Monday, May 28, 2012

The Etiquette of Freedom: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, and The Practice of the Wild
Edited by Paul Ebenkamp

Poet and eco-elder Gary Snyder grew up on a farm in Washington state. When he was a boy he asked his Sunday school teacher if he would meet a beloved and recently dead heifer in heaven. The clergyman said no. “Then I don’t want to go there!” said novelist Jim Harrison from across the dinner table, listening to Snyder tell this story. “That’s exactly what I said!” Snyder exclaimed, explaining that this exchange inspired his interest in other cultures that included the non-human in their moral universe.

It’s a moment in the DVD of a documentary film directed by John Healey that is conveniently tucked in a plastic envelope at the back of this book. So to the music CD/concert DVD packages and all the other hybrids, add the book-with-the-movie. The book is marketed as conversations between “old friends” Snyder and Harrison, but in fact it is culled from the making of a film that is essentially about Gary Snyder, in which Harrison (a co-producer) participates. Also interviewed are poet Michael McClure (recalling Snyder from both the Beat and Summer of Love eras in San Francisco), poet (and Snyder's first wife) Joanne Kyger, academic Scott Slovic and others.

The film was keyed to the 20th anniversary of Snyder’s landmark book of essays, The Practice of the Wild. (I got that book when I spotted a used copy shortly after it was placed in the window of the old Arcata Bookstore. “I knew it wouldn’t stay there long,” the owner said.) This book includes a transcript of the movie, but also a lot more, including Snyder-Harrison conversations in which Harrison comes off a lot better than he does in the film. It finishes with some Snyder poems and a chapter from The Practice of the Wild.

Snyder seems aware that the movie allows him to correct the record on some things.  Jim Harrison suggests that what distinguishes Snyder's early poems, especially in Rip Rap (his first book) is the reality and rhythm of work.  (Snyder worked as a fire lookout, a logger and earlier as a merchant seaman.)  This insight apparently is not exclusive to Harrison--in the book Snyder mentions a doctoral thesis he's read about the relationship of his poems and work, which he thinks is overblown. In the movie he allows that "part of it was the work," but that he had a literary purpose.  He'd been studying classical Chinese which is "strongly monosyllabic" and decided to experiment with monosyllabic English words that came before the Norman influence.  He wanted to use this "old style language," these words that are as hard as rocks, to build "a little rock trail" of language.  One can add that this particularly fit his subject for that book.

The title of the film was the same as the book The Practice of the Wild, and the movie has an interesting moment when Snyder brings the conversation back to the book, as if that purpose seemed to be slipping away.  In any case he mentions that certain distinctions he made in that book have not caught on, even with environmentalists: nature as the totality of what exists, wild as the natural process, and wilderness as the place where the wild predominates.  It's a point that Jack Turner later made in his book, The Abstract Wild,  especially as it relates to Thoreau's famous statement, "In wildness is the preservation of the world."

The book and movie discuss Snyder's experiences with Zen and Asian thought.  He talks about his Zen training in Japan, and quotes one of those great paradoxical Zen guides: "The perfect way is without difficulty.  Strive hard!"  In the book Snyder mentions having tea with Shunryu Suzuki, who started the San Francisco Zen Center.  Suzuki thought his students were too serious--he wanted them to have a sense of humor.  I laughed reading this, because I love Suzuki's books (and books about him) for their wonderful humor.

However, despite extolling Snyder's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Turtle Island (a name among some Native Americans applied to North America, which has since become an accepted name), there is nothing in the movie--and only a little in the "outtakes" of the book--about his work on Native American beliefs and cultures, which is a somewhat controversial subject (some Native writers, notably Leslie Marmon Silko, criticized him for appropriations) but still is an important element in any discussion of America and its natural world.  There also was mention of the bioregionalism movement in the movie, but not enough--especially in relation to The Practice of the Wild.

The DVD also has extras, including more from the interviews, and more of Snyder reading his poems. All this is good, because the movie itself is on the thin side. Still, the DVD provides the sense and sound of these people, and you get a little companionship along with the substance that is primarily available in the handy form of readable words in the book. And there are those filmed moments, like the one that begins this review, that really help illuminate Gary Snyder and his work.

