The Sweet Grass


Will the hungry ox stand in the field and not eat of the sweet grass?
Will the owl bite off its own wings?
Will the lark forget to lift its body in the air or forget to sing?
Will the rivers run upstream?
Behold, I say — behold
the reliability and the finery and the teachings of this gritty earth gift…
Eat bread and understand comfort.
Drink water and understand delight.
Visit the garden where the scarlet trumpets
are opening their bodies for the hummingbirds
who are drinking the sweetness, who are
thrillingly gluttonous.
For one thing leads to another.
Soon you will notice how stones shine underfoot.
Eventually tides will be the only calendar you believe in.
                              from “To Begin With, the Sweet Grass” ~ Mary Oliver


Comments always are welcome.
The native Texas grass shown in the photo, giant bristle grass (Setaria magna) occurs in only a few counties, primarily along the upper coast.
For the complete text of Mary Oliver’s poem, please click here.


65 thoughts on “The Sweet Grass

        1. That’s true: especially when a species is uncommon enough that it doesn’t show up in most books. I did get a nice refresher course in Texas grasses while trying to ID this one.

    1. As with any poet, there are times when I don’t find a particular poem appealing, but she’s so consistently rewarding that hardly matters. Somehow I’d missed this one, but I’m glad to know about it now. The entire poem’s worth reading.

  1. I’m getting ready to leave for 2 weeks of backpacking in the mountains. What a great poem to serve as a reminder of why I’m out there. Thanks. Simplicity at its best.

    1. When I first looked at the photo, I saw the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. It’s interesting that the St. Louis arch has the same lovely, natural feel as this grass. Most of the triumphal arches around the world are squat, or blocky, or heavy. I suppose most of the difference has to do with developments in architecture, but it’s still a notable difference.

      Sweet and punchy is a perfect description. The woman does have a way of sneaking up on you.

    1. Even though their styles are so different, Mary Oliver has the same regard and sympathy for the natural world as Emily Dickinson — and an eye that’s just as sharp. I think you’ll find a good bit that appeals to you in Oliver’s work. She certainly left us with a lot to explore — and that’s all to the good.

    1. Thank you, Lavinia. Grass is so much more than “just grass,” and it was a delight to find this unusual specimen to share. It was even more pleasing to fnd that Mary Oliver had just the right words to accompany the image: as simple as that single stem, and as profound.

    1. It was soft — but still a little bristly. There’s another grass that looks much like it, except it’s only a couple of feet tall and has a much smaller head, but when you run your hand along it, it’s soft as kitten’s fur. That one’s really pettable!

      Simple as it is, this was a fun photo to make. With such a large seed head, the arch-like composition was almost inevitable.

  2. Over arching theme thing.
    Wonders of nature are more numerous than sands on the shore.
    If only more poetry and outdoors shared and experienced by the very young, we could grow an intelligent, yet still kind generation
    Lovely post

    1. Yesterday, I glanced up and watched a grackle snatch a dragonfly out of the air, both in mid-flight. It seemed a perfect representation of all that is happening around us, all the time. Your sands on the shore analogy is apt, and once we’ve learned to see one grain, the others begin to appear.

      It does seem rather ironic to me that the primary way being used to persuade people of the realities of climate change is through argument: facts, figures, statistics. No argument is going to change the minds of people so utterly detached from nature, because the arguments seem irrelevant. Stir in a dollop of engagement and appreciation for the natural world, and things might change.

      1. Correction for near sightedness always helps.
        Humans learned to run and think to stay alive….some have gotten lazy and stopped both. Hmmm, could be a natural form of planned obsolescence? HaHa
        Almanac is predicting repeated Polar express chill for a good part of the country(middle down as far as Amarillo) this winter…I’ll have to chat with the palms here to bulk up their immune systems

    1. Such a tall grass made using the sky as a backdrop easier than usual. I’m glad I thought of it, and I’m glad you like it. I thought it worked well, and green and blue is as nice a combination as yellow sun (or other) flowers and blue sky.

  3. Mary Oliver surely has a way with words that convey a deeper meaning and I am glad that she is one of your favorite poets. I am happy to learn about sweet grass too and I am astonished to find out how much the grass enjoys growing to super heights.

    1. At first, I wondered about this grass. My impulse was to assume it was an invasive, but not so. Unlike some other very tall grasses like giant reed (Arundo donax) it’s a native, and a lovely one. I’ll be interested to see what it looks like once it’s riped and dried. There are a lot of red-winged blackbirds and other seed-eaters in the area, and I’d love to find one feeding on the plant.

