Friday, October 17, 2008

Gary Snyder, Tree Canopies & Suburbia.




Gary Snyder, Tree Canopies & Suburbia.

 Dana Goodyear's "Zen Master" profile of Gary Snyder (see link to abstract below) in the New Yorker cannot be found in full on-line, which makes me wonder I subscribe; you'd think that paying for the issues would allow you access, but this imperious publication sniffs at displaying all its wares, even for us paying for them in print. I've never read Snyder, but I happened to find out in my recent Buddhist reading an aside about a poem he'd done on the goddess Tara, about whom I'm interested in, even if my etymological forays detailed here last summer came to naught but a coincidence in linking Éire with Aryan with Himalaya, the Indo to the European.

Goodyear's piece dutifully tells us what I needed to know, even if it didn't inspire me much. She gives few examples of his verse; the one I liked best I've included. What connected this article with one in the New York Times (also see below) that I found the same morning, in its "Escapes" section, on tree canopy zip lines (an unfortunate combination of four words I wish had never been yoked)? That old paved paradise and put up a parking lot, Joni Mitchell's follow-up warbled to her own urging all those hippies to get back to the garden.

Nevada County's booming, as its southern section deepens Sacramento's concrete footprint. Meanwhile, lured by Snyder who, somehow on a self-proclaimed working-class poet's income, bought in his Beat days a hundred acres on San Juan Ridge in the northern section. Part Japanese farmhouse, part Indian lodge, Kitkitdizze pioneered what's now an extended community of like-minded seekers. Students from Berkeley and Antioch College helped him, and many, I reckon, never returned to the dorm.

Since Snyder raised his place in 1969, thousands left and leave smog and smoke to build geodesic domes, kerosene-lit cabins, and haul perhaps a VW bus or two amidst pines and ponderosa. I remember noting the preponderance of signs for yoga teachers when I drove through there a while ago. I speculated on the ratio in the local economy of "off-the-grid" enterprises to legitimately licensed businesses. Ananda-- an offshoot of the Self-Realization Fellowship (predating even the Beats back to 1925) that crowns its own eminence a mile from where I write this, long since absorbed into northeast L.A.'s roofs and Range Rovers-- set up its yurts, so to speak, there. The mountains teem with pot growers, countercultural dynasties, and earnest types that for fifty years now, starting with the Beats, learned about this region's charms.

Yet, even as I recognize how we need nature, and how five decades worth of Beats and hippies have beckoned so many to enter it, the treatment of Snyder ignores an irony inherent in this native of the Northwest's lament. He preaches getting away from it all, but around him, in his exile, he will gain disciples no less than the medieval hermits turned their reclusive huts into monasteries, or Jesus himself when John and Peter, on Mount Tabor, told Him it'd be a cool idea to set up tents there and camp out. We cannot help but bring with us our own axes when we seek to live under the branches.

Snyder had joined Ginsberg and Kerouac at the Six Gallery reading in the city where he was born, San Francisco (he was raised on the outskirts of Seattle, grandson of a Wobblie, son of a dairy union organizer) fifty-three years ago this month, in 1955. There, "Howl" first proclaimed itself in public; "A Berry Feast" by Snyder may not have become as iconic, yet its message became such, repeated in hundreds of songs, stanzas, and stories about ticky-tacky little boxes that all look the same. Goodyear:
"The poem, which traces the destruction of forests to the building of the suburban house-- 'a box to catch the biped in'-- is infused with the Buddhist idea of impermanence. It forecasts a time of 'People gone, death no disaster,' and ends with Coyote surveying a depopulated city where resilient nature still thrives-- 'Dead city in dry summer,/ Where berries grow.'"

My father-in-law, dead now just over a year (and a dozen years older than Snyder), in the Depression fed himself with blackberries in the fields around Puget Sound himself, much as Snyder might have when he "had grown up poor in Stumpland," a logged-out district. Visiting Seattle last year, I contrasted its confident, brisk feel with the far more remote terminus where Al'd been a child, Port Angeles. He'd lived both places. I wondered where he'd wandered there, in fields and along its ferry building, far across the Straits of Juan de Fuca.

His daughter's grand-niece and her family moved, post-Rodney King riots, from Layne's childhood San Fernando Valley, "the Valley," to Grass Valley in the splendid Gold Rush country. Where Lola Montez once kept a bear down the street from her protegee Lotta Crabtree (guess who had the better name, the former Eliza Gilbert born in Co. Cork; see Bruce Seymour's excellent biography that I reviewed on Amazon), and where a gal at least in post-49er times could walk about town without fear of assault. Yet, she's moved back to the city, to pursue her own dreams in the realm of comedy-- such is the lure of fame in Hollywood.

