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Critical Essay by Julia Martin
SOURCE: "Speaking for the Green of the Leaf: Gary Snyder Writes Nature's Literature," in CEA Critic, Vol. 54, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 98-109.
In the following excerpt, Martin explores Snyder's environmental writings and the ways in which Snyder challenges the dominant Western discourse.
… As early as 1969 and even before, Snyder described what he considered to be the repressive thrust of the dominant Western culture in terms of sexual politics, identifying its origins within the "patriarchal, patrilineal family." In attacking this value system, his poetry becomes polemical and angry. Whereas much of Snyder's work is characterized by its attention to minute particulars, his most overtly political writing depends to some extent on generalization and caricature. Like some radical feminist rhetoric, his critique of the dominant discourse is strategically useful, if somewhat reactive and philosophically dubious. Here is a characteristic example from the poem "Mother Earth: Her Whales:"
How can the head-heavy power-hungry politic scientist
Government two-world Capitalist-Imperialist
Third-world Communist paper-shuffling male non-farmer jet-set bureaucrats
Speak for the green of the leaf? Speak for the soil?
The invective is sharp, the attack directed toward an agency that is clearly androcentric. Earlier in the same poem, the familiar oppositions are reversed in a similar way. Human beings become Other, robot-like; nature is alive and sentient:
The living actual people of the jungle
sold and tortured
And a robot in a suit who peddles a delusion
can speak for them?
If the dominant discourse (and economic and political practice) has no language for "the green of the leaf," for Snyder this lack is due in part to a religious model that tends to give primacy to the transcendental Word, effectively silencing Other voices. Although in recent years there has been some critique of this silencing from within the Church, the mainstream Judaeo-Christian world view has, historically, assumed that a feminized "nature" is something from which we are (or should be) distinct: "Man" names the animals, keeps the land. Snyder describes this attempt to raise man above his (sic) environment, somewhat rhetorically, as follows: "men are seen working out their ultimate destinies (paradise? perdition?) with planet earth as the stage for their drama—trees and animals mere props, nature a vast supply depot." Several early poems (for example in Myths & Texts) identify in this system of values the origins of the present ecological crisis. In Turtle Island, the conflation of nature and "the feminine" that the paradigm implies appears in the poem "Front Lines." The effect is a strong polemic against capitalist America's acquisitive devastation of the wilderness: "Landseekers, lookers, they say / To the land / Spread your legs." Later in the poem, the metaphor of rape is extended in the depiction of a disgustingly destructive bulldozer ("grinding and slobbering / sideslipping and belching on top of / the skinned-up bodies of still-live bushes") in the pay of "a man from town."
As these extracts suggest, Snyder reads the patriarchal construction of nature as feminine Other as being linked to the idea that nature is something hostile and dangerous, and adversary. The corollary is the view that the "natural" desires (particularly sexual) are fallen and dangerous: "To make 'human nature' suspect is also to make Nature—the Wilderness—The adversary." In an early poem, "Logging 15," Snyder identifies the repression this involves as follows:
Men who hire men to cut groves
Kill snakes, build cities, pave fields
Believe in god, but can't
Believe their own senses
Let alone Guatama. Let them lie.
The view that one is "above nature" implies that one can't afford to believe the senses. This attitude is seen here to be symptomatic of a culture that has denigrated the value of the senses in favor of the bliss of a supra naturalistic heaven, where all experience is incorporeal. A poem called "The Call of the Wild," for example, examines the connotations of "wildness" for a culture founded in dualistic metaphysics. The poem describes "a war against earth" that corresponds to a war against (or repression of) the "natural" self. Ironically, certain members of the so-called counterculture (dreaming of India, of "forever blissful sexless highs") are shown to be as alienated from wild systems as is the dominant (specifically American) culture that they superficially oppose. The outcome of the transcendental metaphysics that they share is horrible destruction, launched from a position that is, like that of all sky gods, high above the earth. Once airborne, the Americans never come down
for they found
is pro-Communist. And dirty.
