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1970 when Thomas J. Lyon wrote that "a
significant number of Western minds are forsaking the progress-domination
theory inherent in the political view […] in favor of a more relaxed and
open way with the world founded on ecological sensitivity" (35). One of
those critical Western minds was certainly Gary Snyder. Known nowadays as an
ecopoet and one of America’s greatest poets alive, he was one of the first
writers who tried to bring ecological visions, ecological awareness and
environmental protection into the literary form of the poem.
His first volumes of poetry, among them RipRap and the Cold
Mountain Poems, Myths and Texts and Regarding Wave were all
well-received in the West of America whereas the rest of the U.S. showed
little interest in his works (Murphy, Understanding GS 109) until 1974, when Snyder published his most
successful poetry volume so far Turtle Island, for which he was awarded
the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry a year later. In this volume, Snyder did not
only deal with nature like in his former books, but also took the liberty to
denounce serious ecological deficits of the time, like Japanese whaling,
littering, the use of nuclear power and mankind’s apathy concerning nature
and ecology in general. Snyder also included four prose essays in the volume
in which he expressed his attitudes and ecological intentions in a more direct
way than in his poetry, and which clearly called on the reader to make a
change. Thanks to his new masterpiece, Snyder shot to fame in the
entire U.S. which ended the regionalism of his reputation and made Turtle
Island "one of the best-selling collections of serious poetry in the
United States" (Murphy, Understanding
But Snyder was not content to simply write poetry, but has made use of
numerous opportunities to read his works to the public, therefore taking part
in various ecological gatherings and conventions, writing articles for
environmental magazines, giving a -for a poet- unusual amount of interviews
and was eventually offered to teach his insights to students of American
literature as a Professor at the University of California, Davis, where he
participated in poetry-writing programs. In spite of all these activities,
Snyder kept writing and publishing poetry throughout the years such as in Axe
Handles, Left Out in the Rain or Mountains and Rivers without End and
won several other prizes for his poetry, among which was also the John Hay
Award for Nature Writing. His latest volume of poetry Danger on
Peaks appeared in 2004 and has been his first collection containing new
poems in 20 years.
In all his poetry volumes, ecology and criticism of modern civilization
has found its place. Expressed in a more direct and accusatory way in Turtle
Island and in a more subtle way in his early and later poems, Snyder has
always fought for nature and its preservation. And although in many of his
poems not a single critical word can be found, Snyder’s depiction of
nature’s sublimity and his ability to strike just the right emotional chord
among his readers for the beauty of the wilderness imply and evoke its
recipient’s protest against any harm to the portrayed idyll.
Of course Snyder’s work touches a variety of other topics such as
sexuality, family and Buddhism to name just a few. Snyder has been publishing
poetry for more than 40 years and the range of subjects he addresses is
consequently wide. Snyder has also been experimenting with various poetic
forms like Japanese Haiku or American Indian spells and has also done a
considerable amount of translations from both Chinese and Japanese. China,
Japan and also India are frequent settings of his poems and many of his
experiences in the Far East have transcended into his work. However, nature
and ecology are topics which dominate the majority of his works.
But what drives Snyder to write the way he writes? What is his stand on
the relationship between man and nature? Who and what was he influenced by,
how exactly does he express critique in his poems and not to forget: does he
offer any solutions to the problems he decries?
To answer these questions, this paper pursues a dual strategy: in the
first, theoretical part Gary Snyder’s life, role models, religious and
cultural influences as well as his awareness of nature and his stance towards
modern civilization will be discussed, not in a mere naming of simple
unrelated facts, but always trying to draw conclusions and discover
connections to his ecological consciousness. Fortunately, unlike many other
poets, Gary Snyder has not withheld his views on ecology and poetry to the
public. He has given a variety of interviews and also written a remarkable
amount of prose in which he provides an insight into his way of dealing with
ecology and modern civilization but also into Buddhism, his appreciation for
Amerindian culture and his way to write poetry. All this can be useful to
understand Snyder’s frequently complex ecopoetry. The second, more practical
part will focus on a selection of his poems, which deal with ecology, and his
critique of civilized mankind. By means of interpretation and by dint of the
theoretical insights of the first part of the paper, the different ways of
working ecology and his critique into the art form of the poem will be made
New Encyclopædia Britannica
states that the term ecology,
originally coined by the German zoologist Ernst Häckel, "comes from
Greek ‘oikos’ meaning ‘household, home or place to live’. Thus ecology
deals with the organism and its environment. The word environment
includes both other organisms and physical surroundings" ("Ecology"
1108). In other words, ecology
comprises all living beings, the habitat in which they live, and their
relationship to it. In the case of man, ecology thus comprises the earth and other
living beings (plants, animals,…) on it, as well as man's relationship to
his environment. In this paper, the tem ecology will be used in exactly
this way, focusing primarily on the natural environment (living and nonliving)
but also on man's way of dealing with it. These are also the elements of
ecology, Gary Snyder cares about.
The term civilization also has a wide range of meaning and demands further
discussion as Snyder uses the word civilization
in different senses in his poems. In principle civilization can denote three things: firstly the state of being
civilized in the sense of good manners and referring to individual persons,
secondly the process of reaching a higher stage of human development and
thirdly civilization used to
emphasize the uniqueness of a single nation as in i.e. German, French or
American civilizations. (McNeill 6).
If the word is used in the second sense, a higher stage of human development,
then its often used in opposition to pre-civilized people such as the
Neolithic or Indian people. There are some examples where Snyder uses civilization
in the third sense as a differentiation between nations or former high
cultures such as ancient Rome or Greece (e.g. see 3.2.4)
But in most cases Snyder uses civilization
to set a contrast between civilized and indigenous people. So does this paper.
Of course the incorporation of nature into poetry is nothing new.
American literature knows hundreds of poets who have in one way or the other
made use of natural images in their poetry. Nature had even been one of the
leitmotifs in Romanticist poetry in the early 19th century (Breinig
and Opfermann 65) and remained a popular theme e.g. for Walt Whitman (e.g. in Leaves
of Grass) until the turn of the century. But as J. Scott Bryson has
pointed out, at the dawning of the 20th century a new kind of
poetry developed due to Darwinism and scientific progress which differed
greatly from the former Romantic nature poetry as it was written for the most
part by anti-romantics, e.g. Frost, Stevens, Moore, Jeffers and Williams who
wanted to get away from Romantic sentimental glorification of nature. These
men paved the way for an even less romantic generation of nature poets in the
second half of the twentieth century, who did not only endorse a more
realistic view of nature in poetry but also began to include environmental
problems and critique of mankind’s dealing with nature in their poems (Bryson
2-3). These poets could have also been categorized under the term nature
poets, as their poetry, just like Whitman’s, dealt with the natural
world. However, taking into account the completely different approach and
intention of these poets to the topic, seeing them as part of the Romantic
nature poetry tradition would have been completely wrong. Hence a new term to
describe this new kind of nature poetry had to be created: ecopoetry.
Ecopoetry must not be confused with ecocriticism
which is a term denoting the study of the relationship between general literature
(mainly prose) and the natural environment,
which has hardly been applied to poetry (Bryson 1).
But what are the criteria to decide whether a
poem pertains to ecopoetry? One important point is certainly the attitude of
the poet towards ecology. Ecopoets care for the natural world they describe.
The crucial question for an ecopoet is not what ecology can do
for him, but
what he can (or must) do for ecology. Hence the purpose of ecopoetry is
different: as opposed to most
other poetry the reader does not only gain truth or delight through the
depiction of nature but also instruction of how to behave to improve his
relationship to ecology. Thus ecopoetry is of mutual benefit.
Bryson names three important characteristics apart from a
nature-concerning subject of ecopoetry (5-6): The first necessary
characteristic is an "ecocentric perspective" which means that not
only humanity is the centre of attention, but also the natural world of which
humanity is only considered partial. As a second characteristic, the poem has
to convey an atmosphere of deference to the natural world. It is not mankind,
but nature which is superior and deserves to be deeply respected. The third
criterion, Bryson mentions for ecopoetry is an "intense skepticism
concerning hyperrationality" which often makes the poet denounce
ecological evils caused by society and warn of ecological damage. As we’re
bound to see in the following, Snyder fulfils all three criteria to a full
extend and can therefore be
considered a prime example of an ecopoet.
The readers of ecopoetry have to fulfill special criteria, too. In
addition to the basic interest in poetry, readers of ecopoetry have to be open
to ecological matters and be able to see things beyond their own nose. Snyder
had doubts at the beginning of his poetic career as to whether his kind of
poetry could be widely-received as he wrote in his Lookout’s Journal in
1952: "-If one wished to write poetry of nature? Where an audience?"
