Resilience in the Face of Adversity: Mary Oliver's essay, "Bird"

Tim Farrand
Upstream by Mary Oliver

You may only know Mary Oliver through her poetry but she is also an amazing essayist. From writings on her greatest influences (Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, Wordsworth) to beautiful meditations on nature, animals, and the creative life, her collection of selected essays, Upstream, illuminates the timeless truths one finds spending a life paying attention (Oliver's "instructions for living a life: Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell about it.")

One of my favorite essays from this collection is titled "Bird." It contains one of the best examples of resilience in the face of obstacles that I have found. It begins with Mary finding a black-backed gull, badly injured, upon the beach and bringing it home on a cold Christmas morning. She describes that its body was  "so starved" that it was holding "nothing but air." Its wings were broken and, most likely as a result of it not being able to fly away, it looked as if it had been mauled by another animal. This noble bird had a "shattered elegance" about it and the need for a helping hand. Its story tells us how to face adversity and the value of a life lived embracing the present moment.  

Regaining Strength

Mary Oliver near her home in Cape Cod, 1964. Photo taken by her partner Mary Malone Cook.

Remarkably, a day's rest, some food, and a little water—along with much-needed company—resulted in the bird suddenly becoming alert, using the few muscles it had left to sit up in the bathtub that Oliver had put him in. She observes what must be a kind of intuition from the bird that it was in the hands of those who could help it for it showed "no fear or aggression" upon looking at the human figures nursing the little strength it had.  

The bird seemed to enjoy the company and didn't like being alone. Perhaps this came from those many lonely hours it had to spend upon the beach due to its broken wing, vulnerable, unable to fly, and afraid; completely unable to defend itself against predators, probably having given up on any chance of recovery. The bird was given a new lease on life and what once would frighten it—being held in a bathroom with two lurking human figures above it—no longer was fearful but rather abundantly welcome. Being alone was the true fear now.  

The story of this bird imparts a strong case for living with the fullest presence in the face of any situation. The present moment, this very here and now, is worth possessing fully and allowing, as Emerson states, that present to swell to immensities that outshine the "sun & moon & solar system:"  

Life goes headlong. Each of us is always to be found hurrying headlong in the chase of some fact, hunted by some fear or command behind us. Suddenly we meet a friend. We pause. Our hurry & embarrassment look ridiculous. Now pause, now possession is required, and the power to swell the moment from the resources of our own heart until it supersedes sun & moon & solar system in its expanding immensity. The moment is all, in all noble relations. [1]  

As days go by, parts of the bird's limbs start decaying and eventually die away. Oliver creates a little perch to hold up the bird upon which it happily sits with its head erect and its eyes, "bright and clear," looking out (The bird's eyes remain of special significance throughout the essay with Oliver's header quote, from Matthew 6:22, stating: "The light of the body is the eye."). During the day Oliver turns his perch around to look out the window down to the harbor. He seems to enjoy the view. At night, she turns him around so "he might be a part of the inner circle." He learns the routines of the household and waits excitingly each morning for Mary to come downstairs, open the shades, and turn him to face the morning light.

“I will confront these shows of the day and night;
I will know if I am to be less than they,
I will see if I am not as majestic as they”      

- From "By Blue Ontario's Shore" and illustrated by Margaret C. Cook. [2]

The bird teaches us to embrace life without reservation, to fully come alive to the beauty of the moment. Nature has the resilience to keep going despite life's many inconveniences.  

The Resilience of Nature  

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss. Found on The Marginalian.

In Henry David Thoreau's first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he shows a real vendetta against the Billerica dam. There was a time when the shad made their yearly migration into the waters of the Concord River without hindrance. But with the erection of the Billerica dam, along with the factories in Lowell and the canal connecting the Conrod and Merrimack rivers, these fish, once abundant in those waters, were unable to complete their migratory journey. Repeatedly Thoreau calls for the destruction of that dam ("who knows what may avail a crow-bar against that Billerica dam?") and laments: [3]

"Poor shad! where is thy redress? When Nature gave thee instinct, gave she thee the heart to bear thy fate?"  

Against all their obstacles, the fish do not despair for they are brave and indifferent "like shad reserved for higher destinies." He adds:  

—who knows what admirable virtue of fishes may be below the low-water-mark, bearing up against a hard destiny, not admired by that fellow-creature who alone can appreciate it! Who hears the fishes when they cry?  

They are steadfast and return each year to see if their passage is free, to see if Man has left them alone. Each year they are faced with that same obstacle, that damned Billerica dam, so they spend their summers elsewhere, content to try again next year. While this means an absence of these fish for now in the Concord River, they will have a chance to return to it if they are patient. Give Nature a few thousand years, Thoreau advises, and the man-made constructions will have fallen, allowing the natural course of the river to resume as it has for many thousands of years before. (It seems like they are already finding a way back!)  