I wonder if for every restless resident who leaves the forest for the gridlock, there's another who makes the reverse journey? Layne found, when holding a "New Leaf" reusable bag at Trader Joe's for the checkout clerk to fill, that the employee was a recent grad of Felton High, now in Silverlake to follow her own media-fueled storyline. It'd be a neat exchange if city mice could change places with our country cousins, so no more trees would have to topple. That'd keep our sprawl under control-- if not by polyandrous marriage as the thrice-wed Snyder once advocated-- with fewer parking lots, but as the ads in the NYT remind us, with nearly all of our net demographic growth driven by immigration. 400 million by 2039. 60 million, perhaps by then, in California. The Highway 49 corridor now intersects with the exurbia east of Sacramento, and subdivisions invade the Sierras.

So goes the West, others scoff. All of us plead guilty who live here, from Edward Abbey on. My house may have been the first one on this street, about fifty-five years ago, so does this make its builder equal to Snyder? After all, there was nobody else here before. So, why should I complain?

I ponder these issues while the bulldozers keep whining and the saws keep whirring. I have had to go down to my study for a respite from the fracas, day after day, years on end. Hearing birdsong (even if as Alexander Theroux puts it in his endlessly quotable, endless novel "Laura Warholic": "Birdsong is squabble.") out my kitchen window today as I did the dishes startled me, so close was it and so little of it I've listened to lately.

The Lebanese man's moved his extended family into the triple-lot house still under construction (I've lost count if it's going on four or five years now), even as the for sale sign now perches outside its dirt, graded from what once was the end of a declivity where my boys romped, if under my careful eye. Barren ground in every direction. A few yards away the other side of my home, a Filipino family sold their fresh structure, no yard, hacked out of the sandstone cliff, to what so far seem absentee African American neighbors. Mexican investors next door to that still-raw edifice have not finished their cookie-cutter triple-story framed carbon copy. Across from it, on the side stretch next to our immediate neighbors also from Mexico, a couple of Latinos have parked an old Winnebago. They're living there. I can hear their generator humming when I step outside.

Quod erat demonstrandum. People from everywhere else keep coming into our megapolis. The appeal of a brand new home, or even a site to watch across from three such structures, entices many still. So too, the past silence our household enjoyed gradually fades, as mornings dawn with a engine's roar, while newly installed garage and security lamps outshine every hazy night.

Yet, the Ukrainian immigrant who came here from the Soviets as a child lives happily with her Modesto-born partner next door, and having bought the land between our houses, they've freed that patch-- as vegans, former citizens of both Santa Cruz and San Francisco, and therefore kindred spirits to Kitkitdizze. Destruction loomed when yet another pair of families, recent arrivals, were starting to erect their own two-story tribute to the American dream. Only the collapse of the real estate bubble rescued the trees, birds, and those damned squirrels. I suppose, with the Zen impermanence of all, amidst articles on extreme sports high in groves meant for avians and not bipeds, we must be grateful for small mercies. The Wright Brothers newfangled idea can only go so far.

We're all complicit. We all crowd no longer open space. None of us asked to be born. So, how do we soften our primal stomp? I agree with my recent Hello Quizzy results; in 1400 A.D. I surely spent a previous life as a monk, likely a cranky, bookish, myopic Irish anchorite! I long to end up in Northern California far away from this encroaching din. Probably in a wooden box for bipeds. Right next to where, idealistically, a century-old legacy of earlier, spiritually connected Christian campers sought a dignified retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Unfortunately, since this past summer, the zip lines hoisted by their less-respectful great-grandsons now imperil the watershed. Mammon changes everything.

As Snyder valiantly argues in Goodyear's essay: "The watershed is the first and last nation whose boundaries, though subtly shifting, are inarguable." He also warns, presciently: "If public lands come under greater pressure to be opened for exploitation and use in the twenty-first century, it will be the local people, the watershed people, who will prove to be the last and possibly most effective line of defense." Rightly, Snyder's been credited by Bill McKibben as a leading voice in bio-regionalism, living off the land and as close to it as possible.

Still, I cannot tally his glee with saving up his twenty-five-year-old vintage cabernet to go with the venison he looks forward to hunting. I'm confused about how his promotion of "'ahimsa,' or non-harming," works with such a lifestyle, but then, the Dalai Lama craves Bacon Bits. (He, like other Tibetans, long ago gained a reprieve from vegetarianism due to the rigors of survival on the plateau; he tried to go meat-free but his health suffered.)

