As a child in the ’90s I read everything I could get my hands on, and being of Baby Boomer parentage, what I could get my hands on at home were books of a very particular sort. I pored over titles by Ram Dass and Carlos Castaneda, Richard Brautigan and Jack Kerouac. Kerouac made the greatest impression, and it was The Dharma Bums that celebrated those scant few freedoms my friends and I had—hiking, camping, swimming in the gorges and running amok in the forests of northern Connecticut. I wanted nothing more than to be its backwoods hero, Japhy Ryder.
Unfortunately for my younger self, somebody already was. Kerouac, I learned, was a serial autobiographer who did little to disguise his friends: “Japhy Ryder,” the man who had introduced Kerouac to Zen Buddhism and guided him up California’s Matterhorn Peak, was the poet Gary Snyder. At 14 or 15, I bought Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems (1969), which comprises Snyder’s 1959 debut, Riprap, and his translations, first published in Evergreen Review in 1958, of the Chinese poet Hanshan. Snyder’s economical, sometimes gnomic accounts of trekking, working, and being in nature nearly made me stuff a rucksack and head for the hills.
But then I bought 1974’s Turtle Island. If I had possessed something like an ecological consciousness, one that consisted of more than a desire to put a hammock inside a fort and stay there forever, it did not survive reading Turtle Island. The unique voice of Riprap, with all its subtlety and sensitivity, dispersed into a sort of generic, politicized rage. It was a rage Snyder seemed to have trouble putting behind him. Of Axe Handles, a later collection, the critic Bruce Bawer argued in Poetry that Snyder was “more successful … than in most of his earlier works at avoiding the temptation … to beat the drum for his Zen-Amerindian Marxist philosophy.”
That cutting “beat the drum” captured something of what I thought about Turtle Island, that it was closer to eco-agitprop in the Iron Eyes Cody or Captain Planet line than to the pure nature-love Snyder had demonstrated in Riprap. This is not to say that Turtle Island doesn’t contain as many fine poems as Riprap, only that its missteps are more numerous, more off-putting. A note identifies Turtle Island as “the old/new name for the continent.” Its dopey rhetoric of “energy-pathways” and “ancient solidarity” belongs to the bumper stickers of old Volvos with dream catchers dangling from their rearview mirrors. Turtle Island, which was awarded the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, sounded at times like a cunning parody of a hippie with high blood pressure.
Poems such as “The Great Mother” and “Facts” made me shake my head and ask: is the point to love nature or to love it more than the next guy? The former is a vision of crunchy Judgment Day: “Not all those who pass / In front of the Great Mother’s chair / Get passt [sic] with only a stare. / Some she looks at their hands / To see what sort of savages they were.” The latter consists of 10 context-free factoids such as “[t]he U.S. has 6% of the world’s population; consumes 1/3 the energy annually consumed in the world” and “General Motors is bigger than Holland.” It isn’t a poem so much as a proto–Harper’s Index. Between its hectoring non sequiturs and Snyder’s infantilizing fantasy of Mother Gaia checking to see if we’ve scrubbed our fingernails, I’d had enough.
Snyder was preaching to the choir, but I didn’t exactly belong to it. In a 1998 essay in the Sewanee Review about Snyder’s “Mountains and Rivers Without End,” Wendell Berry isolated a typical cynic’s objection to environmental activism: “Since we are members of the natural world, what we do is ‘natural’…. A beer can is as natural as a leaf.” Snyder, Berry wrote, “concedes the point” when likening “trucks on the freeways, / Kenworth, Peterbilt, Mack” to “boulders bumping in an outwash glacial river.” All the same, Berry added, Snyder understood that “these natural doings of ours can be dangerous to ourselves, not to mention the natural neighborhoods in which we must live.” But the landscape of my rural Connecticut childhood, the swamps between my house and my older brother’s middle school, wouldn’t have seemed complete without the beer cans, old sneakers, and hopscotch pathways of discarded tires that indicated human presence. I loved nature, naturally, but I didn’t need and didn’t want it to be pristine.
So I put Snyder aside for years. In my late 20s, I began to visit national parks such as Virginia’s Shenandoah, with its gorgeous Skyline Drive, and Oregon’s Crater Lake. On the occasion of my father’s 60th birthday I visited the Yosemite Valley, where he had climbed Half Dome as a young mountaineer. This reengagement with nature forced me to wonder whether I’d cast Snyder off too casually, whether, in my rejection of the sanctimony and one-upmanship of the nature lover, I’d been too careless of the finer points of his message. I no longer owned Riprap and Turtle Island; I would have been embarrassed to have them on my shelves. When I was 31 years old, I bought them both and started fresh with the poem that opens Riprap, “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout.”
A familiarity with Snyder’s biography is invaluable when approaching his poetry. He was born in San Francisco in 1930 and raised first on a farm in Washington state and then, during high school, in Portland, Oregon. He was educated in literature and anthropology at Reed College, writing his senior thesis on Native American mythology, and he also engaged in graduate study at the University of Indiana and the University of California at Berkeley. But his academic background is of little interest next to the jobs he did. Snyder was a fire lookout, a choke setter, and a trail builder. At 31, my childhood behind me, I realized that his poetry is a song to occupations, starting with “Sourdough Mountain Lookout” and its evocation of the North Cascades’ literally self-effacing solitude: “I cannot remember things I once read / A few friends, but they are in cities.”
