Study Guide

Flare Man and the Natural World

By Mary Oliver

Man and the Natural World

          Mostly, though, it smelled of milk, and the patience of animals; the
give-offs of the body were still in the air, a vague ammonia, not unpleasant. (2.8-9)

The barn is described in a way that sounds almost mystical or magical, and these lines drive home the connection between the space and the animals that live in it. Their presence has turned this human-made structure into a natural place.

Yet the moth has trim, and feistiness, and not a drop
            of self-pity.

Not in this world. (4.7-9)

Our speaker seems to look to the natural world for an example of how to live. She finds one, surprisingly, in a green moth. She uses the image of the moth to show us how to live without self-pity and with vitality, rather than carrying our lives around like heavy weights and feeling sorry for ourselves. Who cares that the moth is in a bit of a hopeless situation. We're all going to get caught in the beak of a crow (so to speak) someday. That doesn't mean we should just mope around waiting for it to happen.

Did you know that the ant has a tongue
with which to gather in all that it can
of sweetness? (7.1-3)

Again, our speaker turns our attention to a detail or aspect of the natural world, in this case an ant's tongue. Why? For two reasons, we think. One is that maybe she just wants to amaze us, to make us want to engage with the world. It's so full of crazy, fascinating things like ant tongues that we're completely unaware of. But why this specific detail? Well, that gathering in of sweetness is kind of like the act of studying and learning about the world. The speaker wants us to gather in the sweetness of the world, just like an ant. Nothing like a bit of insect trivia to make your point.

Anyway,
there was no barn.
No child in the barn.

No uncle no table no kitchen.

Only a long lovely field full of bobolinks. (11.1-5)

These are definitely some strange and powerful lines. One of the things they do is replace the human scene from Section 2 with a natural image: a field full of birds. Does the speaker mean to suggest that the natural world is in some way the only reality? Is she suggesting that barns and people will eventually vanish, and the natural world will take their place, as if we never existed?

When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. (12.1-2)

This antidote to loneliness is, we think, one of the speaker's most direct statements of her philosophy: that looking, learning, and thinking about the natural world is just about the most important thing we can do. By engaging with the world, we put our own troubles in perspective. And she definitely wants us to study the natural world. She says "go into the fields," not go onto the street corner or into the dining room.

Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain,
shaking the water-sparks from its wings. (12.6-7)

Again with the looking at animals. It's a beautiful image, though, isn't it? There's a sort of transformation, where the water coming off the hummingbird's wings looks like sparks. Not only does this image give a sense of how studying the natural world can be thrilling, it also gives us a hint of the transformative power of observing it. Maybe opening our minds to scenes like this can transform our loneliness or loss and help us move firmly on.

A lifetime isn't long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life. (12.11-12)

By this point in the poem, it seems pretty clear that our speaker is all about the beauty of this world. And we're guessing that she finds most parts of the natural world beautiful, even parts that most people might not. What then are these responsibilities that we won't have time for if we focus on the beauty of the world? Maybe she's referring to the responsibility we feel to mourn what has been lost.

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