Gary Snyder | Critical Review by Bill McKibben

This literature criticism consists of approximately 15 pages of analysis & critique of Gary Snyder.
This section contains 4,244 words
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Critical Review by Bill McKibben

SOURCE: "The Mountain Hedonist," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 38, No. 7, April 11, 1991, pp. 29-31, 34.

In the following review of The Practice of the Wild, McKibben argues that Snyder believes as environmentalists we must bridge our estrangement from nature.

We talk in a lazy shorthand when we speak about "the environment" and "the environmental movement" as if there were a single, obvious program for the planet's protection. But the environmental movement is far broader and more diverse than any of the "progressive" campaigns that preceded it, since no single policy can deal with problems as diverse in scale and scope as the greenhouse effect and the extinction of the spotted owl, the pollution along Louisiana's Cancer Alley and the destruction of the tropical rain forests. No one expects economists to put together programs, or even philosophies, that simultaneously increase the market share of Remington razors and redress the global balance of trade. Yet the environment is a far more complex subject than the economy.

One of the pressing questions raised by Gary Snyder's new collection of essays, The Practice of the Wild, is: How much room for nature is there in the environmental movement? In the Earth Day speeches last spring there was little talk about trees or animals or wilderness; the discussion Jargely centered on air pollution, on solid waste, on global threats like ozone destruction. The concerns expressed were mostly for ourselves, and for future generations of our species, and even those who talked about such problems as the preservation of the rain forest tended to focus on the great supply of drugs that might be found among its plants, or its calming effect on climatic oscillations. The mainstream of the environmental movement tends to look pragmatically at the problems we face, and to try to fix them technologically or with the least possible change in the way we live, in the belief, rightly, that this is the best way to make a difference quickly.

Another, smaller, band of environmentalists, however, is still inspired by Thoreau and by the work that John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and other naturalists have left behind. Though not generally opposed to the pragmatists (indeed they are often in coalition with them), these environmentalists tend to think that environmental problems are much more deeply rooted in our ways of life, in our thinking, and in our estrangement from nature. This is the tradition to which the new book by the poet Gary Snyder—his best prose work so far—makes an impressive contribution. Whether Snyder, who lives in the California woods, can help the problem of the ozone layer is a question to which I'll return.

His publisher claims that Snyder is a "counterculture hero," and in a way this description is accurate. The model for Japhy Ryder in Kerouac's Dharma Bums, Snyder read his poem "The Berry Feast" at San Francisco's Six Gallery the night that Allen Ginsberg first read "Howl," an event that is often said to have launched the Beat movement. Snyder soon after left for Japan where he spent much of the Sixties meditating in a Zen monastery. He returned to San Francisco in time to act as host, with Ginsberg, of 1967's First Great Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park. For all that, though, in his life and writing he has scrupulously avoided alienated rebellion and claims of saccharine bliss, seeking instead to be in touch with his immediate surroundings.

The Practice of the Wild draws its strength from the theme that unites Snyder's odd life—his love for and understanding of the mountains, woods, and native peoples of the northern half of the Pacific Coast. Born in 1930, he grew up on a farm near Puget Sound, and for the last twenty years he has lived in a house he built for himself "on the western slope of the northern Sierra Nevada, in the Yuba River watershed, north of the south fork at the three-thousand-foot elevation, in a community of black oak, incense cedar, madrone, Douglas fir, and Ponderosa pine." He has, at various times, cut down the trees of this region, climbed its highest peaks, built Park Service trails across its ridges, watched from fire towers for signs of its smoke. Because of his daily physical contact with this world—he lives beyond the power lines, past the place where the oil truck goes—he has never succumbed to the strain of dippy environmentalism that is endemic in parts of California. "It is not enough," he writes, "just to 'love nature' or to want to be in harmony with Gaia.' Our relation to the actual world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience." Place is a given of his poetry (on occasion he will even tell us its longitude and latitude). Consider "So Old—" from the collection Axe Handles:

