On the Language of Trees: An Elegy for Mary Oliver

fallenjuniperWhen I was a child, I prayed to trees. Not to any particular tree–I had nothing like a shrine or altar. But whenever I needed the calming constancy of something more deeply rooted than myself, I’d journey beyond my house to find a timber full of strength and refuge. There, the hum and whir of my own emotions could quiet and I encountered belonging, connection, and graceful acceptance of what is and what is not. I understood without question that trees held wisdom, and my prayers functioned as pleas (sometimes desperate, sometimes not) for more insight, more understanding, greater peace—the things we all seek when we open ourselves to something larger than ourselves and hope we come out the other side as better people.

I have walked the woods speaking quiet, urgent words, the trees bearing witness to my fears and insecurities and diminishing those same worries with nothing more magical than their own towering presence. I have climbed branches to perch, letting joy settle in to every molecule of myself, half convinced I could photosynthesize and glow in the dark. I have wandered up to trees and let my body heap wearily against them, and I have wailed my pain into their canopies. Lately, I say I am hiking, when really, I move through the woods to feel the breath of the trees on me, to walk through their sacred sighs and to begin to remind who I am again. The trees never judge, nor do they answer my attempts at conversation. But they fill me with peace and they teach me something about my place in the world, even if I am not yet able to speak the language of trees.


It is the same longing for connection and communication, to find a common language and vocabulary for all the strange experiences of life that so often go unspoken that lead me to love reading. (That we write our love letters on the pulpy remains of trees is not lost on me, that trees eventually wind up bearing our attempts at meaning. They simply shift forms.) And when, as a sophomore in college, the course listings for literature included a class on Literature and Environmentalism, I knew it was for me. In this class, I met familiars—in my classmates and professors, certainly—but also in writers I didn’t know existed. Aldo Leopold and I scoured marshes together, Edward Abbey and I raged against the destruction of natural beauty. Gary Snyder and I smeared mud on the world and ourselves to become something new. Basho and I watched nature for a punchline. And then Mary Oliver.

Her voice was strange to me, quiet among the brash and clanging agendas of other writers. Where they demanded or persuaded, Oliver invited. I read her poems with my back against a tree and half-expected to catch sight of her in the limbs above—mysterious as a bird, ever watchful and unafraid. She told me the truth without ever having to tell me that it was the truth. She did not plead her case. She ignored the demand for authoritative proof. She sang with whispers I had heard moving through firs. She reverberated with the solitude of a long and swaying trunk. She swung from limbs that held light and clapping. She could speak the language of the trees.


After college, I moved to the largest city I’d ever lived and remember crying in my car because I did not know where to find the wilderness there. I did not know how to find a place of solitude and healing, a place where I could be alone and not lonely. I was filled with fear and dread that this was what adulthood meant—leaving the woods and moving to the city, leaving behind the trees and trading them for unending chatter. I knew that existing separate from the trees would be to live separate from myself, but I did not know how to locate the wild in a place so cultivated and carefully planned. I did not know how to locate the wild within myself. And I did not know how to carry it with me.


Some of my favorite people abhor Mary Oliver’s poetry. They attack her lack of structure, the meandering of her words, how they sometimes drift off into a fog and lack resolution. I’m more unsettled by her works that are too tidy, too clear, wrap up an encounter with a creature in to tidy a bow. You know you’re pushing too hard, I’d think to Mary.  But it taught me that it’s OK to have seasons when one tries to hard, when trying to tidy up the messages of life is key to survival, when the ravages of the natural world are just too much. Oliver never lived in the triteness, though, always returning to a sense of great mystery and acceptance, always writing words of strange grace in the midst of struggle.

I think those who despise her poetry most are the people who want desperately for it to be more. More in line with artistic conventions around poetry and structure. More radical in its demands for justice. More in line with they ways that they see or experience the world. (This, I am finding, is the risk of being a woman who writes prolifically: That at a certain word count, there is an expectation that she become more than what she is, that she begin to speak beyond herself and on behalf of more, that she alter herself to the demands that surround her as a means of defending her existence, as a justification for why on earth we should keep reading.) But despite these grumblings, I’ve never heard Oliver apologize for her poetry, make excuses for what it is not. Instead, she wrote through. A tree cannot be anything but a tree. It is no more, no less.