      There’s always something new to find in Mary Oliver’s work, just as there are new discoveries every day in the natural world. She really is a treasure.

    1. Of course, this grass and wheat are in different genera, and not related. This plant’s in the genus Setaria, the bristlegrasses, while wheat belongs to the genus Triticum. I do hope to catch some birds eating the seeds of this grass once it’s ripened; I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t find it tasty. In the meanwhile, we humans have to make the adjustments that are necessary to make our diets both healthy and pleasing.

    1. I’ve done such combinations before. Given Oliver’s love of the natural world and her ability to express that love in creative ways, it seems a natural fit. I’m glad you enjoyed this pairing; I’m always pleased when a find words and images that complement one another.

  4. I’m right there with you on this poem, Linda. I’d be more than willing to let the tides be my time-piece, as you may very well do. Also, perfect capture with the “thrillingly gluttonous” hummingbirds. Who has ever watched the little guys at work and not had similar thoughts. –Curt

    1. Because the arc of my day is determined in great part by the movement of the sun and the vagaries of the weather, clock and calendar are less important to me than to many, and the concept of living by the tides, while still metaphor, is deeply familiar.

      As for hummingbirds, she certainly nailed it with that phrase. The little gluttons with wings may or may not be thrilled as they feed, but most of us are thrilled when we have the oppotunity to watch them. Even non-birders get a kick out of their antics.

      1. There are times when I would dearly love to give up living by the clock. With hummers, it is pure and simple greed. It doesn’t seem to matter how much food is left out for them, their philosophy seems to be it is going to run out in the next minute. :)

    1. Thanks, Vicki. I love the variety displayed by our native grasses, although I’m still not very good at identifying them. This one seemed to invite a photograph, and once I had the image, Mary Oliver’s words seemed perfect.

  5. Such a magnificent photo and, of course, I love Mary Oliver’s poem. It’s a peaceful thing to live by the tides but a calendar keeps me more organized.

    1. I suspect that we both live in tide-time and calendar-time more or less comfortably. I’ve always enjoyed the distinction between kairos and chronos when it comes to matters of time: event-filled time versus tick-of-the-clock-am-I-late? sort of time. Now and then I’ll joke that I don’t wear a chronometer on my wrist, but I do have a kairometer. At least the joke amuses me.

      By the way, a recent post about cashmere goats in New Zealand reminded me that I do have a bit deep, rich purple in my wardrobe: a purple cashmere sweater. It’s buried in my cedar chest, awaiting both cool weather and an occasion to wear it. Maybe this winter!

    1. I’m pleased you think so, Derrick. Spotting these potentially good combinations is a little like looking for your redshanks. Sometimes it seems as though I’ve spotted one, but it’s always good to have confirmation from someone else.

    1. I was pleased with the photo, and pleased to find a perfect Mary Oliver poem to go with it. Now that I think about it, I was pleased to discover the grass is a native, too. I thought at first it might be some sort of agricultural weed, but not so.

    1. I do think so. Not only that, I might have found your distant cousin. I did a search for ‘Illinois native grasses,’ and turned up this page. Since I knew the grass up above belongs to the genus Setaria, I scrolled down the page to find that genus, and discovered there were three Illinois grasses listed, including this giant foxtail. Look familiar? It’s not native, but many grasses aren’t.

      I just love tracking stuff like this down!

    1. I’m glad I chose one of her poems you enjoy. There are certain ‘critics’ who find her writing too common, too approachable. I’ve even seen it called sentimental. I disagree, and so the many people who find her words a wonderful window into the natural world.

    1. I thought this made an especially nice pairing, and I was pleased to find that the grass is native. It certainly was noticeable; the weight of such a large seed head made that bend inevitable.

    1. She certainly can turn a phrase, can’t she? “Scarlet trumpets” did make me pause, though, since I usually think of the flowers of the trumpet vine as orange. I couldn’t help wondering if she was thinking of a different species, or if she might have done that purposefully, to get the reader to pause.

  6. The photo of the sweet grass is taken beautifully, highlighting the exquisite texture of the flower, and the blue sky makes a perfect background. Stunning simplicity.

    1. Sometimes I think there’s no part of the world Mary Oliver hasn’t reflected on, and expressed her love for in words. I really liked this poem, and I’m glad you did, too. Walt Whitman’s fine, but it was nice to have another option to combine with this image. Leaves of Grass has been a little overdone — at least, in my opinion.

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