Misconceptions and Code Words: Getting Schooled by Gary Snyder

By Julia Hysell, Planet News Article, February 22, 2012

San Francisco, CA (USA) -- Before Bill McKibben wrote thoughtful prose about the effects of human impact on the Earth’s environment, there was Gary Snyder; before Pema Chodron penned approachable writings on Buddhism, there was Snyder.

Snyder’s accomplishments include 18 books of poetry and essays, numerous awards and fellowships, keynote lectures and an endowed chair at University of California at Davis. His writing delves into themes of pollution and overpopulation, wilderness ethics, Buddhist principles, and Native American mythology.

In his published collections, including The Back Country (1967), The Real Work (1980) A Place in Space (1995) and Danger on Peaks (2005), Gary Snyder has established his singular Pacific Rim perspective, rooted in North America’s West Coast and innately inclined to the East. His work has been translated into 20 languages, and the poet-scholar has translated various Chinese texts into English, most famously, Han Shan (Cold Mountain) poems. In 1975, Snyder won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Turtle Island, a meditation on the geo-mythical history of the North American continent.

Snyder was born in 1930 and grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where he worked for the U.S. Forest Service and attended Reed College. His first book of poetry, Riprap (1959), includes lyrical explorations of the particulars of place and time. Snyder lived in Kyoto, Japan, from 1956 to 1969, studying at Shikoku-ji Temple, a monastery in the Rinzai school of Japanese Zen.

As part of its biannual “Page to the Podium” author series, Teton County Library Foundation presents two free evening events with Gary Snyder. At 6 p.m., Tuesday, March 13, at the Center for the Arts, Snyder will give a poetry reading followed by an interview with author, Exum mountain guide, and Zen practitioner, Jack Turner. Tickets will be available at 5 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 29 at the Library main desk.

At 5:45 p.m., Wednesday, March 14, at the Old Wilson Schoolhouse, Snyder will give a poetry performance featuring a number of old poems and some new, never published poems. Space will be limited, without tickets, and seating is first-come, first-serve. (Full disclosure: I am employed by Teton County Library and sit on the Foundation’s “Page to the Podium” selection committee.)

Poet-professor makes points

During our 40-minute phone interview, I found that Gary Snyder, 81, is one of those disarming characters, like the best professors, who cannot help but shed light on the fundamental fallacies of your position. Accordingly, he demonstrated gratitude for the opportunity to remind me that all-too-common assumptions should not be co-opted without scrutiny. He’s practiced in the art of making or breaking an argument. His measured points remind one to be vigilant. Always vigilant.

I discovered Snyder’s writing through my study of Jack Kerouac’s Buddhist immersion in the 1950s. Kerouac’s writing at the time, especially in his 1958 novel The Dharma Bums, seeks to show that Buddhism, Catholicism—these religions are “all the same.” Snyder’s writing, however, has rarely if ever veered toward Christian themes or symbols.

I asked Snyder about his commitment to Buddhism, a philosophy and practice he adopted as a young man. I wondered what early experience influenced this point of view, not realizing the naïveté so evident in the question.
First, Snyder remarked, “I don’t talk about Kerouac much ... I’m not a member of the Beat Generation.”

Continuing in stride, Snyder reminds me that the United States has an important legacy of secular whites, non-Christian devotees, including Thomas Jefferson and other deists, which continues to be eschewed in popular conversations about our nation state. He noted, patiently, that while I may have been raised in a community in which Christianity was prominent (and I was), this is not an unqualified American experience. On both counts, I silently took the Lord’s name in vain. I think I should??ve known better.

Snyder explained that he was raised in the Pacific Northwest in a family of secularists, in a community of thinkers with an eye toward Marxists ideas. His first introduction to Abrahamic religions came through the Ten Commandments. He quickly figured out that “thou shall not kill” was entirely human-centric, and he found this “troubling, even as a kid.”

So, his curious mind determined a resonance with the systems of morality evidenced in Eastern traditions, particularly Zen Buddhism. Essential to this resonance remains the notion of respect for all living beings, a notion contained in the Sanskrit word ahimsa, defined as “non-harming.” He expounds that Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. both acted as proponents of ahimsa, though neither spoke for the animals, determined as they were to speak for their respective people.

Snyder speaks as much for coyotes, bears and moose as he does for humankind.
I asked Snyder: As a poet with an advanced degree who emphasizes the importance of “real work,” which had proved more valuable to him, his experiences in or out of educational institutions? Snyder wondered what relevance my question had to this newspaper’s readership.

“Christ,” I thought.

Perhaps, readers might be interested, since so many of us headed to Jackson Hole instead of pursuing further education or hopping into the main stream of corporate careerism?
You see, I’ve been haunted by an article by Malcolm Harris in n+1 called “Degrees of Debt” published last fall. In the essay, Harris writes:

“The Project On Student Debt estimates that the average college senior in 2009 graduated with $24,000 in outstanding loans. Last August, student loans surpassed credit cards as the nation’s single largest source of debt, edging ever closer to $1 trillion. Yet … no one dares call higher education a bad investment.”

Snyder certainly doesn’t. In fact, he won’t suffer making any economic valuations of education. He tells me he’s loath to continue talking about the aims of “classical education” versus the aims of current educational systems.

Now, certainly, I hadn’t exactly intended to spur a full conversation about the “history of Occidentalism,” which is what he feared the question warranted. He stopped himself and begged off the subject: “You’re writing for a newspaper, remember.”

Nature. Intellect. Territory.

