Essays from the Outdoors

Book review: Upstream, by Mary Oliver

‘Come with me into the field of sunflowers’ is a better line than anything you will find here, and the sunflowers themselves far more wonderful than any words about them.

Quoting herself, renowned and much-loved poet Mary Oliver opens this collection of essays about nature and our connection to it, need for it, what it can teach us and how it feels – that immense sense of comfort and connection- to immerse yourself in it.

The essays are a celebration of the simple joys of being in the quiet and solitude of nature. It’s a place where she finds peace and a sense of safety, of belonging, even while she contemplates the mystery and grandness of the vast natural world.

A recurring theme is how nature helps us make sense of ourselves; how at times it’s an extension of us, a place to let our curiosity wide open for whatever answers might echo back. Both the good and the bad, the gentle and the brutal. Be open for understanding, take the time to pause and notice, use all your senses to draw in what you can from the natural world.

In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.

She writes later that she’s not a traveler, globetrotting doesn’t hold much appeal for her, so exploration had to be closer to home, in the backyards and woods of the spaces she considers home. I loved this calm admission, and I think it’s not such a common or celebrated one, not in the same way that invigorating, adventurous wanderlust and restlessness get attention, airtime, and space on the page.

But in this and everywhere else it’s clear that Oliver has spent a lot of time getting to know herself, and she enthusiastically, joyfully pushes the reader to do the same, using the simple, often taken for granted things around us to do so. There’s no pressure to change, to be something you’re not, only to be at home in yourself. Let me always be who I am, and then some.” 

Oliver also writes about some of the writers who have inspired and strongly influenced her – Whitman, Emerson; those who not only speak to her artistically but who’ve similarly turned to nature as refuge. Not every essay was a total standout for me – I particularly disliked one about scrambling unearthed turtle’s eggs to eat, which she didn’t even really enjoy, and it depressed me. But on the whole it’s a sweet, happy collection brimming with literary influence and inspiration.

There are a few truly touching moments, more admissions from a life of lessons learned that speak to a basic shared humanity:

…there are stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet.

A peaceful, evocative rendering of a woman’s lifelong love of the outdoors and the special peace it provides. It’s a good place to begin ushering in springtime.

Upstream: Selected Essays
by Mary Oliver

published October 11, 2016 by Penguin Press

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