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Gary Snyder is a poet who brings together ecology and spirituality. Rene Wadlow takes a look at the contributions that Snyder has made to society.

 by Rene Wadlow

The most revolutionary consciousness is to be found among the most ruthlessly exploited classes: animals, trees, water, air, grasses.  Gary Snyder

 

Gary Snyder reached the consciousness of a wide reading public as Japhy Ryder, the name given to him in Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel The Dharma Bums. Kerouac, then the best known of the USA-based Beat Generation, sums up Snyder’s life till then “the number one Dharma Bum of them all and in fact, it was he, Japhy Ryder, who coined the phrase. Japhy Ryder was a kid from eastern Oregon brought up in a log cabin deep in the woods with his father and mother and sister, from the beginning a woods boy, an axman, farmer, interested in animals and Indian lore so that when he finally got to college by hook or crook he was already well equipped for his early studies in anthropology and later Indian myth and in the actual texts of Indian mythology.  Finally he learned Chinese and Japanese and became an Oriental scholar and discovered the greatest Dharma Bums of them all, the Zen Lunatics of China and Japan. At the same time, being a Northwest boy with idealistic tendencies, he got interested in oldfashioned Industrial Workers of the World anarchism and learned to play the guitar and sing old workers songs to go with his Indian songs and general folksong interests.”

The adventures of Snyder as Japhy Ryder in the mid-1950s San Francisco Renaissance, along with Allen Ginsberg, the older poet Kenneth Rexroth and the scholar of Asian thought Alan Watts are well told in The Dharma Bums, a book less known than the Kerouac classic On the Road but still worth reading. A reflection of the Beat period comes from Snyder’s 1955 poem “For a Far-out Friend”:

            Visions of your body

            Kept me high for weeks, I even had

                        A sort of trance for you

            A day in a dentist’s chair.

            I found you again, gone stone,

            In Zimmer’s book of Indian Art:

            Dancing in that life with

            Grace and love, with rings and

            A little golden belt, just above

                        your naked snatch,

            And I thought – more grace and love

            In that wild Deva life where you belong,

            Than in this dress-and-girdle life

            You’ll ever give

            Or get.

 

By the time The Dharma Bums was published in 1958, Snyder was living in Japan, studying Zen and working on translations from Japanese and Chinese. He spent most of his time in Japan until 1968. When he returned to the USA, the Beat Generation of San Francisco had gone on its way. Allen Ginsberg had gone back to New York to lead a Zen-poetical battle against the war in Vietnam.

Snyder’s return to the USA was on the eve of a broad ecological consciousness that took its political form with the UN-sponsored 1972 Stockholm conference on the environment.  Synder was influenced by the most famous of the American “back to nature books, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854). For Snyder “Human economies are based on utilizing whatever nature makes available, and it would be very prudent and healthy for all complex societies to be informed about ecological and economic systems at the same time. A lot of what happens in the economic realm runs counter to the health of the ecological system.”

Gary Snyder has become the poetic spokesman for bioregionalism. “The differing regions of the world have long had –each- their own precise subsistence pattern developed over millennia by people who had settled in there and learned what particular kinds of plants the ground would ‘say’ at that spot. Countless local ecosystem habitation styles emerged. People developed specific ways to be in each of those niches: plant knowledge, boats, fishing, the smaller animals and smaller tools — a spirit of what was to be there evolved, that spoke of a direct sense of relation to the ‘land’ — which really means, the totality of the local bio-region system, from cirrus clouds to leaf-mold. Bio-regional problems are always linked to the larger biological world. But paying attention to your immediate region gives us a quicker way to monitor and understand what is happening and thus to be able to apprise our citizens more swiftly.” 

For Gary Snyder, there is a close link between the spirit of a region and creativity.

Creativity is an expression of gratitude and a celebration of a place.  All art is essentially devotional. A place will specifically express itself through the colours and shapes and materials used by the artist.  Many natural cultures transform their landscape into the very clothes and designs they wear.  The old Scottish tartans, for instance, reflect the deep purples and blues, oranges and reds of the colour of the Highlands in the autumn.  Craft, and art come together as part of the pure expression of the place.  You make your art out of that which grows there, you dye your clothes from plants that grow there. It is wonderful reinforcement of the whole picture — and of course it is spiritual. It is the song of the place to itself.”

Snyder brings his long study of Eastern religious thought to present wholeness and a sense of time. While we live in a world of seeming separation and division, our universe is a unified whole brimming with life and infused with a spiritual presence.  He writes “I try to hold both history and wildness in my mind, so that my poems may approach the true measure of things and stand against the unbalance and ignorance of our time.”

A good introduction to the writing of Gary Snyder is his 1974 book Turtle Island.

The title comes for the native Indian name for North America. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry – a leading award.

* Rene Wadlow, Representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens