For the Birds Radio Program: Snowy Night by Mary Oliver

Original Air Date: Feb. 13, 2004

Is Mary Oliver a birder or a birdwatcher? You be the judge. Date confirmed.

Audio missing


Poetry day: Mary Oliver

A lot of people use the terms birder and bird watcher interchangeably, but some people consider there to be important differences between the two. People who identify themselves as birders are more likely to take their hobby very seriously and to keep lists than those who identify themselves as bird watchers, and are more likely to travel long distances to chase a single rarity. People who identify themselves as bird watchers are more likely to take pleasure in watching even common birds, and aren’t frustrated when they can’t figure out a bird now and then. In my opinion, the clearest difference between the two is internal—it’s the state of anxious unrest a birder feels to see or hear a bird without knowing its identify. The more experienced a birder becomes, the fewer moments of this anxiety, because he can so quickly assign an identity to a bird, but when any bird is seen or heard, whether in real life or in a movie or on TV or mentioned in a novel, a birder simply needs to know what species it is before he or she can rest. Interestingly, I’ve never heard a self-described bird watcher take offense at being called a birder, but many times have heard self-described birders take offense at being called a bird watcher, which makes sense because accurate classification is so important to a birder.

Based on that distinction, poet Mary Oliver is clearly a bird watcher, not a birder, as her lovely poem, Snowy Night, attests.

Last night, an owl
in the blue dark
an indeterminate number

of carefully shaped sounds into
the world, in which,
a quarter of a mile away, I happened
to be standing.

I couldn¹t tell
which one it was ¬
the barred or the great-horned
ship of the air ¬

it was that distant. But, anyway,
aren¹t there moments
that are better than knowing something,
and sweeter? Snow was falling,

so much like stars
filling the dark trees
that one could easily imagine
its reason for being was nothing more

than prettiness. I suppose
if this were someone else¹s story
they would have insisted on knowing
whatever is knowable ¬ would have hurried

over the fields
to name it ¬ the owl, I mean.
But it¹s mine, this poem of the night,
and I just stood there, listening and holding out

my hands to the soft glitter
falling through the air. I love this world,
but not for its answers.
And I wish good luck to the owl,

whatever its name ¬
and I wish great welcome to the snow,
whatever its severe and comfortless
and beautiful meaning.

~ Mary Oliver ~