And the insects side with the Vet Cong
Once having enlisted the mentality that identifies the Other as enemy, any destruction can be sanctioned:
So they bomb and they bomb
Day after day, across the planet
breaking the ear-drums of owls
splintering trunks of cherries
twining and looping
in the shaken, dusty, rocks.
In an early essay, Snyder refers to a marginal tradition that has existed alongside the dominant, historically antifeminist, religion of Jehovah. Much of the poetry seeks to revive the subversive potential of this counter-tradition, which celebrates "woman as nature the field for experiencing the universe as sacramental." To speak of "woman" and "nature" in this way means to identify with that which the dominant culture constructs as Other. This reversal of value has historical analogues in, for example, the black consciousness movement, and it corresponds closely with those women writers who, as Julia Kristeva puts it, seek to "give a language to the intrasubjective and corporeal experiences left mute by culture in the past." In Snyder's case, this involves giving expression to the "voice from the wilderness, my constituency." Two important features are the use of metaphors of descent and a revaluation of the quotidian.
Like many women writers (I think of Adrienne Rich, Susan Griffin, Margaret Atwood), Snyder often uses metaphors of descent to indicate an attempt to recover what has been drowned, buried, marginalized, and silenced by the dominant discourse. The metaphor works at several levels, as the poem "Anasazi," a description of an imaginative descent into Native America's so-called primitive past, illustrates. The speaker's reconstruction of the social system of the Anasazi reveals mysteries inherent in their daily activities: growing, watching, giving birth. The close spiritual identification with nature that this involves contrasts strongly with the supranaturalistic emphasis of patriarchal monotheism. In an experience of shamanistic identification, the human person is drenched and absorbed in the nonhuman. The gods are encountered through descent into the material, rather than through spiritual transcendence:
sinking deeper and deeper in earth
up to your hips in Gods
your head all turned to eagle-down
and lightning for knees and elbows
your eyes full of pollen
the smell of bats
the flavor of sandstone
grit on the tongue
at the foot of ladders in the dark.
In this account, the speaker's immersion in the holy involves a progressive absorption into the maternal earth. Engaging the "lower" part of the body ("hips" rather than heart or mind), this experience is sensual—physical—as much as it is spiritual or mental. Descending deep enough into the ground reveals the continued presence of women who are giving birth. Their place in the "dark" reinforces the effect of "down" and "earth," contrasting strongly with the "light," "ascent," and "sky" of patriarchal religion. Similarly, in foregrounding women's labor, in identifying it as being, precisely in its physicality, simultaneously a spiritual experience, the poem reverses the dominant view of both "woman" and bodily functions. Syntactically, the use of indefinite participles suggests that this is not an isolated moment on history's timeline. Instead, such sacramental experience is part of a continuous process, and therefore always accessible.
To emphasize descent in this way implies for Snyder an orientation that is repeated in numerous other poems about wilderness, women, bodies, animals, and the so-called primitive. In proposing an alternative to the tendency in patriarchal monotheism to stress transcendence of the material world, such poetry recalls traditions that model this very world as being sacramental. One consequence of this emphasis is a revaluation of what Adrienne Rich has called "the enormity of the simplest things," those unobtrusive, hidden, everyday activities that facilitate the progress of the dominant culture. In place of a focus on achieving spiritual transcendence of material limits, the poetry repeatedly proposes the importance of mindful attention to ordinary daily activities. Many of the poems therefore celebrate activities that are often viewed as either trivial, or mundane, or insignificant: doing housework, eating and preparing food, gardening, making love, caring for children, looking at animals and plants, fixing machinery.
This view of the quotidian is partly informed by Snyder's involvement with Zen Buddhism, a discipline stressing attention to simple particulars—no activity is intrinsically more valuable than another, and all activities are interconnected. But for Snyder, as for many feminist writers, to write poetry celebrating ordinary activities is also a political choice. If patriarchal discourse silences not only woman and nature but also the sort of work habitually done by women and subject peoples, then it becomes important to assert the value of such silenced work.