(Earth House Hold 4) Snyder’s
qualms have proven unnecessary and, according to Bernard W. Quetenbach, it has
not (or not only) been the style of his poems but his "environmental
advocacy and countercultural spirit which has carved him a special niche among
readers and kept his books in print" (252).
order to gain understanding for partially very complex poetry like that of
Gary Snyder, it is most useful to contemplate things which exerted influence
on his thinking. In this respect particularly impacts on the shaping of
Snyder’s ecological consciousness are of interest. Although a complete
analysis of all influences is far beyond the bounds of possibility, main
influences can be found for most poets which are in Snyder’s case, of course,
his biography, Buddhism, his interest in Native American culture and other
is always tempted to overestimate the importance of a writer’s biography for
his creative work, and in many cases critics would do better just looking at a
poem and leaving biographical aspects aside. This does not apply to Gary
Snyder, as the shaping of his ecological consciousness was strongly marked by
his upbringing and early life conditions.
Born shortly after the Great Depression into a relatively poor family
of the 1930’s in San Francisco, little Gary Snyder was used to working hard
for his daily bread already in early years. His family tried to recover from
the losses of the depression as farmers in Washington and of course, he had to
help on the farm on a daily basis which, according to him, did not make him
feel deprived but offered him "close contact with the fabric of
nature" which "gave me a powerful moral perspective of respect and
regard for all sentient beings" (O’Connell 320). After the separation
of his parents, Snyder had to move to Portland but did not give up his
affection for the natural world, studying the life of Native Americans. To
flee the dreariness of the city, he went to Spirit Lake in the summer to work
at a YMCA camp near Mount St. Helens. This is where Snyder learned how to set
up camp, to backpack, to ascend mountains and where he got acquainted with the
wilderness for the first time. It was here where he began to write his own poetry. The
importance of the area around St Helens for Snyder at this point of time is
implied in the prose poem "Climb" from his latest poetry volume Danger
on Peaks, which shows that even today, more than 50 years later, this
place seems to be of great significance to him: "St. Helens’ summit is
smooth and broad, a place to nod, to sit / and write, to watch what’s higher
in the sky and do a little dance" (8). This quotation also
contains further information on Snyder’s writing process: as opposed to
other writers, Snyder does not sit at home writing about nature, but most of
his poems are written directly in nature. To spend more time in the
mountains, he became a member of an adult mountaineering club and joined the
Wilderness Society in his high school.
After having enrolled in Reed College, Portland in 1947, where he met
and came to live with Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, he already published some
poems in a student journal and took on a summer job on a ship going from New
York to the ocean where he acquired some knowledge of the sea and became
familiar with yet another side of nature: the ocean and its life-forms. He
developed a fascination for ocean shipping and went on trips aboard numerous
ships until the late 1960s. His contempt of whaling, which can be found in
some of his poems, is likely to be rooted in his experiences as a sea-goer.
In the 1950s his love of nature regularly took him back to the
wilderness: he spent a summer working in a logging camp in Warm Springs Indian
Reservation which also contributed to the completion of his knowledge about
Native Americans and married Alison Gass whom he came to meet in Reed college
and who was equally keen on hiking and camping as Snyder. Even his
undergraduate thesis, He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village,
dealt with the wilderness, retelling and analyzing a story of the Haida Indian
In the summers 1952 and '53 he worked as a fire lookout for the US
Forestry Service in the Baker National Forest and on Sourdough Mountain. In
between, he studied Chinese and Japanese in San Francisco. In 1954 an incident
happened that marked the beginning of his aversion to political authorities.
The forest service blacklisted him because he was suspected as being
subversive. He finally managed to clear himself of all charges, but the bad
treatment evoked in him the strong will not to serve under such authorities in
any war and to become a pacifist. In a letter to the State Department he wrote,
that he "would rather go to a concentration camp than be drafted"
(Murphy, Understanding GS 5). The year 1955 brought him back to
Yosemite where he wrote further poems before he shot to fame as a participant
in the well-known Six Gallery reading together with Allan Ginsberg and other
beat poets, which made him known as a poet of the San Francisco Renaissance.
1956 marked a major watershed in Snyder's life: his going to Japan, for which he had been studying Japanese and Chinese during his college years. In Japan Snyder studied Zen Buddhism in a Buddhist temple, married a second time, became a father but also took on various jobs which often took place in the wilderness. He continued writing poetry, much of it concerned with the nature he found in Japan. When he returned to America almost 15 years later, his ecological awareness was at its maximum and Snyder pursued to play a role in the ecology movement which started in the late 1960s and became noted in American Buddhist and environmental circles. He delivered a speech at the Colorado State College known as Earth Day speech where he admitted: "the moment I stepped foot on this soil after having been away that long, I immediately got into the ecological battle - the only battle that counts now, the only thing that matters to me anymore" (Murphy, Understanding GS 14). This was when he decided to publish most of his poems written in Japan and in his early years as a poet (so far, only RipRap and the Cold Mountain poems were available), and to write down the spiritual findings he gained over the years, not only in poetry, but also in prose essays which he later published in collections such as Earth House Hold, The Old Ways or The Practice of the Wild. He continued to give lectures on environmental issues in the following years and built himself and his family a new home, isolated outside
Nevada City in the Tahoe National Forest which he named "Kitkitdizze",
the Indian name for a local plant. He also participated in the United Nations
Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. Three years later he
published Turtle Island, his most
accusatory volume to date as far as ecological critique is concerned, which won
him the Pulitzer Price for poetry.
In his later poems and prose texts, Snyder
covered a variety of topics and most of his critical poetry diminished in
severity but there has hardly been a single book that completely lacks
ecological aspects. As we shall see, special forms of ecological criticism can
even be found in his latest poetry volume Danger on Peaks.
Recapitulating the points in Snyder’s
life which are linked to nature and ecology, one thing becomes clear: Gary
Snyder is not an ecological theorist, but a writer who has frequently
experienced nature and his natural environment. He was raised in a natural way,
always stayed in touch with nature and wilderness and developed his own style of
writing about it, which is for the most part not critical. His political and
literary commitment to ecology does not derive from nowhere but is based on
personal involvement which gives him a deep conviction of fighting for the good
cause. This can be sensed in his poems.
topic which heavily influenced Snyder in his ecological view was his early
interest in Indian Cultures which
already fascinated him before he had even heard of Buddhism for the first time.
Direct and indirect allusions to Indian culture are plentiful in his poems and
the best example for his respect for the Native Americans is the fact that his
best-known and Pulitzer-winning poetry volume has an Indian title: Turtle
Snyder's first interest in Native Americans
dates back to his childhood in Washington where he came across the Coast Salish
people, a Native American tribe: "I perceived, although without it being
taught to me, that there were such things as native people who were still around"
(The Real Work 93). Among his favorite books in his childhood were
writings from Ernest Thompson Seton who dealt with Indian lore and glorified the
Indian way of life (Almon, Gary Snyder 6). In college Snyder studied
anthropology and spend a good deal of his time
studying Indian culture and finally wrote his undergraduate thesis about
an Indian Haida tribe myth (7). The summer afterwards he worked in the Warm
Springs Indian Reservation. But it were not only the Natives of the
North-American West who had an impact on him, he was also interested in the Ainu
of Japan, the Alaskan Eskimos, the Hawaiians and Australian Aborigines (Murphy, Understanding
GS 13). As many other writers of the time, Snyder hoped to find in the
Indian culture -apart from new inspiration for his poetry- an alternative way to
live, different to the North-American way as the capitalist system had too much
bad influence on everything Snyder loved: human relationships, nature and
In many of his essays and poems, Snyder does not use the word Indians
or Native Americans but the Primitive which includes a wider range
of indigenous people (Eskimos, Aborigines, the Neolithic…). As Patrick D.
Murphy has pointed out, "the specific and practical relationships of these
peoples' cultures to the land, to the place where they practice their existence,
are crucial for Snyder" (Murphy, Understanding GS 13). Primitive
people like the American Indians lived in harmony with nature and had over
thousands of years perfectly adapted themselves to the environmental conditions,
nature offered them. They lived off nature without exploiting it for personal
profit. They lived within natural boundaries such as mountain ranges and rivers
and had vast knowledge about their immediate surroundings. Snyder feels akin to
the original inhabitants of North America and sees in primitive people a
possible role model for a new kind of civilization:
I think there is a wisdom in the
worldview of primitive peoples that we have to refer ourselves to, and learn
from. […] our next step must take account of the primitive worldview which has
traditionally and intelligently tried to open and keep open lines of
communication with the forces of nature. (Turtle Island 107)
man -as opposed to the primitive- does not know enough about nature and shows
too little interest in his immediate environment. If man knew more about his
surroundings, his appreciation of nature would be much higher and ecological
damage would decrease. As he said in an interview "the sense of 'nativeness',
of belonging to the place is critical and necessary" in order not to fall
into an "invader's mentality" and "just make a fast buck and move
on" (The Real Work 84). Snyder
has frequently compared modern civilization with the former life of Native
Americans and other primitive peoples. As
he sees it, it is primitive culture which is mature as it has survived for
10.000–30.000 years (depending on location) because Indians managed to
establish a harmonious relationship with their habitat (The Real Work
116/117). By contrast modern civilization in only a few hundred years has
tremendously damaged the natural environment
and is bound to damage it further on until
there might be no more habitable place to go to.
Another important aspect in Indian Lore which had influence on Snyder’s
ecological stance is the Indian’s belief in communicators to the spiritual
world among their own population: the shamans.
