top of page
  • Martin Castle

“Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

Photo: Michel d’Oultremont - 2018

Until yesterday morning I had not heard of Mary Oliver but she was mentioned in a post on a Facebook group I belong to - Britain's Ancient & Sacred Trees - with this quote:

"Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished."

Following the theme of the post ... I noticed Braveheart, the cockerel, snoozing in dappled sunlight and minutely adjusting his stance so seeming to vibrate; I watched the Red Kite dance lazily across the treetops across the field; I saw the bumble bee walk into the cavernous mouth of the foxglove flower to be caressed with a touch of pollen; I saw how the chaffinch wooed his mate on the love-seat; the sweetness of honeyed wax filled the air as I cleaned old frames; I smelt the rain that never came - what did you notice?

Mary Jane Oliver (1935 – 2019) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. In 2007 The New York Times described her as "far and away, this country's best-selling poet." Mary Oliver's poetry is grounded in memories of Ohio and her adopted home of New England, setting most of her poetry in and around Provincetown, Massachusetts at the extreme tip of Cape Cod. Much of her poetry has to do with walks she has taken in the woods, but underneath is the idea that it is important to look at the world we live in to get an idea of who we are as humans within an ecosystem. She is known for her clear and poignant observances of the natural world.

She was prolific and probably her best known poem is The Summer Day - click on the poem title to hear her read her own words. I was also taken by Peonies and Black Oaks so I have copied them here.

Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean-- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. 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 in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do With your one wild and precious life?

Black Oaks

Okay, not one can write a symphony, or a dictionary, or even a letter to an old friend, full of remembrance and comfort. Not one can manage a single sound though the blue jays carp and whistle all day in the branches, without the push of the wind. But to tell the truth after a while I'm pale with longing for their thick bodies ruckled with lichen and you can't keep me from the woods, from the tonnage of their shoulders, and their shining green hair. Today is a day like any other: twenty-four hours, a little sunshine, a little rain. Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from one boot to another -- why don't you get going? For there I am, in the mossy shadows, under the trees. And to tell the truth I don't want to let go of the wrists of idleness, I don't want to sell my life for money, I don't even want to come in out of the rain.


This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready to break my heart as the sun rises, as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers and they open --- pools of lace, white and pink --- and all day the black ants climb over them, boring their deep and mysterious holes into the curls, craving the sweet sap, taking it away to their dark, underground cities --- and all day under the shifty wind, as in a dance to the great wedding, the flowers bend their bright bodies, and tip their fragrance to the air, and rise, their red stems holding all that dampness and recklessness gladly and lightly, and there it is again --- beauty the brave, the exemplary, blazing open. Do you love this world? Do you cherish your humble and silky life? Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath? Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden, and softly, and exclaiming of their dearness, fill your arms with the white and pink flowers, with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling, their eagerness to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are nothing, forever?


Nothing to cook today but try completing this recipe:


10 minutes of your time


1. Stand, lay, kneel, sit or lean for 10 minutes in a place of nature - urban or rural, it does not matter.

2. Compose a short observation beginning "I noticed ... "

Robert Macfarlane's Word of the Day is ...

"hiatus – geologically; a missing period of time in the rock record; absence where matter should be. Conceptually, existentially; a discontinuity, a gap in the run of being alive, a cleft or a pause in which all manner of things may be lost or may thrive."

ps: Quercus velutina, the eastern black oak or more commonly known as simply black oak. It is widespread in eastern and central North America, found in all the coastal states from Maine to Texas, inland as far as Michigan, Ontario, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and eastern Texas. In ideal conditions can grow to 40m in height and the wood is used for cabinet-making and furniture.


Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength. “ - Corrie ten Boom
"The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love." - William Wordsworth
"Cling tight to your sense of humour. You will need it every day." T E Lawrence
620 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All



May 20, 2020

Time to stand and stare has been the one great positive of time in lockdown. Lovely poems, and I will take up the challenge recipe!


David Burns
David Burns
May 20, 2020

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty's glance,

And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can

Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare

bottom of page