The bullfrogs he cultivates before brining, I admit, earned slightly less sympathy from me, but I do lament my own childhood when in the foothills I tried to stone to death mating toads, as if some warped manifestation of a one-man biblical Sanhedrin itching to make an end of a magdalene caught in flagrante delicto. Karma comes around, and I have contemplated what demerits I unknowingly racked up in Thompson Canyon. That frenzy to couple no matter what peril lurks-- our samsaric imprint. That the deities are shown in blissful yab-yum without the onerous difficulties of spawning may be one of the most appealing delights of the Buddhist nirvana.

And so, with such urges to reproduce, earth fend for itself, we all carry on in lower realms of humans, hungry ghosts, animals. With our country facing another hundred million people within a few decades, and half a billion soon after, the loss of trees, open space, and farmland pains me more deeply as I grow older. One of my formative experiences was both living by a lemon grove and playing in the chaparral that stretched to those frog-happy foothills north of Claremont.

And, one of my most heartbreaking sights has been seeing, when I returned a decade later for grad school, the one time I went past where I had once hiked, on my bike looking for a place to rent, and found that-- exactly in the same retail and architectural models as in Nevada County-- stucco and strip malls blanketed the horizon where orchards, scrub, and pocket goat or rabbit ranches once had nestled. I never went in that direction again during my year in Claremont. Nor have I since then. I can't reconcile today's sterile panorama with that cherished as an imaginative ten-year-old.

"The Bath": Gary Snyder.

Sweating and panting in the stove-steam hot-stone
cedar-planking wooden bucket water-splashing
kerosene lantern-flicker wind-in-the-pines-out
sierra forest ridges night—

Masa comes in, letting fresh cool air
sweep down from the door
a deep sweet breath

And she tips him over gripping neatly, one knee down
her hair falling hiding one whole side of shoulder, breast, and belly,

Washes deftly Kai’s head-hair
as he gets mad and yells—

The body of my lady, the winding valley spine,
the space between the thighs I reach through,
cup her curving vulva arch and hold it from behind,
a soapy tickle a hand of grail

The gates of Awe

That open back a turning double-mirror world of
wombs in wombs, in rings,
that start in music,
is this our body?


"A hand of grail/ The gates of Awe." After the recent closure of the book of Life, sealed for this next now new Jewish year, after the ten days of Awe, by its Author, who will die by fire, who by water, who by another's hand, who by one's own-- these phrases reverberated for me.

"Zipping Through the Treetops" by Roger Zummer, New York Times, October 17, 2008.

"Zen Master" [Abstract only.] Dana Goodyear, The New Yorker, October 20, 2008.

Photo Caption from the NY Times article: "COME FLY WITH ME. Zip lines have become popular at ski areas and other sites and get visitors close to fall foliage. At the Spring Mountain ski area in Pennsylvania, Rick Buchman Jr. zooms by."

At least Mount Hermon was not mentioned; one advantage of East Coast-centeredness. Visit for essential information on how this Santa Cruz Mountain site's redwoods and the watershed of Bean & Zayante creeks face assault by thrillseekers: Mount Hermon Christian Conference Center

4 comments:

Layne said...

When I was in college I spent a few days at Stanford, where I always felt mediocre and shabby. I noticed a flyer in the student union about van ride to Santa Cruz to hear Gary Snyder and some other well known of the day, but not to me now, poets give a reading. No one spoke to me on the van or at the event and it just rubbed in what a looser I was. I remember distinctly something Snyder (or maybe everything) read, or maybe it was just him, that comforted me and made me feel I had a place in the world. We drove back over Pescadero Highway (I believe), through La Honda and I remember thinking it was the most beautiful road in the world. Decades later, traveling these roads real and many metaphorical, with my beloved reminds me of the tiny moments that gave me reason to keep faith and hope for the grace that brought him (you you you) to me.

Fionnchú said...

I hope I can travel that highway with you one day, as it's one I never have seen. I only know that the Hell's Angels hung out there! I look forward to avoiding such knights of the winding road in a future trip (dude, get it?) in our faithful Volvo. xxx me

Anonymous said...

Mt. Hermon? Isn't that where the Watchers came down to seduce humanity and destroy the earth? Rodger Cunningham

Fionnchú said...

Hmm-- that'd be an intriguing place, where those Nephilim coupled with the daughters of men! But, I have no idea where that is, alas! BiblePlaces.com gives, however, these two citations for the tallest peak in the "anti-Lebanon" range:

Ps 133:3 (NIV) "It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion."

Song 4:8 (NIV) "Come with me from Lebanon, my bride.... Descend from the crest of Amana, from the top of Senir, the summit of Hermon, from the lions' dens and the mountain haunts of the leopards."