A Glimpse in the Pinewoods of a World That Could Be

Wednesday, January 4, 2017 - 5:30am
Photo by Nishanth Jois

A Glimpse in the Pinewoods of a World That Could Be

I once had an encounter with an angry man. He was angry about something hopeful I'd said during a radio interview. My hopefulness convinced him that I was blind to all that's wrong with our world. He called me a couple of names I'd not heard since I was at Berkeley in the ‘60s, en route to becoming a community organizer — such as "bourgeois evader of social responsibility," or words to that effect.

I'm not unhappy with the way I responded to him. I began by affirming what I found true in his statement — God knows there IS a lot wrong with our world. Then I calmly disagreed with what I did not find true. I invited him to look at some historical evidence that hope can help us make progress on critical problems — if and when we're willing to act courageously on our hope. But I'm afraid that what I said did little if anything to close the gap between us.

Today, at 5 a.m., in the course of my usual poetry browsing and reading, I found this poem by Mary Oliver — or should I say, Saint Mary Oliver! Who’d’a thunk that a poem about two deer grazing in the pinewoods would take me back to my "angry man" encounter, but it did. The key is in those lines,

"This / is not a poem about a dream, / though it could be. / This is a poem about the world / that is ours, or could be."

It's also in that superb final stanza, which is about one way to get to the world that could be ours.

That angry man and I disagree on how to get there. But I'd like to think we share the conviction that there's always a world that could be. What I know for sure is that it depends on us, on thee and me...

“Five A.M. in the Pinewoods”
by Mary Oliver

I'd seen
their hoofprints in the deep
needles and knew
they ended the long night

under the pines, walking
like two mute
and beautiful women toward
the deeper woods, so I

got up in the dark and
went there. They came
slowly down the hill
and looked at me sitting under

the blue trees, shyly
they stepped
closer and stared
from under their thick lashes and even

nibbled some damp
tassels of weeds. This
is not a poem about a dream,
though it could be.

This is a poem about the world
that is ours, or could be.
one of them—I swear it!—

would have come to my arms.
But the other
stamped sharp hoof in the
pine needles like

the tap of sanity,
and they went off together through
the trees. When I woke
I was alone,

I was thinking:
so this is how you swim inward,
so this is how you flow outward,
so this is how you pray.

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Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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Yes, we are constantly confronted with "stamped sharp hoof in the pine needles like the tap of sanity" moments when we encounter people with various opinions and strong attachments to their philosophy or political view. A walk in the wood to breath in nature and hopefully see things more clearly will help.

You could not be more right. While I have never been called bourgeois or an evader of responsibility, I have been called naive for a practice of looking for possibilities in the most trying situations.
In fact hope when it is based in thought and reality provides an opening of great value if we also act courageously on that hope, as you say, rather than remaining safely apart from where the real pain and challenging work are.
I think people who are really struggling in their lives are sensitive to all the talking they can hear, all the "right words,"often from people who are comfortable with stopping after saying those right words and then leaving the active work to others.
Said differently, many people do watch either hopefully or hopelessly from the comfort of the sidelines.

"So this is how you pray." Yes. Thank you, always, ever, Parker.

A dream? Not a dream? I used this poem recently in one of my classes I teach on meditation.
Still mysteries abide.
Thank you.

what a beautiful soul.....Mary Oliver....Saint indeed....

Thank you for this poem and commentary. I don't know how this poem slipped by me unless it was saving itself for today!

I'm laughing as I read this, an identification of sorts. The thoughts were this. Living in refeeling a thing, resentment, crushes all ideas of hope and all chances of sharing a message. When I react, when I need to defend, when I wake up thinking about a yesterday, I might be having one of those :)

There are both horses in me. Both nudge at each other in me. The one with the the stamping is not necessarily the "sane one" in my case but the one of dark and hopelessness and fatigue from the struggles and the other is the one that says get up and get going. It is one of understanding the depressive aspects of Earthcare work that often seems futile and is often filled with failure. So the other horse is the one who keeps asking why keep on doing it? Why not just lay down on the pine needle bed and let the forest cover me up and sleep until ...

Thank you ,dear Parker,for once again ,at the beginning of this new year,rekindling HOPE!
May I keep the Hope alive in my own heart and mind,and may I be willing to act with courage on that Hope,so,as in your words:
"Hope can help us make progress on critical problems."

On one of my returns to my beloved city Dresden in the former East Germany ,long long ago, I sensed among my country people,
the HOPE they held in their hearts for a very big change to happen soon!"
And November 1989 came,and the WALL that was built to keep East and West Germany divided,finally came down!!!.......

with much gratitude for your gifts you share with so much generosity.
Every blessing for your new year!

Thank you for sharing this poem. A sacred encounter - a prayer indeed. Can being open to nature, being still and allowing it to speak to us in its mysterious ways help us in our encounters with one another?