     Oregon Creek reaches far back into the hills.
     Burned over twice, the pines are returning again.
     Old roads twist deep into the canyons,
     hours from one ridge to the next
     The new road goes straight on the side of the mountain,
     high, and with curves ironed out.
     A single hawk flies leisurely up, disturbed by our truck
     Down the middle fork-south fork opening,
     fog silver gleams in the valley.
     Camptonville houses are old and small,
     a sunny perch on a ridge,
     Was it gold or logs brought people to this spot?
     a teenage mother with her baby stands by a pickup.
     A stuffed life-size doll of a Santa Claus
     climbs over the porch-rail.
     Our old truck too, slow down the street,
     out of the past—
     It's all so old—the hawk, the houses, the trucks,
     the view of the fog—
     Midwinter late sun flashes through hilltops and trees
     a good day, we know one more part of our watershed….

Snyder has emerged as perhaps the most eloquent American champion of what is called "bioregionalism," the idea that political boundaries should reflect the land we live on, and that decisions within those boundaries should respect that land. Alaska and Mexico, he writes, meet "somewhere on the north coast of California, where Canada jay and Sitka spruce lace together with manzanita and blue oak." If you follow the Douglas fir region, where Snyder started his life and where he has returned, you know "what your agriculture might be, how steep the pitch of your roof, what raincoats you'd need." The fir trees outlive "the boundary of a larger natural region that runs across three states and one international border." Everyone lives in a region, defined by its trees and rainfalls and climate and the movement of animals, by the effects of "cirrus clouds to leaf mold," Snyder wrote fifteen years ago in The Old Ways. To address our ecological crises, therefore,

a worldwide purification of mind is called for: the exercise of seeing the surface of the planet for what it is—by nature. With this kind of consciousness people turn up at hearings and in front of trucks and bulldozers to defend the land of trees. Showing solidarity with a region! What an odd idea at first. Bioregionalism is the entry of place into the dialectic of history.

A problem with this vision is that, in practice, it only sometimes holds. When the US Forest Service holds its hearings about logging in Grants Pass, Oregon, many local people turn out to argue for the destruction of old-growth forests, driving there in trucks that carry signs that say "Save a Job—Kill a Spotted Owl." Snyder recognizes this limitation, I think. He recognizes that it's not simply our boundaries that must be changed but our desires as well, since they drive the economy that is destroying the wilderness. The possibilities for this radical change of heart, as radical as any religious conversion or the change in our souls that Martin Luther King sought, dominate The Practice of the Wild:

Native Americans to be sure have a prior claim to the term native. But as they love this land they will welcome the conversion of the millions of immigrant psyches into fellow "Native Americans." For the non-Native American to become at home on this continent, he or she must be born again in this hemisphere, on this continent….

Snyder has spent much of his life studying Native American culture. His undergraduate thesis, at Reed College in 1951, was on a Haida Indian version of a nearly universal myth about a swan that changes into a woman and is loved by a man, who then loses her. In the thesis, which was published nearly thirty years later, in 1979, he discusses literature based on myth and ritual, with the priest-shaman-storyteller-writer as the central figure.

This scholarly interest has long since grown into something more urgent. The Practice of the Wild includes a marvelous essay about a folktale of a woman who wedded a bear: her brothers kill the bear and she kills them. "That was a very long time ago. After that time," he writes, "human beings had good relations with bears…. Bears and people have shared the berryfields and salmon streams without much trouble summer after summer." But this period

is over now. The bears are being killed, the humans are everywhere, and the green world is being unraveled and shredded and burned by the spreading of a gray world that seems to have no end. If it weren't for a few old people from the time before, we wouldn't even know this tale.

Snyder's experience—his feel for his region, the skills that make him at home in the outdoors, the humility and discipline of his Buddhism, the tribal sense of his hippie past and present—unite in this goal: to teach people to live in an easy harmony with the land, much as the Indians once did.