A shaman is briefly defined as "a sorcerer, medicine man, etc. who becomes
an intermediary between the spirit world and the material. Shamans experience
altered states of consciousness and soul travel" (Mather and Nichols 255).
Gary Snyder sees the shaman in close connection with nature but follows
the idea of the shaman as an intermediary: "The shaman speaks for wild
animals, the spirits of plants, the spirits of mountains, of watersheds. He or
she sings for them, They sing through him" (The Old Ways 12). From
this follows that Snyder sees the shaman as a medium for nature in order to
communicate with the tribe. And, as the shaman is also considered a medicine
man, one of his main functions is healing, which is -on a spiritual level- also
one of the functions which Snyder has ascribed to poetry: "Poetry within
the civilized area of history is the fragmented attempt to recreate a 'healing
song' aspect of the shaman's practice" (The Real Work 175). The
conclusion which has to be drawn from these statements is that Snyder considers
poetry to stand in the tradition of shamanism and in fact, as we shall see, many
of Snyder's poems contain shamanistic elements. In Myths
& Texts, Snyder even subtitles two poems as "shaman songs"
(19, 37). A further conclusion would be that Snyder considers himself a
shaman-poet which is confirmed by the statement he made in the introduction of Myths
& Texts which also contains shamanistic elements: "As a poet I hold
the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the upper Palaeolithic: the
fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power vision in solitude, the
terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common
work of the tribe" (vii) Of course Snyder's tribe does not consist of
Indians but of civilized people with whom he grew up. Snyder sees himself as a
mediator between civilization and the wilderness which comprises plants, animals
and native people and as a sort of shaman he feels able to put himself in the
place of plants, animals and other nonhuman beings and to speak on their behalf:
.. the poet is a voice for the nonhuman, for the natural world, actually
a vehicle for another voice […] saying there is a larger sphere out there;
that the humans are indeed children of, sons and daughters of, and eternally in
relationship with, the earth. (The Real Work 171/2)
Indian way of life, their close contact with nature and their respect for other
beings were things Snyder felt attracted to and which shaped his own ecological
consciousness. Nevertheless, his interest in Zen grew stronger over the years
and had also a tremendous impact on his ecological thinking. One of the main
reasons why Indian spirituality was not enough to develop his ecological
viewpoint on was the fact that, as Snyder sees it, Indian tradition was not
really accessible to him because he himself was not Indian whereas Buddhist
spirituality was open to everybody (Almon, Gary Snyder 10).
Gary Snyder lived over 12 years in Japan. His
main reason for going there was, apart from his general interest in the Far
East, his goal to study Buddhism. He began his studies at Shokoku-ji, one of the
most important temples of Kyoto and afterwards went to the Daitoku-ji monastery
where he participated in the monastic life as a layman before in 1967, he and
his new-found wife participated in a Buddhist subsistence communal experiment
and came to live with a dozen other people on an isolated volcanic island, where
his wife also gave birth to their first son (Murphy, Understanding
GS 8). Buddhism has thus played
a very important role in Snyder’s life and several of his poems are hard to
understand without Buddhist background knowledge. To interpret some of his
ecological poems, it is necessary to get some insight about how Buddhism
contributed to develop his ecological consciousness.
Buddhism, as most other globally important religions, can be subdivided
into local types, one of which is Zen, a school which pertaining to the Mahayana
branch of Buddhism, is usually found outside of Southeast Asia ("Zen"
243). According to Hisao Kanaseki, Snyder’s studies involved teachings of
other schools -among them Hinduism-, too (qtd. in Yamazato 231), but it was Zen
that had the strongest impact on him.
understandable, but not over complex summary of the main elements of Zen has
been given by Hans-Peter Rodenberg (104-6): The actual goal of all schools of
Buddhism is enlightenment (or to find Buddha), and thereby reach a state where
all conflicts and oppositions have vanished. To reach enlightenment it is
essential to reach the so-called satori, the central experience in
Buddhism. Satori equals some kind of
breakthrough in meditation with the help of a Zen master’s instructions. Put
in simply words, satori can
be imagined as an insight into the subconscious mind, which cannot be freely
accessed. It is the finding of one’s so-called "original mind" which,
as Michael Castro states "is roughly equatable with the intelligence found
in all nature" (138). According to Rodenberg, who prefers the alternative
expression "no-mind" for the phenomenon, original mind can be seen as the part of the human mind
which is not influenced by reasoning but lies underneath and which is inherent
in all things created by nature. By the suppression of rational thought, centers
of perception which are normally blocked by rationality are activated (Rodenberg
104) and the individual experiences a new kind of existence in which the duality
of the world (spiritual versus material, subject versus object) vanishes (105).
The individual becomes one with nature. Rodenberg
continues that Buddha or Zen (who might be considered as what is referred to in
Christianity as God) can subsequently only be found in one’s own spirit,
requiring the complete separation from all wishes and tensions of the outer
world. The satori cannot be reached by rational or philosophical
conclusion but is more an intuitive sudden, understanding, the rise to a higher
stage of perception which enables the individual to see a wholistic reality of
himself and his environment which a non-enlightened person is not able to grasp
(106). It would go far beyond the scope of this paper to deliver a concrete
analysis of a satori let alone meditational Zen practices necessary to
reach it. Nevertheless it is important to know about this breakthrough
experience to original mind in order to fully understand many of Snyder's poems.
In addition, the explanation of some further Buddhist foundations will be
of use. As already mentioned, the Mahayana believe that Buddha can be found in
principle in the self of everybody, and Buddha-nature is at the disposal
of everybody (everybody actually can become a Buddha). This is called busshō
and does not only comprise human beings, but -what is crucial for Snyder- every
living being in existence. This is why busshō also teaches to treat
other beings well (Yamazato 234). In addition, Buddhists strongly believe that
all living beings are interrelated and that the universe is created by the sum
of all of them (Yamazato 232). Separate existence is not possible as every being
depends on other beings. The interconnectedness of all things is also called interpenetration,
a term which -as we shall see- is also used by Gary Snyder in his poems.
The interdependence of all beings subsequently suggests that all beings are of
equal importance, as the extinction of one species would have negative
consequences for all other. This is why Buddhists consider other beings worthy
of consideration and protection.
Another important issue in Buddhism
concerning this matter is reincarnation. All living beings are thought to form
part of a reincarnation cycle and experience samsara, the endless
repetition of birth, decay and death, which is considered a kind of suffering
("samsara" 175). When
a person dies, some other sort of life is going to commence which is not
necessarily human. As a consequence nonhuman life must be treated with the same
respect, human life deserves.
his years in Japan, Gary Snyder also came across Vajayana, a tantric
school existing both in Buddhism and Hinduism (Almon, "Buddhism and Energy"
83), which is why Snyder also has Hindu elements in some of his poems (e.g. in
"LMFBR", see 3.2.6) . Ecologically important is that in Snyder's words,
"Buddhist Tantrism […] is probably the finest and most modern statement
of this ancient shamanistic-yogic-gnostic-socioeconomic view: that mankind's
mother is Nature and Nature should be tenderly respected" (Earth House
Snyder's Buddhist experience is of
importance in his works because Buddhism and ecology go well together, they
"cross-fertilize each other" (Yamazato 233). The Buddhist principle of
interpenetration is similar to the ecological conviction that even little human
manipulations and interference into natural processes can have tremendous
consequences as ecology consists of many cycles as well (e.g. the hydrological
cycle). As Snyder puts it "Buddhists teach respect for all life and for
wild systems. Man's life is totally dependent on an interpenetrating network of
wild systems" (Turtle Island 104) Ecological thinking is similar.
literature knows numerous authors who influenced Gary Snyder in his writings,
but the majority focuses rather on his poetic style than on his ecological
stance. One of the early influences was certainly Walt Whitman, with whom Snyder
shares the integration of nature observation into poetry and whom Snyder read in
his early teenage years (The Real Work
56). Later, Snyder coincidentally discovered D.H. Lawrence’s poetry volume Birds,
Beasts and Flowers which deals with the difference between the human and
nonhuman world, and which "deeply shaped me [Snyder] for that moment in my
life" (GS Reader 323).
From Lawrence, Snyder went on to Robinson Jeffers whom he saw as a "twentieth-century
reverse image of Walt Whitman" (The
Real Work 56) as Jeffers dealt with the same themes as Whitman, but in a
pessimistic way. Although Snyder has frequently denied a strong effect of
Jeffers on his poetry, Patrick D. Murphy sees Jeffers as one of the main
influences (Jeffers,Snyder,Civ. 93).
Murphy argues that the effort Snyder has put into distancing himself from
Jeffers -not only in the public but also in his own mind- is indicative of
Jeffers's actual impact. The points Murphy adduces to prove his thesis are
cogent: Like Snyder, Jeffers is of the opinion that modern civilization is a
threat to ecology and both Snyder and Jeffers, are opposed to a human-centered
philosophy. In addition, both approve of the idea of the earth being a living
organism (Gaia-Hypothesis, see 2.4.1) As Snyder has read Jeffers, who also comes
from the West of America, before he started writing his own poetry, a takeover
of at least parts of Jeffers’s concepts seems probable. The crucial difference
between the two is that in Jeffers’s poetry there is no hope. He pictures the
destruction of the world, but does not try to provide a solution, whereas
Snyder’s critique always aims for a change of civilization and an improvement
of the current situation.