But the book as a book is a little too much like an adjunct to the movie.  There is no index, no bios for the other people quoted in it, and the introductions are about making the movie, not about what's in the text. There is a list of books by Snyder (I've got something like 17) in the back, but the only book about him I've got isn't mentioned:  Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life, edited by Jon Halper (Sierra Club Books) which is a generous collection of essays about him by friends and family. (The cover is a painting by Haida artist Robert Davidson, who thought he was contributing it for a memorial volume.  When I saw it at his studio and reassured him that Snyder was still alive, he joked "I mourned for nothing.")

 For those interested in his prose on subjects that whiz by in this movie and book, there's of course The Practice of the Wild (1990) but also Earth House Hold (a founding document of the ecology movement in the 50s and 60s--the word "ecology" can be translated as Earth household), The Old Ways (1977), The Real Work (1980) and A Place in Space (1995) as well as parts of more recent books.

Still, in the end this book/movie is a garden of delights: interesting conversation, recollections, images and Gary Snyder reading his poems, which may not be essential to appreciating them but it adds a special dimension. I once had the privilege of hearing him read for several hours at a time, several days in a row, a revelatory experience. Now I can pop this into the DVD any time I want! Thanks to this book.

As I mentioned, this book is marketed as a conversation between Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison, which made me curious for so long that I finally bought it.  Though it isn't that, I'm not really disappointed.  I wouldn't mind reading the transcripts of those conversations, though.  But a conversation I'd really like to overhear would be between Gary Snyder and another writer who taught at the University of California at Davis at the same time as he did: Kim Stanley Robinson.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Van Gogh: Up Close
Edited by Cornelia Homburg
Yale University Press

He is among the most mythologized of artists: the tortured, mad, solitary, ignored genius. As if his paintings are not striking enough, the severed ear and his suicide color them more strangely in our cartoon world. This calm and excellent volume is the antidote, as well as a revelatory look at the heart of his work.

Guided by his childhood in the Dutch countryside and his love of Japanese prints, Van Gogh “pushed the boundaries of close-up views of nature” as no other European artist, according to Cornelia Homburg, this volume’s editor, and a curator of the accompanying exhibition, now at the National Gallery of Canada.  Eleven illustrated essays examine subjects and sources. For example, Joseph J. Rishel looks at his early encounters with Dutch Masters such as Rembrandt. Jennifer Thompson surveys his contemporaries, including Monet and Renoir. But most of the attention stays on Van Gogh himself, and along the way the myth gets modified.

While some modernists may have pursued the Rimbaud formula of deliberate disordering of the senses, Van Gogh considered “peace of mind and self-composure” essential to the concentration on the “dusty blade of grass” and the process of painting well. "During periods of stress Van Gogh reinforced his efforts to stay calm, as he considerable a stable frame of mind essential for any painter." While some have suggested Van Gogh’s illness was due to the intensity of his work, Richard Shiff in his essay writes that it was the other way around: only painting soothed him and offset his illness. 

   Elements such as angles and how subjects were framed may have been generally influenced by early photography, though the composition of photographs tended to follow painting as well. But Van Gogh wasn't interested in photographic realism. He saw the use of color and texture essential to painting.   Van Gogh’s use of color also doesn’t require theories about warped brain chemistry—Jennifer Thompson writes that he consciously used color to convey feeling and meaning. He wanted to suggest the sound of the ear of corn swaying in the breeze.

This book also suggests that Van Gogh was not so universally ignored in his time.  At the time he was painting these "close-ups" of nature in the south of France, his latest work was receiving very favorable attention from his fellow artists.  Both Dutch and French journalists were writing about him, and the first major article about his work by a distinguished critic appeared in 1890.  (Van Gogh however still didn't think his work was really understood.) 

