Whitman in the Knapsack: Mary Oliver and the Power of Walking in NatureSeptember 9th, 2022 · 10 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.