A further influence on Snyder’s natural awareness came through
Snyder’s reading of T.S. Eliot. Snyder’s favorite work of Eliot is Four
Quartets (The Real Work 57), a
collection of four related poems focusing each on one of the four elements. The
four elements are also important in Buddhist philosophy and are frequently part
of Snyder’s poems. Snyder appreciates Eliot especially for his "sense of
roots" (The Real Work 57),
thereby meaning Eliot’s sense of history, which Snyder shares and which can be
seen in poems such as "Mother Earth: Her Whales" (see 3.2.5) or "The
groves are down…" (3.2.4) where he denounces mankind’s ecological sins
from several hundred years ago.
Then one of the chief influences on Gary Snyder was certainly Ezra Pound.
He came across Pound in Reed College because of his interest in Chinese poetry.
Pound had translated texts of Confucius and experimented with the Japanese Haiku
form, a mode of poetry, which Snyder felt attracted to. Bob Steuding has seen
close similarities in Snyder’s and Pound’s manner of writing about nature.
Both try to describe nature as it really is, without any romanticist
embellishment, "for too much nature writing was done through rose-colored
glasses" (Steuding 40). Steuding considers Pound to be Snyder’s role
model because he tried to depict nature as objectively as possible, a method
which Snyder adopted (40). In most of his poems Snyder gives detailed nature
descriptions without any personal comments or validations, which have to be made
by the reader himself. Another conspicuous similarity between both writers can
be seen in their search for truth in the cultures of other peoples and nations
and the synthesis of parts of those cultures in a new, own kind of philosophy.
Pound, just as Snyder, was highly interested in Far Eastern poetry but whereas
Snyder turned to Buddhism and Native American culture, Pound gained insights
into the Greek and Italian classics, Provençal
troubadour poetry and other French poets such as Rimbaud (Ickstadt 237).
Furthermore Snyder derived his idea of the poet’s role in
society from Pound’s thought: in an interview Snyder quotes Pound who
said that "artists are the antennae of the race" (The
Real Work 71) which Snyder has reinterpreted as the idea of the poet as a
warning system (see 2.5). Snyder said that Pound’s major work, Cantos,
contained "three or four dozen lines […] that are stunning – unlike
anything else in English poetry – which touched me deeply and to which I am
still indebted" (GS Reader 324).
Christine Grewe-Volpp sees in Snyder a contemporary poet standing in the
tradition of American Transcendentalism (51) and adduces several plausible
arguments for her thesis. She considers Snyder’s Buddhist concept of original
mind a parallelism to Emerson’s oversoul
(52), which just like original
seen as a collective
indivisible whole, including all parts and objects in life and which can be
experienced by close natural experiences where the subject-object separation
vanishes and self, nature and oversoul become a unity (Zapf 103). Grewe-Volpp continues that in
addition, Transcendentalists also had a strong tendency to unite aspects from
other cultures, religions and philosophies to support their own world-view
(51/52). In addition, in the description of nature in his poems, Snyder comes
close to the transcendentalist idea of the work of art as an exact copy of
The critique of society and civilization is an element in Snyder’s
poetry which he has in common with Henry David Thoreau, who lamented over
extensive mechanization and the sacrifice of nature due to economic interest,
too (Zapf 110). Thoreau, who used to live in a cabin in the woods near a lake
– much like Snyder’s forest home "Kitkitdizze" – was convinced
that the real world was preserved in wildness (Leary 531), a way of thinking
Snyder is familiar with. According to Thomas J. Lyon, Thoreau was an influence
to most modern writers of the American West as he identified the West as "the
great mother center of wilderness and the place to learn ecological truth"
(Lyon 35). The best proof for
Thoreau’s impact on him is Snyder’s quotation of Thoreau’s last sentence
in his major work Walden "The
morning star is not a star" in the first poem in Snyder’s collection Myths & Texts (3).
influence not to be forgotten was Chinese poetry, which Snyder first read in
translation, but later also in the original version. For the most part it was
the form and the style of Chinese poems Snyder felt attracted to but the nature
orientation and quiet nostalgia (Steuding 46) of classical Chinese poetry can
also be found in Snyder’s works. Asked in an interview what it was he
appreciated in Chinese poetry at the time, Snyder answered "The secular
quality, the engagement with history, the avoidance of theology or of elaborate
symbolism or metaphor, the spirit of friendship, the openness to work and
sensibility for nature" (GS Reader 324). Snyder translated a good
deal of Chinese poetry, the most famous of which were The
Cold Mountain Poems from the
Chinese hermit Han Shan which Snyder
published in his first poetry volume.
The similarity of Han Shan’s poems concerning not only style but also thematic
aspects to Snyder’s own poems is striking:
in the green creek is clear
on Cold Mountain is white
knowledge - the spirit is enlightened of itself
Contemplate the void: this world
(translated in RipRap & Cold
Mountain Poems 47)
the poem, spiritual experience is drawn from close observation of a natural
phenomenon like a creek’s water in spring or moonlight reflected on a mountain.
The combination of a natural depiction and spiritual experience can be found, as
we shall see in a major part of Gary Snyder’s poems, due to his active
practice of Buddhism.
Due to the variety of influences on him and his
extraordinary experiences during his life, Gary Snyder's ecological
consciousness is consequently of complex
nature. Yet for many of his poems, a basic understanding of the principles he's
after is frequently indispensable. There are three major components which
determine his attitude towards ecology: his relationship to nature, to modern
civilization and to science and technology.
Gary Snyder has developed his very own view of nature and the natural
environment. His understanding of nature is based on a synthesis of very old
traditional beliefs, which derive from Buddhism and Indian cultures, and quite
modern convictions which altogether intermingle in an unconventional unique mix
which is reflected in his poetry, but due to its complexity, is not always easy
The Earth – Mother and Gaia
A first approach to his ecological consciousness can be made by looking
at how he relates to the earth. In many poems, Snyder relates to the earth as a
"mother" (e.g. Turtle Island
20, 24, 47). He thereby ascribes feminine and maternal characteristics to the
planet, accentuating its life-giving function and implies a kind of family
relationship between the earth and the beings living on it. The planet's
providing for its residents can be seen as an act of motherly love, as it
supplies them with all necessary goods, such as food, water, air and territory
and subsequently offers them an opportunity to develop. In response, the earth
deserves the respect of its children and a careful use of its resources, not
only in order to keep its support, but also as a token of gratitude.
from the view of the earth as a mother there is a second viewpoint of the earth
Snyder feels attracted to: the Gaia
Hypothesis. In this controversial hypothesis, proposed
by the independent English research scientists James Lovelock and Sidney Epton
in the early seventies, Gaia is considered "a complex entity involving the
earth's biosphere, atmosphere, oceans and soil; the totality constituting a
feedback or cybernetic system, which seeks an optimal physical and chemical
environment for life on this planet" (Lovelock 11) and can therefore be
seen as one single living organism. All named elements of Gaia stabilize each
other and exert a regulatory effect on the natural environment.
Snyder introduces the idea in his essay "The politics of
Ethnopoetics" (The Old Ways 15-43) and even tries to go into
scientific details about the creation of the oxygen environment, the ozone layer
and their interaction. He draws the conclusion that the "atmosphere is the
creation of life for its own uses. Hence, the planet earth looks like a nacreous
shell from outer space such as that which Venus might have stepped out of"
(39/40). Snyder likes the idea of the earth as a living organism especially as
this also provides arguments to consider the earth as a kind of mother. In his
volume Axe Handles he included a section
called "Little songs for Gaia" which does not directly refer to the
theory but honor the idea by the use of the term "Gaia" for earth.
biomass and energy
even more -maybe even the most- important element of his view of nature is
certainly the interdependence of all life forms on the planet which,
incidentally, although it derives from Buddhism, does not contradict the more
scientifically based Gaia-Hypothesis. Snyder shares the believe of the
interrelatedness of all beings which the Buddhists saw on a spiritual level, but
has also transferred it to a biological and, as we shall see later, even
physical level: biomass, food chains and energy.
In his essay "The Wilderness", Snyder is convinced that nature
holds a certain kind of "intelligence" which he finds better described
by the ecologist Eugene Odum, who stresses that "life-biomass" or
"living matter is stored information in the cells and genes" and that
"there is more information of a higher order of sophistication and
complexity stored in a few square yards of forest than there is in all the
libraries of mankind" (Turtle Island 107/8). As Snyder sees it, this information "is a
different order of information. It is the information of the universe we live
in. It is the information that has been flowing for millions of years",
transported by the food chains and he adds that "In this total information
context, man may not be necessarily the highest or most interesting product"
(Turtle Island 108). This last remark is crucial in Snyder's poetry
because it defies the assumption that man is the highest developed living being
in evolution, and implies the idea that some other being might reach a higher
stage of development in the future.
