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The Land and Words of Mary Oliver, the Bard of Provincetown

By Mary Duenwald
July 5, 2009
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BY half-past 5 on a morning in early May, the sun rising over Blackwater Pond had already brightened the pine woods. I stood in a wide natural path, carpeted with brown-red needles, that rises up the forested dune from the southwest side of the pond. In the high branches of the pines and beeches and honeysuckles, the birds were carrying on their racket — warblers, goldfinches, woodpeckers, doves and chickadees. But on the sandy ground among the trunks, nothing moved. Perfect stillness. Could this have been where Mary Oliver had seen the deer?

She had written about them in more than one poem, but most famously in “Five A.M. in the Pinewoods”:

I’d seen
their hoofprints in the deep
needles and knew
they ended the long night

under the pines, walking
like two mute
and beautiful women toward
the deeper woods, so I

got up in the dark and
went there. They came
slowly down the hill
and looked at me sitting under

the blue trees, shyly
they stepped
closer and stared
from under their thick lashes ...

This is not a poem about a dream,
though it could be. ...

If the deer hadn’t been at this particular spot, they must have been no farther than a mile or two away, because this small patch of earth, a two-mile-long smattering of a dozen or so freshwater ponds on the northwest tip of Cape Cod, is where Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who has a devoted audience, has set most of her poetry since she arrived in Provincetown in the 1960s.

She moved to Provincetown to be with the woman she loved, and to whom she has dedicated her books of poetry, Molly Malone Cook. As Ms. Oliver explained it in “Our World,” a collection of Ms. Cook’s photographs that she published two years after Ms. Cook’s death in 2005, the two of them had met at Steepletop, the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, when both of them were there in the late 1950s visiting Norma Millay, the late poet’s sister, and her husband. “I took one look and fell, hook and tumble,” Ms. Oliver said in “Our World.”

Ms. Cook was drawn to Provincetown, where she ran a gallery and later opened a bookstore, and once Ms. Oliver was there with her, “I too fell in love with the town,” she recalled, “that marvelous convergence of land and water; Mediterranean light; fishermen who made their living by hard and difficult work from frighteningly small boats; and, both residents and sometime visitors, the many artists and writers. ... M. and I decided to stay.”

Before long, she had discovered the Province Lands, 3,500 acres of national parkland tucked away on the other side of Route 6 from Provincetown itself. The tract was named the Province’s Lands in 1691 when the Massachusetts Bay Colony became a royal province as it absorbed Plymouth Colony and the land that had belonged to the Pilgrims (and absorbed Maine as well). This is not the Cape Cod of beaches and sailboats, shops and art galleries, but rather a small, shady and cool wilderness quietly teeming with life — a geological and biological wonder that stands in relative obscurity on the Cape.

“Most people think of Cape Cod as beaches and ocean, but quite a bit of it is forested, and there are all types of different freshwater ponds,” said Robert Cook, a wildlife ecologist for the Cape Cod National Seashore. This part of the Cape is relatively new land. It is made not of glacial moraine, as the rest of Cape Cod is, but of sand that eroded from cliffs farther south and was shaped into parabolic dunes by the Atlantic winds and currents. As this sand settled, ponds were formed in depressions in the dunes, and a rich deciduous forest mixed with stands of pine grew up from the sandy soil.

This is what the Pilgrims beheld in 1620, when they landed at the future site of Provincetown. The ponds and forests of the Province Lands are, Mr. Cook said, a small “undisturbed remnant” of Cape Cod’s ancient past. Ms. Oliver’s poems draw vivid pictures of all manner of life in this tightly contained ecosystem: blacksnakes swimming, foxes running, goldfinches singing, blue herons wading, and lilies that “break open over the dark water.”

At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
after a night of rain.
I dip my cupped hands. I drink
a long time. It tastes
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
deep inside me, whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?

