Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"The Gary Snyder Reader": Book Review

Over six hundred pages, two-thirds of these essays, articles, journals, and interviews, the rest original poetry and Asian translations, this anthology 1999 offers a deep introduction and thorough investigation of a writer I regard as a thinker but also as a worker. As a poem about Japanese loggers ends: "the pain/ of the work/ of wrecking the world" infuses his perspective. He's freer of the usual academic traps, even though he lectures at UC Davis, and his residence in the Sierras and his forestry, logging, and Zen monk training provide richer material for him to excavate, sift, ponder, and return to for half a century.

Early on, he stayed wary of temptation: "(Beware of anything that promises freedom or enlightenment-- traps for eager and clever fools-- a dog has a keener nose-- every creature in a cave can justify itself. Three-fourths of philosophy and literature is the talk of people trying to convince themselves that they really like the cage they were tricked into entering.)" [24:X (1956, Kyoto) p. 29]

This may let off of a whiff of an air that many well-schooled and meditatively "cool" Beats to me possessed, a dash at least of reverse snobbery by a 1951 graduate of Reed, as in a revealing 1977 East-West Journal interview. "I can pride myself on the fact I've worked nine months on a tanker at sea and nobody once ever guessed I had been to college." (105) Still, on the hundred acres he and Allen Ginsberg bought around 1969 and he named Kitkitdizze after the Nisenan word for an aromatic shrub, Snyder reified his back-to-nature convictions. He never explains why he chose to build on open space (if logged generations before) rather than, say, settle on already occupied land in his native Northwest, but he surely provides better care for his Shasta Nation Yuba River watershed than those who, attracted as he and then early-1970s hippies to the same terrain nearby, have torn it up for golf courses, tract homes, and retirement communities. The tension between development and sustainability underlies many essays here, as Snyder labors to improve the quality of his residence and to educate his neighbors on this small ridge of Turtle Island.

In it for the long haul, as a native Californian I understand Snyder's appeal to all of us who live here. No matter where we've come from, or our ancestors, he encourages us to recognize this fragile series of bioregions as a wonderful and lovely new home. The price paid for this settling (no matter how ecologically educated or real-estate flipping?) is very apparent. He cites a "friend who still gets emotional when he recalls how the avocado orchards of his southern Californian youth landscape were transformed into hillside after hillside of suburbs." (184) He avers that between the ages of about six and ten, a childhood place enters us. For me, it was between eight and eleven, and lemons instead of avocados, but I suffer the same enduring impact as a local witness to what replaced my memories.

These excerpts from 1990's The Practice of the Wild alert one to the sensitivity needed to hear our locale's presence. Rocks as well as trees can speak if the imprint of humans is not too heavy, even for those of us who live in the city. Bioregionalism, for those in the "flat crowded lowlands" as well as the fewer lucky enough to make a living in the less hectic highlands or on the cooler, pricier coasts, can recognize how our political and social structures fight against the place we wish to settle down in. Digging in, for Snyder in the Sierra Nevada foothills, represents a stand. True republicanism, he reminds us, means not distancing squabbles to be arbitrated by monied or judicial entities. It means working out differences with adversaries.

This ties to the "Buddhism and the Possibilities of a Planetary Culture" principles, the 1969 version reprinted here of his 1961 manifesto for a principled anarcho-pacifism. Utopian as it may sound then or now, it remains a prescient call for resisting, anticipating what the Occupy Movement tried to replace forty/fifty years later. As he expands his stance in The Practice of the Wild: "People fear the small society and the critique of the State. It is difficult to see, when one has been raised under it, that it is the State itself which is inherently greedy, destabilizing, entropic, disorderly, and illegitimate." (195) Critics throw back "parochialism, regional strife, 'unacceptable' expressions of cultural diversity," but Snyder ripostes: "Our philosophies, world religions, and histories are biased towards uniformity, universality, and centralization-- in a word, the ideology of monotheism." (195) As a Buddhist, Snyder counters with small-scale economics of a householder, eco-activist, and cultivator.

He finds this "earth house hold" in the swoop from Big Sur up through his place of birth on a dairy farm north of Seattle that came up against second-growth woods, and then into British Columbia, and over Alaska down to Hokkaido across the Japanese islands where he studied as a monk, and over to China. This, his chosen Pacific Rim regional affiliation, draws him in many journals and essays excerpted here into its past (he evokes the largest city of medieval times, Hang-chou, marvelously as he shows us its archived chronicles down to where to find the tastiest pig roasted in coals) and its present traces of its ancient, indigenous mindset.

Alert to contradictions beneath the surface we see and tread, Snyder's earth never sleeps. "Life in the wild is not just eating berries in sunlight," he warns. (209) Depth ecology demands scrutiny of what's fermenting and digesting in the dark. This may require him to open up his Sierra home to bugs and deer, squirrels and ticks. In threat, decay, and migration, life's rhythms also pulse. Insights may emerge for those bold enough to look inside. "The other side of the 'sacred' is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots." (210) In this spirit world, he seeks communication. Poetry, myth, lore amassed to be critiqued not only in seminars but in the field: Snyder takes the reader out into the wilderness, and unlike all but a few scholars, he practices what he preaches as he leaves trails behind, and literally crawls where bears do to figure out what they do do.

In one such lair, where the rock art left thousands of years ago in caves of the Dordogne and the Pyrenees beckons, Snyder demonstrates the wonder of what our ancestors knew and left even as their language faded. He quotes T.S. Eliot on the Magdalenian discoveries of his own decade: "art never improves." (393) Instead of assuming progress, Snyder counters that primitive creators already had found their truths.  "The deep past confounds the future by suggesting how little we are agreed upon on what is good." The humans were not depicted; aurochs were. Men and women did not need to paint themselves into their environment, not long after they emerged to portray it 35,000 years ago.

Similarly, the verses Snyder follows his prose with, opening with seven strong selections from Riprap (1959), depict his self-assurance as he climbs mountains and looks down on his own traces there. The first one, "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout," returns to the first pages, with his 1952 journal as a Forestry Surface lookout for fires (before he fell foul of McCarthyism and had to take the side of the loggers to make his living). It scans the space he has chosen to explore ever since his teens: "I cannot remember things I once read/ A few friends, but they are in cities./ Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup/ Looking down for miles/ Through high still air." (399)

Two hundred-plus pages follow but already the path is clear in his poems. That first inclusion as lodestar or compass directs us. He aligns the precise suggestion of Asian approaches, which diverge from the symbolic weight of Western contemporary verse, while he lengthens the suggestive lines of simpler spoken predecessors such as Williams. (See more on this in the letters with Allen Ginsberg here reviewed by me.) Snyder edges past the natural settings of the Golden State familiar if made more looming and ominous to Jeffers, and skates over the gnomic density of Pound, Yet he shares Pound's knack for dangling the reader within a suddenly visual suspension. Analyzing natural (are any truly inorganic?) components within the environs he passes through, Snyder reveals by his long crunchy or mulchy march across the world's surface its gaps and its seams. He distances himself from his own footfall; he waits for us to join him--as he listens to the echoes. (Amazon US 4-24-13)

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