Gary Snyder | Critical Essay by Katsunori Yamazato

This literature criticism consists of approximately 20 pages of analysis & critique of Gary Snyder.
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Critical Essay by Katsunori Yamazato

SOURCE: "How to Be in This Crisis: Gary Snyder's Cross-Cultural Vision in Turtle Island," in Critical Essays on Gary Snyder, edited by Patrick D. Murphy, G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, pp. 230-47.

In the following essay, Yamazato discusses the way in which Snyder's unique interpretation of Buddhism shapes his poetry.

For Gary Snyder, Buddhism was and is not merely a system of faith and worship; as he succinctly summarizes, "Buddhism is about existence." Buddhism teaches one how to be in this "impermanent" world, and this is one of the aspects of Buddhism that Snyder especially deepened and solidified during his Japanese years (1956–68). Despite persistent skepticism toward traditional, institutionalized Buddhism, he gained valuable insights into its strengths and weaknesses during his stay in Japan, and these insights grew into an ontological vision. "How to be" is the central question that Snyder asks and tries to answer throughout Turtle Island, as in "What Happened Here Before":

      we sit here near the diggings
      in the forest, by our fire, and watch
      the moon and planets and the shooting stars—
      my sons ask, who are we?
      drying apples picked from homestead trees
      drying berries, curing meat,
      shooting arrows at a bale of straw.
      military jets head northeast, roaring, every dawn.
      my sons ask, who are they?
       WHO KNOWS
       HOW TO BE
      Bluejay screeches from a pine.

As he states in his essay "Energy is Eternal Delight," the question of "how to be" is closely related to his vision of an alternative culture: "The return to marginal farmland on the part of longhairs is not some nostalgic replay of the nineteenth century. Here is a generation of white people finally ready to learn from the Elders. How to live on the continent as though our children, and on down, for many ages, will still be here (not on the moon). Loving and protecting this soil, these trees, these wolves. Natives of Turtle Island." In 1970, two years after his return from Japan, Snyder and his family moved to Kitkitdizze—a name he gave the wild land that he bought in 1967. They were joined by others settling roots on the San Juan Ridge, Nevada City, California, and a community began to emerge, a group of people determined to live as "natives of Turtle Island," seeking ways of "how to be." The answer to his sons' question, "who are we?" cannot be separated from the answer to the question of "how to be," and one of many things that makes Gary Snyder a distinguished poet and thinker is that he seeks answers to this perennial compound question by actually experimenting in the heart of Turtle Island, Snyder's mythic, alternative name for North America. He rejects an easy answer, for the question is based on his quest for an alternative culture. In the heart of Turtle Island, he has tested his conviction that "Buddhism is about existence," and Buddhism has been effective in finding an answer to his radical question.

To understand fully Snyder's cross-cultural vision in Turtle Island we need to explore the Buddhist elements that pervade the book. Among the teachings of Buddhist sects that he studied in Japan, Zen Buddhism naturally constitutes his basic attitude, as he suggested in a 1979 interview. In that interview, Snyder laughs away conventional and stereotypic images of Zen Buddhism, and the laughter is indicative of the depth and sophistication that he attained during his rigorous training at the Daitoku-ji in Kyoto. Zen became fundamental for the poet—a way of seeing and working through life—and as such, it manifests itself in such unlikely places as "Why Log Truck Drivers Rise Earlier Than Students of Zen." At this point, Zen has become so fundamentally embodied in his works that it is difficult to pinpoint particular "Zen aspects" in the poems collected in Turtle Island—as difficult, in fact, as isolating water from the cells of a plant. Zen has become the basis of Snyder's everyday life.

Moreover, it is dangerous to discuss Turtle Island and other works written after the poet's return to the United States solely in terms of Zen, for Snyder also studied and incorporated teachings of other Buddhist schools in Japan, bringing these into play in his work. In Turtle Island, he uses some teachings of other Buddhist sects in his attempt at a "cross-fertilization of ecological thought with Buddhist ideas of interpenetration." Since the Buddhist ideas that Snyder drew on to "cross-fertilize" with ecological ideas have received little critical analysis, a discussion of the Buddhist concept of interpenetration, a key metaphor in Turtle Island, is well in order.

