Back on the Fire
Essays by Gary Snyder
Shoemaker & Hoard 2007
We waited each afternoon amidst the 19th century décor in the largest first floor room of Old Main. We could hear him coming—the jingling sound of the bells in his boots as he strode hard down that hallway where Abraham Lincoln had once walked. Then for a couple of hours each day for two or three days running, we listened, mesmerized, to Gary Snyder read his poems.
That was in the spring of 1967, when apparently he hadn’t yet moved permanently back to the U.S. from Japan. We knew him as a West Coast representative, the lineage of Beat and Zen becoming hippie maybe, bringing mind-expanding poetic visions to the Illinois prairie, just ahead of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
He read—intoned, chanted—from Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, probably Myths and Texts, and definitely his long poem even then in progress, Mountains and Rivers Without End.
Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks
placed, solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time…
For those of us writing poetry in my student years at Knox College, Gary Snyder’s visit was the most momentous, with the possible exception of Robert Creeley’s week of readings in 1964. I saw Snyder read again in 1970 as part of a group of Bay Area poets. By then, the relationship to the natural world we felt lacking in our lives had names: ecology, environmentalism, and this was a benefit reading for that cause. Many of the major Beat era poets were there, including Lew Welch, who disappeared months later, presumed to be a suicide. Even then, I saw Snyder as an elder, not only for his sunburned, gnomish, Zen monk face and form, but for the authority and clarity he carried.
We were young, unanchored, floundering in the winds of Vietnam, doom and consumerism as well as sex, drugs, rock & roll and cultural change, and most of us lacked discipline as well as direction. But those of us of good heart sought out elders and tried to learn from them. Gary Snyder was certainly one of those, and so he would remain for the forty plus years since.
It’s largely forgotten but not irrelevant that when we smoked weed and did psychedelics in our 1960s searching, we often sought natural settings. We were conscious of that lost connection. Some of us didn’t take too many more direct steps to integrate the wild into our lives (I expect mostly those who’d learned no skills applied in woods or water as children) but in his poetry and prose, Gary Snyder was a guide for both those who did and those who didn’t.
In these post-60s decades, Snyder’s essays in particular have been beacons. Sometimes they are integrated with poems, as in Turtle Island (1974) and The Old Ways (1977), sometimes formed as interviews and talks, as in The Real Work (1980), but also collected as formal essays in The Practice of the Wild (1990) and A Place in Space (1995). Together they have been enormously influential. The Practice of the Wild in particular is among my favorite books of all time, especially as I read it shortly after becoming a resident of northern California (although farther north and in a more coastal environment that Snyder’s mountain homestead to the south and east.)
Now in 2007 this new book of essays appears. I saw a review of it that implied it is a minor work, but that’s not so. These essays, including those written as talks or prefaces to other people’s books, are in no sense minor. They are often distillations—not so much argument as succinct statements of profound if still largely unacknowledged truths, simply and generously interwoven with history, anecdote, example, biography and autobiography.
Though there may appear to be no unifying theme, and though the specific subject of the role of fire in healthy forests recurs, this volume is a whole defined by itself, and by the quality of Snyder’s observation, thought and expression. For me, the connection between his immersion in East Asian writing, in Buddhism, in the realities of living and working in the natural world, in American literature (Native and non-Native), and his own writing and approach to the world, has never been clearer. It is clear moreover in reading these essays, beyond any summary or description. But reading together such essays as “Ecology, Literature and the New World Disorder,” “Thinking Toward the Thousand Year Forest Plan,” “The Mountain Spirit’s True (No) Nature,” “Writers and the War Against Nature,” “Coyote Makes Things Hard,” among others, nourishes this impression.
Some pieces are short and specific, and thanks to Snyder’s writing, evocative, including a short piece on the death of one of the best known “Beat” poets, Allen Ginsberg, and a fond and informative remembrances of one of the least known, Philip Zenshin Whalen. But even these are important because of Snyder’s knowledge of them and perspective over time. Others about particular people and places (especially about Snyder’s own family, as in “Helen Callicotte’s Stone in Kansas”) are also fun to read, but always connect to larger mysteries.
In the essays in this book, Snyder writes with warmth as well as pith, and with the occasional bursts of exuberant humor we especially loved in the old days. He writes with specific humility, yet is not afraid to state the largest possible conclusions: “These environmental histories are cautionary. They tell us that our land planning must extend ahead more than a few decades. Even a few centuries may be insufficient.”
This of course represents a sea-change in decisive thinking that seems improbable at best. In “Sustainability Means Winning Hearts and Minds,” he describes what hope there is and what’s at stake in the opening paragraph: “ If societies were incapable of surprising shifts and turns, if religions and philosophies, language and clothing never changed, we’d surely have to grimly crunch away in the same old story, and certainly drown in some sort of Blade Runner-type movie.”
So what’s the answer? Changing hearts and minds, with but beyond the usual suspects. “The oh-so-foolish deep ecologists, greens, eco-feminists, etc.—are out there, providing imagination, vision, passion, a deeply felt ethical stance, and in many cases some living examples of practice.”
There’s a more than gentle nudge there with the “some” examples of practice, enough to make people like me, who identify with everything after the dash until the practice part, wince. But that’s a vital part of Snyder’s authority: he practices. Just the description of the tools he acquired for his home on a ridge of the Sierras in “Lifetimes With Fire” installs his somewhat intimidating credibility with me. He’s lived what he’s advocated, and helped create a real community in a real place based on these attitudes and approaches, practical enough to accommodate change and allow for human and other weakness. And it’s by living what he advocates and values (not only on that ridge, but in literature and the Buddhist precepts, and in performance) that in turn informs his thought and writing.
I found also a significant comment that bears on how he’s lived his life, as well as those readings (and even those jingling boots) I remember from long ago. “Song, story and dance are fundamental to all later ‘civilized’ culture… Performance is of key importance because this phenomenal world and all life is, of itself, not a book but a performance.” Committed to a deep involvement in the place where he lives, and to meditation, scholarship and writing, he nevertheless has integrated travel, going forth, and his own kind of performance—his readings and talks as well as informal essays.
To read these essays as a collection is to see the relationship between nature, time and literature that also outlines Gary Snyder’s world. This is a book of an elder. We have so few, really.
There was a fascinating book of essays and reminiscences about Snyder by people as various as Allen Ginsberg, Dave Foreman, Peter Coyote and Paul Winter, published in 1991 called Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life (edited by Jon Halper.) The cover illustration was from a painting by Robert Davidson, especially appropriate because he is Haida, and Snyder’s college thesis was about a Haida myth. (Later published by Grey Fox Press as He Who Hunted in His Father’s Village.) I was in Davidson studio outside Vancouver a few years later, for a story on him published in Smithsonian Magazine, and I saw a copy of “Dimensions” there. I mentioned it, and Davidson spoke about it as if it was a volume of memorial tributes. I told him that Snyder was still very much alive. “I mourned for nothing,” Davidson said dryly, and grinned.
More than a decade later, we all continue to benefit from Snyder’s long experience, his very particular and exacting journey that has such effect and application for the larger us. This book is for our time and place, especially for those who have been on parallel journeys. But everyone can delight in this good writing’s main result, which is good reading…in evocations of places distant and near, of times gone by, and the naming of things in their moment and place—which of course in the end all turn out to be constituents of the same moment, which is now.