top of page

Poetry of Nature | Late Autumn | Geoff Oelsner

This is one of two letters available monthly to Poetry of Nature subscribers.

For full access to the Poetry of Nature letters please subscribe

to the Letters Level program on the membership page.

Geoff’s Giftings for November, 2023

Dear Poetry of Nature Friends,

This day is a gift.


Tides of sorrow and horror flow through as we see and feel the mounting wars. What helps you keep your balance and stay grounded in this torrent?

I want to offer you a poem by the American poet, Jack Gilbert (1925-2012). In addition to the seemingly endless pain and grief, “the 10,000 sorrows” of this life, there are also “the 10,000 joys.”

A Brief For The Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies

are not starving someplace, they are starving

somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.

But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.

Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not

be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not

be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women

at the fountain are laughing together between

the suffering they have known and the awfulness

in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody

in the village is very sick. There is laughter

every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,

and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,

we lessen the importance of their deprivation.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,

but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have

the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless

furnace of this world. To make injustice the only

measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,

we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.

We must admit there will be music despite everything.

We stand at the prow again of a small ship

anchored late at night in the tiny port

looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront

is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.

To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat

comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth all

the years of sorrow that are to come.

~ Jack Gilbert from Refusing Heaven: Poems (2005)

Going deeper, beyond dynamics of defense or sweet feelings of delight: in the Surangama sutra, Buddha asks some of his enlightened disciples how they made it to awakened arhat. Avalokiteshvara explains how hearing served as a dharma gate for him, how as he listened more and more deeply to outer sounds, then to hearing itself, he opened into increasingly more holistic states of compassionate consciousness, hearing the cries of world from a place of illimitable peace. What a gift to have the Dalai Lama incarnating that. What a gift to have moments like Gilbert’s where you are too. His hearing of the oars in silence was a dharma gate for him, as was Basho’s frog splashing into the pond.

We’re different, but not separate. Our individual peace, happiness, joy and compassion naturally bless the collective.

May it be so.

Standing Stones in Twilight; Avebury, UK.

This last PON letter of the year travels a more varied terrain than the previous ones. There’s a lot I’d like to share with you.

Are you warm? We here in NW Arkansas are chilling—forty degree mornings, early dusk and darkness. It’s a good time to settle back with one’s favorite music. Do you listen to J.S. Bach? I recently got a fine old two volume set of Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s wonderful biography of him and it’s re-inspired me to visit, to listen to Bach’s pure music

About ten years ago I discovered a new favorite musician: Simone Dinnerstein is a most amazing interpreter of Bach. A Julliard-trained pianist with a refreshingly democratic attitude toward sharing her music (she plays prisons, nursing homes, and lots of NYC public schools as a community service) she also lights up concert halls all over the world. She has many fans, one of them Bob Dylan. Her many CD’s, including for one “Bach, a Strange Beauty,” are worthy of the attention of anyone that likes to be bathed in Bach-bliss.

It’s interesting…

Simone’s dad is a very noted realistic oil painter, Simon Dinnerstein. His images are easily found online, and they all have a lit-from-within quality– all objects and persons are rendered as events of living light and embodied energy.. Like father, like daughter: there’s huge fidelity and commitment in the artistic work of each.

The great French artist, Odilon Redon (1840-1916) wrote: “the function of art is place the visible at the service of the invisible.” I feel Bach’s music exemplifies that.

I think of him as a spiritual “world teacher” whose music endlessly inspires, but without the unfortunate, potentially divisive superstructure of religious belief (some call it dogma) that has this nasty, patriarchal way of fomenting religious wars and persecution.

May music bring you gifts of comfort and upliftment as we dive deeper into fall and winter.

The old Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts” was written by Elder Joseph at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine in 1848. Several Shaker manuscripts indicate that this is a “Dancing Song” or a “Quick Dance.” The references to “turning” in the last two lines have been identified as dance instructions. Please feel free to get up and dance, or at least to let yourself dance inside.

Here are the lyrics to Elder Joseph’s one-verse song:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come round right.

This olden song speaks meaningfully to our current situation, in which we are corporately lording it over the Earth, and taking her gifts without returning. Monoculture takes and takes from and doesn’t return nutrients to the soil. Our present petrochemical and nuclear energy sources spew life-threatening Co2, radioactive wastes, and other pollutants into air, soil, and water. The Arctic ice cover is melting. Wildfires burn out of control. Ancient trees are dying. Storms growing more violent. Deserts spreading. Clean water becoming scarce.

