A couple weeks before everything turned upside down, I had requested Mary Oliver’s essay collection Upstream from the library and was lucky enough to have it on hand as we started our isolation. The slim volume is Oliver’s reflections on life, nature, and writers that have inspired her, centering around her home in Providence and detailing many of her daily walks and reflections.
Oliver’s writing is always insightful, but it seems especially so today, when going for walks and spending lots of time in our own thoughts have become something many of us do much more frequently. I knew from reading some of Oliver’s poems that themes of nature run throughout her work, but reading her writing in a prose format helped me to see how her thoughtful, meditative approach to observing the natural world has influenced her voice as a writer. In her essays, Oliver might spend several pages recounting the geese she observes by a lake or the bird she cared for after it lost a leg. The book is divided into sections, some of which are more current observations, others reflecting on authors, like Walden, who have inspired her writing. Oliver’s writing is not fluffy or full of illusions, instead she uses simple language to share with her reader what has inspired her over the years and what makes her feel at home. While these words would be inspiring at any time for those who enjoy reflective writing, I found it particularly touching right now.
What’s incredible about the essay collection is that it connects with readers no matter where they are. Especially right now, Oliver’s essays allowed me to take a break from scrolling the news for some quiet pondering on how the rhythms of the natural world keep going regardless of what’s going on with the human side of things. Since finishing this book, I’ve found myself being more observant whenever I do leave the house for short walks, pondering how even with everything, the signs of Spring are still popping up. This doesn’t minimize any of the sadness or tragedy or stress that’s currently going on in the world, but it does provide a reminder that, no matter what, the world keeps turning. If you’re looking for something you can read to take your mind off the current state of affairs without it feeling trivial, I highly suggest spending some time in Oliver’s quiet and peaceful world.
Selected essays by the poet and writer Mary Oliver on nature and the writing process.