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Mary Oliver, nature poet

By Michele S. Byers

The late Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet who passed away earlier this year at the age of 83, was an artist who used her words to paint pictures of the natural world. Her verses express deep reverence for nature as sources of beauty, solace and wisdom.

“I could not be a poet without the natural world,” Oliver once wrote. “Someone else could. But not me. For me, the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”

Mary was a victim of childhood sexual abuse and neglect, and turned to nature as a haven from her troubled home life. She spent countless hours wandering the woods near her Ohio home, scribbling in her notebook and reading Walt Whitman’s poetry.

She became a prolific writer of both prose and poetry, although she became best known for poetry. Her first collection, “No Voyage and Other Poems,” was published in 1963, and she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1984 for the collection “American Primitive.”

Her poetry touches on nature: hummingbirds, waterfalls, owls, trees, the ocean, snakes, wild geese, storms, sand crabs and changing seasons, to name a few. But her poems also address larger themes like love, loss, joy, wonder and gratitude.

More than anything, her poems tell the story of how being in nature made Oliver feel safe, happy and alive.

“We all have a hungry heart, and one of the things we hunger for is happiness. So as much as I possibly could, I stayed where I was happy,” she explained in an interview with Maria Shriver for O Magazine. “I spent a great deal of time in my younger years just writing and reading, walking around the woods in Ohio, where I grew up.”

She lived most of her adult life in Provincetown, Mass., with her partner, Molly Malone Cook, and wrote far too many poems to list. But one favorite of her many fans is “The Summer Day,” which begins with the age-old question “Who made the world?” and ends with:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

“The Summer Day” is one of 50-plus nature poems found along the Scott and Hella McVay Poetry Trail, a one-of-a-kind walking path in the 55-acre Greenway Meadows Park in Princeton. D&R Greenway Land Trust helped to preserve the park, the former estate of Robert Wood Johnson, in 2001.

The idea for the trail came from the McVays, Princeton residents who love poetry and preserved land.

Scott was the founding executive director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, a leading environmental grant maker, and founder of the Dodge Poetry Festival.

Hella is a founder of the Whole Earth Center, a community-based natural foods store, and served on the board of D&R Greenway.

The poetry trail covers 1.5 miles of looping paths, with no distinct beginning or end. Poems chosen by the McVays are mounted on signs that occasionally lead hikers off the path and into the native wildflower meadow. Rustic benches dot the sides of the trail, inviting visitors to pause and reflect. Each poem was chosen for how it speaks to and about nature.

For Mary Oliver, the natural world never ceased to be an inspiration. On her walks – in the Ohio woods of her childhood, the Cape Cod shoreline of her adulthood and other places – she paid attention and expressed astonishment.

Wild animals were often depicted in her poems as kindred spirits, and she devoted an entire book of poetry and prose – 2013’s “Dog Songs” – to the deep relationships between humans and canines.

When writing about death, Mary showed no regrets about how she lived her life: “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”

To learn more about Mary Oliver and her poetry, go to the Poetry Foundation website at www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-oliver

If you are looking for an inspiring, beautiful walk this spring, treat yourself to a trip to the Scott and Hella McVay Poetry Trail. You can learn more about it at the D&R Greenway Land Trust website at https://drgreenway.org/signature-spaces/#Outdoors

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org

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