About a year ago, when I was living in a new city far away from the home I’d loved, I read a Mary Oliver poem called "The Place I Want to Get Back To."
Like most of Oliver’s poetry, its starting place was nature, and this was about an encounter with deer. I read it over and over. I loved the ending lines, "I live in the house near the corner, which I have named Gratitude."
It spoke to me of the gratitude growing within me toward my new home.
A few hours later, a parade of deer went bolting through my back yard in single file, their graceful legs flying over the lush green grass.
What were they chasing, I wondered, or from what were they running? There are no fences in my neighborhood to impede their flight, and there is a tree farm about three quarters of a mile to the south. Nevertheless, I’ve never seen a deer in my yard before or since.
I’m not saying that this confluence of poem and parade was some cosmic plan designed to comfort me in my new home. I am saying that Mary Oliver has taught me to be more observant of nature around me and how the natural world speaks to me of God and my own life.
I think of Oliver this summer as I sit in my usual morning prayer spot, a seat at the dining table that looks out through two sliding doors at my back yard. I love to watch the birds that populate the area. They are so varied and so noisy.
At some point, I realized that one robin appeared to be building a nest in a new, small spruce tree we had planted. I saw the robin bringing bits of dried grass to the tree, and when she sailed off again, I went out to inspect. There was a deep, perfectly formed nest, just at the right spot so that on tiptoes I could peer inside. I was enthralled.
"My" robin, as I began to call her, started to weave herself more and more into my prayer time. I noted that when she would fly into the nest and sit down, apparently trying it out for size, her little head was just between two branches, giving me the perfect view of her profile.
Within days, two beautiful blue robin’s eggs appeared in the nest. As a woman who has given birth to three kids, I had to wonder: How did that tiny little bird deliver those big eggs?
Now, I am watching and waiting with my robin. The other night, we had guests out on our patio, and one part of me wanted to say, come and look at these wonderful eggs. But I felt too protective. I’ve been reading up on robins, and apparently a daddy bird lurks in the vicinity. That evening, I observed two robins sitting on the grass a few yards away, appearing to watch us chatting noisily. Your secret is safe, I wanted to tell them.
Nature can be a frightful thing. Just ask the folks who have suffered the tornadoes in Oklahoma, or those who experience cancer, or people who have been mauled by bears in Alaska.
But the natural world’s beauty is that, if we pay attention, it pulls us into silence and reverence. It has the power to bring us to our knees. It moves us beyond our narrow worries and petty concerns, and stands us in awe of a God wrapped in wonder and mystery.
Caldarola is a columnist for Catholic News Service.