To foreground and defend marginalized Other in the ways I have described may be a necessary response to exploitative mastery. But for Snyder, as Buddhist and ecologist, such reversal of value is useful only to the extent that it makes possible a conceptual model not founded in binary oppositions. The function of Snyder's treatment of "nature" and "woman" is, paradoxically, to approach such a model.
As I noted at the beginning, what we call "nature" is, from an ecological viewpoint, not an aggregate of competing, autonomous entities but a cybernetic system in which organism and environment are interdependent. To see this relation in terms of binary oppositions (Self-Other, Nature-Culture) is to misinterpret the necessary exchange of information and energy between constituent participants. In representing this understanding of the natural ecosystem, Snyder's poetry from the period under discussion draws metaphors from those versions of goddess mythology and Buddhism that emphasize the arbitrariness of binary dichotomies. For example, the Buddhist term Prajan-paramita denotes wisdom that has gone beyond all dualisms. But it is also, simultaneously, the name of a goddess. Paradoxical symbolism of this kind is particularly clear in Snyder's account of the goddesses Gaia ("the great biosphere being") and Vak ("the Voice through all"). In each case, the use of the goddess as metaphor of ecological interdependence suggests a basis for a nonbinary conceptual model.
Snyder uses "Gaia" to refer to the planetary ecosystem, the biosphere, the whole earth. This allusion to the primal earth mother suggests a view of "nature" as interdependent system. In Axe Handles, one of the "Little Songs for Gaia" describes it as follows:
ah, this slow-paced
system of systems, whirling and turning
a five-thousand-year span
about all that a human can figure,
grasshopper man in his car driving through.
Like a Chinese landscape painting in which human beings are depicted as diminutive figures in a vast natural environment, the poem provides a setting for (and so defamiliarizes) the impact of human agency. In contrast to the hawk's free flight, the insectlike "man in his car" follows a linear track through "nature" as though he is separable from it. But his point of view, which foregrounds the human in opposition to the environment and limits history to five thousand "civilized" years, is qualified by the rest of the poem. By attending to the world that his view marginalizes, the poem evokes an image of the whole biosphere, Gaia, that ancient "system of systems," within whose rhythmic "whirling and turning" each individual is necessarily a participant.
Snyder frequently uses the related metaphors of the net, the woven fabric or web, and the family to evoke this yiew of the biosphere. Like Mary Daly in Gyn/Ecology, Snyder associates the traditionally feminine activity of weaving this network of correspondences with a mother goddess, specifically "Mother Gaia." Appropriately, then, in place of the nuclear family as isolated unit, the speaker is located as a member of the family of all beings. The poem "On San Gabriel Ridges" is a characteristic example. Seeing the designs of twigs and seeds that have impressed themselves on his skin, the speaker recognizes his participation in the fabric of interconnection. Old friends and lovers, children, squirrel, and fox are all woven in its pattern, and the present moment is similarly informed by the past, to which it is still connected:
O loves of long ago
and all of us together
with all our other loves and children
twining and knotting through each other—
intricate, chaotic, done.
Family relationships are shown to be part of the same process that links squirrel and fox in the food chain:
into the dark.
squirrel bones crunched
tight and dry in scats of
The poem suggests that the life of each is, often quite literally, bound up with that of the others—dissolved, rotten, and reconstituted in a new form. This evidence of the food chain is, then, for Snyder probably the clearest sign of our interdependence in the "family" of Gaia, and many poems deal with this exchange of energies, what he calls "eating each other." Here, as before, the metaphors work to subvert the habitual view of the individual (self, family, class, nation, gender, species) as something separable from the environment.
In Regarding Wave, the goddess Vak is the focusing metaphor for a similar perception of the interdependence of self and ecosystem. Looking at the texture of the phenomenal world, the speaker finds that all things (including himself) are wave-patterned, various expressions of an energy he calls "a shimmering bell / through all." As Vak, or "Voice," this omnipresent energy is metaphorically depicted as a lover. But, as with the image of Gaia as mother, the feminine symbolism refers to the ecosystem as a whole rather than to something outside of and separate from the self. The poems "Wave" and "Regarding Wave" convey the role (simultaneously observer and participant) that this concept implies for the speaker.
