Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

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.

Tell me about your 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.


Six weeks ago, our instructor, Nancy, read Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” to us in a lush meadow sprinkled with wildflowers in the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I remember sensing the power of her poem. But in many ways, it was a collection of sweet words that I didn’t yet understand. After spending these past six weeks immersed in the tangled beauty of wild lands, I live her words more every day.

Through some sacred, ancient process, or perhaps a wild miracle, I emerged from my time in the wilderness knowing my place in the world. It was fascinating to discover a feeling that I did not know was missing. Before, I remember living with an amorphous feeling of unrest. A vague dissatisfaction that was too subtle to taste or ever fully process. I moved around a lot, yearning for something unknown. Fulfillment slipped in and out of my life like water through my fingers.

In the backcountry, with my beautiful WRFI babes by my side, I felt completely emotionally fulfilled and at peace. Every day, these feelings got stronger. Every day, the vibrancy of the world around me announced itself. There were moments when I would look at the people I was with and the beautiful life we had created for ourselves and I would feel so good I thought my heart was going to explode. I honestly had no idea such a thing was possible. Happiness was a familiar feeling, but it had never before been a lifestyle.

Fascinated with this transformation, I longed to figure out where all this goodness had come from. I wanted to map the path to this feeling so I could always find my way back. I distilled four lessons that I had learned in the backcountry, four ingredients that together made perfect peace.

First, humility. The wilderness, in more ways than I could count, shook me to my bones. It showed me unquestionable reminders that I was small. I remember the deafening cracks of thunder. I remember feeling the soft pulse of a lightning bolt that traveled through the earth to my toes while they hung innocently off my sleeping pad, meeting the ground. I remember being pelted with hail and winds while I tried to cook dinner, clutching the pots to keep the boiling water from spilling on my lap. I remember seeing the fresh tracks of grizzlies in our campsite, and pleading for the sun when the sky wouldn’t stop raining.

These moments bled into my discovery of vulnerability. Vulnerability is no different than honesty. When you’re shivering and you crave warmth, announce your needs. If you’re lucky, soon you’ll be wrapped up in the center of a cinnamon roll hug, or nestled into the heart of a noodleneedle nap. Ask and you shall receive. Be honest about your mushy insides and people will feel safe with you. It’s easier for people to love you when they can see all of you.

Humility and vulnerability settled in my heart after I learned that I was susceptible to the same natural forces as everything else. I fought off the same chilling winds as the wildflowers. I survived the same thunderstorms as the wolverines. I feared the same predators as the elk. All the while, we shared the same joys. We all rejoiced under the hot, sleepy rays of the sun. We all knew how to appreciate a good meal, and how to work for it. After recognizing this unquestionable unity, I saw myself enmeshed in the fabric of the world.

Despite my exposure to certain dangers, simply knowing my place in the world made me feel safe. The world, befriended, was welcoming and comfortable. I was ready to explore. Empowerment, my third ingredient. The rush of scaling a rocky cliff by myself and yearning to climb higher. Scrambling up rocks. Sliding down snow. The unbelievable feeling of gratitude and pride after peaking out on a ridgetop and seeing the contours of the earth carved out beneath me.

Finally, purpose. Just like the elk, I did not spend my nights awake, anxiously processing fears that life is meaningless. I slept deeply, anchored to the earth by the soothing weight of my full heart. Under the stars, there was no question of what my purpose is. I learned, as I know now, that I am here on this earth to be and to love. To love the earth, to be with the earth, to be of the earth and for the earth. To love and be with all the little creatures, and the big creatures, the people and plants that make up the fabric of life.

Now, with every uncertainty, I remind myself, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” I gaze into the beauty and mystery of the world around me, I see my place in the tangle, and I let my heart guide me forward, stepping graciously into my future.

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