The Clarity and Truth in Winter’s Scarcity

Tuesday, November 28, 2017 - 4:40 pm

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.

Share Post


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 A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.

Share Your Reflection


  • Doug Barr

    “None of us can save the world alone.” In fact even if we all tried to save it the leading way we can, our Mother Nature is so critical we may not have enough time. Even so, if we want to try we won’t save the world by living “more simply” and sharing our “‘half a loaf’… with those who have none.” To save the world we have to start by simply razing our vertical economy so everyone gets a full ‘loaf’.

    • Parker J. Palmer

      Hi, Doug: Thanks for your comment. I agree that (as you said) “‘we won’t save the world by living ‘more simply’ and sharing our ‘half a loaf’… with those who have none.'” But, as I said in the piece, I believe that “we can take meaningful steps in that direction,” because I think people need to get personally engaged with a problem before they can get systemically engaged. I’m sure you are personally engaged with “razing our vertical economy,” so I’m wondering what you would recommend by way of taking “meaningful steps” in the direction of that sort of systemic change? I agree with your goal—how do we get started toward it? As with all questions of systemic change, the question behind the question is, “What does that look like in action?” Thanks again.

      • Doug Barr

        I looked through my activity log covering the past 24 hours looking for clicks through discus on the link to a poem on my website, I left in my comment. I found one this morning from an IP address in San Francisco but none from Madison Wisconsin. Had there been one I suspect you wouldn’t have asked your questions.

        That said, when writing my comment I thought of saying the only step we need to take to save the world is razing our vertical economy but I decided that would leave the wrong impression for there are several “meaningful steps” we need to take. I said razing the vertical economy is first because the economic activity responsible for it is currently the most self-destructive.

        The second step is to discard all religions so the self-destructive divisions they have created since the first one was made up, can heal. The remaining steps continue to empty the void. If we take these meaningful steps quickly we may be able to save the world. “We get started” by taking the first step.

  • Robert Haile

    My wife and I decided to live a simple life;when things stop functioning or break we try to repair them, but if unable, we only replace them if absolutely vital. We have stopped driving, no TV, no digital phones, no dishwasher, and so forth. But we are much happier for it. We have very few clothing articles and deciding what to wear is not an issue, and that is the key, we have much more time for important decisions and actions. We walk or bike to our destinations and are much more aware of people and nature. We have time to volunteer. We live near a 7 mile tropical beach and it frightens me how much small plastic pieces are arriving from far away places and increasing each year; things that people may ave deemed as ‘needed’ but were actually only ‘wanted’ to be jettisoned far too rapidly, scarring the face of our beautiful earth and killing the life upon it. Our lives have grown “thin” but far more mindful and happy.

  • Pingback: Positively Present Picks : December 1, 2017 - Public Psychology()

  • Pingback: Positively Present Picks : December 1, 2017 – David A. Mosley()

  • Pingback: De-cluttering – Wind Rush()

  • Pingback: November in Review - Kimberly Wilson()