Our place in the family of things

Mary Oliver
I saw a fisher in the woods early one morning, two weeks ago. Dark brown it was, almost black, about twice the size of a cat, and spellbinding, like a dark messenger from a long-forgotten past.
We stared at each other, unmoving, and though I carry no ancestral memories that it could evoke, there was a pounding pulse, an inheld breath, an exhilaration that spoke of a much deeper recognition.

We had a clear view of each other. The leaves were not yet out, and only the first of the wine-red trilliums were in bloom. Finally, it turned away, took a few steps, paused to look back, and then moved off in an undulating, otter-like lope.


The encounter left me inarticulately happy, with a feeling of oneness with everything around me. Later, as I mused over the encounter, I remembered that exponents of the newly emerging field of ecopsychology maintain that everyone has a profound psychological need to experience wildness. We are from the wild, they say, and every now and then, we need to nourish our biological roots. Otherwise we shrivel. We get stressed. We become neurotic.


Wildness resonates within our unconscious, they say. That’s where memories lost to consciousness reside. They are memories of prehistory, of harmony with the natural world. They demand homage. They rejoice in nourishment.


As it happened, at the time of the encounter with the fisher, I was reading a book of Mary Oliver’s collected poems (New and Selected Poems, Beacon Press, Boston, 1992, $25.95 Can.). In a poem about the sun, she caught wonderfully the sense of happiness I felt: do you think there is anywhere, in our language / a word billowing enough / for the pleasure / that fills you…?


The book won the 1992 National Book Award for poetry in the United States. She also won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry in 1988.


Her poems are a complete delight. She finds joy in even the smallest parts of nature: The kale’s / puckered sleeve, / the pepper’s hollow bell, / the lacquered onion.


And she finds deeper meanings, similar to what the ecopsychologists extol, as in a poem about poppies sending up “orange flares” whose light is an invitation / to happiness, /and that happiness, / when it’s done right, / is a kind of holiness, / palpable and redemptive.


She, too, feels ancestral tugs in a poem called “The Family”: The dark things of the wood / Are coming from their caves / Flexing muscle. / …We remember the cave. / In our dreams we go back / Or they come to visit. / …They are our brothers. / They are the family / We have run away from.


What I like most about her poems, what is most engaging, is her sense of wonder, which she explains in “When Death Comes”: When It’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.


In another poem, she declares: …I want to listen / to the enormous waterfalls of the sun. And in “Wild Geese,” she says: You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You have only to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves. / …Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.


However, in the family of things, life can be harsh — indeed, a fisher is a fearsome hunter, preying on squirrels, rabbits, porcupines, birds, and any stray cats it can find. Oliver acknowledges this side of nature. She calls it “the dark hook,” and she sees it as part of the natural cycle.


To see the world through her eyes is to belong. To live in the same room with hope and with joy. I have to thank a reader, Rita Reitsma of Orangeville, for suggesting I would enjoy Oliver’s poetry. I shall continue to enjoy it long into the future.

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