Life isn't always fair but in the face of perils nature remains constant through it all:  

As yesterday and the historical ages are past, as the work of to-day is present, so some flitting perspectives, and demi-experiences of the life that is in nature are in time veritably future, or rather outside to time, perennial, young, divine, in the wind and rain which never die. [4]  

Nature helping Man - Man helping Nature  

The bird laying injured on the beach, unable to move its limbs, is similar to the helplessness that Walt Whitman must have felt when his paralytic stroke left him having to regain his strength and in the process discover a new view on life. In our lives, as Whitman observed, we look for comfort or meaning in different wants and desires, identities and beliefs, gossip and conversation, everything that makes up the totality of being. We search for what will make the difference but, as Whitman discovers, you only need to "tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies." (In "Sleepers" Whitman writes something similar: "Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave let him know he has enough.") Whitman attributes his recovery to daily going out into Nature and discovering its wisdom:  

After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night. [5]

The story of Walt is one of Nature helping Man, the story of the bird is an example of Man helping Nature, a much needed meditation in a world that often hurts Nature to fill the pockets of Man.  

The bird will rejoice in its days for as long as it gets to be alive, enjoying each sunrise and each day's sunset. Like Whitman, observation upon Nature took a large part in its healing. Oliver recounts the bird's daily habits in the following manner:  

He would swing his head slowly from east to west, and back, and again, gazing slowly and deeply. During the colorful winter sunsets, the descent of the light, he also turned his attention entirely from us, and into the world.  [6]

Immersion in the world  

The bird was fully immersed in his task of looking. There was no ambition, no want. Just pure presence. In the act of watching, the self is able to dissolve away and you can, like the bird, turn "into the world;" become, in some small way, a part of the sunset itself and view it without any selfish lens, just pure connection with the natural energy of the world. Iris Murdoch, in her book about "unselfing," writes that there is a "self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees."

The bird looked upon the sunset and let go of itself to become an active observer. Whitman, upon looking at a sunset, realized what pure happiness was. After his stroke, he went daily into nature which not only revived his strength—for he created a gym to exercise with among the trees—but also produced a change in the way he perceived the world around him ("While I have of course seen [these skies] every day of my life, I never really saw the skies before"). Sitting amongst the trees and watching a "beautiful sunset" produced in Whitman the notion that he was "having a happy hour," something rare which brought to mind the words of Byron who claimed to have only had three happy hours in hours in his life. Perhaps, Walt ponders, he has had many happy moments throughout his life that he could not remember but what is for sure is that for the length of that sunset Whitman was truly contented in that dialogue with Nature. [7]

For a taste of the feeling Whitman might have had looking out at that sunset, listen to Frederick Delius's On Craig Dhu, a beautiful meditation—subtitled, "An Impression of Nature"—upon the impact being in nature can have upon an individual with the subject looking up at the "pallidly blue" sky laying on their back upon a mountaintop:

Returning to the bird  

The bird, in the words of Oliver, was "a small life but elegant" who, despite all its ailments, was "no less ready to play." So she gave him a little stuffed lion. The bird would "very gently" peck at "the lion's red nose" and "lean against him while he slept." I don't know quite what it is about that image of the bird resting its head against the lion that brings a tear to my eye, but it never fails to do so.  

Of course, when one cares for another living being, there comes the possibility of falling into what Oliver calls that "perilous place:" fondness. It is clear that he was just as fond of them, too. Parts of him continue to fall off yet he is still "patient" and "attentive." When he gets restless, Oliver takes him into her study and plays the music of "Schubert, Mahler, Brahms" and the bird gets quiet and descends "into the private chamber of himself."  

The ending of this simple story is best told through Oliver's words so I will not ruin them by summarizing it here. Best to go and experience the original for yourself.  

The bird's story is perhaps the best lesson in embracing the fullness of life no matter the difficulties one faces. I highly encourage that you read the essay (along with the rest of the collection of Upstream) for it has been a story I return to when I need it and that, along with going into nature, seems to help.  

The essay begins:  

On a December morning, many years ago, I brought a young, injured black-backed gull home from the beach. It was, in fact, Christmas morning, as well as bitter cold, which may account for my act.

Injured gulls are common; nature’s maw receives them again implacably; almost never is a rescue justified by a return to health and freedom. And this gull was close to that deep maw; it made no protest when I picked it up, the eyes were half-shut, the body so starved it seemed to hold nothing but air.

A bathtub is a convenient and cool place in which to put an injured bird, and there this bird lay, on its side, through the rest of the day. But the next morning, its eyes were open and it sat, though clumsily, erect. It lifted its head and drank from a cup of water, little sips. It was a shattered elegance, grossly injured; the outer bone of one wing broken, the other wing injured as well. Our guess was that it had become hurt and unable to fly, and on the beach had been mauled by a dog or coyote. In the language of the day, it was bankrupt.

But the following morning it accepted food, a few small pieces of fresh cod. Food gave it strength and it rapidly became, in spite of its injuries, almost jaunty. The neck and breast muscles were strong; the eyes, bright and clear. M. and I talked to it, it looked at us directly. It showed neither fear nor aggression, and we sensed quickly that it did not like to be alone.

Continue reading


1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Journals 1841-1877, Library of America.

2. Print by Margaret Cook for a 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. I discovered these illustrations from Maria Popova's Margination post on them.

3.  Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden or Life in the Woods; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod, edited by Robert F. Sayre, (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1985), 31-2. Library of America, 28.

4. Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 9.

5. Walt Whitman, Specimen Days, "An Interregnum Paragraph" & "New Themes Entered Upon" from Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose, edited by Justin Kaplan (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1982), 780-81. Library of America, 3.

6. Mary Oliver, "Bird," in Upstream, (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), 128-29.

7. Whitman, Specimen Days, "The Sky - Days and Nights - Happiness, p. 793.

January 12, 2022

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