Buddhism holds that every being in this universe is interrelated. According to Junjiro Takakusu, "The universe is not homocentric; it is a co-creation of all beings." In the Buddhist universe, nothing can exist separately from other beings, and "everything is inevitably created out of more than two causes." This is called "Dependent Production or Chain of Causation," or, in Japanese, engisetsu, and, as Takakusu explains it: "From the existence of this, that becomes: from the happening of this, that happens. From the non-existence of this, that does not happen. Everything in the universe is mutually related, and, as Takakusu succinctly puts it, "all is … a product of interdependence."

In Buddhism, there are two ways of explaining the universe. Seen in terms of time, all things contained in the universe are depicted as "impermanent"; but in terms of space, the things in the universe become "interrelated." Snyder occasionally refers to the impermanence of life in this world, yet we should note that he tends increasingly to emphasize the spatial aspect in Buddhism, that is, the interpenetration of all things.

The theory of causation or the idea of universal interpenetration has been developed by various schools of Buddhism. Among these, the Kegon school, which upholds the Avatamsaka sutra, is said to have developed the idea of interpenetration to its climax. The idea of interpenetration, according to D. T. Suzuki, is "the ruling topic of the sutra," and the central image in the sutra is "the world of all realities or practical facts interwoven or identified in perfect harmony." This word is called, in Japanese, jijimuge-hokkai, and the sutra introduces "Indra's net" to illustrate the magnificent image of interpenetration. As Takakusu puts it, it is "a net decorated with bright stone on each knot of the mesh," and the jewels reflect each other endlessly, reflecting "the real facts of the world" mutually interpenetrating. Interpenetration is the fundamental insight of the Avatamsaka sutra, and, by using the image of "Indra's net," the sutra illustrates, in D. T. Suzuki's words, a "perfect network of mutual relations."

From the beginning of his career, Snyder has repeatedly referred to the Avatamsaka sutra and its key image. In "Lookout's Journal," for instance, he writes: "—shifting of light & cloud, perfection of chaos, magnificent jijimu-ge / interlacing interaction." In "Buddhism and the Coming Revolution," an essay first published in 1961, he points out that "Avatamsaka (Kegon) Buddhist philosophy sees the world as a vast interrelated network in which all objects and creatures are necessary and illuminated." And in "Poetry and the Primitive" an essay later published in Earth House Hold, Snyder sketches the idea of interpenetration in a more elaborate context, foreshadowing its full development in Turtle Island: "… every person, animals, forces, all are related via a web of reincarnation—or rather, they are 'interborn.' It may well be that rebirth (or interbirth, for we are actually mutually creating each other and all things while living) is the objective fact of existence which we have not yet brought into conscious knowledge and practice. "It is clear that the empirically observable interconnectedness of nature is but a corner of the vast 'jewelled net' which moves from without to within."

Continuing in the same vein in a 1973 interview given in New York, Snyder refers again to the fundamental Buddhist idea of interpenetration: "I find it always exciting to me, beautiful, to experience the interdependencies of things, the complex webs and networks by which everything moves, which I think are the most beautiful awarenesses that we can have of ourselves and of our planet." In his lecture, "Reinhabitation," delivered at the Reinhabitation Conference held at San Juan Ridge County School in August of 1976, Snyder continues: "The Avatamsaka ('Flower Wreath') jewelled-net-interpenetration-ecological-systems-emptiness-consciousness tells us, no self-realization without the Whole Self, and the whole self is the whole thing." Even a cursory survey of the poet's references to the nets and webs imagery in the Avatamsaka sutra tells us that Snyder gradually developed and incorporated the key image of this sutra into his own system. We also notice how the idea of interpenetration becomes deepened, refined, and finally solidified as a vital element in the poet's consciousness—as seen in the growth of his ontological vision.

