In early May, thousands of sandhill cranes, oblivious to the lockdown that had been under way for about six weeks, flew over Edmonton en route to their northern breeding grounds. Their muted calls were reminiscent of waxwings, for which I scanned the nearby trees before realizing that the sound came from thousands of feet up in the air. As we joined our neighbours in the street to watch, the migratory Vs dissolved as the large birds paused their forward momentum to circle and drift in the thermal drafts. Far below them on the surface of the earth, we worried about illness and collapsing economies; to these birds, who have plied these skies for ten million years, the day no doubt felt quite different. Just seeing them and hearing their quivering cries was, for a few moments, liberating.
Given the isolation and anxiety caused by COVID‑19, birdwatching has gained popularity in recent months. So has reading poetry. Like birds, poetry is part of our habitat. We inhabit language and literature as much as we inhabit architecture, streetscapes, and weather patterns. Words contribute to the noise of our daily lives, just as sandhill cranes and garbage trucks do, and, like our walls and gardens, they form structures that bind us to some species and separate us from others. Words entangle us with our environments. Poetry, a particular form of word-craft, is nothing less than an acute noticing of language and experience. Like birdwatching, it requires attunement and attention. Indeed, the two activities are not dissimilar. Both put us in a state of meditative awareness, bringing the possibility of surprise, even transcendence.
Despite the ubiquity of birds and poems, both are perceived as somewhat eccentric pursuits, the activities of quirky enthusiasts. This may be because their pleasures are not always immediate or fully satisfying: poetry, like birding, can occasion boredom and frustration. They humble us by rewarding hours of quiet, patient, labouring attention with only a fluttering glimpse, a flash of life that can be but partially grasped. Birdwatchers and poetry lovers alike relinquish control — over time, over certainty, and over established ways of knowing themselves and their worlds. And as those worlds have grown smaller of late, birds and poetry — and especially the poetry of birds — remind us to look upward and outward, beyond ourselves and our confined, socially distanced lives. They expand our habitat even as we remain in one place.
My own literary habitat has long included the poetry of Mary Oliver, who died in January 2019 at the age of eighty-three. Lately, amid the strain of living with the looming horrors of climate change, a pandemic, and an overdue reckoning with the societal illness of racism, I have returned to Oliver for reminders that humans are also living through the changing seasons, with those everyday miracles of opening buds and migrating birds. These things go on — for now at least — and can help us as we struggle to make sense of our world, our histories, and our futures. My ecological habitat also includes, along with migrating cranes, the geese that are the subject of what may be Oliver’s most famous poem — one that helps me understand the appeal of noticing birds amid the pressures of human life.
Far from alienating or elevated verse, the scant eighteen lines of “Wild Geese,” first -published in 1986, are the kind that bind people in a common sense of things. It is a warm hug of a poem that soothes despair by replacing a religious vision with an ecological one. “You do not have to be good,” the speaker tells us in the first line. “You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.”
The poem is a mantra for belonging. As generous as it is simple, it is capacious enough to encompass a range of perspectives and personal histories, including the poet’s own path as a lesbian who left the American Midwest for New York in the 1950s. Many can find a home in these lines:
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
What Oliver offers us is a beautifully concrete articulation of ecological thinking that weaves words and worlds in an expansive poetics of habitat. In them are pathways not just for living, but for living with: for finding one’s “place / in the family of things.”
This place begins with the “soft animal of your body.” Summoning us to inhabit our own physical natures, Oliver establishes an intimacy between humans and other living beings. What makes this ecological image so poignant is that it is not a metaphor: we are animals, our bodies the soft flesh of the world: living, breathing, feeding, mating; vulnerable and impressionable; loving and dying. This soft fleshiness is also our primary habitat: our bodies are the original and, ultimately, the only things that we inhabit, the porous form through which we live and love.
Poets teach us about both of these things, and Oliver reassures us by letting our animalness direct our actions. It is nearly effortless: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” That is all you have to do. And you don’t even have to actively do it, you just have to let yourself do it.
As a birdwatcher, I am happiest when half effaced — when the outline of my body seems to blur just a little, dissolving into warm air, a brief shower of rain, and birdsong. This is a form of intimacy. In Oliver’s loving ecological vision, this intimacy extends from the softness of bodies to the bond between the speaker and the reader: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” The beautiful symmetry of this line — with three metrical feet balanced on either side of the delayed “yours,” held by commas, like cupped hands, at its centre — gives “your” despair a place equal to, while separate from, “mine.” This gesture reminds us about empathy and community, as well as the distinct yet shared pain of living.
The poem’s deepest consolation emerges from what may be its most important term, although it is unassuming: “meanwhile.” Used three times, this languid word — deceptively plain — gestures to countless parallel goings‑on, drawing our attention out of despair and loneliness to the world beyond. This world is not specifically emplaced; it could be almost anywhere. After the intimate habitat of our bodies, “Wild Geese” expands outward to a planetary dwelling that encompasses a myriad of unspecified “landscapes” defined by sun, rain, prairies, trees, mountains, rivers.
