Study Hacks Blog

Whitman in the Knapsack: Mary Oliver and the Power of Walking in Nature

September 9th, 2022 · 8 comments

Among those who find pleasure in cataloging the habits and rituals of prodigious creatives, the poet Mary Oliver is a familiar companion. Her commitment to long walks outdoors, scribbling notes in a cloth-bound notebook, is both archetypical and approachable.

This vision of Oliver finding inspiration in her close observations of nature, made as she wanders past ponds and through forest-bound glades, matches our intuitions about the artistic process. As Oliver writes in her poem, The Summer Day:

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 down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

We can also, if we’re being honest, imagine ourselves extracting a diluted version of this inspiration, if only we too could find the time to take our moleskin into the woods. It’s here, in other words, that we find a key piece to Oliver’s enduring appeal.

This is all preamble to my delight in being pointed recently, by a reader, toward a 2015 interview with Oliver, where she discussed the origins of her habit of retreating into nature to wrangle her muse. As Oliver explained:

“I don’t like buildings . So the one record I broke in my school was truancy. I went to the woods a lot, with books; Whitman in the knapsack. But I also liked motion. So I just began with these little notebooks and scribbled things as they came to me and worked them into poems later.”

Today, as in most times past, there’s a lot going on in the world, much of it distressing. We could respond by staring with increased intensity into glowing screens, hoping that the resulting numbness outcompetes the anxiety. Or, like Oliver, we could put Whitman in our knapsack, and head outside, slowly, into nature, with our minds as our only companion.

8 thoughts on “Whitman in the Knapsack: Mary Oliver and the Power of Walking in Nature

  1. Steve Holden says:

    Thanks for using my link. Made my day!

  2. Kevin Lindsey says:

    Great advice. Both Whitman and Thoreau are great signposts on looking for what’s real and important.

  3. AC says:

    Nice article! I prefer to practice speaking presentations while walking outside. It works out so well. The motion, outside air…. Talking to yourself keeps the neighbors at bay. Printed ppt slides instead of Whitman is not as romantic, but it’s a pleasant way to get the job done.

  4. Julie Harris says:

    I love the idea of “our ideas as our only companions”. So does Colin O’Brady, I think, who encourages us to walk out our door, unplug, and just walk (for 12 hours). https://12hourwalk.com/

  5. Carl says:

    Thank you Cal for this simple potent reminder about the healing power of nature.

  6. Grace says:

    Prolific science fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson has a great setup I’m learning to emulate: hiking while dictating his novels into a voice recorder. https://kjablog.com/being-a-dictator/

  7. Frank says:

    Why is it that this blog doesn’t support RSS? I’ve just came across Cal Newport material… and find mindblowing that for someone who preaches so much about not using social media and decreasing email use, his blog doesn’t offer the ultimate social-media alternative for conscious readers / responsible tech-‘consumers’.

    Worst of all there is not a tech support email to reach…

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