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A walk in Blackwater woods: loss and renewal

December 02nd, 2019

In Blackwater Woods


by Mary Oliver


Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.



Earlier this year, Mary Oliver, the American Pullitzer-prize winning poet, died. She was in her 80s and had lived a good life, much of it on Cape Cod on the East Coast of the United States.


For much of my life, Mary Oliver’s poetry has been a source of inspiration, joy and solace and I have often turned to her in my work with therapy clients, when my own words have failed me. Somehow, I always imagined her walking with me and my dog in the forests in Suffolk, as she was a poet who wrote mostly about nature, animals (in particular, her own dogs) and her longing for peace and connection to the world.


But it was not to be. Stubbornly, I have refused to acknowledge that she has gone and continued my conversations with her on my regular walks around Dunwich forest.


In October, I had the chance to go to Cape Cod to visit family. Inspiration came to me – and I searched for Blackwater pond and woods and found they were only a 20-minute drive from where I was staying. On a wonderful, sunny, autumnal day I walked the path around the pond that Mary must have walked so many times. The water was glassy, full of fallen leaves, the trees were gold, red, brown, green, the ground soft and covered with pine needles. Now, here was my chance to say goodbye, to thank her for all her wisdom, wit and warmth, even though we never met. To mourn her and to feel joy for all she has contributed to my life.


This is the work of loss. We thank the beautiful falling leaves in autumn for all the joy they bring us from the earliest spring buds, through the full luscious green of high summer, to the blaze of colour that heralds autumn. And we mourn the end of summer, the loss of light, the darkening into cold winter. The Greeks understood this with their myth of Demeter, the goddess of earth and agriculture, who through mourning the loss of her daughter, Persephone, to the underworld for six months each year, brought about the barren winter. Her return from the underworld after those six months meant that spring could come and the world would burst back into life.


Without grief we cannot let in new life. There is a rightness to mourning what and who we love. And as Mary puts it, we must cherish what we love, hold it close but when the times comes, let it go.


As we emerge from grief we can once more feel alive and drink deeply.


At Blackwater Pond


By Mary Oliver


At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
after a night of rain.
I dip my cupped hands. I drink
a long time. It tastes
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
deep inside me, whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?




Article by Deborah Lyttelton
Counsellor & Psychotherapist

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