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Attention is the beginning of devotion: Reading queer ecofeminism in Mary Oliver’s poetry

Learning from Mary Oliver.

Art by Sonya Thai

“I thought the earth remembered me,

she took me back so tenderly,

arranging her dark skirts, her pockets

full of lichens and seeds”

– Mary Oliver, ‘Sleeping in the Forest’

At a time where the plurality of life is at dire risk of extinction and whole worlds of knowledge are being lost to the capitalist-colonial apparatus, destroying everything in its path for profit, how can poetry teach us to pay close attention? To walk through the world with our senses attuned to nature and take us back to her tenderly?

Ecofeminism traces the oppression of nature to the Western construction of the white male as the dominant identity with the property of reason. Men are presumed to be closer to the spiritual, more capable of reasoned discourse which their Other supposedly lacks. Nature and all that is associated with it – including women, the carnal, reproduction, and the body – are devised as passive objects.

Queer Ecofeminism shows us how the devaluation of the erotic and the queer — particularly by Christian colonial rhetoric — mutually reinforces the devaluation of women, people of colour and nature. By describing systems of oppression as divinely ordained, Christianity has been used to authorise colonial practices of genocide, rape and the persecution of third-gender identities and same-sex desire in Indigenous cultures. The gender binary and heteronormativity have been violently enforced within colonial structures: they are not the ‘natural’ tendency of humans. This is why, in contemporary discourse, it is ahistorical to cite progress in achieving rights for queer people as an example of supposed Western advancement.

In Greta Gaard’s ‘Toward a Queer Ecofeminism’, she combines the insights of queer and ecofeminist theories to form deeper coalitions. The democratic, ecological society based on the shared liberation that we dream for will be a society that values sexual diversity and the erotic. Nature will no longer be understood as a subservient woman, a mother whom we subordinate and continually deny our dependence on. Nature is meshwork: a fleeting inter-connected space that we have always been part of.

In Mary Oliver’s poetry, she models a kind of subjectivity that is not dependent on the idea that humans are more perfect than the non-human or that reason is more spiritual than the erotic. She encourages us to imaginatively inhabit the subjectivities of turtles, geese, birds, insects, and become one with forests and oceans. The speaker of her poems continually loses subjecthood — itself a tool of dominant ideology — amongst a communion of vibrating, borderless ecosystems that shimmer in reciprocal connections.

In ‘The Turtle’, she revers a turtle who is not faced with societal pressures to reproduce but does so out of a sense of care; “she can’t see/herself apart from the rest of the world/or the world from what she must do/every spring.” By comparison to the turtle’s self-assuredness of her place, the cerebral quality typically celebrated in humans is realised as a flaw that displaces us from our bodily existence. The virtues of connectedness belong to creatures who are mothers in Oliver’s poetry, linked by their offspring’s dependence on them the same way we are dependent on the earth.

Oliver’s attention to the lives of animals leads us to question such distinctions between humans and ‘nature’ which delude us into forgetting our place within it as animals. The turtle’s way of being is held up as an example for humans to follow; “she knows/she is a part of the pond she lives in,/the tall trees are her children,/the birds that swim above her/are tied to her by an unbreakable string.” This type of worldview, where dualities of the self and the Other cease to exist, exercises queer ecofeminist sensibilities. Oliver gestures to the potential of re-imagining our ‘string’ with the non-human world as one of love as opposed to violence.

As a child, Mary Oliver would walk through the woods, reading and writing poetry as a salvation from home life with a sexually abusive father and neglectful mother. She was sceptical about organised religion but still held beliefs. In ‘The Summer Day’, she recognises the divinity in all nature, “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.” This image is echoed in ‘Straight Talk from Fox’ where she criticises someone “talking about God/as if he were an idea instead of the grass.” Rejecting the hierarchy of mind over matter that devalues both women and nature, Oliver pays attention to living things such as grass as a form of spiritual experience.

Queer ecofeminists argue that a genuine liberation of the erotic is crucial to dismantling systems of violence. I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s insight in ‘Uses of the Erotic’ that “as women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge,” due to the misnaming of the erotic by Western society. It is creative power, joy, empowerment, the satisfaction of deep cravings, “to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves” as Oliver phrases it in ‘Wild Geese’. Queer ecofeminism’s vision of liberation involves dismantling Western society’s conception of the erotic as fundamentally opposed to reason, culture, humanity, masculinity and spirituality.

In Oliver’s poem of sapphic desire, ‘The Gardens’, her lover’s body is described as “a deep forest of trees,” and “the dark country/I keep dreaming of.” Unlike most of the writing by men in which nature is a metaphor for women, Oliver does not portray it as an object to be dominated or tamed. Embracing the nonrational knowledge of the erotic, she gains awareness that humans are animals which dominant ideology suppresses, “finding you/the heart within you/and the animal/and the voice/I ask/over and over/for your whereabouts.” She emphasises the necessity of consent to the erotic; it is a communion that affirms the agency of both actors. Sensual bodily experience is blasphemously described as the passage to God as she plunges “toward the interior/the unseen, the unknowable/centre.” In her attention both to nature and her lover, Oliver challenges dominant ideology through an act of love that breaks down oppressive structures.

As women, we have been led to fear and suppress the yes within ourselves, the assent to life that refuses to accept a state of powerlessness. In ‘Shimmer: When all you love is being trashed’, Deborah Bird Rose calls us to “consider the lush, extravagant beauty, flamboyance, and dazzling seductiveness with which Eucalypts say yes.” This sense of bursting open is power, the expression of desire for a world that isn’t built on the violent suppression of the nonrational, which is always constructed in opposition to the white male.

In ‘Pink Moon – The Pond’ Oliver writes:

“So you relax, you don’t fight it anymore,

the darkness coming down

called water,

called spring,

called the green leaf, called

a woman’s body

as it turns into mud and leaves,

as it beats in its cage of water,

as it turns like a lonely spindle

in the moonlight, as it says


Oliver teaches us what happens when we begin to pay close attention to nature rather than seeing it as an undifferentiated abstraction, when we recognise how we are carnal creatures within it rather than denying that knowledge or projecting it onto the Other. When we do so, we become devoted to the liberation and affirmation of our fullest, most loving selves.