and finally I heard him
among the first leaves –
then I saw him clutching the limb
in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still
and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness –
and that’s when it happened,
when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree –
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,
and the sands in the glass
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward
like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing –
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed
not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfectly blue sky – all, all of them
And, of course, yes, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn’t last
for more than a few moments.
It’s one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,
is that, once you’ve been there,
you’re there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then – open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.
Mary Oliver’s poetry seems to me to take nature as an unmediated source of luminous spiritual experience. Some of the poems seem modest, restful and still, some are thoughtful and clear like mirrors and some dive arrestingly deep very suddenly.
This one however, seems to vibrate with the wonder-filled thrum of life. It explicitly invites us to slip quickly out through the always open door to find comfort in the great song of the natural world. Yes, we may have heavy feet – heavy feelings and a heavy life – and yes, the song may drift away even before we’ve fully remembered to love it. But there are also times when, like in this poem, we are given a moment of pure gold that will live in us forever, because we have remembered to love it in real time, right now. Not in retrospect and not half-felt and filtered through dense fences of thought, not with our mind elsewhere, but with all of us here. Then the great song can lift us with it too and we expand to know the infinite, ‘the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower’ as Blake famously describes it.
‘…and does your own soul need comforting?’ Mine certainly does, as often as possible. Nature provides a very particular kind of comfort. It’s not like a warm duvet and a hot drink, it’s more like a teacher and restorer. It restores me to myself, and it sets me to rights by showing me the truest and most important lessons about the way of things.
PS. Do you long to drink from nature’s oasis? Come to our Mindfulness in Nature weekend in London or online at the end of May. In the midst of the city (or your home), we will soak up the presence of the earth and the wide sky, trees, flowers, insects, birds and humans. Perhaps here, with the help of mindfulness, you could touch the kinds of experience that Mary Oliver writes of.