Whitman in the Knapsack: Mary Oliver and the Power of Walking in Nature

Among those who find pleasure in cataloging the habits and rituals of prodigious creatives, the poet Mary Oliver is a familiar companion. Her commitment to long walks outdoors, scribbling notes in a cloth-bound notebook, is both archetypical and approachable.

This vision of Oliver finding inspiration in her close observations of nature, made as she wanders past ponds and through forest-bound glades, matches our intuitions about the artistic process. As Oliver writes in her poem, The Summer Day:

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.

We can also, if we’re being honest, imagine ourselves extracting a diluted version of this inspiration, if only we too could find the time to take our moleskin into the woods. It’s here, in other words, that we find a key piece to Oliver’s enduring appeal.

This is all preamble to my delight in being pointed recently, by a reader, toward a 2015 interview with Oliver, where she discussed the origins of her habit of retreating into nature to wrangle her muse. As Oliver explained:

“I don’t like buildings . So the one record I broke in my school was truancy. I went to the woods a lot, with books; Whitman in the knapsack. But I also liked motion. So I just began with these little notebooks and scribbled things as they came to me and worked them into poems later.”

Today, as in most times past, there’s a lot going on in the world, much of it distressing. We could respond by staring with increased intensity into glowing screens, hoping that the resulting numbness outcompetes the anxiety. Or, like Oliver, we could put Whitman in our knapsack, and head outside, slowly, into nature, with our minds as our only companion.

10 thoughts on “Whitman in the Knapsack: Mary Oliver and the Power of Walking in Nature”

  1. Nice article! I prefer to practice speaking presentations while walking outside. It works out so well. The motion, outside air…. Talking to yourself keeps the neighbors at bay. Printed ppt slides instead of Whitman is not as romantic, but it’s a pleasant way to get the job done.

  2. Why is it that this blog doesn’t support RSS? I’ve just came across Cal Newport material… and find mindblowing that for someone who preaches so much about not using social media and decreasing email use, his blog doesn’t offer the ultimate social-media alternative for conscious readers / responsible tech-‘consumers’.

    Worst of all there is not a tech support email to reach…

  3. I love Mary Oliver’s poetry and I love the idea of walking in nature alone for inspiration, for meditation, to get ideas flowing, for solitude, etc. HOWEVER, I have yet to really do this on my own because as a woman I’ve been taught that it isn’t safe, for example, to go walking through a wildlife reserve without companions. I don’t currently have a partner to go with and friends aren’t always available, and this defeats the purpose of walking in the first place as it’s supposed to be solo. I also don’t have a dog, which could be a little safer than walking alone.

    Obviously there are some precautions I could take such as brining pepper spray and my phone and not walking in the dark, but is there anything else I could do? Or am I nervous aboutit when I shouldn’t be, and plenty of women go on solo nature walks? I’ve been longing to do this for a long time. It makes me sad this is a reality and sometimes I wish I were a man, haha.

    • I take a lot of solo walks and have never felt threatened in any way. I usually go to state parks, where visitors have to register their names/vehicles and park rangers are around if I need help, and I have always felt safe. If you’re wandering around on private land, that’s different. Assaults do happen; there’s always that possibility, for sure. But that probability is much less than your fears lead you to believe. At some point you have to decide whether to let it keep you from living the life you want to live.

      Learning some basic self-defense techniques will make you feel more confident. Start with shorter walks in familiar areas and build up to longer ones as you feel more capable. Take pepper spray if that makes you feel better. Practice awareness of your surroundings and listen to your intuition. And always, carry yourself with confidence, even if you don’t quite feel it on the inside. Walk tall, make eye contact, take up space.

      Most of the people in state parks are there for the same reason you are…to enjoy nature. Follow your instincts, of course, but realize that your fears might not be an accurate indication of the real risk. I hope you choose to get out there!


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