Follow Ms. Oliver’s lead to the edges of Blackwater Pond and you can have something approaching a primal experience of Cape Cod. You won’t be alone, especially in summer, when crowds gather to see the locally beloved water lilies that blanket the ponds. But that’s why it pays to go at dawn, as the poet prefers to do. (Known to be a quiet, private person, Ms. Oliver declined to be interviewed or photographed for this article, saying she preferred to let her work speak for itself.)

Finding your way through her stomping grounds without a guide is not simple. Her 2004 collection “Why I Wake Early” is sold in the shop at the Province Lands Visitor Center nevertheless, and although she is well loved in Provincetown and sometimes gives readings at the town library, the rangers who were there on the day I stopped in had not heard of her. Nor had they heard of her beloved Blackwater Pond, which is not even marked on the Cape Cod National Seashore map.

This is especially odd, given that Blackwater is the only one of the ponds in the area that is encircled by a well-groomed and marked trail, the Beech Forest Trail. This can be reached by car, less than half a mile up Race Point Road from Route 6, on the left, and there is a roomy parking lot at the trailhead. Most pedestrian visitors to the Province Lands ponds confine their walks to this trail. But there are ways to get deeper into the woods and see the other ponds.

You can make your way toward Great, Pasture, Bennett and the other ponds to the southwest of Blackwater on the bicycle path, though on the May weekend when I was there, this was flooded and impassable by foot at some points. Also, there are a couple of very subtly marked fire roads leading into the pond area from Route 6, between Race Point Road and Route 6A to the west. (Driving west, you need to look closely for little openings in the trees where there are white signs that say “Conservation Area.”)

Once on the fire lanes, you come across smaller paths leading here and there, dead-ending as often as not at a swampy edge of a pond, blocked by weeds and trees. If you can find your way to Clapp’s Pond, you can take a footpath all the way around. But this is not easy to find; it’s not marked on the park maps, and in the woods, it’s easy to get lost.

“It’s one of the secret places the locals know,” said Polly Brunnell, an artist who lives is Provincetown and calls herself a pond walker. “Tourists don’t know about it at all. I don’t tell too many people about it. It’s our townie place.”

But even if you don’t find a particular pond, the paths leading away from the fire road allow for a nice walk. The climbs are gentle, and in most places the sandy soil is so cushy you can go barefoot, which helps set the proper pace. You’d need to spend a long time here, probably several hours each morning for at least a year, to see all the life Ms. Oliver describes and the annual rhythms she chronicles — cattails rising in spring, water lilies opening in summer, goldenrod rustling in the fall breezes and vines frozen in winter. Or you can simply take her poetry along with you for a long walk in the woods. Based as they are on her patient and scientifically informed observations, her poems allow you to see the deeper life of this little American wilderness.

Down at Blackwater
blacksnake went swimming, scrolling
close to the shore, only
his head above the water, the long
yard of his body just beneath the
surface,
quick and gleaming. ...

I carried a handful of paperback collections of her poems, and I also downloaded to my iPhone her hourlong CD “At Blackwater Pond,” on which Ms. Oliver reads 42 of her poems, and listened as I sought out the places and creatures she describes. (Ms. Oliver herself has said that “poetry is meant to be heard.”)

To follow in Ms. Oliver’s footsteps is not to power walk, but to stroll and stop often to take in sights and sounds and feelings. As she told an interviewer 15 years ago: “When things are going well, you know, the walk does not get rapid or get anywhere: I finally just stop, and write. That’s a successful walk!”

Once, she added, she found herself in the woods with no pen and so later went around and hid pencils in some of the trees.

In her back pocket, Ms. Oliver carries a 3-by-5-inch hand-sewn notebook for recording impressions and phrases that often end up in poems, she explained in 1991. In that same essay, she also revealed a few of the entries, including these:

“The cry of the killdeer/like a tiny sickle.”

“little myrtle warblers/kissing the air”

“When will you have a little pity for/every soft thing/that walks through the world,/yourself included?”

