Mary Oliver's Backyard | WCAI

Mary Oliver's Backyard

Mar 3, 2020

In a remote corner of the Provincelands, there is a several hundred acre tract of stunted forest, sloping dunes, shallow ponds and extensive freshwater swamp. I think of this area as Mary Oliver’s Backyard. I do so because so many of Provincetown’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poet’s best poems are set here.

One can see how Mary Oliver’s mystical poems fed off this landscape. It seems fresh, virgin, untouched, remote and mysterious. This sense of strange remoteness is due in large part to the fact that there are no parking lots or official entrances to it, no marked trails or signage, no litter or other signs of human presence. It is as “unspoiled” a woods as one might find on this foot-beaten peninsula. 

I remember the first time I explored this space, only a few years ago... I slipped onto an unmarked trail off the highway and, after a few hundred yards, found myself at the west end of a long, narrow, unnamed pond. It was flooded with recent rains, but the shoreline and higher hummocks were thick with green and wine-colored cranberry vines. I circumnavigated it, following a pine needle-carpeted path just barely visible. It was a more gentle, tentative indication than an actual path, as though it had been made by soft-footed wood denizens rather than humans.

Continuing on, I came to the West End of Grassy Pond, which is actually a system of one large and two or three smaller ponds connected by a wooded swamp. And here I started to get into trouble. At first the woods remained a fairly open, but after a while the trail became increasingly indistinct, I continued on along the north side of the pond, scouting the waters every now and then with my binoculars in search of the river otter that my friend Jody Melendy reported seeing here. The trail became increasingly wet and briarly, and after twenty minutes or so of this bushwhacking, I realized I was simply going deeper into the swamp land connecting the ponds. So I took a bearing due north to get out of the swamp and up onto a wooded ridge bordering its north side.

And here I had the most surprising experience of the walk, one that challenged my sense of perception. Just north of this narrow ridge, at the border of woods and dunes, I saw what appeared to be another pond, one that stretched at least a few hundred feet across the dunes themselves. Oddly, nothing like this showed on my USGS map, thought granted it was more than thirty years old. Could this, in fact, be a “new” pond in the making?

But I was suspicious of the stillness of this “pond” compared to the wind-wrinkled surface of the wooded ponds I had just passed. As I came closer, I realized it was not water I saw, but snow, snow that had collected in a dune basin and had persisted through above freezing temperatures and four days of rain. I was prepared to leave it there, but something odd about it led me to take a closer look. Then I saw that what I had taken at first for a pond, and then a level bowl of snow, was actually an optical illusion. The snow in fact, did not sit in a flat bowl, but lined the fairly steep southern slope of the first dune ridge out of the woods. From my perspective on the wooded ridge to its south I had flattened out the fore-shortened dune slope into, first, a pond, then a flat snow bowl, and finally a steep dune slope covered with snow. This was, I realized, a place of shifting shapes and identities. In other words, a place rife with poetry.