September 13, 2016
Reading Mary Oliver on the Trail

In honor of Pulitzer-Prize Winner Mary Oliver’s birthday, we're highlighting five times we've read her inspiring poems on the trail, along with excerpts from each.

This summer at Indiana Humanities, we’ve been all over the state trekking through Indiana’s wild places while reading works of environmental literature during our Next Indiana Campfires. We’ve been to ten different sites, and more often than not, Mary Oliver’s poetry, which combines imagery of nature with self-reflective and spiritual themes, makes an appearance during our adventures. Oliver, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection American Primitive, turned 81 on Saturday.

In her honor, we’re highlighting five times we’ve read Mary Oliver poems in unique Hoosier landscapes, along with excerpts from each.

1. We trekked through Oliver’s Woods Nature Preserve in Indianapolis and read “The Summer Day” at our kickoff Campfire in early May.

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.”

2. We read “On the Beach” on a warm June day while we walked across the sands of the Cowles Bog Trail at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Read trek and talk guide Krista Bailey’s recap of the adventure here.

“On the beach, at dawn:

Four small stones clearly

Hugging each other.

How many kinds of love

Might there be in the world,

And how many formations might they make

And who am I ever

To imagine I could know

Such a marvelous business?”

3. We hiked through Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve in Evansville while we were immersed in Oliver’s “Going to Walden” and appreciated the old growth forest—Indiana’s largest remaining stand—around us. One question we considered: what does it mean to “go to Walden” spiritually or psychologically, not just physically?

“Many have gone, and think me half a fool

To miss a day away in the cool country.

Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,

Going to Walden is not so easy a thing

As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult

Trick of living, and finding it where you are.”

4. On a pleasant July day, the poem “Skunk Cabbage” helped us appreciate the varied ecosystems at Goshen College’s Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center in Albion.

“But these are the woods you love,

where the secret name

of every death is life again – a miracle

wrought surely not of mere turning

but of dense and scalding reenactment. Not

tenderness, not longing, but daring and brawn

pull down the frozen waterfall, the past.

Ferns, leaves, flowers, the last subtle

refinements, elegant and easeful, wait

to rise and flourish.

What blazes the trail is not necessarily pretty.”

5. We read “Tecumseh” in early August during our sunset hike across the restored prairies of Prophetstown State Park in Lafayette. Like the Native American leader, Oliver is from northeast Ohio; it was deeply resonant to read a poem about the Shawnee leader at the site of his encampment.

“I went down not long ago

to the Mad River, under the willows

I knelt and drank from that crumpled flow, call it

what madness you will, there’s a sickness

worse than the risk of death and that’s

forgetting what we should never forget.

Tecumseh lived here.

The wounds of the past

are ignored, but hang on

like the litter that snags among the yellow branches,

newspapers and plastic bags, after the rains.”

Take this list as proof. In our Next Indiana Campfires travels, we’ve found that Oliver has a unique gift of putting together words that help us connect in real ways to a wide variety of natural settings. Her poetry will definitely make an appearance on the trail as we trek and talk across Indiana at our seven remaining campfires. Sign up for a bit of inspiration!

Interested in learning more about Oliver? Visit her website here.


Next Indiana Campfires is a unique way to connect nature, literature and Indiana’s Bicentennial. The program is supported by the Efroymson Family Fund, the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires. Indiana Humanities is supported in part by Lilly Endowment Inc. and the National Endowment of the Humanities. 

This program is part of the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes Board and the Federation of State Humanities Council in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Prizes. The initiative seeks to illuminate the impact of journalism and the humanities on American life today, to imagine their future and to inspire new generations to consider the values represented by the body of Pulitzer Prize-winning work.

For their generous support for the Campfires Initiative, we thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Pulitzer Prizes Board, and Columbia University.

This post is part of the weekly blog series devoted to the initiative. The post was written by Bronwen Fetters, executive assistant and program associate at Indiana Humanities. Check back every Tuesday to learn more about Indiana’s great environmental literature, find out interesting facts about Hoosier stewardship, get all the latest program details and more.


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Posted In: Next Indiana Campfires, Spotlight

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