After some hours in the quiet Province Lands, Provincetown itself, with its busy shopping and eating district, exerts a pull. I drove back into the town, parked on Commercial Street, and stopped at the Mews Café for brunch. Seated in the beach-level dining room, I watched the waves smooth the harbor sand while I ate lobster Benedict. Some of the other patrons walked through an open door into the breezy sunshine, where people were strolling on the sand. Ms. Oliver, who is 73, still lives on Commercial Street, on the eastern side of Provincetown, in a building that backs onto the harbor. She has described it as being “about 10 feet from the water” — unless there is a storm blowing from the southeast, and then it is “about a foot from the water.” A child of the Midwest, she grew up in Maple Heights, Ohio, outside Cleveland, where her father was a social studies teacher and an athletics coach in the Cleveland public schools. She began writing poetry at the age of 14, and in 1953, at 17 and just out of high school, she got the idea to simply drive off to Austerlitz in upstate New York to visit the home of the late Edna St. Vincent Millay.

She and Norma, the poet’s sister, became friends, Ms. Oliver recalled in “Our World,” and so she “more or less lived there for the next six or seven years, running around the 800 acres like a child, helping Norma, or at least being company to her.” Eventually, she moved to Greenwich Village, and it was on a return visit to the Millay house that she met Ms. Cook.

From 1963 to April of this year, when her most recent book, “Evidence,” came out, she has published 18 volumes of poetry, plus six books of prose; all but two of her books are still in print. Her Pulitzer Prize came in 1984, and in 1992 she won the National Book Award. From time to time over what she has called her “40-year conversation” with Ms. Cook, she or the couple together would go off to places like Sweet Briar, Va., and Bennington, Vt., where Ms. Oliver would teach poetry writing. But their home base was always Provincetown.

“People say to me: wouldn’t you like to see Yosemite? The Bay of Fundy? The Brooks Range?” she wrote in “Long Life,” a book of essays. “I smile and answer, ‘Oh yes — sometime,’ and go off to my woods, my ponds, my sun-filled harbor, no more than a blue comma on the map of the world but, to me, the emblem of everything.”

She does give some of her time to the sea, walking along the shore — especially, it seems along Herring Cove, just northwest of Provincetown below the curled top of Cape Cod. She has told in her poetry of picking up an ancient eardrum bone from a pilot whale and has written about the whelks: “always cracked and broken —/clearly they have been traveling/under the sky-blue waves/for a long time.”

Herring Cove is a peaceful stretch of sand for a morning walk, one of the rare beaches on the East Coast that faces west. And it comes with two large parking lots. A stroll from the car northwest to where, the morning I was there, the ocean water was streaming onto the beach, and back, took about 40 minutes.

Another day, wanting a different kind of exercise, I tried my hand — or rather, my feet — at crossing the Provincetown breakwater, a half-mile-long row of enormous cubes of stone. The Army Corps of Engineers constructed this barrier in 1911 to keep shifting sands from the dunes out of the harbor. People of all ages were crossing with ease, it appeared, leaping in places from one angled surface of rock to the next. But once I got out a ways, I starting thinking about how long it might take to make it all the way there and back (it is said to take one to two hours each way, depending on your pace) and what would happen if I turned an ankle. The reward for making it all the way across is a walk on Long Point, a curving strip of beach less than two miles long, with lighthouses on either end, but I didn’t make it.

At dawn the next morning, I was back in the woods.

Walking the trails, you may not see every sight Mary Oliver’s eyes have taken in, but you will be hard-pressed to find anything she hasn’t turned into verse. I thought of this as I watched a half-dozen little white butterflies flitting around the sunlit spots on a trail in front me, then looked through her books to see if she had written about them. Indeed, in the collection “Blue Iris,” I found “Seven White Butterflies”: “Seven white butterflies/delicate in a hurry look/how they bang the pages/of their wings as they fly . ...”

