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The On Being Project

The Clarity and Truth in Winter’s Scarcity

Mary Oliver’s nature poems are often pastoral and inspiring. But as an honest observer of nature, she knows that the natural world can be harsh as well as nurturing, challenging as well as comforting. Her voice is trustworthy because she understands the shadow as well as the light in nature and human nature alike.

“On Winter’s Margin”
by Mary Oliver

On winter’s margin, see the small birds now
With half-forged memories come flocking home
To gardens famous for their charity.
The green globe’s broken; vines like tangled veins
Hang at the entrance to the silent wood.

With half a loaf, I am the prince of crumbs;
By time snow’s down, the birds amassed will sing
Like children for their sire to walk abroad!
But what I love, is the gray stubborn hawk
Who floats alone beyond the frozen vines;
And what I dream of are the patient deer
Who stand on legs like reeds and drink the wind;—

They are what saves the world: who choose to grow
Thin to a starting point beyond this squalor.

“On Winter’s Margin” is a poem that’s haunted me for a long time. I can only intuit and not fully articulate the powerful meaning I feel in its closing lines:

“They are what saves the world: who choose to grow / Thin to a starting point beyond this squalor.”

I’m sure of only one thing: “Thin” for Mary Oliver does not refer to body type! Instead, that word calls me to live more deeply into winter’s scarcity — to regard it not as a deprivation but to embrace it as a call to a clearer and truer life. The call is:

  • To strip away all that stands between me and what is truly important — the gift, the beauty, the amazement of life itself.
  • To live more simply — shaking off all the “stuff” that clutters my material, intellectual, and spiritual life.
  • To refuse to lose myself in the world’s “squalor” — which threatens daily to overwhelm us in commerce, popular culture, mass media, and politics.

None of us can save the world alone. But as more of us learn to live more simply “on winter’s margin” — sharing whatever “half a loaf” we have with those who have none — we can take meaningful steps in that direction.

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