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"The Leaf Has a Song In It"

For Sunday October 2, 2011

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Exodus 20:1–4, 7–9, 12–20 or Isaiah 5:1–7

Psalm 19 or Psalm 80:7–15

Philippians 3:4b–14

Matthew 21:33–46

           To think about creation we should listen to the cosmologists. To know the age of the earth, go to the geologists rather than to Genesis. And since nature is the source of dreadful suffering, since it is "red in tooth and claw" (Tennyson), don't forget the philosophers; they help us unravel the problem of evil.

           I thank God for the cosmologists, the geologists and the philosophers. They enrich our knowledge of nature. It's frightening to think how ignorant we'd be without them. They tell an important part of the story of creation. But despite the importance of their stories, they tell us only part of creation's story.

Bristlecone pine.
Bristlecone pine.

           To understand, appreciate and experience nature in all its fullness, we must also listen to the poets.

           Poetry wields a power all its own. Whereas science limits itself to the mechanisms of physical matter, poetry cracks open our hearts. It fires our imagination, stirs our emotions, and provokes our spirits. The purpose of art, said the Russian film maker Andrei Tarkovsky, "is to plough and harrow the soul, rendering it capable of turning to good." That's what poetry does and why it's important.

           Poetry begins where science ends. In her book Absence of Mind (Yale, 2010), Marilynne Robinson critiques what she calls "parascience" — the hubris that science is the only or best method of reliable knowledge about what is worth knowing. "Parascience" ignores one of our most basic sources of knowledge: the essential elements of experience as mediated by the conscious self: compassion and conscience, feeling and thinking, wonder and comprehension, thought and perception, art and beauty, guilt and pleasure. And these are what poetry captures in a way that science never can: our conscious experiences of the magic and mystery of creation.

           Psalm 19 is one of the most beautiful poems ever written about creation, partly because it describes what we experience. The created world declares the glory of God and the splendor of his works, says the psalmist. He compares the sun to a bridegroom "coming forth from his pavilion" or to "a champion rejoicing to run his his course." Creation speaks a special, if speechless, language, if only we could learn it.

Bristlecone pine.
Bristlecone pine.

           The last several weeks I've enjoyed Mary Oliver's new book of poetry called Swan. In 2007 the New York Times described Oliver as "far and away, this country's [America's] best-selling poet." Swan is her twentieth volume of poetry, in addition to eight volumes of prose and two audio books. Her collection entitled American Primitive (1984) won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, while New and Selected Poems (1992) won the National Book Award.

           Oliver is known for her solitary walks near her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and for how those walks provide a rich fund of material for her poetry. Experiences of the natural world inform most of the forty-five poems of Swan: "this gift of the world I adore so much and want to belong to." Consider the first poem in the collection, called "What Can I Say":

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I'll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinished story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

           The "blessed earth" with its sun and moon, wind and water, fox and field provoke Oliver to wonder and awe: "How rich it is to love the world!" To be blind in this dazzling theater is nothing less than "calamitous," a "negligence of the mind." Can it really be, she asks in "Wind in the Pines," that "the wind / streaming especially in fall / through the pines / is saying nothing, nothing at all, / or is it just that I don't yet know the language?" With disarming candor she admits, "Okay, I confess to wanting to make a literature of praise."

           Oliver isn't blind to what she calls "the hard places" of nature. Yes, nature is pretty, but she also names it as "perilous." The fox devours the rabbit, the kingfisher claws its prey. But why not compare that to human environmental degradation: "scalping mountains or fishing for oil." Eating rabbits is bloody enough, but "It's better than what's happening to the mountains and the ocean" thanks to humankind.

Bristlecone pine.
Bristlecone pine.

           Our experiences of the natural world point beyond themselves to a spiritual world. These experiences evoke human longing, purpose, joy, and certainly intimations of "mystery irrefutable," for "Mystery, after all, is God's other name." In "A Fox in the Dark" she describes the spiritual jolt that the material world can give: "if the heart, if it is still alive, / feels something — / a yearning / for which we have no name." A dinner of fresh garden vegetables elicits the observation, "how calmly, / as though it were an ordinary thing, / we eat the blessed earth."

           Oliver's experiences of creation lead to observations about humanity. Just what is my place and space in this vast cosmos? Thinking and reflecting is what human beings do, "not being entirely children of the earth, / like a dog or a tree or a flower." In "The Sweetness of Dogs (Fifteen)" she recalls an evening walk in words that echo Psalm 8: "the moon rises, so beautiful it / makes me shudder, makes me think about / time and space, makes me take / measure of myself: one iota / pondering heaven."

           This provocative beauty of creation is "not to be taken lightly." In the poem from which the book gets its title, "Swan," Oliver challenges her readers: "And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything? / And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for? / And have you changed your life?" Similarly, in "The Summer Day" she asks us: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?"

All references to Mary Oliver are from Swan; Poems and Prose Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), except for "The Summer Day," which comes from The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008).

Image credits: Photos by Bill Newsome, 2010. The bristlecone pine trees in eastern California's White Mountains are the oldest single living organism on earth. Core samples taken from the "Methuselah" bristlecone pine in 1957 indicated that the tree was 4,789 years old.

For further reflection

For other poetry about creation see:

Wendell Berry, "The Peace of Wild Things."

Gerard Manley Hopkins: "As Kingfishers Catch Fire;" "God's Grandeur;" "Pied Beauty."

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