Quite similarly, though more
on a physical level, is Snyder's idea of energy and its transfer in the universe,
which he described in an interview with Lee Bartlett in 1975 (qtd. in
Grewe-Volpp 76): In his opinion, every living being holds a certain amount of
energy which has been given to the
being at the beginning of his life and rises during its lifespan by taking in
further energy from food or other nutrition. The primary energy is gained by
plants absorbing sun light. If a being itself is taken in by another being, its
energy becomes part of the other life form but stays in the system which is
essential. The food chain determines the direction of the transfer of energy
from one being to another. All life forms are interdependent because they are
part of a circulation of energy in the ecological system. This is why Snyder
does not disapprove of eating other beings, for it is perfectly natural in a
healthy ecosystem and contributes to the circulation of energy. In his poem
"Song of the Taste" he writes:
Drawing on life of living
clustered points of light spun
out of space
hidden in the grape.
Eating each other's seed
ah, each other.
(Regarding Wave 17)
The grapevine has transferred the energy delivered
by the sun into its seed: the grape. Snyder sees himself on the same level as
animals and plants which is why he speaks of "eating each other's seed"
or even "each other". The poem comes without any negative connotation.
On the contrary, the "ah" in the last line and the title cast a
positive light on this energy transfer via food chain. Snyder thinks that man
himself is also part of the circulation:" I don't think eating is ripping
off. We can't look at it that way. […] …because we're edible, too" (The
Real Work 89). Needless to say that Snyder does not speak of cannibalism
here, but probably thinks of the decaying processes taking place in the human
body after its death. By feeding micro-organisms, the energy is handed over to
other life forms and held in the system.
Each living being – a swirl
in the flow
What makes it so hard to fully understand Gary
Snyder's view of nature is its composition of theories belonging to
fundamentally distinct fields. It can surely be criticized that some of its
components do not seem to go well together and that Snyder could not claim to be
a recognized expert in either of the fields which makes his stance appear to be
a half-baked bunch of compromises, but the crucial thing is: Whether
in the Gaia Hypothesis, the idea of energy-transfer, biomass theory,
Indian lore or the Buddhist reincarnation: Nature has created a complex system
of beings depending on each other and thereby maintaining stability. Man,
according to Snyder, is only a temporary form among many forms of beings,
holding a specific natural quality (spirit, information, energy, Buddha-nature)
and is therefore not standing above nature but represents a part of it. As
Snyder writes in his Introductory Note to Turtle Island: "Each
living being is a swirl in the flow, a formal turbulence, a ‘song’. The
land, the planet itself is also a living being – at another pace".
Nature means diversity
As Christine Grewe-Volpp has pointed out, Snyder is
convinced that in order to ascertain man's survival on earth it is necessary to
keep the diversity of life forms (70), which is why the extinction of life forms
has always worried him and finally determined him to take action against it. In
"Energy is Eternal Delight" he writes:
treasure of life is the richness of stored information in the diverse genes of
all living beings. If the human race, following on some set of catastrophes,
were to survive at the expense of many plant and animal species, it would be no
victory. Diversity provides life with the capacity for a multitude of
adaptations and responses to long-range changes on the planet" (Turtle
Only a diversity of species has the potential to
cope with unforeseen problems such as climate change or natural catastrophes,
because the potential to find ways to adapt to the new situation is higher. This
can be seen on a smaller scale in agriculture as monocultural fields planted
with only one crop are far more susceptible to pests and diseases than fields
planted with mixtures. For Snyder, every extinct species -no matter if plant or
animal- means a weakening of natural stability, which might have severe
The Wilderness and the Wild
Two other important terms Snyder frequently uses in
his essays and poetry and which also contribute to his ecological consciousness
are both wilderness and the wild. As Snyder explains in Back on
the Fire he does not use the term wilderness in its commonly
understood sense as a place where no human presence or influence can be found.
This is what he describes as
"the recent, nonhistorical, legalistic, bureaucratic definition of
wilderness" (129). Instead, wilderness is for Snyder "a place where
the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and nonliving
beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order" (GS Reader
173). Or, put differently as he did in an interview: "
means self-organizing […] It means elegantly self-disciplined, self-regulating,
self-maintained. That's what wilderness is" (Carolan, "Wild Mind").
What is crucial in these definitions is the fact that wilderness regulates
things on its own and is not controlled by anybody. Snyder's view of wilderness
does not exclude humanity as the primitive is definitely something belonging to
it but it clearly excludes modern civilized man as civilization has always tried
to gain control and organize natural processes for its own convenience (agriculture,
The term wild describes the quality (not the place!) of the
wilderness, the characteristic of natural self-regulation. For Snyder, the wild
is close to the Chinese term Dao, which means "eluding analysis,
beyond categories, self-organizing, self informing, playful, surprising…"
(GS Reader 172). As he sees it, the wild has always been in everything
created by nature and even civilized man still holds wild qualities: "I
think language is, to a great extent biological. […] the structures of it have
the quality of wild ecosystems. Wild systems are highly complex, cannot be
intellectually mastered. […] Language is a self-organizing phenomenon" (GS
Reader 329). Snyder alludes to the fact that man is able to acquire language
abilities before he is able of rational thinking which can be seen as a remnant
of the wild.
Neither the wild nor the wilderness have a negative connotation for
Snyder, which becomes obvious in his definitions. On the contrary, Snyder
considers wild systems natural whereas systems controlled by civilization are
thought of as artificial. It is in the wilderness where the individual can find
its "original mind" (see 2.3.3). This is why wilderness as the place
where wildness can be found is so important to Snyder and worthy of protection.
his essays and poems, Gary Snyder has widely criticized modern civilization for
its way of dealing with ecology and ecological matters. When asked in an
interview what he meant by civilization,
he defined it as "Class structure, centralization, metalworking, a military
class, and a priesthood. That cluster of phenomena", and named as an
example the modern Chinese state ("Practicing" 260), which shows that
it's not only modern America he condemns, but modern civilization in general.
However, most of his criticism focuses on Western civilization, mostly the US,
but also other Western civilized nations. His qualms about modern civilization
started early: "When I went into college I was bedeviled already by the
question of these contradictions of living in and supposedly being a member of a
society that was destroying its own ground" (The
Real Work 94).
Modern Civilization and Its
Indifference towards Ecology
In many of his works Snyder speaks of the
indifference he observes in our civilized society towards ecology and nature. In
"The Wilderness" he writes:
root of the problem where our civilization goes wrong is the mistaken belief
that nature is something less than authentic, that nature is not as alive as man
is, or as intelligent, that in a sense it is dead, and that animals are of so
low an order of intelligence and feeling, we need not take their feelings into
account. (Turtle Island 107)
In deed, modern
mankind considers itself superior to plants, animals and everything else on the
planet, which can also be seen in civilized legislation as killing a nonhuman
being, is not per se, considered a crime. Snyder, who has always been very close
to nature and learned to live with it from an early age, is convinced that
modern civilization deprives people of nature and consequently prevents them
from becoming aware of its importance for their survival: "They buy
vegetables in the supermarket, but don't think about the soil these grow
in" (The Real Work 3). As modern people -especially city-dwellers-
are rarely familiar with natural processes and do not experience any dependence
on nature due to modern economic supply systems, the average value put on
ecological matters in society has diminished.
A second point of Snyder's criticism is civilized man's ruthless
exploitation of the earth's natural resources for profit, which he witnessed
himself, and in which he also participated temporarily when he had been working
in a logging camp in 1950. Deforestation is a topic which Snyder has written a
great deal of critical poems on, but the extensive use of fossil fuels in
private cars and industry, and the emissions which go along with it, also
receive considerable attention in his works. He does not even recoil from
attacking fundamental American beliefs which were considered important for the
prosperity of his home country in the past: " We live in a nation of fossil
fuel junkies, […] fossil fuel junkies of tremendous mobility zapping back and
forth, who are still caught in the myth of the frontier, the myth of boundless
resources and a vision of perpetual materialistic growth" (The
Real Work 69).
Snyder's criticism does not only concern the very modern civilization,
but is also retrospectively critical of former ecological destruction caused by
civilization. In an interview, he criticizes the draining of the tule swamps in
California in the 1850s and '60s describing these actions under reference to
Raymond Dasman as the "greatest single destruction of wildlife for its
period of time in the history of the world" (The Real Work 26). As we shall see, some of Snyder’s critical
poetry does also have historical content (see
Civilization as a Monocultural
As we already know, Snyder sees primitive society,
which he appreciates as long-living and mature as a role model for our modern
society. In the East-West-Interview he assesses modern society as being rather
young and immature, using an interesting comparison to illustrate this:
analogous to a piece of scraped-back ground that is kept perpetually scraped
back so that you always get a lot of grass quickly every year – monoculture,
rapid production, a few species, lots of energy produced, but no recycling to
fall back on. (The Real Work 117)
From this it follows that Snyder sees civilization
also as a loss of individuality. Analogous to the quick growing grass, our
society produces masses of similar beings, functioning for what they are needed
but unspecialized, interchangeable and not capable to survive outside society's
structures. Modern people are forced into jobs, which they don't enjoy doing and
which are actually unnecessary for their survival but have to be done in order
to gain money for food which primitive man is able to grow himself. In Earth
House Hold, Snyder even calls civilization a "human laziness"
(126) as it has stopped people from making decisions themselves but let others
decide for them. This is why for Snyder civilization is not a blessing but a
drawback in human development.
