*orginally posted at This Earth, March 27/2012*
Mary Oliver the poet, again. Rereading Blue Pastures, I found myself delighted by the short essay “A Few Words.” The piece opens with the directness of language that the piece itself is about: “Nothing in the forest is charming.” The face of nature cannot be depicted with the words we use to describe our videos of kittens, or the work of our own doing. “Gardens are charming” Oliver says. I love gardens. But they are not wild.
Oliver continues: “Nothing in the forest is cute. The dog fox is not cute, nor the little foxes.” The life of this Earth comes of nature and time and “the terrifying shallows of the first unnamed and unnameable oceans”. And humans are of the same. So let us not call nature, or ourselves cute, charming, adorable, because such words “miss the mark, for what is perceived of this way is stripped of dignity, and authority.”
The fox cub, the owl, the snake, none are adorable. “Nor is there a rabbit in the forest, whose name is ‘Thumper,’ who is cute.” Rather, according to Mary Oliver, and with whom I agree wholeheartedly, these perceptions of the world are made only to provide humans the image of authority. We see nature as without threat, as cute. Other humans too we submit to these words. If a woman or child is simply adorable, they are not powerful. If the world is filled with the cute and the charming, there is no danger to fear. Only that which we command. We become the governors of the world.
And that is a sad notion, “for it makes impossible the other view of nature, which is a realm both sacred and intricate, as well as powerful, of which we are no more than a single part. Nature, the total of all of us, is the wheel that drives our world, those who ride it willingly might catch a glimpse of a dazzling, even spiritual restfulness.”
The power in the work of Mary Oliver, and there is much power in her work, is that she never seeks to set herself apart as separate from the world that surrounds her. I want to do the same, but admit it is difficult. We have human affairs that we are always involved in: we are born, we have relationships, they are dramatic, we get married, we get divorced, we have children, we lose our loved ones to death or separation, we encompass all the aspects of life. All of this makes us strong and individual and capable of love–all of this is central to our lives. But all of this is always, for Oliver, only one corner of experience in one part of the world. “Humans or tigers, tigers or lilies–note their differences, and still how alike they are!” I am sure that to some this message comes as degrading. To some this might only limit humans to the level of the lily. But it is not degrading.
No. We are strong and resilient creatures of the earth. Like the tiger. We are individuals and families, as delicate as the lilies and powerful as Niagara. This is the root: We are strong. “We are wild, valorous, amazing. We are, none of us, cute.”