We need to bow and to bend and to come down where we ought to be.

Lake Superior Shore, Wisconsin, U.S.

My own distress and grief about this situation are part of the motive force behind this letter. As you know, that grief so many of us feel so keenly can paralyze, or it can spur us to political action, which is essential. “Simple Gifts” suggests to me that as we shed our hubris and get more grounded, the love and delight and sense of connection and belonging we feel become something substantial we can give back to Mother Earth. Love and delight well up in us naturally when we feel our shared existence with all life.

That capacity to feel our shared existence is the precious merging capacity that we have as children. Also called the “symbiotic phase” in Margaret Mahler’s theory of the mother/child relationship, the symbiotic relation is an early phase of development that precedes the infant’s separation/individualization phase, where the mother begins to be seen as another being. The symbiotic phase is characterized by a sense of the total enmeshing of mother and child, who thus form a “unity of two.”

This merging capacity can develop to extend beyond the boundaries of family to the whole universe if healthy maturation continues after the symbiotic phase passes. It has a better chance of doing so the infant is mirrored and nurtured by his or her mother in a healthy, “good enough” way. According to A.H. Almaas in his chapter on “Merging” in The Pearl Beyond Price, Integration of Personality into Being: An Objects Relation Approach, what arises in infancy as the merging phase possesses the potential in adulthood for spiritualization into what he terms the “Merging Essence.”

Do you experience felt senses of merging, times of union or communion? Take this question as a prompt to write a poem or prose piece about one or more such moments—dharma gates— if so moved.

I can say from my own experience that merging may also develop in a compensatory way: as a premature baby, I was separated for 6 weeks from my mother after my birth, and I didn’t bond well with her. Deeply bonding and even merging with the environment itself have been a source of solace and joy to me.

This compensatory blessing was quickened in me largely thanks to my maternal grandfather, Ernie Beyer, who lives on in my heart though he died when I was 10. Ernie and I spent many days together at the lake house he built outside Kansas City. It was there he taught me to ice skate, play baseball and helped me start a rock collection I still add to all the time. On our walks in the country we closely observed snakes and plants, butterflies and moths. I wrote this poem for him when I was in my early 20’s:


For my Grandfather, Ernest L. Beyer (1900-1960)

Multiple moons,

our nights,

I remember in the wings

of the pink sphinx moth

which enwrapped about

the village of my childhood.

With the soul of a grandfather

it flies before me

into the terrain of dreams,

my gentle teacher.

Guidance can come in many ways, through many dharma gates: as a still small voice, through the ancestors, through dreams.

I can still see Ernie’s smiling eyes squinting out across the lake as he rowed our little boat out in the early morning, and pointed out a kingfisher or a great blue heron or a water bug doodling around in the shallows, with the excitement of a child himself. All this became part of me as a child… I think that’s when the following song began to gestate within me. I wrote the first few verses when I was 15 or so, and the rest came suddenly about 40 years later as I was walking through a park where we live in Fayetteville, Arkansas:

Piney Green River

We set out one day to sail down that Piney Green River,

The boatman and I, our hopes running high.

We set out one day to sail down that Piney Green River.

The waters ran down with a bound-for-home sound.

I said to the boatman, “Well, I hardly know you.”

He said, “Take your time. Just sit back and watch as the treetops fly by.”

We set out one day to sail down that Piney Green River.

The waters ran down with a bound-for-home sound.

The ship split the mist with the tip of its bowsprit.

The boatman’s eyes smiled as the silence replied.

We set out one day to sail down that Piney Green River.

The waters ran down with a bound-for-home sound.

We passed through the pinewoods. I heard voices calling.

Or was it the wind, or the echoes of songs of the ones that had been?

We set out one day to sail down that Piney Green River.

The waters ran down with a bound-for-home sound.

We set out one day to sail down that Piney Green River.

The boatman and I, our hopes running high.

We set out one day to sail down that Piney Green River.

The waters ran down with a bound-for-home sound.

You can hear a recording of my singing “Piney Green River” in my wife’s and my book Attunements for the Earth, or at by clicking on the link in “Songs.”

Buffalo River, Arkansas, U.S.

It’s been a joy to share soul making and poetry with you this year. May guidance and wisdom, peace and protection, love and community, joy and delight be yours going forward.

Please Touch the Earth with Love,

Geoff Oelsner


bottom of page