Bioregionalism & Sense of
Other than most poets of his time who deal with
ecological problems, Gary Snyder has not contented himself with making
complaints but has always made suggestions to make a change. Snyder's remedy for
modern civilization can be found in bioregional thought. In The Old Ways
Snyder refers to Ray Dasman who differentiated between "ecosystem
cultures" and "biosphere cultures":
cultures being those whose economic base of support is a natural region, a
watershed, a plant zone, a natural territory within which they have to make
their whole living. […] Biosphere cultures are the cultures that begin with
early civilization and the centralized state; are cultures that spread their
economic support system out far enough that they can afford to wreck one
ecosystem, and keep moving on. (20)
It is a new kind of ecosystem culture that Snyder
has in mind when he talks about bioregionalism.
According to Snyder, the relationship to the land one is living on is
crucial. People who fail to feel at home in a place and who intend to leave it
sooner or later are far more likely to cause damage to their temporary habitat
than people who are willing to stay on a permanent basis, people who identify
with the place and in some way become natives to it (The
Real Work 86). The metaphor of Turtle Island relates to the fact that Snyder is
of the opinion that North America has actually not been discovered yet, at least
not by modern civilization. "People live on it without knowing what it is
and where they are. They live on it literally like invaders. You know whether a
person knows where he is by whether or not he knows the plants. By whether or
not he knows what the waters do" (The
Real Work 69).
speaks of a "sense of place" the "re-inhabitation of the
country" (e.g. Place in Space 190), of people turning their back on
urban centers and rediscovering a place to live for the rest of their lives, a
place to raise their children and grandchildren, a place to "dig in" (Turtle
Island 101). People who do this are willing to take responsibility and take
care of the land. Hans-Peter Rodenberg has warned not to narrow this "sense
of place" down to the familiarity of a farmer with his locality but to
consider "sense of place" a permanent preparedness to deal with the
surrounding nature wherever one lingers (96), which is only partly right as one
can see in Back on the Fire
where Snyder writes:
believe that more people staying put, learning their place, and taking on some
active role would improve our social and ecological life. […]one has to start
where one is and become nature-literate
to the scale of the immediate home place. With home-based knowledge, it is then
within our power to get a glimpse of the whole planet as home. As a rule though,
local knowledge (combined with an understanding of the dynamics of systems)
remains the most useful, and the most delicious.
In deed Snyder does promote a familiarity to the
land -not necessarily as a farmer-,
but it is important to him that people try to stick to their region
Peter Berg, who coined the term bioregionalism in the early
seventies, defined a bioregion as "a
geographic area defined by natural characteristics, including watersheds,
landforms, soils, geological qualities, native plants and animals, climate, and
weather" (Berg, Interview). Living beings, who pertain to a certain
bioregion, live within the natural borders of their area without exploiting the
resources of other bioregions. As nature has predetermined
the limitations of the different bioregions (mountain ranges, rivers,
swamps…), political boarders such as states or Nations can therefore be
considered redundant which Snyder has frequently remarqued (e.g. Turtle
Island, "Introd. Note")
Although Snyder is not the man behind the original idea of
bioregionalism, he has made himself a name among bioregionalists, and parts of
his essays are quoted in bioregionalistic writings. Doug Aberley even considers
him to be "the single most practical proselytizer of a uniquely hybrid
intellectual/spiritual/rural bioregional vision" (18).
attitude towards technology is divided. Many of his critics are convinced that
Snyder simply disapproves of all kinds of technology and scientific research
because of his general qualms about the usefulness of technological progress.
However, insinuating Snyder was a complete technophobe would certainly do him
wrong. His viewpoint depends on what exactly is meant by the word technology:
"I love technology, too. But it's all a matter of scale. […] Knowing how
to prune a fruit tree is technology. Knowing what cycle to plant a garden in is
also, in a sense technology " (The Real Work 87). For Snyder, technology
does not necessarily designate digitalized high-end technique but does also
comprise very little inventions and natural skills.
Whether the use of new technology is legitimate or not also depends on
the question to whose advantage it is. If technology only serves a minority of
people like factory proprietors or industrial farm owners and helps them to
boost their profits at the costs of either environment or of the proletarian
work force, Snyder considers it as harmful and therefore not only superfluous
but worth avoiding. Technology, serving a wide range of people, especially
non-mass-produced but custom-made technology like photovoltaic solar cells,
communal hydroelectric power stations or other biological electricity-generating
tools are inventions Snyder is strongly in favor of (The Real Work 147).
"…technology's not bad. We have to be masters of it, not have it master
of us. […] useful skills and useful tools are not in themselves wrong, but
it's being tricked or dazzled by them that throws us off" (The Real Work
87). Snyder neither gets tired of emphasizing that the biological world is far
more complex than technology which people often fail to see (87/88). And as a
matter of fact, there is a huge amount of natural phenomena (e.g. the brain,
pain, love…) that scientists still are unable to explain to a satisfactory
extent. In many branches of science nature often serves as a role model to
develop new technologies. Biology does not need technology for existence but
there are many technologies which would not have been developed without biology.
In an online-interview, Snyder recommends distinguishing "between
useful and sustainable technologies and those which cost the world too
much" (Juliet Harding interview). One of these morally over-costly
technologies is in Snyder's opinion certainly nuclear power. Atomic energy used
for the generation of electricity or -even worse- bomb production is a thing
Snyder has always rebelled against. This circumstance is due to one of Gary
Snyder's very early experiences in adolescence which Snyder describes in a prose
text called "Atomic Dawn" in his latest poetry volume Danger on
Peaks. It tells of the day after Snyder had first climbed Mt. St. Helens on
August 14th 1945, where he saw some already belated newspapers with the first
pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki shortly after the dropping of the atomic
bombs on a bulletin board at Spirit Lake, Washington:
Horrified, blaming scientists and
politicians and the governments of the world, I swore a vow to myself, something
like 'By the purity and beauty and permanence of Mt. St. Helens, I will fight
against this cruel destructive power and those who would seek to use it, for all
my life. (Danger on Peaks 9)
Although these sentences might seem overemotional
and excessively sentimental, they give a good impression of the tremendous shock
the dropping of the bombs must have had on the 15 year old Gary Snyder. The
severity of this experience made him not only turn against nuclear weapons, but
also influenced him to fight against the building of nuclear power plants later.
In Snyder’s case, it is not only the danger of humans being harmed by
deliberate or accidental detonations, but, as usual, his fear of all life on the
planet being seriously impaired which keeps him standing up to this kind of
technology. He has followed his maxim of fighting nuclear power throughout his
whole life in his prose as well as in his poems (see 3.2.6) and the inclusion of
his St. Helens experience in his latest poetry volume is an irrefutable proof
that he has not given up on the matter yet.
the analysis of poetry it is of importance
to have some insights about how the poet defines his own role in society.
This implies questions like what in Snyder's eyes makes up a poet, for whom he
writes and what the primary goals are he hopes to achieve by doing so.
As we already know, Snyder sees the poet as
a kind of modern shaman who mediates between the natural world and civilization.
As he said in an interview: "I think the poet articulates the semi-known
for the tribe. This is close to the ancient function of the shaman" (The
Real Work 5). Michael Castro considers the "semi-known" to be the
same phenomenon as the Buddhist principle of original mind and Snyder, so Castro
continues, "has come to believe that this 'original mind' was open to and
sung through the Native Americans on this continent." In Snyder's opinion,
the "poet who returns to his archaic shamanic roots actively seeks this
original mind and when he or she finds it, tries to speak from it to the rest of
us, and to speak to it as it exists within the rest of us" (Castro 140).
But Snyder's view of a poet contains apart
from the Indian also a political
element. He sees himself metaphorically speaking as a kind of spokesman for
I am a poet. My teachers are other poets, American Indians, and a few
Buddhist priests in Japan. The reason I am here is because I wish to bring a
voice from the wilderness, my constituency.
I wish to be a spokesman for
a realm that is not usually represented either in intellectual chambers or in
the chambers of government. […] And I would like to think of a new definition
of democracy that would include the nonhuman, that would have representation
from those spheres (Turtle Island 106).
course, Snyder is fully aware that he will never be politically accepted as a
spokesperson and the range of his power is limited to his poems. The natural
realm never had much political support, at least not in the America of the early
1960s. But by using the political image of a spokesman, Snyder makes his readers
wonder why there isn't anybody standing up for the nonhuman and shows the actual
injustice of this circumstance. Asked by an interviewer whether he felt like a
spokesman in the land of the enemy Snyder answered: " Yes. Which is all
right. A spokesman in the society of the enemy, but the land is my friend. I
have supporters all around me, trees and birds, and so forth, and also a lot of
people." (The Real Work 50)
addition, Snyder considers himself also a "warning system" (Earth
House Hold 71), closely related to nature and sensitive to
its needs and threats. By means of his poems he warns the human world
when the human behavior risks to cause serious damage to the natural world. In
order to do so, poets should have a variety of knowledge which Snyder has
described in the poem "What you should know to be a poet" of the
volume Regarding Wave:
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW TO BE
all you can about animals
the names of trees and
flowers and weeds.
names of stars, and the
movements of the planets
and the moon.