Buddhism and ecology "cross-fertilize" each other well. Coined by the German biologist Ernest Haeckel in 1869, the term ecology has since gained a wide popularity only a century later, and its key concept has been a common assumption of nature-conscious people in the second half of the twentieth century: "All units of the ecosystem are mutually dependent. This is a good point to keep in mind when we are tempted to extol the importance of some group of organisms in which we happen to be especially interested." Humankind is "a part of 'complex' biological cycles" dependent on the food web of eating and being eaten. Snyder was well aware of this key concept of ecology in his early stage, as in "Japan First Time Around," in which he sketches the link in the chain: "salts—diatoms—copepods—herring—fishermen—us, eating."

It is clear, then, that Snyder in Japan deeply realized that Buddhism and ecology shared a vision of the world in terms of the interrelatedness of all beings. The former is a picture of a spiritual world caught in the Eastern religious vision, and the latter a model of the natural world presented by the rational thinking of Western science. During his first sojourn in Japan (1956–57), he discovered the connection between Zen and the Avatamsaka teachings: "So, Zen being founded on Avatamsaka, and the net-network of things," and three short months later, the shared imagery of the Avatamsaka sutra and the principles of ecology were fused in his mind: "Indra's net is not merely two-dimensional …—two days contemplating ecology, foodchains and sex."

Science, for Snyder, does not "murder to dissect." Ecology with its ethical and spiritual dimension is "divine," and he writes that "science walks in beauty" ("Toward Climax"). Unlike many visionaries, he does not reject rational thought, and he is attempting to fuse science and religious teachings to create a guiding principle by which to live on Turtle Island. This is a daring new American synthesis, perhaps not feasible in the vision of traditional Buddhists, as Snyder himself is aware: "Traditional orthodox Buddhists are not concerned with building new cultures any more than they are interested in natural religion or girls. Poets must try to get them together—playing a funny kind of role, today, as pivot-man, between the upheavals of culture-change and the persistence of the Single Eye of Knowledge. In Snyder's continuing synthesis, ecology helps him see his position clearly and concretely in exploring the heart of Turtle Island, and his life there is given a spiritual depth by his acute awareness of the interrelated existence of all beings in the universe. As I shall show, this double structure serves as the basis for most poems in Turtle Island.

Further, the Mahayana belief in bussho, which teaches that all beings are endowed with "Buddha-nature" (the inherent capacity to become a Buddha), demands—along with ecology—that people treat other beings responsibly. The human, in Snyder's words, is "an animal that was brought into being on this biosphere by these processes of sun and water and leaf." Endowed with "Buddha-nature," other beings demand a radically different treatment. Snyder writes that "as the most highly developed tool-using animal, [people] must recognize that the unknown evolutionary destinies of other life forms are to be respected, and act as gentle steward of the earth's community of being" ("Four Changes"). Thus, the insights from the Avatamsaka sutra and other Buddhist teachings merged with an ecological consciousness, to become a guiding principle in living on Turtle Island.

This guiding principle, moreover, involves an attempt to restore "life" to other beings that modern civilization has tended to regard as "dead matter." In his criticism of modern civilization, Snyder writes that "at the root of the problem where our civilization goes wrong is the mistaken belief that nature is something less than authentic, that nature is not as alive as man is, or as intelligent, that in a sense it is dead, and that animals are of so low an order of intelligence and feeling, we need not take their feelings into account" ("The Wilderness"). Writing in "Four Changes," he goes further, aiming at "transforming" a civilization that he has long found destructive: "We have it within our deepest powers not only to change our 'selves' but to change our culture. If man is to remain on earth he must transform the five-millennia-long urbanizing civilization tradition into a new ecologically-sensitive harmony-oriented wild-minded scientific-spiritual culture." His quest in Japan reaches a climax here, and we understand that his is a vision that, by combining East and West, deeply urges the reader to reconsider the validity of traditional cultural paradigms.