Snyder’s hardly one to beat around the bush or play to some other’s fancy. He’s made a career of articulating his mind. His words are exacting but rarely mean-spirited. Take for example, his essay “Nature as Seen from Kitkitdizzee is No Social Construction” published in Whole Earth Catalog, winter 1998.
In this essay, Snyder concedes that he might be “getting a bit grumpy” but he’s undoubtedly perplexed by “the dumb arguments being put forth by high-paid intellectual types in which they are trying to knock Nature, knock the people who value Nature, and still come out smelling smart and progressive.” He continues, “It’s a real pity that the humanities and social sciences are finding it so difficult to handle the rise of ‘nature’ as an intellectually serious territory.”

Snyder’s body of writing proves nature to be just that: intellectual, serious and territorial. Nature, both as a place and as an idea, has been Snyder’s literary stomping ground since Riprap (1959).

In “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain” Snyder writes:

“Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarm of new flies.”

This stanza establishes perspective, the “what” that’s seen, establishing the “where” that the speaker is, illustrating a fire-lookout’s view of the valley.
In “Piute Creek” he writes:

“A clear, attentive mind
Has no meaning but that
Which sees is truly seen.”

A clear mind sees only the ever-present moment. Buddhist concepts like no-thingness and impermanence provide a paradoxical element to Snyder’s depictions of mountain streambeds, granite ridgelines and burnt-red Manzanita. Isn’t the phenomenological world illusory?

Build. Present. Place.

When speaking with Snyder or reading his work, place is always present. As we begin our conversation, he asks questions about current snowpack and recent weather, not for polite conversation but to determine the present state of this place, Jackson Hole.

It has just snowed at his property, called Kitkitdizze, located in the Sierra Nevada, near Grass Valley, Calif. His home place bears the Miwok name for a plant native to the area. In “Building,” a poem from No Nature (1992), Snyder writes how the house and the other buildings that followed were built with “Sharp tools, good design,” outlasting wars and revolutions, existing within and outside of history.
Kitkitdizze was built in 1969 in the spirit of Japanese farmhouses and Indian lodges. The process involved friends-as-volunteers who helped Snyder and his then-wife and mother of his biological children, Masa Uehara, to fell ponderosa pines on the land to build the main structure. He remembers the period fondly, saying that everyone shared the work—men cooking and women sawing, and vice versa.

Though Kitkitdizze is less rural now, Snyder remarks that his community has learned to live with the animals in the surrounding woods—often cougars, sometimes black bears. There’s an understanding that no one contacts any agency when animals are sighted.

Snyder’s current projects consist of a chronicle of the construction of Kitkitdizze, a memoir about his East Asian and West Coast Buddhist practice and a new volume of poems, his first since 2005.

“I work all day, every day,” he tells me: dealing with the workings of his homestead, which is essentially off-the-grid, to his many travel and speaking commitments, in addition to his discipline of sitting zazen and always writing.

Revolution is the revolution

Snyder, grumpy or not, has over the course of his career earned his position on higher ground through a currency that doesn’t depreciate: authenticity. (He’d probably cringe, squinting his eyes, at that metaphor.) His writing has made seemingly-radical claims over the years, touching on taboo subjects like population control, polyamory, and legalizing drugs.

In an essay, first published in Journal For the Protections of All Beings in the early 60s before being edited and published as “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution” in Earth House Hold (1969), Snyder writes that morality means “supporting any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless world.”

In “Why Tribe” from the same book, Snyder identifies his Tribe: “a new subculture … based on community houses, villages and ashrams, tribe-run farms or workshops or companies; large open families; pilgrimages and wanderings from center to center. A synthesis of Gandhian ‘village anarchy’ and I.W.W. syndicalism.”

In a prose piece titled “Four Changes, with a Postscript” Snyder writes that “if humans are to remain on earth, they must transform the five-millennia-long urbanizing civilization tradition into a new ecologically sensitive harmony-oriented wild-minded scientific-spiritual culture.”
I bet Snyder has a thick FBI file.

Famously vocal about his progressive political and social views, Snyder explained he was brought up around Marxist ideas in the 1930s, when “everybody had read enough to know Marx’s essential critique.” Snyder notes that when Mitt Romney and other Republican politicians use the phrase “class warfare,” they invoke a Marxist concept as a “code word” for Socialists.

Indeed, in the mid-1950s during the McCarthy era, Snyder was blacklisted for his association with Marine Cooks and Stewards union. He was barred from his summer Forest Service job in Washington’s Skagit country. In an essay, his son Kai remembers being a kid with his father explaining “the difference between capitalism and communism.”

I once heard poet Michael McClure state that he’d like to support “Kropotkin for President.” So, I asked Snyder about Alexander Kropotkin. He suggested I read Kropotkin’s “masterpiece” Mutual Aid if I was interested in the Russian anarchist. Often labeled as an “anarchist,” Snyder explains, the distinction fails to be made between violent and nonviolent anarchists. This gives all anarchists a “bad rap.”

Despite – or because of – these worldviews, Snyder has become a figure of great renown among scientists, (some) politicians, academics, students, forest rangers, writers, ski bums and philosophers across generations. His writings tread the path between prescience and prophecy. From his poem “Oil” written in 1958, he writes of “crazed, hooked nations” that need “long injections of pure oil”; in Back on the Fire (2007) Snyder includes “Ecology, Literature, and the New World Disorder,” an essay indicating that “we need to find the trick of weaving civilized culture and wild nature in to the fabric of the future” in order to avoid utter ruin.

Snyder was an environmentalist before the term existed, and he finds no pleasure in the fact that his anxieties have proven founded.

Snyder is a hero of mine. He’s a wise teacher. And we still have much to learn from him.

courtesy photo
Snyder was an environmentalist before the term existed, and he finds no pleasure in the fact that his anxieties have proven founded.”