Your own six senses, with a watchful and elegant mind.
emphasizes the necessity to know one's immediate environment well. Poets, as the
link between nature and civilization, should know the plants and animals of the
area. Snyder even expands the knowledge to stars and planets which seems odd as
they are not part of the nature that can be experienced on earth but could be
interpreted as useful knowledge concerning orientation and tides. Senses and
mind are supposed to be sharpened to get a feeling for nature. Snyder continues:
At least one kind of
Divination, astrology, the
book of changes, the tarot;
The illusory demons and
illusory shining gods;
lines show that Snyder does not restrict the ways of experiencing enlightenment
to Buddhism but sees parallels to Buddhist and Indian traditions also in
mystical practices of other cultures. But Snyder does not forget normal life
childrens' games, comic
the weirdness of television
Work, long dry hours of
dull work swallowed and accepted
And livd with and finally
should also know normal human life and the little things that come with it or he
will not be able to reach people. But he should not be manipulable by artificial
things like television or advertisements as he needs to keep his mind clear for
important things. He also ought to know hard labor and how to get to like it and
should have come across hardship in his life. This aspect is intensified in the
And the edge of death. (40)
people who have experienced borderline situations know about the value of life
(either human or other) and are able to recognize danger. A poet has to be aware
of these things in order to warn of them. Summarizing these points, a poet
should have vast knowledge of both the natural world and of society to be able
to act as an intermediary between the two.
The fact that for Snyder, the poet is middleman between two worlds, that
he stands in between two separated spheres can be found in another poem of his:
HOW POETRY COMES TO ME
It comes blundering over
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light (No Nature 361)
is a thing which is not obvious but hides out of sight. The poet is sitting at a
campfire shedding a range of light to the area which symbolizes the range of
ordinary human perception. But the essential in poetry is not perceivable by the
ordinary senses. It is from beyond the range and cannot be seen or otherwise
perceived, the poet has to leave the perceptional range and go into the dark to
grasp it, a world which is not known to most other humans, the world of nature
and original mind. It is in between the dark and the light world where he meets
poetry, where it comes to him and he himself is the chosen person to convey it
from the unknown world to the real one.
In summary, Snyder considers the poet to be an outstanding person of
society holding ecological awareness, extensive experience of life
and shamanistic or other mystical skills in order to mediate between
civilization and nature but also to warn of ecological damage caused by
civilized mankind which could have serious consequences.
Having written poetry for over 40 years, the
variety of poems in Gary Snyder's oeuvre is naturally enormous. The range of his
poetry reaches from Concrete Poetry-like experiments
to mystical shamanistic spells and songs to sometimes neutral, sometimes
highly provocative ecopoetry. In the face of such a rich diversity of
creative potential, reducing Snyder's poetical style to a simple but
comprehensive formula is most certainly an unfeasible plan. However, in the
majority of his ecologically relevant poetry, certain patterns and stylistic
devices are recurrent and can subsequently be considered typical of Snyder's
A good starting point for further reflection on the matter is certainly
the first part of Snyder's poem RipRap, which deals with Snyder's manner
of arranging words in a poem:
down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
Comparing words with rocks, or in other words lumpy
chunks of granite, provides them with a certain heaviness and emphasizes the
importance of every single word for the entire poem. Snyder arranges these heavy
"solid" chunks before the mind of his reader, which means they are
they are easy to perceive, but "in choice of place" which draws
attention to the fact that every single word has to be put at the right place to
achieve an optimum effect. Every word has to fit into its environment and cannot
be shifted at will. It is therefore "set […] in space" but also in
"time" which reveals one of the crucial elements of Snyder's poetry:
Speaking of timing in Gary Snyder’s poems, it is important to know that
Snyder’s formal style of writing poetry was influenced by Charles Olson’s
1950 essay "Projected Verse", which he often quotes when describing
his art of poetical-writing (e.g. The Real
Work 31). In "Projected Verse", Olson described several new rules,
which he considered appropriate for writing short poems. Olson disapproved of
older conventions like repetitive measure, fixed stanzas and rhyme and preferred
poetry written to the sound of the
human voice, with its lines determined by breathing patterns (Christensen 424).
A second crucial detail in this respect is that all of Snyder’s written poems
are actually meant to be read aloud.
Concerning timing, in most cases, the form of a written Snyder poem has to be
interpreted as an indicator of how one is supposed to read the poem. In an
interview, Snyder has pointed out:
placement of the line on the page, the horizontal white spaces and the vertical
white spaces are all scoring for how it is to be read and how it is to be timed.
Space means time. The marginal indentations are more an indication of voice
emphasis, breath emphasis – and […] some of the dances of the ideas that are
working within your syntactic structures (The
Real Work 31).
From this it follows that neither blank lines nor
marginal indentations aim at any visual effect, but are only indicative of
pauses and voice/breath emphasis for reading. Unfortunately Snyder does not get
specific on how exactly voice and breath have to be adapted in the case of an
indentation. The "dances of the ideas" can be seen in reference to
Olson’s suggestion in "Projected Verse" that the poet should not
develop his arguments in a logical ascending order but rather jump from image to
image until the individual argument has gained sufficient clarity (Christensen 424).
As a matter of fact, Snyder frequently rushes from image to image without
giving explanations in between. The message conveyed becomes explicit through
the analogy of the images, which resemble each other in tenor. Another part of
"RipRap" should illustrate this point:
Cobble of milky way,
These poems, people,
lost ponies with
and rocky sure-foot trails.
The worlds like an endless
Game of Go. (RipRap & Cold Mountain Poems 30)
The idea of words in a poem
acting like stones in a riprap
is not explained, but gets further illustration by the "straying
planets" in the "Cobble of milky way", the stones of a Japanese
"Game of Go" and the "rocky sure-foot trails".
A further characteristic of most Snyder poems is brevity in several
respects: Snyder has a tendency towards ellipsis, eliminating many words which
provide unimportant information, like grammatical conjunctions. "It’s
like backpacking. I don’t want anything that’s unnecessary" (qtd. in
Steuding 26), he states with regard to his elliptical style. Snyder’s poems
also contain few verbs, which are in most cases used in a participial or
infinitive form, avoiding the necessity of a first person personal pronoun which
often creates an atmosphere of direct first-hand experience for his readers.
Instead, he makes use of more nouns and descriptive adjectives, which serve his
need for natural images.
Talking about Snyder’s images, Bob Steuding states that most of his
images contain concrete visual objects, which are in many cases experienced with
several senses; something which Steuding traces back to the influence of
Oriental poetry, Ezra Pound and William’s Carlos Williams phrase "No
ideas but in things" (Steuding 22). The concentration on concrete objects
is also due to the fact that, as we already know, in Buddhism every object
(living or nonliving) can hold Buddha-nature.
A last recurrent feature of much of Snyder’s poetry, which
deserves close attention is the poems division into a concrete part on the one
hand, and a more abstract one on the other.
In most cases Snyder starts with a description of nature in order to come to
abstract conclusions, which often pertain to spiritual matters or give or
contain ecologically-friendly dictums. Thus, his arguments habitually progress
from the specific to the general. However, the order can also be reverse and
there are also poems where the content of the abstract part does not match the
content of the specific part. Nevertheless, the division into specific and
abstract part is, as we will see, frequent.
A great part of Snyder's poetry does not contain
much critique but focuses on the beauty of nature, frequently describing one of
Snyder’s experiences in the wilderness, but usually without evaluating
comments. A nice example of such a poem (at least the first half of it) is
"By Frazier Creek Falls".
Snyder does not restrict himself on describing the mere visual perception
but also includes the sensation of wind and the sense of hearing (the trees are
"rustling"). The sense of hearing seems to be of particular importance
to Snyder’s experience of nature as he even uses the imperative "listen",
isolating the word by a blank line before and by leaving some space to the
following paragraph and additionally putting a period behind it to emphasize its
ability to stand alone as a sentence. It is not clear whether he tells himself
or the reader to listen but he certainly persuades the recipient to use his
imagination and picture the scene and sounds himself. "Snyder attempts to
immerse readers in the image of nature he portrays so they will not learn from
the poem so much as they will imitate it by gaining direct experience"
believes Patrick Murphy (Understanding GS 119). As a matter of fact, the
poem invites the reader to share Snyder’s experience in his imagination.
The imperative marks a caesura in the poem after which the quality of the
poem changes from uncommented nature observation into a more pensive mood, a
falling into existential reflection. Snyder mentions the "living flowing
land" calling it the only existing thing there is both in space and time.
For Snyder, the land corresponds with nature, and nature is for Snyder, in
contrast to most religious beliefs, the creator of everything in existence. Vice
versa, everything in existence is what nature consists of. By "We are
it" Snyder alludes to the fact that man himself is also a part of nature.