One feature of Native American life that is absent from our time, Snyder says, is physical contact with the world we live on, especially physical work. "If there is any one thing that's unhealthy in America," he told an interviewer in 1977, "it's that it is a whole civilization trying to get out of work." There is, he insisted, "a triple alienation when you try to avoid work: first, you're trying to get energy sources … to do it for you; second, you no longer know what your body can do, where your food or water come from; third, you lose the capacity to discover the unity of mind and body via your work." Snyder has the pride of a self-sufficient man. Only once in all the interviews with him that I've read does he turn prickly, and that is when an interviewer suggests that he no longer did physical work. "I not only built my own house, I do everything around it continually. I'm farming all the time: cutting six cords of firewood for the winter, planting fruit trees, putting in fencing, taking care of the chickens."

But Snyder does not believe that hard work is good because it helps you to get ahead, or because it prepares you for "the real world" or teaches you the value of a dollar. It is important for just the opposite reason: it brings us down from the soft clouds of whatever modern life we're leading, and back into contact with the world that every other generation of human beings has ever known, and that is the source of our instinct, our myth, our art. "That's the real work: to make the world as real as it is, and to find ourselves as real as we are in it."

Snyder's conception of work as a sacrament closely resembles the ideas of the Kentucky farmer and essayist Wendell Berry (Axe Handles includes an affectionate poem about Berry, his wife, Tanya, and a fox). But if Berry is a half-Amish, Jeffersonian farmer. Snyder is a latter-day hunter-gatherer. Largely, I think, their differences have to do with climate and geography. With wise stewardship Berry's rich Kentucky-soil can bear crops in abundance; Snyder can grow beans, but

the tendency of that whole area is to go into forest; old farms are abandoned and are turning back into woods. Consequently, nowadays any of us who think about any gardening or farming think about it in very limited terms as something which is possible in special areas but not desirable in the region as a whole (since the region produces a great deal of life without human interference, enough life to support human beings in small numbers, in reasonable numbers).

This support traditionally came in part from eating the flesh of dead creatures. In later times these deaths have been removed to slaughterhouses, and their flesh wrapped in plastic and made into a commodity. Or the killing has been circumvented by vegetarianism, which is more or less what you might expect an aging hippie to advocate. Snyder, a life-long archer, has considered the complicated fact that the civilizations that lived in closest harmony with their natural surroundings spent many of their working hours in pursuit of fish and game. The position he arrives at is morally more ambiguous than either that of many animal rights activists or that of the Beef Industry Council (whose egregious current slogan is "Real Food for Real People"). "Other beings (the instructors from the old ways tell us) do not mind being killed and eaten as food, but they expect us to say please, and thank you, and they hate to see themselves wasted," he writes. "There is no death that is not somebody's food, no life that is not somebody's death." But instead of taking this as a sign that "the universe is fundamentally flawed," we should participate in the web as a sacrament.

The archaic religion is to kill god and eat him. Or her. The shimmering food-chain, the food-web, is the scary, beautiful condition of the biosphere. Subsistence people live without excuses. The blood is on your own hand as you divide the liver from the gallbladder. A subsistence economy is a sacramental economy because it has faced up to one of the critical problems of life and death—the taking of life for food.

This is not a prosaic argument about biological determinism. Just the opposite.

If we do eat meat, it is the life, the bounce, the swish, of a great alert being with keen ears and lovely eyes, with foursquare feet and a huge beating heart that we eat, let us not deceive ourselves.

In practice his view would mean not eating meat you hadn't raised yourself or seen raised, without cruelty; it would mean hunting, if you hunted, with a solemnity not found in most American sportsmen: it would mean welcoming other predators back to the woods, instead of fighting (as hunters across America have fought) against wolves and coyotes and other competition: it would mean singing for your supper. In older times, in older legends, Snyder says, animals

liked the human people and enjoyed being near them for their funny ways … They still wanted to be seen by people, to surprise them sometimes, even to be caught or killed by them, so they might go inside their houses and hear their music.

It would mean, finally, admitting that you too are an animal, and even welcoming your eventual inclusion in the food chain. "We are all edible. And if we are not devoured quickly, we are big enough (like the old down trees) to provide a long slow meal to the smaller critters."

