At Home In The World
Gary Snyder Finds His Niche In A Brave Environmental Idealism.
By Gregory McNamee
A Place in Space (Counterpoint, $15), and Mountains and Rivers Without End (Counterpoint, $20), both by Gary Snyder.
GARY SNYDER'S RECENT books--A Place in Space, a collection of essays and talks, and Mountains and Rivers Without End, a cycle of poems--are of a piece. Both summarize more than 40 years' writing on literary, environmental, and social concerns. Both speak to causes that Snyder--in the familiar personae of walker and hitchhiker, forester and trail worker, anarchist evangelist and sometime Zen monk--has made his own in a distinguished body of work, most famously his 1974 book Turtle Island. Both forge an esthetic of wildness, finding beauty in landscapes, many of them remote from us in space and time.
At the heart of the two books lies a sort of cosmic ecology based on ideas of bioregionalism, on environmentalist and Buddhist notions of interconnectedness. The unity of all things is a given to ecologists, who are used to talking about such matters as rock cycles and food chains, and Snyder does not add much to the discussion.
But on bioregionalism Snyder, as often before, has much to say. He echoes the 19th-century Western explorer John Wesley Powell, who urged that the federal government divide the lands beyond the Mississippi along the region's watersheds, in which "cities and dams," as Snyder says in one essay, "are ephemeral and of no more account than a boulder that falls in the river." Cities and dams have been far more significant than all that in the history of the West, but Snyder dismisses them as temporary aberrations, and he goes on to propose an ecologically based politics in which places like Arizona, California, and Wyoming would give way to Sonoran, Sierran, and Wind River ecosystems governed by freeholders on the land.
If all that seems utopian, Snyder doesn't mind, and in any event human concerns are secondary to the larger claims of nature. The best essays in A Place in Space, the most compelling lines in Mountains and Rivers Without End, are simple evocations of ponderosa pines and highland rivulets, of coyotes and cougars, celebrations of the non-human world. And even at that, Snyder manages to find beauty in unexpected places, as in "the calligraphy of lights on the night/freeways of Los Angeles."
A long-standing theme of Snyder's is the need to take a long view of history, as he proposes in his lyrical poem "Old Woodrat's Stinky House," in which Snyder observes that human spoken languages endure for only about five hundred years, the life span of a Douglas fir. Such an understanding of the way things work, Snyder suggests, grants trees--and mountains, and rivers--a new importance that will, he hopes aloud in several essays, be reflected in a new economics. (As Snyder observes, "Long-range self-interest would realize...that deforestation today does not create jobs for the future.") For the present, Snyder argues that the loss of biological complexity, diversity, and stability that accompanies economic development is a far greater threat than mere pollution or even overpopulation. Here he sounds less like John Wesley Powell than Aldo Leopold and, at turns, Edward Abbey.
Fashionable jeremiads on such matters--Bill McKibben's The End of Nature, for one--have made the bestseller lists, but Snyder does not trade in alarmism. He is instead guardedly optimistic, noting that "the possibility of saving, restoring, and wisely using the bounty of wild nature is still with us in North America." His long view extends to the future as well as to the past; indeed, it's surprising to see in essays written in the 1960s how prescient Snyder was in anticipating the "technology of communication, education, and quiet transportation" that now drives the nascent Information Age, and in predicting that environmental issues would be of central importance to end-of-the-century local and national politics.
At several points in A Space in Place, Snyder returns to another favorite subject: the close study of places in the landscape in order to understand how they work and thus make a real home. "There are specific things to be learned," he writes, "from each bird, plant, and animal--a natural system is a total education--and this learning is moral, as well as being useful for survival. The red-tailed hawk teaches us to have a broad view of things, while not missing the stirring of a single mouse."
As in the work of Robinson Jeffers, in Snyder's eyes hawks--and mountains, and rivers--are what matter in the long view. People do not often turn up in these pages, for Snyder is usually too busy talking about cosmic affairs to deal much with living, breathing humans. When people do appear, they are often memorable. One of the best moments in A Place in Space is Snyder's affectionate portrait of the Japanese Buddhist hipster, poet, and farmer Nanao Sakaki, who, among other things, has spent more time wandering around the deserts of Arizona and California than have most Americans. When a prominent traditional Buddhist priest bragged to Sakaki of his spiritual genealogy, Sakaki countered, "I need no lineage; I am desert rat."
For wanderers who wish to be equally at home in the world that lies beyond the city, Snyder's books are useful, if idealistic, guides.
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