Pointing to the simultaneity of lives, of happenings, of perspectives and experiences, despairing and otherwise, “meanwhile” is a word that pulls us gently out of our own self-centredness. It relieves our despair by diminishing it in the face of a world that “goes on,” whether we despair or not. “Meanwhile” prompts what the philosopher Timothy Morton calls “the ecological thought,” which suggests the endless proliferation of other existences that decentre our own, even as we recognize our place in the mesh of living things. That small, abstract word re-entangles us — soft, mortal animals that we are — in what the ecofeminist Donna Haraway describes as our “thick copresence” with the world: with sun, rain, prairie, tree, and river; and with the wild geese who head home, doing their own soft animal things.
The beautiful tension in “Wild Geese” comes from the way that Oliver simultaneously nurtures individual and communal perspectives. The final lines speak directly to us: “the world,” we read, “offers itself to your imagination,” announces “your place” — unique and contained — “in the family of things.” The poem thus encircles us in the world, puts us in its embrace. Yet at the same time, the echoing instances of “meanwhile” ensure that our perspective cannot be the only one. There are others, marked most explicitly by the geese on their way to their own uniquely perceived world.
Humans are also not the only agents in this poem. It is not the poet, after all, but the world that calls to us “like the wild geese, harsh and exciting.” Far from being a passive landscape laid out for our aesthetic enjoyment and imaginative exploration, this world is a powerful, even “harsh” force that “announces” our place — one might even say it puts us in our place. Our place in the family of things is just that: one place — nothing more, and nothing less. For every despair, there is another. For every lonely human, there are scores of meanwhiles keeping us company, whether we notice them or not.
“Wild Geese” prompts us to notice, to do what the literary scholar Laurie Ricou argues we should do more often: that is, “to listen to what the world outside of (human) language systems might be saying.” What does it mean to “listen” in this way? Where does such listening take our imaginations? Like cranes, wild geese are noisy as they migrate from their winter homes to their summer ones and back again. To listen to them is to wonder at their unique existence and perceptions that make up one of the many layers of the place we inhabit, even as it remains in some fundamental sense unknown to us. The Canada geese whose honking cries can be heard from my home every spring and fall are remarkable, adaptable birds. They can live up to thirty years, mating for life. Although some take up permanent residence in warm parts of North America, most migrate twice a year, flying up to 5,000 kilometres in those distinctive V‑formations. Their calls announce the changing of the seasons, but also, as Oliver suggests, the planetary scale of the home that we all share.
In this home, we are connected in ways we might not initially recognize. In “Wild Geese,” the making of art explicitly relies upon the presence of birds. The poem’s wisdom does not reside solely in the human speaker: Oliver’s words meet and mingle with “the clear pebbles of the rain” and the “harsh” calls of the geese and, indeed, of the “world” itself. The poem thus becomes an expression not just of ecological thinking, which entangles us in the mesh of life, but of an ecology of words that is quite literally shaped by the birds that fly overhead, beyond the confines of the poem. Life itself — -finding one’s homely place — depends upon other voices.
The world, like Oliver’s cacophonous geese, teaches us things all the time. The Potawatomi biologist and poet Robin Wall Kimmerer, who describes “the generosity of geese” in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, tells of meeting a Gwich’in man from Alaska who described himself as “a boy who was raised by a river.” It was “a description as smooth and slippery as a river rock,” she writes. “Did it mean only that he grew up near its banks? Or was the river responsible for rearing him, for teaching him the things he needed to live?” Or could it be something in between? “I suppose both meanings are true — you can hardly have one without the other.”
It is said that an aspen tree in France taught the Victorian critic John Ruskin the rules of drawing, guiding his weary arm with its form. Closer to home, a catbird supplied the words for John Glassco’s poem by the same name. Reading it is another exercise in listening beyond human language, and meditating on the relationship between us and the birds who speak: “eh villia villia ’vrehu, eh villia ’vrehu eh velù villiu villiu villiu! / ’tse dàigh dàigh dàigh / tse-de-jay ’tse-de-jay ’tsee-’tsee ’tsìrritse-’tsìrritse.”
Glassco’s catbirds and Oliver’s wild geese help shape our thinking by urging us to notice the different realities that converge with our own. The “world” that “goes on” in “Wild Geese” is not one thing but many. Meanwhile, the rains fall and the wild geese fly home. Meanwhile, as I sit at my desk, the magpies natter in the blue spruce outside my window and the earthworms, unheard by me, dig their quiet tunnels down below. Meanwhile, somewhere out on the northern tundra, the sandhill cranes that flew over Edmonton have reared their young, who will join them on their return.
“Meanwhile” is the best lesson of birdwatching. The pleasure of observing a thousand migrating cranes — as we will soon be able to do once again, if only we take the time — is both the pleasure of feeling ourselves on the earth in relation to these beings of the sky, and the pleasure of imagining what it’s like to be up there. We are not alone when we recognize the more-than-human communities with which we share this planet. In the midst of the largest pandemic in a hundred years, in the midst of protests and riots, economic collapse, social and environmental devastation wrought by climate change, and the narcissistic pathologies of the Anthropocene, this realization, like Oliver’s poem, is a gift. It is hard not to despair in the face of the wrenching challenges of being human. Birds remind us to heed other voices, to let ourselves love what we love, and to do so humbly: not owning the planet, but inhabiting our place in it.
Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986