When I am among the trees: Musings on Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver, winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, receives an honorary doctor of letters degree from Marquette.

Poet Mary Oliver read to us of wild geese, of sudden and unexpected joy, of the shore in the morning and of speckled eggs. She charmed us with visions of catbirds in flight and the red-throated loon. She spoke of the poets “who feed my soul” and of deciding at age 13 that she “wanted to be a poet, along with an archeologist and ornithologist.”

In 2012, Oliver was awarded an honorary Marquette degree. In this special tribute, Marquette Magazine presents “When I Am Among the Trees,” with faculty reflecting on one stanza and how Oliver’s words help them see life in new ways.

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

The 1st STANZA

Dr. Lawrence Watson
Visiting professor of English

“The speaker of these lines is no mere nature lover who waxes rhapsodic in the presence of trees and sunlight. She might well love trees, but hers is an informed love. She knows trees and knows that, like humans, they have different qualities and characteristics — locusts are unlike pines, pines are unlike willows, willows are unlike oaks. . . . All however repay our attention. But the human specialties of knowledge and feeling are not enough — almost — to save her daily. Something else must be necessary. Something outside us. Something like grace.”

Dr. Heather Hathaway
Associate professor of English, director of graduate studies in English and of Africana studies

“Both Mary Oliver’s poetry and the natural world — whether I am in the woods, in a canoe on a lake or a river or on the shore of a salty ocean — have truly ‘saved’ me over and over again. I cannot help but feel ‘hints of gladness’ and gratitude, no matter how dire surrounding circumstances may seem, in the presence of either one — the poems or the trees. Enjoying the two together is my definition of transcendence.”

The 2nd STANZA

Dr. Anne M. Pasero
Chair and professor of Spanish

“The poet refers to that sensation all of us have every day, that we spend too much valuable time rushing around answering messages, checking cell phones, making appointments and generally allowing others to consume our daily hours. We easily forget how fast life goes and how fragile it is, but one serious accident involving someone close to us reminds us of that reality in a minute. Many daily distractions take us far away from whom we really are, from that core of goodness and spirituality we sense but find elusive. Mary Oliver invites us to linger awhile and recover those feelings of hope and joy we carry with us always.”

Dr. John Pustejovsky
Associate professor of German

“It’s the heart, not the ear, that walks by the light of a day’s recognitions. How far away, I think, is the place, the moment, when I’ll be ready to say, ‘Now — take my measure.’ It’s the heart, not the ear, that hears you say: ‘Don’t move. Don’t say a word. Let me look at you as you are. Blessedly incomplete.’”

The 3rd STANZA

Dr. Kris Ratcliffe
Chair and professor of English

“Mary Oliver’s persona claims that the trees save her. But to be saved, she must open herself to the world. Her observation that ‘the trees stir in their leaves’ models how to look deeper, beyond the usual, to imagine not leaves stirring in trees but trees stirring in leaves. The tree’s invitation to ‘Stay awhile’ encourages her to pause and reflect on the bark that she sees, on the pulp she does not, on the roots and soil that nourish the tree, all of which give life to the leaves. Her image, ‘The light flows from their branches,’ captures a moment of being when she recognizes the life force, the spirit, that animates us all.

Dr. Angela Sorby
Associate professor of English

“Ralph Waldo Emerson thought that the natural world was essentially a spiritual text that could be ‘read’ by careful observers. In this stanza, Mary Oliver extends the Emersonian tradition, but she’s more respectful of the distance between people and nature; the trees emit light from their branches, and the light speaks to us, but their exact message remains mysterious. Or maybe the message is the mystery: We can learn from nature, but only if we don’t try to translate its branching, non-linear light into strictly human terms.”

The 4th STANZA

Heather James
Research and instructional librarian

“In the final stanza, the trees again call to the poet with brief but loaded words. Mary Oliver invokes a chorus of nature that is almost audible as the leaves stirring give voice to the trees. What is simple? The purpose: ‘to go easy’ — walking with awareness and soft steps through the world, easy on others and the world as we hope they will be on us; ‘to be filled with light, and to shine’ — to allow the grace, light, warmth, connection that is available all around to touch us, flow through us, then shine out from us to the next. Just as the sunshine through the tree branches may cut and sparkle or warm with a softened glow, there is room to find her own way to pass on the light.” 

— Compiled by Joni Moths Mueller

Watch a video of students reading another Mary Oliver poem.



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