Critical Assessment

“Now 81, Oliver has published Upstream, a book of essays that provides deep insights and delightful anecdotes as she examines her role as a writer, reader and a spiritual seeker who constantly practices what she describes as the redemptive art of true effort.

“The book opens with ‘Upstream,’ a lyrical piece where Oliver recalls wading upstream in rippling water as a child while her parents remained downstream. As she moved further and further away, some steps easy, others requiring great effort, she realized that she enjoyed being lost because she could feel her heart opening and opening again. That opening, and ‘the sense of going toward the source,’ informs the rest of the book and her life journey because, as she writes, ‘I do not think that I ever, in fact, returned home.’

“In the 19 essays here, many of which have been published previously, Oliver learns how to find a new home and shows how that process has unfolded, day by day, year by year, one discovery after another.

“Many of those revelations come from observing the natural world — young foxes, turtles laying their eggs, a variety of fish and birds — with all its beauty, complexity and struggles. Others come from analyzing the choices, both on and off the page, of writers she considers companions and mentors.”

Elizabeth Lund, “At 81, Mary Oliver Shares Her Spiritual Journey in ‘Upstream: Selected Essays,’” The Washington Post, October 12, 2016.

First Excerpt

“One tree is like another tree, but not too much. One tulip is like the next tulip, but not altogether. More or less like people—a general outline, then the stunning individual strokes. Hello Tom, hello Andy. Hello ­Archibald Violet, and Clarissa Bluebell. Hello Lilian Willow, and Noah, the oak tree I have hugged and kissed every first day of spring for the last thirty years. And in reply its thousands of leaves tremble! What a life is ours! Doesn’t anybody in the world anymore want to get up in the

“middle of the night and


“In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be. Wordsworth studied himself and found the subject astonishing. Actually what he studied was his relationship to the harmonies and also the discords of the natural world. That’s what created the excitement.”


Second Excerpt

“After the waterthrush there was only silence.

“Understand from the first this certainty. Butterflies don’t write books, neither do lilies or violets. Which doesn’t mean they don’t know, in their own way, what they are. That they don’t know they are alive—that they don’t feel, that action upon which all consciousness sits, lightly or heavily. Humility is the prize of the leaf-world. Vainglory is the bane of us, the humans.

“Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.”