Mary Oliver

Upstream: Selected Essays

“Something is wrong, I know it, if I don't keep my attention on eternity. May I stay forever in the stream.”

“I become engrossed in every leafy, creepy or flying inhabitant of the wood,” wrote Emma Mitchell in her regular sojourns into the mending powers of nature, “And with each detail that draws my attention, with each metre I walk, the incessant clamour of daily concerns seems to become more muffled.”

From beloved American poet Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019) comes Upstream, essays on those moments of eternity unveiled in the contemplation of nature.

Mallards are here, and black ducks. The mallards stay on the ponds, and the black ducks spend time on the bay as well as on fresh water. Blue-winged. I have seen green-winged with young but the dreamlike blue-winged, with the thin white moon on his face, I only see him in the spring and the fall.

Someone, Oliver seems to suggest, must observe the dreamlike blue-winged birds that the moonlight is so eager to present.

Just a minute, Said a Voice…

‘Just a minute’ said a voice in the weeds,
So I stood still
in the day’s exquisite early morning light
and so I didn’t crush with my great feet
any small or unusual thing just happening to pass by
where I was passing by
on my way to the blueberry fields,
and maybe it was the toad,
and maybe it was the June beetle,
and maybe it was the pink and tender worm,
who does his work without limbs or eyes,
and does it well…

From Mary Oliver’s Why I Wake Early

This curiosity of things easily and often overlooked is essential to Upstream and to Oliver’s body of work, which stretches decades. “May I look down upon the windflower,” she writes, “and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.”1

River Arun, Sussex. Featured in Mary Oliver's "Upstream" in the Examined Life Library.
“I have read that the descent of an eight of an inch in a mile is sufficient enough to produce a flow.” wrote Henry David Thoreau. The River Arun, Sussex. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Oliver’s poetry and writing, especially in Upstream, deliver lengthy pauses and a feeling of solitude. She writes of a fear of being interrupted, her creativity threatened. She retreats to herself and to nature. In this space, this “upstream,” she found a comfort and connection.

Drawing of murmuration by artist Ann Pease. 3 of 3
Starling murmuration, pen and ink, 2020. By North Yorkshire artist Ann Pease.

I was deeply moved when Oliver spoke of wanting to go into a place that cries out for us and consequently to which we long to return. We cannot, of course; yet, we aren’t lost if we keep to the stream.

Maybe it was the right way after all. If this was lost, let us all be lost always. The beech leaves were just slipping their copper coats; pale green and quivering they arrived into the year. My heart opened and opened again. The water pushed against my effort, then its glassy permission to step ahead touched my ankles. The sense of going toward the source. I do not think that I ever, in fact, returned home.

Mary Oliver "Upstream"
“Lone manhood’s cares, yet waking fondest sighs: Ah! that once more I were a careless child!” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The River Arun, Sussex. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The essence of Oliver’s Upstream is this: “In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions.” What the poet Rilke called “living in questions,” Oliver terms “keeping attention on eternity.” Connecting with one’s true self and the things that endure.

Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream.

Oliver’s philosophy and elegant eye were generously instructive for me when I was formulating the values and aesthetics of The Examined Life. I am eternally in her debt; the best I can do is relay her message, keep to the stream, and look forcefully at this wondrous eternal.

Occasionally I lean forward and gaze into the water. The water of a pond is a mirror of roughness and honesty—it gives back not only my own gaze, but the nimbus of the world trailing into the pictures on all sides. The swallows, singing a little as they fly back and forth across the pond, are flying therefore over my shoulders and through my hair. A turtle passes slowly across the muddy bottom, touching my cheekbone. If at this moment I heard a clock ticking, would I remember what it was, what it signified?

River Arun, Sussex. Featured in Mary Oliver's "Upstream" in the Examined Life Library.
River Arun, Sussex. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

On a December morning, many years ago, I brought a young, injured black-backed gull home from the beach. It was, in fact, Christmas morning, as well as bitter cold, which may account for my act. Injured gulls are common; nature’s maw receives them again implacably; almost never is a rescue justified by a return to health and freedom. And this gull was close to that deep maw; it made no protest when I picked it up, the eyes were half-shut, the body so starved it seemed to hold nothing but air.

Stretch your love for Oliver with her last published book of poems, Why I Wake Early, or her more playful but deeply loving Dog Songs. Or with a read of the fine, timeless wisdom of Emerson, a man who influenced Oliver through and through. Or, of course, the poetry of Walt Whitman, whom Oliver named “the brother I never had.”

Mary Oliver illustration. © The Examined Life