To support and guide one's behavior by a religious vision provided by Buddhism, and to be deeply aware of the ecological reality of Turtle Island, and to learn at the same time from the Native American cultures, all these have offered parts of the answer for the poet's question of "how to be." The poems in Turtle Island reflect Snyder's exploratory life and his pursuit of the perennial question in the heart of the mythic American land. The Buddhist concept of interpenetration, "cross-fertilized" with classical Western ecology, runs beneath the poems collected in Turtle Island and enriches the poetic world depicted there. Solidified in the poet's consciousness during his years in Japan, the Buddhist-ecological matrix manifests itself in various modes in his poems. Some poems in Turtle Island are candidly satiric and political, and Snyder's attack on problems inherent in modern civilization is based on his conviction of the interrelatedness of all beings. In "Front Lines," for instance, the poet depicts the destructiveness in contemporary society. When rain continues and the log trucks are unable to work, "The trees breathe." But the destruction of nature continues: "Every pulse of the rot at the heart / In the sick fat veins of Amerika / Pushes the edge up closer—." A bulldozer is "grinding and slobbering / Sideslipping and belching on top of / The skinned-up bodies of still-live bushes." The trees and bushes, depicted thus, are not just dead matter. For Snyder, they share "Buddha-nature" with human beings, all belonging to "the great community of living creatures," and their lives must equally be respected ("Four Changes"). Yet, for the greediness of "a man / From town," trees are suffocated and bushes are destroyed.

Snyder's attitude is not merely that of "a nature lover"; he is indicting a civilization, devoid of sensibility of and respect for other life forms, mindlessly engulfed in its own destructiveness. He goes a step further. As he concludes, we perceive clearly that the interplay of Mahayana Buddhism and his ecological consciousness implies, perhaps even demands, social activism:

     Behind is a forest that goes to the Arctic
     And a desert that still belongs to the Piute
     And here we must draw
     Our line

The poet's criticism of a destructive civilization and his compassion for "all other members of the life-network" are sometimes expressed as "spells" against destructive forces, incantations that will arrest and convert negative energy ("Four Changes"). "Spel against Demons" (first printed in The Fudo Trilogy, 1973) is a poem that attempts to exorcise the demonic forces inside the civilization by introducing a powerful figure from Buddhism. "ACHALA the Immovable" (Fudomyo-o, in Japanese). Fudomyo-o is a deity that belongs to the Shingon school (also known as Mikkyo; literally, the secret teachings), a branch of Mahayana Buddhism in Japan. The Shingon teachings are said to have originated in second-century India, and, after transmission to China, were systematized in Japan by the Japanese Buddhist Priest Kukai (774-835). According to Shökö Watanabe, Fudomyo-o in Shingon is regarded as an incarnation of the Mahavairocana Buddha or the Great Sun Buddha, whom Snyder also refers to in "On 'As for Poets.'" Originally a Hindu deity, Fudomyo-o became an object of popular worship in Japan after its incorporation into the Shingon teachings.

Shingon or Mikkyo comes into the poet's work through his interest in the Shugendo (or Yamabushi) tradition in Japan (Yamabushi is a Japanese term for those priests who discipline themselves in the mountains). Shugendo originally was a nature-worship religion that borrowed its theoretical basis from Shingon; Fudomyo-o, a deity originally belonging to Shingon, also became a powerful deity for the Shugendo tradition. Snyder's penchant for the tradition manifested itself earlier in his essay, "Anyone with Yama-bushi Tendencies," printed in Zen Notes in 1954. His interest in the tradition persisted throughout the Japanese years, and he did a pilgrimage to Mt. ömine, a sacred mountain for the Yamabushi tradition, and was initiated as a Yamabushi ("a mountain priest") in 1961.

In "Spel against Demons," the poet introduces Fudömyö-ö, hoping to exorcise "demonic energies" in society:

    Down with demonic killers who mouth revolutionary
    slogans and muddy the flow of change, may they be
    Bound by the Noose, and Instructed by the Diamond
    Sword of ACHALA the Immovable, Lord of Wisdom, Lord
    of Heat, who is squint-eyed and whose face is terrible
    with bare fangs, who wears on his crown a garland of
    severed heads, clad in a tiger skin, he who turns
    Wrath to Purified Accomplishment,
      whose powers are of lava
      of magma, of deep rock strata, of gunpowder, and the Sun.
    He who saves tortured intelligent demons and filth-eating
         hungry ghosts, his spel is,

As we see above, Fudomyo-o (Fudo meaning "Immovable" in Japanese) always holds a sharp sword in his right hand, which subdues devils or evil spirits. The rope, "the Noose," held in the diety's left hand, is used to capture, bind, and lead evil spirits into enlightenment. The facial expression of the deity is fierce and contorted with bare fangs, and his halo is aflame. According to Watanabe, the word achala originally means "something immovable, that is, "mountain," and hence it also represents "nature in general." The mantra, "his spel," that Snyder quotes, is called jikunoshu in Japanese, and it is the most famous among the mantras attributed to Fudomyo-o.

