The Practice of the Wild
Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems
Myths and Texts
The Old Ways
Passage Through India
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 …