Without roots that hold us firmly in place, we humans must find our own ways to keep sane and to work through the various injuries that have befallen us. To do so in a way that adds beauty to the world is a particular kind of sacred work. To dedicate oneself to such work is nothing short of living a prayer. Oliver’s poetry never bothered me in terms of poetics, because I’ve never understood it that way. Each poem seemed to me to be a stanza of prayer, a movement, a reaching, a seeking to grasp something that is just beyond and to make it a part of oneself. In the course of a life, it makes sense that some prayers would be devastating and some trite, some poignant and true, some trying to dart around a truth to see if it could be avoided.

In the language of trees, nothing is lost. Everything serves a purpose. The shaggy bark of the hickory creates shelter for insects and thus food for birds. Last year’s foliage feeds next year’s budding. A fallen oak is never wasted, if left to the natural workings of the world. Oliver’s prayers are much the same—not perfect, but rooted in their birthright, never apologizing for their existence, trusting their purpose in all seasons would be revealed.

I have groped and failed more than I have bloomed in my first years of adulthood. But with each fall, the impact has shaken loose what is unnecessary in me, a shedding of skin, a stripping of decoration down to what is essential, down to what is truly me. Oliver’s words have brought me comfort and encouragement more than once—to trust my body, its wildness, to be unafraid to believe in my own voice, to look to the trees to teach me what culture cannot. They teach me how to be beautiful and strong and unafraid, that with age comes a better view, and that when my time is done, my growth will not have only been for myself, but will nourish what is yet to come.

I am in a season of wandering the woods again, a time when I am praying to trees and giving birth to myself again. (Thank God I do not have to do this every spring.) For the last year, Oliver’s poem The Journey has guided my steps, and now it leads me into the woods again.

This past week, a heavy snowfall forced the world to slow for a day, the weight of it heavy in the air and the branches. When I took to the woods a few days into the melt, the junipers sagged under the loads. Trails became obstacle courses of bent limbs to be carefully navigated, lest the catapult be activated and I receive a face full of sap and snow along with the slap of ascending branches. Woods that had not been thinned before now smelled of cedar chests from all the snapped trunks and branches. I found a perfect shard of reddish wood that held the scent of the air so strongly, I pocketed it and brought it home. It is raw and fresh and good. It smelled like life.

On a well-maintained trail, I only encountered one fallen tree, a, splintery stump on one side of the trail and the fallen tree on the other, the open-faced wound of a chainsaw indicating that the tree had been helped on its journey to the other side. The exposed cross-section of the tree was striking, pinky-red center giving way to yellowish new growth, the passage of years painted in rings for any to see. It was a life laid out in the open, it was a tree with its story laid bare even as it still lived, if only for a very short while more. It was raw and fresh and good, this wound, this life, this death. Later that day, I learned of Oliver’s passing.

What I have always longed to learn from trees, what I have only learned from watching them and living amongst them, is how to put together a life of meaning and purpose that wasn’t pompous or over-important. Trees seem to understand this. But without the language of trees, that composition is invisible, hidden within the rings that tell of the stretch and swell of each year, of how growth was possible or impossible of how one developed thicker skin over time. Only with death can this progress be made visible.

Oliver did more than to simply speak the language of trees; she spoke the language of herself. She made visible the rings of becoming through her words so that its mystery could be revealed, so that it might not be such lonely work, so that others who pray to trees might trust that the same wisdom is within them and grow into what they are meant to be. Oliver laid her own life bare and raw before the world and before herself so that she might mark her journey and so that those who follow may be nourished on theirs. This is a rare thing, not to over-glorify one’s own life, but to sing praise for it without self-consciousness. She swayed to the rhythm of the wind because it was there and because she could. This is the wisdom of the trees.

I walked through the woods yesterday and lines of Oliver’s poetry drifted to me as they always do. If I expected a melancholy to fill me because of her leaving the world, I was mistaken. Instead, I felt the presence of the trees whispering to me, like they always have, and the urging of a teacher at journey’s end encouraging me to take up my own sacred work. For there is balance in the woods, between old wood and new, and each must attend to her own growth. The trees know this, as did Oliver. And now I know this, too.

This is the small miracle of answered my prayers: of finding courage and companionship forged through and beyond mere words—a courage that emboldens me to grow and join the glorious forest of those who have truly lived. Thanks be to the trees.

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