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The Mountain Hedonist

The Practice of the Wild

North Point, $10.95 (paper)

Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems

North Point, $9.95 (paper)

Myths and Texts

New Directions, $5.95 (paper)

Turtle Island

New Directions, $5.95 (paper)

The Old Ways

City Lights, $4.50 (paper)

Passage Through India

Grey Fox, $6.95 (paper)

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 largely 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 Allan 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. 1

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 or 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.”

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    More, much more, about his life can be found in a new Sierra Club Books tribute, Gary Snyder—Dimensions of a Life, which will be published this spring to mark his sixtieth year. In it, virtually every person Snyder has ever met says that he is a good fellow.

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