"Spel against Demons" clearly shows that Snyder's studies in Buddhism enlarged beyond Zen, and in the comic and now-famous "Smokey the Bear Sutra" (not included in Turtle Island), he again incorporates Fudomyo-o's mantra, comfortable enough in his Buddhist work to be at once playful and serious:

     Wrathful but Calm, Austere but Comic, Smokey the Bear will
     illuminate those who would help him; but for those who
     would hinder or slander him,
     Thus his great Mantra:
      Namah samanta vajranam chanda maharoshana
      Sphataya hum traka ham mam

"Smokey the Bear" unfolds with a discourse given "about 150 million years ago" by "the Great Sun Buddha," in which the Buddha predicts he will enter a new form in America of the future "to cure the world of loveless knowledge that seeks with blind hunger; and mindless rage eating food that will not fill it. "The Great Sun Buddha then reveals himself "in his true form of SMOKEY THE BEAR." A Fudo figure, Smokey the Bear holds a shovel in his right paw "that digs to the truth beneath appearances; cuts the roots of useless attachments, and flings damp sand on the fires of greed and war." The left paw, continuing the Shingon symbology, is "in the Mudra of Comradely Display—indicating that all creatures have the full right to live to their limits and that deer, rabbits, chipmunks, snakes, dandelions, and lizards all grow in the realm of Dharma." Thus, for the poet, Smokey the Bear is an American incarnation of Fudomyo-o, an earlier incarnation of the Great Sun Buddha. "Smokey the Bear Sutra" is both a spell against destructive forces and an invocation for, among others, "the age of harmony of man and nature." The "official" image of Smokey the Bear is transformed, and, in Snyder's alternative vision, becomes a guardian deity, protecting not only the oppressed human beings but also the interpenetrating beings from "a civilization that claims to save but only destroys."

While Turtle Island introduces a strong political and satirical tone to Snyder's work, it contains compassionate and sometimes elegiac elements as well. "The Uses of Light," for example, extends his compassion for other beings to include inanimate "stones," and, contrary to its surface simplicity, reflects a deeper harmony:

      It warms my bones
           say the stones
      I take it into me and grow
      Say the trees
      Leaves above
      Roots below
      A vast vague white
      Draws me out of the night
      Says the moth in his flight—
      Some things I smell
      Some things I hear
      And I see things move
      Says the deer—
      A high tower
      on a wide plain.
      If you climb up
      One floor
      You'll see a thousand miles more.

As the source of energy in the solar system, the sun draws out various reactions from the beings in the poem, and the second stanza is fundamentally ecological. The solar light is pervasive in the world, giving each being energy to live by. But how do people react to this world of light? Unlike other beings given only a limited sight (or no sight, as in the cases of "the stones" and "the trees"), humans climb "a high tower" of vision and wisdom. Their awareness of the idea of interpenetration renders them compassionate, not exploitative, toward other beings—sentient and nonsentient—and the poet implicitly advises readers to use their superior sight both for a harmonious whole and for their function as a "gentle steward of the earth's community of beings." People need "to always look one step farther along" to gain a deeper and clearer vision for "the life-network"—an attitude that Snyder sharpened during his rigorous training in Zen in Japan.

"The Uses of Light" also reflects Snyder's respects for the "Buddha-nature" in other beings, and, in this context, the "light" takes on a spiritual dimension. The principal Buddha in the Avatamsaka sutra is Vairocana (the Sun Buddha), who is depicted in that sutra as the center of the universe. Takakusu explains both the causation theory and the world depicted in the Avatamsaka sutra: "The causation theories particular to this school mean general interdependence, universal relativity, causes and effects being interwoven everywhere. Thus it makes from the beginning one perfect whole without any single independent thing—all comprehensive mandala (circle) and the Cycle of Permanent Waves illumined throughout by the great Sun-Buddha (Vairocana)."