After a few days in the Province Lands, just before leaving, I stopped back at good old Blackwater Pond. Birdwatchers were quietly making their way along the Beech Forest Trail, stopping to aim their binoculars at orioles and black-throated blue warblers. I sat beside the water under a bunch of pines and opened Ms. Oliver’s “American Primitive” to reread “In Blackwater Woods” and imagine this landscape in other seasons, when “the trees/are turning/their own bodies/into pillars/of light” and “cattails/are bursting and floating away,” part of the cycle of life here that Ms. Oliver has watched so many times. Her appeal to her audience seems especially clear here — her sharp eye, her tugs of emotion as she relates the outer world to a deeper interior experience:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

VISITOR INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE

Most visitors drive to Provincetown, covering the length of Cape Cod on Highway 6 all the way to the end. Once you reach Provincetown in summer, however, parking is hard to find. An alternative, if you don’t mind flying in a plane so small you may be asked if you’d like to sit in the copilot seat, is to take Cape Air from Boston. Tickets can be purchased through JetBlue or directly from Cape Air (www.capeair.com) for under $100 each way.

The Bay State Cruise Company (877-783-3779; www.boston-ptown.com) runs ferries to Provincetown from Boston. The trip takes 90 minutes, and round-trip tickets sell for $79.

HOW TO GET AROUND

The Province Lands have well-paved bicycle trails that take you though the woods, alongside the ponds and over to Herring Cove beach. Maps are available in wooden boxes along the trails and at the Visitor’s Center on Race Point Road. Bicycle rentals are available at Ptown Bikes, 42 Bradford Street (508-487-8735; www.ptownbikes.com), and at Gale Force Bikes, 144 Bradford Street Extension (508-487-4849; www.galeforcebikes.com).

Enterprise Rent-A-Car has a small franchise office at the Provincetown Airport (508-487-0009).

WHERE TO STAY

The Watermark Inn, a beautifully designed hotel on the eastern end of Commercial Street, is quiet and has romantic ocean views (508-487-0165; www.watermark-inn.com). From late June to early September, suites range from $205 to $470 per night.

The Anchor Inn Beach House is a finely restored three-story inn with rates in summer from $195 for a “town view” room to $395 for one looking out at the waterfront (508-487-0432; www.anchorinnbeachhouse.com).

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

The Mews Restaurant and Café at 429 Commercial Street (508-487-1500; www.mews.com) serves dinner nightly from 6 p.m. and brunch on Sunday. Try the lobster Benedict ($17) at brunch.

Jimmy’s HideAway (179 Commercial Street; 508-487-1011; jimmyshideaway.com), only two years old, is already loved in Provincetown for its congenial atmosphere. Eat at the bar, and you’ll make new friends. Try the pork tenderloin with mango and cranberry gravy ($24).

Ciro and Sal’s is tucked away down Kiley Court behind 430 Commercial Street (508-487-6444; www.ciroandsals.com). The downstairs dining room is a cozy, low-ceilinged and brick-walled place for a warm meal. Try one of the six classic Italian veal dishes, $23.50 to $36.75.

OTHER ATTRACTIONS

Provincetown’s busy district of small shops and galleries clustered on Commercial Street is by the harbor.

At the far west end of town is Pilgrim’s Landing, the place where the Pilgrims first had a look around the New World, in November of 1620. Across the street from the commemorative park is the beginning of the breakwater leading out to Long Point and its two lighthouses — Wood End Light on the west and Long Point Light on the east.

The Pilgrim Monument is farther inland, in the center of Provincetown — a gray stone crenelated tower 252 feet high. Climb the internal stairs and ramps to the top to take in the view (www.pilgrim-monument.org).

PLACES THAT GAVE FORTH WORDS

Some of America’s best-known poets are identified with places where their experiences influenced their poetry. Here is a guide to tracing the footsteps of a few.

Mary Oliver: Provincetown, Mass.

In the Province Lands on Cape Cod, well-paved bicycle trails wind though the woods, along the ponds and over to Herring Cove beach, all areas explored in Ms. Oliver’s poems. Maps are available in wooden boxes along the trails and at the Visitor’s Center on Race Point Road. Bicycle rentals are available at Ptown Bikes, 42 Bradford Street (508-487-8735; www.ptownbikes.com) and at Gale Force Bikes, 144 Bradford Street Extension (508-487-4849; www.galeforcebikes.com).

