Upstream revisited ~ by Karen Richards

In our final blog on the theme of ‘This is a Map to Where I Live’, Karen shares some passages from Mary Oliver’s book, “Upstream” and juxtaposes them with her own childhood experiences. In a way, what Oliver expresses is a neat distillation of the spirit of the blogs on this theme, which have preceded this one, and which were published on the 8th, 17th and 22nd of May respectively. Thank you to all who have contributed.

“Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity”.    Mary Oliver

When I was a child, around four or five years old, I had a treehouse, built in the boughs of a walnut tree by my father. It had a floor made of wooden pallets, a small square of tarpaulin for a roof and a short ladder, to help me get up into the lower branches. Here, I would play with my dolls, draw and meditate. Not the formal meditation of an adult, which I would learn later, which is a more disciplined and directed act of reflection, but a continuation of the natural meditative state that children are born with and remain in for as long as the world allows.

I would stay in my tree for hours, often looking out across the cultivated fields adjoining our rented smallholding, which spread out in all directions. I enjoyed staring into the distant woodland and watching the bird and animal life nearer to me. Sometimes I would create stories in my mind about the creatures who lived amongst the trees. At other times, I would just sit quietly and look towards the horizon. When it rained, or even in a thunderstorm, my mother would simply bring me a plastic mac and Sowester and go back indoors.

When I was six, we left the smallholding and the treehouse. My parents bought a small house, just down the road. Here, my ‘playground’ widened to include the meadows, brooks and lanes nearby; lanes full of cow parsley, primrose and vetch, in spring; blackberries and cob nuts, in autumn. When my social circle widened, and I got my first second-hand bicycle, summer holidays would see us cycling for miles, only stopping to eat the jam sandwiches and elderflower pop that our parents had provided.

That time was a gift. It grounded me. It allowed me to remain in a state of innocence for much longer than most children are able. Whilst my senses and intellect were developing, commensurate with my age, I was not subject to unneeded or unhelpful stimuli that would drag me prematurely from a natural state into a world of wants and desires. I was a primitive, in the most positive sense of the word.

Soon life would change. My father would leave us and my mother, distraught, would sell the house.  I would move from the gentle meadows of childhood into the far more rocky terrain of adolescence and the realities of the everyday world. But those early formative years, steeped in nature, had done their work, they developed an inner trig point, to which I could return, whenever I felt blown off course.

When later I became a Buddhist and learned to meditate more formally, it was a homecoming. I still meditate most naturally out of doors, in the fresh air, on a garden bench or sitting in a field.

Mary Oliver writes, again:

” And we might, in our lives, have many thresholds, many houses to walk out from and view the stars, or to turn and go back for warmth and company. But the real one – the actual house not of beams and nails but existence itself – is all of earth, with no door, no address separate from oceans and stars, or from pleasure or wretchedness either, or hope, or weakness, or greed” 1

1. Mary Oliver, Upstream (2016) p114;

6 Replies to “Upstream revisited ~ by Karen Richards”

  1. Love this – thank you Karen. Curious, are you writing a book? Your style reminds me of Katherine May’s ‘Wintering’ (though I like yours more!)

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