What sort of animal are we exactly? "What sucks our lineage into form?" We are larger than a wolf, smaller than an elk … not such huge figures in the landscape…. Berries, acorns, grass-seeds, apples, and yams all call for dextrous creatures something like us to come forward." But it's not pure function. If we are

here for any good purpose at all (other than collating texts, running rivers, and learning the stars), I suspect it is to entertain the rest of nature. A going of sexy primate clowns. All the little critters creep in close to listen when human beings are in a good mood and willing to play some tunes.

We are wild creatures, not in some metaphorical sense, but quite literally.

The involuntary quick turn of the head at a shout, the vertigo of looking off a precipice, the heart-in-the-throat in a moment of danger, the catch of the breath, the quiet moments relaxing, staring, reflecting—all universal responses of this mammal body. They can be seen throughout the class [of animals].

And the danger in denying this, besides the destruction of the planet, is that we'll miss out on certain pleasures that are our due as animals. "The truly experienced person, the refined person, delights in the ordinary," just as animals delight in sun, softness, warmth, exercise, the commonplaces of their day. Once, working on a trail crew in Yosemite, Snyder tried to spend each day with his mind engaged in Milton, whom he was reading at night.

Finally, I gave up trying to carry on an intellectually interior life separate from work, and I said the hell with it. I'll just work. And instead of losing something, I got something much greater. By just working I found myself being completely there, having the whole mountain inside of me, and finally having a whole language inside of me that became one with the rocks and the trees.

The evidence that he found such a language is in Riprap, the book of poems that grew out of that summer job. The seamlessness of observation in "Water" accounts for its power.

     Pressure of sun on the rockslide
     Whirled me in a dizzy hop-and-step descent,
     Pool of pebbles buzzed in a Juniper shadow,
     Tiny tongue of a this-year rattle-snake flicked,
     I leaped, laughing for little boulder-colored coil—
     Pounded by heat raced down the slabs to the creek
     Deep tumbling under arching walls and stuck
     Whole head and shoulders in the water:
     Stretched full on cobble—ears roaring
     Eyes open aching from the cold and faced a trout.

Searching for delight, Snyder does not ignore sex and drugs and loud music. He is part mountain hedonist, a wine jug hooked on his forefinger and resting on a muscled arm. But instead of treating them as commodities for private consumption, he wants to see them as part of a community's activity. "In South India," he writes in Practice of the Wild,

the adolescents are charged with keeping parrots out of the ripening crops. The birdchasing work is known as an occasion for trysting. The dancer sings and strolls forward and back through the gardens, waving a stick, startling up flocks of birds…. The crops, the soil, the parrots, the work, the dance, and young love all come together.

This is both less and more enlightenment than most of those at The Great Human Be-In imagined, I think. "In our present over-speeded and somewhat abnormal historical situation, the long stability of traditional peasant culture of primitive hunting and gathering cultures seems maybe dull," he told an interviewer once.

What looks like dull centuries of simple cultures are intense meditations on one level in which inner discoveries are gradually being made. When we steer toward living harmoniously and righteously on the earth, we're also steering toward a condition of long-term stability in which the excitement, the glamour will not be in technology and changing fads. But it will be in a steady enactment and reenactment of basic psychological inner spiritual dramas.

This is, more or less, the kind of community he's found, and helped to create, in the northern Sierras, where there are "a friendly number of people, diverse as they are, who have a lot of the same spirit," and who expect their descendants will be in place together there for "the next two or three thousand years."

Though he would no doubt live as he does even if the air and sea and land were not despoiled, Snyder constantly returns in his writing to the need to save not just the wilderness but also the human environment. His 1974 collection of poems, Turtle Island, for instance, includes "Four Changes," an "environmental manifesto" that begins (with an uncharacteristically tired image), "Man is but a part of the fabric of life—dependent on the whole fabric for his very existence." The Practice of the Wild contains many references to overpopulation, atmospheric change, the ozone layer, and so on. The question arises, even if you grant (as I do) the beauty of his vision and life: Is it also useful as a response to our environmental woes?