In Provincetown, the harbor breakwater leads out to Long Point and its two lighthouses — Wood End Light on the west and Long Point Light on the east. Amid shops and galleries clustered on Commercial Street, the Mews Restaurant and Café at 429 Commercial Street serves lobster Benedict ($17) at its Sunday brunch (508-487-1500; www.mews.com).

Emily Dickinson: Amherst, Mass.

Emily Dickinson spent all but 15 years of her life at the Homestead, her family house in Amherst, Mass., and managed to exercise an enormous amount of curiosity and creativity there. An avid student of nature, she did not romanticize:

A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw ...

The house and her brother’s house next door are now the Emily Dickinson Museum (280 Main Street; 413-542-8161; www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org). Hours vary by season. A 90-minute tour is $10, and a self-guided audio tour relates 30 poems to the landscape.

The nearby Jones Library (43 Amity Street; 413-259-3090; www.joneslibrary.org) regularly displays items from its Emily Dickinson collection of manuscripts, letters and documents. And from May 22 to Oct. 31, the Amherst History Museum (67 Amity Street; 413-256-0678; www.amhersthistory.org) is featuring the exhibition “Emily Dickinson’s Amherst.”

Amherst and nearby Northampton are strollable New England towns with bookstores, shops, cafes and several college campuses, including Amherst College, of which Dickinson’s grandfather was one of the founders, and Smith College in Northampton, where the first reading in this fall’s series at the Poetry Center (www.smith.edu/poetrycenter) will be given by Mary Oliver on Sept. 29.

Carl Sandburg: Illinois

The house where Sandburg grew up in Galesburg is a state-run museum (331 East Third Street; www.sandburg.org; 309-342-2361) open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday to Sunday. From there, the traveler can follow him 150 miles to Chicago, his “City of the Big Shoulders” (which, in a less often quoted line, he went on to address: “They tell me you are wicked and I believe them”). On the North Side, the house at 4646 North Hermitage Avenue where Sandburg lived from 1912 to 1915 is a Chicago landmark, though visitors cannot go inside. Downtown, the 17-story building at 5 North Wabash Avenue housed offices of System, a business magazine where Sandburg worked as a copy editor — and wrote poetry on the side. Stop for a coffee in Mallers Deli on the third floor of the building across the street (5 South Wabash) and immerse yourself in Sandburg’s landscape of the old buildings while you listen to the rattle of the elevated train going by.

The gray stone apartment building at 54 West Hubbard Street was a courthouse where Sandburg worked as a newspaper reporter; old photos are in the lobby. Half a block away, at 420 North Clark Street, is Boss Bar (312-527-1203), a shot-and-a-beer kind of place that would have fit Sandburg’s Chicago. And at the Chicago History Museum (1601 North Clark Street; 312-642-4600; www.chicagohistory.org) dioramas illustrate the city’s progress from a frontier outpost to the gritty industrial powerhouse Sandburg described. One artifact of that era is the 135-year-old gate to the now-defunct Stock Yard, still standing at Exchange Avenue and Peoria Street.

Robert Frost: Bennington, Vt.

Frost wrote many of his best-known poems while living at the Stone House in South Shaftsbury on Route 7A near Bennington from 1920 to 1929 — and paying close attention to the world around him there.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The house, on seven wooded acres, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (802-447-6200; www.frostfriends.org; admission $5). Frost’s grave is in Bennington, at the cemetery of the First Congregational Church, usually called the Old First Church; the marker is inscribed with his words “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” Bennington is a charming place with well-preserved old houses in styles from Federal to Queen Anne and with Tiffany glass and works by Grandma Moses in the Bennington Museum. It’s not difficult to imagine Frost strolling along Monument Avenue, near the 306-foot stone obelisk commemorating a battle in the Revolutionary War.

<i>MARY DUENWALD is deputy editor of the Op-Ed page of The New York Times.</i>