Thus, at a deeper level, "stones," "trees" "moth," "deer," and people in this world are all interrelated and constitute a harmonious whole while illumined by the spiritual light that emanates from the Sun Buddha. The stanzaic arrangement gives the impression that both the sentient and nonsentient beings depicted are separate and independent, and yet one must say that the spiritual light pervades the space between the stanzas, connecting at a deeper level humans and other beings into "one perfect whole."

"Light"—spiritual and ecological—is one of the dominant images in Turtle Island, and another poem, "Two Fawns That Didn't See the Light This Spring," shares a spiritual dimension with "The Uses of Light." The poem consists of two anecdotes told by the poet's friends. First, "a friend in a tipi in the / Northern Rockies" hunting whitetail shoots by mistake a doe carrying a fawn. The friend is not wasteful, and he expiates his mistake by performing a "ritual": "He cured the meat without / salt; sliced it following the grain." The second anecdote is told by a woman in the Northern Sierra. She hits a doe with her car, and the poet's friends perform an impromptu "ritual" of death and birth. Butchering the doe, they discover a fawn:

      "—about so long—
      so tiny—but all formed and right.
      It had spots. And the little
      hooves were soft and white."

In Snyder's Buddhist-ecological vision, to be born permeated with "light" is basically joyful; we do not "wawl and cry" coming into this world. As he suggests in the Buddhist detachment in "Night Heron," the joy of birth and death arises from the fact that one becomes interrelated with and serviceable to other beings in the network illumined by the spiritual-ecological "light":

      the joy of all the beings
      is in being
      older and tougher and eaten

In "Two Fawns That Didn't See the Light This Spring," Snyder expresses his controlled sorrow for the two fawns that missed being part of the joyful, interdependent world permeated by the "light" that emanates from one compassionate Buddha. Snyder does not explicitly lament, and yet his sorrow and sense of loss take on an elegiac tone.

"The Hudsonian Curlew" is one of the most successful poems in Turtle Island in depicting interdependency between humans and other animals. It involves "killing" birds, but is an affirmative poem based on the poet's idea of the Buddhist-ecological interpenetration of beings in this world. What we see in the poem is the ritual of the food web, of eating and being eaten. The eating has a spiritual significance arising from Snyder's veneration for the life of other beings.

The poem unfolds with an image of "the Mandala of Birds." Amid the gathering of various birds, the human being is simply another animal engaged in hunting for food:

      gather driftwood for firewood
      for camping
      get four shells to serve up steamed snail.

The hunters then shoot two curlews, and the poet dwells on the concrete preparation of the birds for eating. It is a long passage, but the whole is worth quoting:

      The down
      i pluck from the
      neck of the curlew
      eddies and whirls at my knees
      in the twilight wind
      from sea.
      kneeling in sand
      warm in the hand.
      "Do you want to do it right? I'll tell you."
      he tells me.
      at the edge of the water on the stones.
      a transverse cut just below the sternum
      the forefinger and middle finger
              forced in and up, following the
              curve of the ribcage.
      then fingers arched, drawn slowly down and back,
      forcing all the insides up and out,
      toward the palm and heel of the hand.
      firm organs, well-placed, hot.
      save the liver;
      finally scouring back, toward the vent, the last of the
              large intestine.
      the insides string out, begin to wave, in the lapping
              waters of the bay.
      the bird has no features, head, or feet;
              he is empty inside.
      the rich body muscle that he moved by, the wingbeating
      anchored to the blade-like high breast bone,
      is what you eat.