If the dominant discourse cannot speak for "the green of the leaf," then Snyder's work seeks a language for what has been silenced. In response to the dualistic model that structures experience in terms of binary oppositions, and so legitimizes the repression and exploitation of the Other, this poetry offers a view of the universe as an interpenetrating network of correspondences. By foregrounding what the dominant culture has marginalized, much of Snyder's writing finds in a metaphorically feminized ecosystem a model of interconnection and relationship that attempts to resist binary division and the exploitation such division implies. Snyder's view, which he has called "a spiritual ecology," is not dependent on belief in a metaphysical "other realm." Instead, it is based on the observation that individual and environment are interdependent, that social formations and psychic relations are inextricable.
Of course, there are contradictions. First, there is the problem any oppositional discourse has in attempting to "talk back": One's own voice takes shape as another text, to be encoded as yet another part of the dominant discourse. Partly for this reason, Zen Buddhist texts characteristically avoid assertions of belief, seeking rather, through paradoxical and illogical expression, to disrupt the sequential, dualistic thinking encoded in language. Julia Kristeva argues similarly that "Once it is represented, even by the form of a woman, the 'truth' of the unconscious passes into the symbolic order," and the Tao Te Ching opens with the words, "The Way which can be spoken is not the Way." And yet we must go on speaking.
A second problem concerns Snyder's tendency to caricature the Western tradition, his consequent identification with its repressed Other, and his use of a gendered image (a goddess) as metaphor for a nondualistic view. Does this not involve a mere reversal of the current model, generating an inverted image of the combatted power, preparing the way for another pattern of dominance, another totalizing ideology? If the simultaneous exploitation of women and the natural biosphere has derived ideological support from the supposed association between "woman" and "nature," is the attempt to renew this association in the metaphors of Gaia and Vak not harmful and regressive? Why use an anthropomorphic metaphor anyway, when its purpose is to evoke a world in which humans are only part of the picture?
For Snyder as Zen poet, all such metaphors, like any linguistic articulation of a nondualistic perspective, are provisional and tentative. Any given metaphor can be valuable as long as it is strategically useful and emotionally compelling. When I interviewed Snyder in 1988, he conceded that gendered metaphors for nature are potentially problematic and suggested that Gaia was "a theatrical device" to be used only "as long as it plays" ("Coyote-Mind"). In his recent contributions to nature's literature, the network of interdependence is evoked in descriptions of what he calls "the wild." There is little mention of goddesses.
It should be clear that my reading of Snyder's position is generally sympathetic. I make my own position explicit because no reading is neutral. Our situation demands that readers, writers, and teachers of literature engage with issues that concern us deeply. From deconstruction and Buddhist teaching, we know about the relativity of all propositions of belief and the fiction of a grounding truth, a transcendental signified. And yet, in these uncertain times, there are some things we can be sure of: The earth is one system, and our lives are interdependent; we live in a suffering world, and there is nowhere else to go. Whatever else may be said, the planetary biosphere, "nature" if you like, is the ground of all our meanings. Snyder calls it "our only sacred spot":
This small blue-green planet is the only one with comfortable temperatures, good air and water, a wealth of animals and plants, for millions (or quadrillions) of miles. A little waterhole in Vast Space, a nesting place, a place of singing and practice, a place of dreaming. It's on the verge of being totally trashed—there's a slow way and a fast way. We are all natives here, and this is our only sacred spot. We must know that we've been jumped, and fight like a raccoon in a pack of hounds, for our own and all other lives. ("Wild")
Certainly, neither textual revolution nor engaged criticism can substitute for social and political transformation. For Snyder, writing poetry is only part of a much wider practice. Poems can't feed the hungry or heal the ozone layer or liberate women or bring justice in South Africa. But sometimes they can disturb our old opinions, enter our dreams, and help us to find new words.
This section contains 3,026 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)