May 23, 2019
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Why a science writer fell in love with Mary Oliver’s poetry

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Pinned beside my desk in The Washington Post’s newsroom, between storytelling tips and accumulated press passes from years of scientific meetings, I keep a printout of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.” “Meanwhile, the world goes on,” I read to myself, my back to the city behind me. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.” During long days under fluorescent lighting, there’s something reassuring about her imagery of mountains, sunshine and “clear pebbles of rain.”

I picture Oliver writing this at a table by a window, gazing past her yard to landscapes beyond the horizon, contemplating the beauty of all the things she knows are out there but cannot see. I try to hold that vision in my head as I turn to my computer screen and cast about for words to convey the catastrophe of climate change, the miracle of cell division, the enigma of the expanding cosmos, which drives everything in existence away from us as space itself grows and grows.

The task always seems more achievable after a moment with Oliver, who died this month at 83. Even on the dullest days, in the most mundane settings, she has always reminded me that marvelous things are happening: the breathless glory of a hawk’s flight, the liquid light of a setting sun. “There are so many stories / more beautiful than answers,” she writes in “Spring.” I just have to look for them.

It feels like kismet that I ever fell for science journalism and Oliver’s poetry, given that, until recently, I felt confident that neither science nor poetry was for me. Alienated by the recitations of complex equations and incomprehensible rules, I spent physics class reading novels under my desk. My one poetry course in high school was similarly frustrating; if the point of writing is to communicate, why be so maddeningly opaque?

But then, while working on The Post’s overnight team and looking for something to cover that wasn’t grisly crime, an editor asked me to report a science story, and I discovered how moving research could be when related by the people who pursue it. This was not the antiseptic science I learned in high school. These were stories with heart, humor and revelation, and I wanted to share them with everyone I met. Did you know that there’s a planet orbiting the nearest star to our sun? Did you know that trees release chemical signals when they’re attacked by insects, to warn their neighbors about what’s to come?

I talked the director of the University of Maryland Observatory into letting me spend an evening with her telescopes, and laughed in awe as Jupiter’s tiger-striped clouds came into focus. During a visit to a wetland ecology center, 10 years after nearly vomiting during biology lab, I found myself delighted at the opportunity to examine a wriggling bristle worm under the microscope.

This was life, I realized, caught in the act of living.

The laws of nature no longer seemed inaccessible and abstract, now that I saw how they allowed scientists to describe what might otherwise go unseen. All it took was asking questions — and the patience of those who provided my answers — to crowd the sky with alien worlds and populate the planet with talking trees.

Had I been reading Mary Oliver, maybe I would have realized all this sooner. Her work is an ode to the power of paying compassionate attention — to considering the world deeply and letting what you learn move you. She has a scientist’s gift for noticing, for observing nature closely enough to charge everyday instants with meaning. She writes of a skunk cabbage blooming amid the muddy refuse around a pond, where “the secret name of every death is life again.” In “The Summer Day,” she marvels at a grasshopper’s enormous eyes, the way its jaw moves back and forth as it eats sugar out of her hand, and likens prayer to “paying attention,” to “kneel[ing] down in the grass” and “stroll[ing] through the fields.”

Oliver’s heartfelt poetry was often dismissed by critics. They called her “sentimental” and “earnest” — as though there was something wrong with being honest and inclusive. But I loved her writing from the first time I read it, just as I loved science from the moment I began speaking to scientists. Where I had struggled to understand what poets were trying to tell me, Oliver’s voice was refreshingly sincere. I saw what she saw, I felt what she felt. And with each poem, she put words to this emerging inkling I’d gotten from my science reporting, that one could make the world more wondrous just by wondering about it, that the experience of living was enriched by awareness of everything else that lives.

“What else should I have done?” Oliver asks at the end of “The Summer’s Day.” “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Sarah Kaplan is a science reporter for The Washington Post.

 



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