The "i" in this poem is drastically different from the dwarfed, passive "i" seen, for instance, in the works of e. e. cummings. Snyder's humble but joyfully monistic "i" is aware of his place in the interpenetrating web, and the "i" recognizes the potentialities of other beings and their "Buddha-nature." This perhaps is a radically new "i" in modern poetry written in English. The traditional, "anthropocentric" modern "I" cannot assert its superiority in the world of this poem, and gratitude, not guilt or aggressiveness, is the central attitude in this food web of eating and being eaten. Moreover, the minute and concrete depiction of the preparation and cooking of the bird, combined with the poet's neatness, accuracy, and reverential attitude—"kneeling in sand"—in the process suggests a spiritual depth; depicted thus, eating finally becomes a joyful ritual of the food web. In "Japan First Time Around," the poet asks: "just where am I in this food-chain?" This is 1956, and Snyder, in a sense, disciplined himself in Japan to find an answer for this ontological question. By combining Buddhism and ecology (and perhaps through a Native American model for bunting), he found an answer for the question, offering it to his reader.

As I mentioned earlier, Zen is pervasive in Turtle Island, and, in addition to the underlying Kegon (Avatamsaka) philosophy, we detect an unmistakable Zen attitude in this poem. It reflects the poet's ritualistic neatness and attention to small details sharpened in his Zen training; as Snyder records in "Japan First Time Around," "the Zen Master's presence is to help one keep attention undivided." Further, the Zen attitude is reflected in the central act of this poem, that is, eating. As Snyder points out in The Wooden Fish (a manual of Zen that Snyder and Kanetsuki Gutetsu, a Japanese colleague, compiled), "Eating is a sacrament in Zen training. No other aspect of ordinary human daily life is treated with quite such formality or reverence in the Sodo la training hall for monks]." That eating is a sacrament is also evidenced in the verses that monks recite before meals. I quote below a representative verse from The Wooden Fish:

      First, let us reflect on your own work, let
     us see whence this comes;
      Secondly, let us reflect how imperfect our
     virtue is, whether we deserve this offerings [sic].
      Thirdly, what is most essential is to hold
     our minds in control and be detached from
     the various faults, greed, etc.
      Fourthly, that this is taken as medicinal
     to keep our bodies in good health;
      Fifthly, in order to accomplish the task of
     enlightenment we accept this food.

This verse is called, in Japanese, Shokuji gokan ("The Five Reflections"), and it clearly shows the Zen attitude toward eating. Although the passage quoted from "The Hudsonian Curlew" does not show metaphysical elaboration, its reverential and sacramental attitude toward the birds is convincing and renders the poem one of the most successful in Turtle Island.

Since the Buddhist-ecological interpenetration is best rendered concretely and specifically, a number of poems focus on home life at Kitkitdizze. These poems directly reflect the poet's earliest exploration of the literal land and a quest for its mythical element, essential parts of his attempt to establish a sense of place, and—ultimately—to find answers for the question of "how to be." To develop a sense of place means to live as a native of the land, not as a sojourner, and the life of the land at the same time is a quest for a vision of a new, alternative culture as it flowers.

Snyder's life at Kitkitdizze as reflected in Turtle Island is exploratory; he wants to know accurately where he is, and, as he states in a 1974 lecture, it is "a work to be done," and essentially "the old American quest … for an identity." He had envisioned such a life during his long sojourn in Japan—he bought the land in 1967, a year before his permanent return—and, with his vision for an alternative culture, his life at Kitkitdizze reflects the work of exploration in the forest of North America.

"The Wild Mushroom," for instance, shows the poet exploring the forest at Kitkitdizze. He and his son Kai go mushrooming with "A basket and a trowel / And a book with all the rules," and the father gives the following instruction:

      Don't ever eat Boletus
      If the tube-mouths they are red
      Stay away from the Amanitas
      Or brother you are dead.

These instructions are directed not only to his son but also to the reader and the poet himself, and thus, mushrooming is a way of knowing Turtle Island. This exploration is full of joy, and the poem becomes a praise for the interpenetrating web, acknowledging the identity of a mushroom family that, "Shining through the woodland gloom," coexists with the poet's family in this place in North America.