The answer depends on how you conceive the problem of pollution. We are used to thinking of pollution as something gone wrong—a factory with a primitive smokestack or water filter, a badly tuned car without the latest control equipment, a drunken sea captain in a single-hulled ship. If these are the enemies, then neither Thoreau nor Snyder has much to say about dealing with them. All that is needed is somewhat better management and technology, and much better regulation of greed. But there is an emerging, quite different category of pollution, which is caused by things working essentially as they should, but on much too large a scale. The expansion of humans into the few remaining wilderness areas is such a case, of course, but not the only one. Consider the exhaust pipe of a car, for instance. Out of it pours carbon monoxide, a deadly pollutant, which a better-designed, better-tuned engine will all but eliminate. But carbon dioxide, the source of the greenhouse effect, pours out of the exhaust too, and the engine can't be redesigned to reduce it. It is an inevitable byproduct of fossil fuel combustion. Perhaps we'll develop hydrogen cars instead, or perhaps we'll learn to drive less, and change our lives.

Much of the environmental damage scientists anticipate is of the same sort, the result not of technical flaws but of too many people whose material standard of living is too high. If you subscribe to that diagnosis, and especially if you give weight to the fortunes of other species, then how you live matters. Snyder's views on how one might live a simpler life begin to sound more practical, as "realistic" as recycling and smokestack scrubbing. One can then forgive him his occasional excesses (his earlier prose, though not the more controlled and mature Practice of the Wild, makes semiparanoid reference to "liquid metal fast-breeder reactors" as harbingers of the police state, and so on) and agree on the urgency and the sad precision of his central view:

Creatures who have traveled with us through the ages are now apparently doomed as their habitat—and the old habitat of humans—falls before the slow-motion explosion of expanding world economies. If the lad or lass is among us who knows where the great heart of this Growth-Monster is hidden, let them please tell us where to shoot the arrow that will slow it down. And if the secret heart stays secret and our work is made no easier, I for one will keep working for wildness day by day.

We can't all live the way Snyder does, of course, not in this crowded generation. He remarkably overstated the situation in his earlier book, Earth House Hold (1969). He wrote that "industrial society appears to be finished," but everyone can learn from his notion of responsible work: walking, not riding; composting or recycling, not throwing things out. Even in the middle of the city, everyone can practice his fellowship with other species. In the first place, wilderness is everywhere: "ineradicable populations of fungi, moss, mold, yeasts, and such … deer mice on the back porch, deer bounding across the freeway, pigeons in the park, spiders in the corner." But if you want something a little grander, an outpouring of letters to Washington on behalf of Oregon's spotted owl is a decent equivalent of the Native American's personal identification with one creature or another.

Everyone, except the poor, can consciously lower his or her standard of living. And most important, everyone can try to find pleasure not so much in the acquisition of things, but in the body, in friendship, in dance and music, in an effort to create a community. We can start to make deep changes now, and someday, generations hence, if we haven't already gone too far, we might slowly subside into some equilibrium with the earth. I have no illusion that we will do these things in great numbers, but this is an interesting moment when the long-held aesthetic arguments for a simpler life are suddenly being seen to coincide neatly with the hard-headed calculations of the atmospheric chemists. Snyder is among the first to sense this conjunction.

I read The Practice of the Wild this summer while traveling through the Buryat region of Siberia on the banks of Lake Baikal. The Buryat people, ancestors of many Native American peoples who came across the land bridge when it still linked the continents, are shamanistic in practice to this day. We were greeted, healed, blessed by any number of shamans whose authority, though lessened, has outlasted that of the various commissars. But, like Snyder, the Buryats are also Buddhists, converted by the flow of that idea north from Mongolia. It is a syncretic and relaxed Buddhism, co-existing happily with what went before. We came to a holy place on the shore of Lake Baikal (even the Communist officials call this vast freshwater sea "sacred Baikal"), and found a Buddhist monk chanting a long prayer. When he was done I asked for a translation, and it turned out he was reciting the name of every tributary and mountain that surrounds the lake. That world may be slowly dying, but Snyder's life and work show that it may be slowly reviving too.

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