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.

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