The exploration of Turtle Island continues, bringing in the process the poet and his family closer to the land. "The Bath" depicts the love and harmony in the family, and the poem ultimately becomes a praise for our body and the earth on which we live, perhaps Snyder's most ecstatic vision of harmony. We see the family settling deeper into the land, and the familial harmony depicted in the simple act of bathing reflects the larger web of beings:

      Clean, and rinsed, and sweating more, we stretch
        out on the redwood benches hearts all beating
      Quiet to the simmer of the stove,
        the scent of cedar
      And then turn over,
        murmuring gossip of the grasses,
        talking firewood,
      Wondering how Gen's napping, how to bring him in
        soon wash him too—
      These boys who love their mother
        Who loves men, who passes on
        her sons to other women;
      The cloud across the sky. The windy pines.
        the trickle gurgle in the swampy meadow
        this is our body
      Fire inside and boiling water on the stove
      We sigh and slide ourselves down from the benches
        Wrap the babies, step outside,
      black night & all the stars.

Instead of depicting a tension between human and nature, the passage arrests and asserts a harmonious moment in which every being in this cosmos contributes tenderly to sustain each other. The sky, winds, trees, waters, grasses, animals, children, men, and women are the members of "great / earth / sangha" ("O Waters.") The poem implies an answer for the question of "how to be," and the poet affirms, laughing with his family on "the Great Earth," the life that he and his family are creating on Turtle Island.

The knowledge gained in living everyday life on the land and the spiritual attitudes that underlie such a life must be transmitted, as Snyder in "Energy Is Eternal Delight" implies, to community, to society, and to posterity as a legacy if one is to continue fruitfully to live in a place as a native of it. In this sense, Snyder increasingly becomes a "teacher" in his poetry and essays; his is not only one person's vision but is directed to humanity at large. By his reverential and attentive attitude toward nature, and by actually living close to a devastated territory—an aftermath of hydraulic gold mining and logging—he seeks a way of healing it, which in turn teaches his reader and audience how to live in this world of ecological crisis.

In "Pine Tree Tops," Snyder depicts the interpenetrating natural world that is almost mythic and sacred beyond people's meager knowledge:

     in the blue night
     frost haze, the sky glows
     with the moon
     pine tree tops
     bend snow-blue, fade
     into sky, frost, starlight.
     the creak of boots.
     rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
     what do we know.

The beauty of the interpenetrating nature that the poet captures this night is awesome, and he characteristically avoids asserting his presence in the world—a typical Snyder poem that places "human tracks" next to "rabbit tracks" and "deer tracks." The last line is almost an ecstatic statement, telling the reader that dissecting, dichotomizing knowledge is unnecessary and that this holistic nocturnal beauty arising from the interpenetration of all beings is just enough.

Continuing in the same vein, in "By Frazier Creek Falls," Snyder shows that people are not separate from nature, that finally "We are it":

      This living flowing land
      is all there is, forever
      We are it
      it sings through us—
      We could live on this Earth
      without clothes or tools!

Earlier in his career, Snyder referred to Japanese literature to show human inseparability from nature; by this stage of his development, however, such literary allusions are no longer necessary. He finds new values through his direct contact with the interpenetrating land on Turtle Island, and those values are offered, along with his discoveries, to the reader, to the larger society, and to posterity. Thus, the merging of Buddhism and ecology has become an essential element in Snyder's exploratory poems on Turtle Island, and, beyond enriching the poetic world, these poems are didactic, directing poet and reader to answers for the question of "how to be."

Snyder believes that, in its anthropocentric view of the world, modern industrial civilization—East and West—has tended to ignore the lives of other beings that coexist with humanity. From this general tendency, it has earned the ecological crisis that we witness today. Turtle Island offers the reader not only a sense of "how to be" in a world with just such an ecological crisis but also, in Charles Molesworth's words, "a new sense of what it means to be human." Gary Snyder blends the insights gained in his cross-cultural quest in Japan and Western traditions (including the indigenous American cultures) to create a vision that transcends the mythic American land. By creating the myth of Turtle Island and unfolding it to the reader in his poetry and prose, he urges the reader to reconsider the validity of the old myths on which modern civilization is based. His cross-cultural quest begun in the mid-1950s thus results in a new ontological vision.

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Critical Essay by Katsunori Yamazato from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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