As a boy I was hungry for images of wild nature, for a catalogue of landscapes, of flora and fauna, of minerals and processes, of sensory experiences. “Pitch glows on the fir-cones” of Sourdough Mountain; Snyder notices “[s]warms of new flies,” but the tight-lipped poem achieves such zazen calm that one can’t imagine Snyder shooing them away. I could see the “[t]ough trees crammed / In thin stone fractures” of “Piute Creek,” and turn over in my hands the “flake / Black volcanic glass—obsidian— / By a flower” in “Above Pate Valley.” Yet I didn’t much wonder about Snyder’s role on Sourdough Mountain, or figure out what he was doing on Piute Creek or above Pate Valley (or where they were). The last eight lines of “Above Pate Valley” were a riddle:
On a hill snowed all but summer,A land of fat summer deer,They came to camp. On theirOwn trails. I followed my ownTrail here. Picked up the cold-drill,Pick, singlejack, and sackOf dynamiteTen thousand years.
Dynamite? And what were a cold-drill and singlejack? Tools of trail-making, it turns out, which Snyder did for a summer in Yosemite National Park. How had I missed that? Why had my imagination not been fired by Riprap’s dedication to working men with names such as Speed and Blackie, Spud and Crazy Horse? I had treated the book like a tourist’s photo album when it is, in fact, a treatise on work. I couldn’t see the work in the poems because, like many young people—like many adults, too—I thought of work as something unpleasant. The fact that one wanted to shirk it was a necessary condition of its being work.
In an interview with the Paris Review in 1992, Snyder was asked to comment on Auden’s remark that “the goal of everyone is to live without working.”
“I would agree with Auden,” he says. “The goal of living is not to consider work work, but to consider it your life and your play.” Easy for a poet to say, yes, but it is an insight earned at a cost by a man who has done hard things. And Snyder does not take a rosy or romanticized view of labor. “Hay for the Horses,” also from Riprap, contains some dazzling images—with its “splintery redwood rafters / High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa / Whirling through shingle-cracks of light”—but the note it ends on is slippery, protean. Snyder gives the reader no clue as to whether this speaker’s words express bluff rustic humor or regret so acute that it must hide itself from itself:
“I’m sixty-eight,” he said,
“I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that’s just what
I’ve gone and done.”
Readers can put any tone they choose to these words. Somebody should print them on an inspirational poster: the less jokey they sound, the more likely it’s time to find a new line of work, or a new kind of life.
This is what Snyder suggests with “I followed my own / Trail here”—that here means not Pate Valley (in the context of that poem), not the job he was doing there, but an obligation to use his life in a deliberate way. One wonders what Snyder makes of the current tendency of self-help types to encourage the “mindful” alignment of work with life in order to make us productive and uncomplaining employees, rather than to bring work and life into genuine unity. When it came to the latter, Snyder was a natural; for many of us it remains a struggle uphill. Snyder has remarked of his college years: “I mapped out practically all my major interests and I’ve followed through on them ever since,” by way of Buddhist study and practice, fatherhood, and exalting work-life unity in his poetry.
Indeed, the finest poems in Turtle Island describe quotidian tasks such as eating (“The Hudsonian Curlew”) or caring for children (“The Bath”) in the same manner that Riprap described psychologically and physically demanding work like manning a fire lookout or building trails.
In May 1956, a year after the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco where Snyder read “A Berry Feast” and Allen Ginsberg read “Howl,” Snyder sailed for Japan; he lived there off and on as a student of Buddhism for 10 years. Kenneth Rexroth has pointed out the fruits of Snyder’s incredibly disciplined study: “He reads Chinese, Japanese, and Sanskrit … and has absorbed influence from all the vital poets of the twentieth century, transmuted them into an idiom which resembles Pound’s Cantos, William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés.” Few members of the Beat Generation, with which Snyder is tenuously associated, seem anywhere near as serious or learned as he does.
But some of what Snyder learned is more difficult to quantify. As Snyder told the Paris Review, “finding the ceremonial, the almost sacramental quality of the moves of daily life is taught in Buddhism.… Ecology means house, oikos, you know, from the Greek. Oikos also gives us economics. Oikos nomos means ‘managing the household.’”
This attention to housekeeping is what we encounter in a poem such as “The Bath,” in which Snyder describes “[w]ashing [his son] Kai in the sauna,” and which returns over 91 lines to the refrains is this our body? and this is our body. I recall being distressed by its matter-of-fact physical observations (“Kai’s little scrotum up close to his groin, / the seed still tucked away, that moved from us to him”), and wondering whether Snyder (whose son calls him by his first name in the poem) wasn’t just making a great show of his liberation from propriety or shame. “The Bath,” however, is his greatest success at making superfluous the distinction between “nature poetry” and poetry as such. The best of Snyder’s poetry encourages us to focus on and love the world before us. The real work is life itself.
Stefan Beck is the New Criterion’s fiction columnist. His criticism and essays have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Barnes & Noble Review, the Columbia Journalism Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Hudson, New York.