• Wed. Jun 19th, 2024

Poem of the Week: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

ByEllie Ashton

Oct 11, 2019

I didn’t find Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese. Rather, it found me, in the winter months of my first year at university. I’d never heard of Oliver’s work prior to that one fateful week in November. Out of nowhere, I saw Wild Geese referenced three times in entirely separate contexts: a post on Instagram, a class I was taking outside of uni, and a podcast. For a country girl living in what felt like a huge and strange city, the words were like fresh Welsh air.

Oliver spent much of her life in nature and it is this adoration for the wilderness that I found so enchanting. The poem begins with a message of forgiveness: ‘you do not have to be good… You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’ These kind, gentle words reminded me that hibernation is a natural process in the winter months — even for people — and that it was okay to be struggling with work, homesickness, and making friends. The soft animal of my body may have been comfort eating chocolate and watching Netflix under the duvet, but still I could forgive myself for the behaviours that I adopted when being ‘good’ was too hard.

‘Meanwhile,’ she told me, ‘the world goes on.’ Away from the smoke and noise of Edinburgh city centre, ‘clear pebbles of the rain are moving across landscapes.’ I hopped on the number 11 to Hillend and went in search of them, walking along the ridge of the Pentland hills. I found mountain streams, a cold breeze, watched the ocean stretch beyond the city. ‘Meanwhile,’ I read, ‘the wild geese… are heading home again.’ How I longed to do the same — to stretch out into the ‘clean blue air’, rising above and away from everyday worries. In anxious moments I thought of their journey home; the strength and endurance it takes to move with grace. I took deep breaths of the same air.

‘No matter how lonely,’ Mary Oliver assured me, ‘the world offers itself to your imagination.’ Her words saw through all my first-year pretences of confidence and poise. At her suggestion, I spent time in nature, even if only the George Square Labyrinth or a tree in the Meadows. I fed squirrels my lunch and wore too many coats. She was right; I wasn’t truly alone. I could hear the birds singing, even if they sang an unfamiliar tune.

I listened closely, and there it was: beyond the sirens and street sounds I could find the world ‘calling to me… announcing my place in the family of things.’ To be told I belonged had a remarkable impression on me, and day by day I felt more connected to this new, strange city that I was to call home.

Mary Oliver’s proclamation of belonging reaches beyond just me, a small Welsh girl living too far north. Oliver was a gay woman in a time of prejudice and bigotry, intimately exploring feelings of isolation in her work. But the magic of her writing is that it reminds us that nature does not discriminate. Whether we be in Oliver’s beloved Massachusetts, my Welsh valley or the Highlands of Scotland, we all belong, and above us, the wild geese fly on.


You can read Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese online here.


Image: Foto-Rabe via Pixabay

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