. This is my personal blog. It is not the New York Fucking Times. And even if it was the NY F”ing T, that still doesn’t mean everything has to be a work of genius — it just has to say something interesting in an interesting way. I’ve read plenty of sub-genius writing in the Times and The New Yorker and National Geographic. Genius is a very high bar; if you’ll settle for nothing less, then you’ll end up with nothing at all.
  3. My goal here isn’t to convince you, dear reader, that I am the world’s foremost Mary Oliverologist or some sort of poetry expert, but to share something cool with you. The truth is, I haven’t read all — or even most — of Oliver’s 26 books of poetry. In fact, I only own one of those books, called House of Light. And that one didn’t even win a Pulitzer (!). But still, I have read enough of her writing over the years to know that she is worth reading.
  4. Oliver, now 76 years old, is both popular (as poets go) and controversial (in that several critics have given her bum reviews, despite, or because, of this popularity). But whatever any critic thinks of her, I find something of great value in her writing. Therefore, I am under no obligation to defend her, only to share what it is about her that I find to be so valuable. If you agree or disagree, I would be honored if you’d opine in the comments section below.

Now, in brief, my explanation of why you should pick up House of Light and other books by Mary Oliver:

First
She is a master of language. After studying literature in college and getting an MFA in poetry, I have yet to encounter a writer who more powerfully evokes the sensual aspects of nature than does Oliver. Three examples of many (many!):

“the mossy hooves /of dreams, including / the spongy litter / under tall trees.”

“Now the soft / eggs of the salamander / in their wrapping of jelly / begin to shiver. … Off they go, / hundreds of them, / like the black / fingerprints of the rain.”

“the soft rope of a water moccasin / slid down the red knees /of a mangrove, the hundred of ribs / housed in their smooth, white / sleeves of muscle …”

Salamander eggs "in their wrappings of jelly"

Salamander eggs "in their wrappings of jelly"

Second

Oliver uses the images of nature to great affect in exploring the biggest, most unanswerable of human questions. She uses them as a lens through which to view being and consciousness, the existence  (or lack thereof) of God or god-like beings. She ties together the religious and philosophical traditions of the West and the East, mingling thoughts of Buddha (see: “The Buddha’s Last Instructions“) with the images of Christianity (see: “Snake” as well as the various examples of serpent imagery and references to Jesus throughout the House of Light) with the intense love of nature of Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau. In Emerson’s view, nature was the the inexhaustible source of our greatest understanding. Oliver seems to have taken this to heart, making nature the subject of nearly every poem, the wordless teacher of every important lesson we need to know. In “Lilies,” she even manages to reference a Zen story, which in turn references the alignment between Christian and Zen principles. She writes:

I have been thinking
about living
like the lilies
that blow in the fields.

They rise and fall
in the wedge of the wind,
and have no shelter
from the tongues of the cattle,

and have no closets or cupboards,
and have no legs.
Still I would like to be
as wonderful

as that old idea. …

Then compare that to the Zen story “Not Far From Buddhahood,” in which a student reads the following Bible passage to his master “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Luke 12:27). The master, on hearing the passage, offers, sagely, “Whoever uttered these words, I consider an enlightened man.”

Lily of the field

Lily of the field

With all of Oliver’s references to Buddhism, it’s hard to imagine she did not read this Zen story. Or, if she did not, it is still hard to imagine she did not read the passage from Luke and see the similarities to what today we would call an Eastern way of thinking. It is a wonderful connection that re-orders the world. We humans could learn a thing or two from the lilies that “melt without protest” on the tongues of the cattle. We could be more at piece with the true nature of our circumstances. But that is not our nature. But we are part of nature. And the serpent eats its own tail…

Third
Because almost every poem in House of Light is about death, in a roundabout way. And since, as I mentioned, we are all going to die (maybe soon), and if you roll that all up with the first two reasons for picking up a Mary Oliver book, you will see that what I am talking about is poetry with an existential purpose. This woman has for over 50 years been intently observing and considering nature, herself, humankind, consciousness, time, and death and has, in her poetry, communicated a vision of the world that very few of us will ever have the time, effort, or talent to formulate. She is offering us an insight into something at once greater than ourselves and within ourselves.

And she does it in a way that is in perfect accord with our times. Unlike the old masters, Oliver speaks in the parlance of our times, in a language that even the least poetically inclined can make sense of without a thesaurus or the help of a teacher. She is carrying on an age-old tradition and doing the poet’s work.

This may not be the golden age of poetry, but that fact does not diminish one whit the value of today’s poetry. Mary Oliver may have sold some goodly number of books in her day, but I do not think most of my friends and acquaintances have been the ones purchasing them. Chances are, you have not been, either. So take this as an excuse to spend a little of that latté money on something with more enduring value. And also, take a walk in the woods.