   Illustrations abound in this book. In my experience, there’s nothing like seeing the actual painting. I had the chance to stand quietly in front of Van Gogh’s “Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Cloudy Sky” for a considerable time at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, and no illustration I’ve seen—including the one in this book—captures the luminous colors and textures, or their effects. But quite a few of the 100 illustrations in this volume are the best I’ve seen, and give a real sense of a painting. Several are simply astonishing. That’s due in part to the large format (a few are spread over two wide pages) and the care with color. They certainly are much better than anything now available online.

“Art requires a sense of humility, willingness to perform hard labor, and an ability to see beauty in the most humble of places,” writes Anabelle Kienle, summarizing a Van Gogh letter. The combination of these texts and illustrations gives substance and a sense of joy to his achievement. And together they may illuminate the flowers, trees, fields and skies of this spring in new ways as well.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Lone Survivors: How We Came To Be The Only Humans On Earth
By Chris Stringer
Times Books

There’s an illustration I recall from an old schoolbook that still defines the popular conception of human evolution (at least for those who believe in it at all.) It depicted a progression of primates, hairy apes becoming slightly less hairy and more two-legged until the crouching Neanderthals become the modern human, upright and standing tall, poised to invent subprime mortgages. It’s a tale of destiny and inevitable progress, and it’s pretty much wrong.

Chris Stringer is a prominent paleoanthropologist affiliated with the Natural History Museum in London. In this book he attempts a comprehensive survey of the still-changing picture of human species development. He begins with the state of knowledge in the 1970s, when he started his professional work, and he describes in some detail the factors involved in how that picture has changed. He explores fast-moving advances in contributing fields: not only in new techniques for locating and unearthing fossils, but in dating them with exotic new technologies (like the synchrotron, of which a very big example is the Large Hadron Collider.)

  Genetics now contributes in various ways, advancing with stunning speed. The human genome was essentially sequenced just 20 years ago. Now there’s a sequenced Neanderthal genome. Stringer also considers cultural questions based on artifacts such as tools, paints and musical instruments.   I found a lot of this interesting but also frustrating.  Paul Shepard shows--and evidence from contemporary Indigenous peoples as well as their traditions demonstrate--that humans learned a lot by imitating nature and other animals, as well as through their interactions with animals (in the hunt, for example, which Shepard suggests influenced the intelligence of both hunter and prey.)  Some cultural aspects Stringer finds mysterious may become less so if these factors are fully considered. 

Stringer writes a lot about how information was developed, so the big picture emerges in fragments. While all the new data answers some questions, basically it seems to have complicated the story. It’s now considered likely that several of many human species (an earlier book counted 22) coexisted in the same time, maybe in the same place. Modern humans carry some Neanderthal DNA (and before the caveman jokes start, Neanderthals males and females may have been more equal physically and culturally than are modern humans.)

New early humans have been discovered, notably a species called homo floresiensis discovered in 2004. Because of its small size, it was quickly dubbed “the Hobbit.” This species seems to have existed only on a single island near Java, and remains mysterious and very provocative in what it suggests about the vagaries of evolution. These humans existed—and died off--apparently in isolation perhaps just 18,000 years ago.  This suggests the fragility of a species' survival.  But then, for one reason or another, our own existence outside the Africa whence we came may be owed to only a few hundred surviving travelers.

    So how did we become the only humans on earth? Did modern humans develop traits that gave it competitive advantage through natural selection? In some ways that's likely, but traits that survived for no discernable reason (genetic drift) also helped. I’ve noticed that in recent years, historians are taking role of climate more seriously as a causal factor in the rise and fall of civilizations. Similarly, this book describes climate changes as crucial elements in the prehistoric story of human species. It may well be that one reason our species survived is that while other human species battled with extreme and disastrous effects of climate change, our forebearers were in southern Africa, with relatively stable climate.  Ironic perhaps in that this area is now being hit hard by today's climate crisis.

There are still plenty of puzzles, but Stringer concludes that we’re here at least partly by accident, by luck. “Sometimes the difference between success and failure in evolution is a narrow one,” he concludes, and notes that we’ve now got “an overpopulated planet and the prospect of global climate change on a scale that humans have never faced before. Let’s hope our species is up to the challenge.”