The image of nature singing through living beings corresponds to the idea of
energy circulation and biomass taking on different forms (here songs) but
keeping its energy and stored information in the circle.
The final two lines show the consequences of this idea. The development
of mankind into a modern technology-using civilization is not essential to
nature and -according to Snyder- is not beneficial to mankind either. In his
opinion, leading a simple life like primitive Indian-like people, would be the
most enjoyable, long-lasting (in terms of evolution) and nature-friendly way to
live. The suggestion to live on this Earth without clothes or tools is a result
of this idea.
no direct critique of civilization can be found in "By Frazier Creek
Falls", the poem insinuates a possible disturbance of natural stability
by mankind. . Snyder is aware of the fact that a return to a simple
primitive lifestyle is not going to happen and does also imply by using
"could" instead of "should" or "must" in the last
line that it is not necessary. Nevertheless, Snyder would consider this way of
life the optimum.
"Piute Creek" is one of the earlier poems of Snyder pertaining to his first published volume RipRap and Cold Mountain Poems. As a trail crew laborer in Yosemite National Park in the summer of 1955 Snyder worked the upper reaches of the Piute Creek drainage (Back on the Fire 141). The influence of Buddhism in this early poem is weaker than in his later works, as his years in Japan still lay ahead, but meditation and Buddhist basics were already familiar to him.
The poem describes a moment of unity with nature
which Snyder felt working in Piute Creek Valley caused by the overwhelming
perception of the beauty surrounding him. The speaker starts off telling the
reader what is necessary to experience nature, emphasizing that it need not be
much more then a little part of his natural environment (granite ridge, creek,
bark shred…) to begin meditating on, and thereby become one with nature. He
continues with a very detailed description of Piute Creek Valley widely focusing
on the hills and rocks, a motif drawing through the whole poem. This is typical
of the poems in his first volume because, as a trail crew laborer, rocks and
stones were day-to-day business to Snyder. It does also show that his view of
nature is not limited to living beings but includes the whole planet and also
-as the speaker mentions the moon- the universe.
But perceiving all these things at once -especially the interstellar
observation- can even become too much to behold, as the speaker states in the
next line. The mind starts wandering and the beholder becomes one with nature
and ceases temporarily to be human. By "junk" Snyder means all
knowledge and abilities which have been burdened on modern man by civilization
as he explains in Earth House Hold: "The
practice of meditation, for which one needs only 'the ground beneath one‘s
feet' wipes out mountains of junk being pumped into the mind by the mass media
and supermarket universities" (91). This circumstance gets further
illustration by the metaphorical image of words and books, falling like a little
stream off a ledge, being scattered into the air. In a state of unity with
nature, even the rocks seem to be alive. This new awareness, which Snyder
experiences during meditation equals a breakdown of "the sense of natural
entities as solid, static objects […]. They are seen in their process, their
activity that comprises all of nature as an interactive, dynamic web of energy
transfers" (Murphy, Understanding GS 50). The situation is so
overwhelming for the speaker that even the "present" that is to say
the problems and sorrows which normally bother him in every-day-life cannot
reach his attention.
The first part of stanza two is even more abstract. The first three lines
are very ambiguous because the references of "that" and
"Which" are unclear. The
sentences allow different interpretations, the most convincing of which is a
Buddhist one: the mind, which has been cleared of the human burdens and has
become one with nature, finds its real self and experiences satori, the
breakthrough experience yearned for in Buddhist meditation. Satori equals
a higher stage of perception (see 2.3.3) in which not only the environment but
also the own self is seen as what it really is. It means to find Buddha in one's
self, nothing else. And according to Buddhist tradition, everything in existence
holds Buddha-nature, even the unloved rocks Snyder mentions in the next line.
The speaker has rid himself of all rational thought which is why his mind
"has no meaning" but instead has become clear for a deeper perception:
In the rest of the poem Snyder turns to the dark side of nature. "We
can all say, 'Ah, planet earth biosphere, mother earth, mother wonderful--all
these green plants.' But there's also death, there's also the unknown, there's
also the demonic" (The Real Work 81),
as Snyder admits in an interview. The "demonic" and
"unknown" in this case are represented by "coyote" and
"cougar" which from a hidden point observe the speaker's actions. For
most of the part of the poem, human nature has observed wild nature but now
roles have been interchanged and it is wild nature observing mankind. By the
change of roles, Snyder intends to show that wild nature is nothing inferior but
quite capable of keeping an eye on mankind and reacting appropriately if
"Piute Creek" is a poem which has
meditation as a main theme but uses ecology and nature as means. It is through the environment, the speaker attains a higher
stage of perception and it is nature helping him to enlightenment. Nevertheless,
nature maintains control.
In "Front Lines" Snyder shares some of
the emotional experiences he made working in a logging camp and forests during
his youth in the 1950s. As the poem is found in the collection Turtle Island,
which we know was written between 1969 and 1974 (Murphy, Understanding GS
109), we can conclude that, in this case, Snyder has not written the poem while
observing or participating in the logging, but in retrospect, over fifteen years
at the least later. Besides "Mother Earth: Her Wales" it is one of the
most accusatory of his poems.
title already implies an ongoing combat as the poem's theme but
-as the reader is bound to realize after a few lines-
it pictures an unequal fight. Snyder uses several images and
personifications to create a threatening and uncanny atmosphere. A wide
deer-sheltering part of the forest is being logged. The clearing formed by the
logging is seen as the tumor which is expanding and
threatening the hole body namely the forest. Man's actions are depicted
as an illness, a "cancer" which has spread to nature, sickening the
environment. By "edge of the cancer" Snyder probably means the first
perceivable sign of the illness: the noise produced by the chainsaws and
transport machinery which swells against the hills and occasionally "sinks
back down" again. The sickness hangs in the air as a "foul
breeze". The personified chainsaw growls as if it was a wolf or other
predator threatening the forest, an impression enforced by the use of the word
"gorge" instead of ravine or valley.
But the trees are lucky. After ten days of rain, the log trucks have to
stop -apparently because of the muddy roads- which means nature gets a break. It
gives the trees the opportunity to "breathe" which is meant not only
biologically (converting carbon dioxide into oxygen) but also in the sense of
recovery and relaxation. Just like in "By Frazier Creek Falls" Snyder
does not completely anthropomorphize nature but ascribes typically human
qualities to the trees, giving them a certain kind of personality and thereby
raising their value onto a human level.
But although the trucks have to stop, the "4 wheel jeep" brings
in people who are even worse: people invited from the local "Realty
Company" who are interested in the cleared land and intending to yield
profit from the place. Snyder does not hesitate
from using sexual imagery to express his disgust with these people: The land is
metaphorically told to spread its legs which implies an imminent act of
violation. It is not a woman being raped in this case but the land which will
get abused, stripped of its natural clothing for the profit of capitalists who
do not care about the consequences of their behavior. Snyder is fully aware of
the heavy impact of this metaphor on an American reader of the early 1970s. His
intent is to cause revulsion inside his reader in order to project it onto the
beneficiaries of the deforestation.
In the third stanza a crack of jets is mentioned with the add of this
being "OK". This can be understood sarcastically: with all the noise
and destruction, jet noise hardly makes any difference. In the following, Snyder
uses the image of a fat living being for America, a being which is already sick
because of its affluent way of life. In Snyder's opinion, America has lived
beyond its means and acted far too greedy and egoistic. He deliberately spells
his home country Amerika which the OED states as "American society
viewed as racist, fascist or oppressive, especially by Black consciousness"
("Amerika" 1: 399). In this case the
oppressed minority is not black people, but nature.
In the fourth stanza personified bulldozers grind and slob, and belch
while bushes are portrayed as victims getting skinned up while still alive, a
description alluding to cannibals. At
the end of the stanza Snyder comes to an essential point:
the responsible party. Snyder would never blame the workers who operate
the machines. Having worked in a logging camp himself he is quite aware that a
great number of people just don't have a choice. The person pulling the strings
is a "man from town". Snyder deliberately does not accuse
anybody in particular but prefers a neutral description to show that it is not
even a special person but an anybody who just has the money. As he is from town,
he is a stranger to the place who cannot really identify himself with the
forest, which in Snyder's opinion is the main reason for people's apathy towards
deforestation and the reason why he promotes bioregionalism.
The last stanza is different to the rest of the poem. No further
destruction is portrayed but Snyder addresses the reader and humanity as a whole
not to go any further. In this last stanza it becomes clear why the poem is
called "Front Lines". Behind the line, which was metaphorically drawn
by the "cancer" of human logging, there still is a forest, a forest
"that goes to the Arctic", vibrant and living, and a desert which is
also part of ecology. The poem is set in California's Piute Valley but stands
symbolically for the entire advance of mankind. Snyder requests us not to
transfer the front line further into nature and to stay where we are. He is
convicted that the back pushing of nature has already reached a critical state.
"Here we must draw our line" he states, no matter how big the
financial gain may be.
By contrast, Patrick Murphy assumes that in "Front Lines"
Snyder "reflects not only a general political stance but also a specific
one speaking to the local defense of nature in which he and his neighbors have
been engaged" (Murphy, Understanding GS 115). In the following
Murphy adduces that the Tahoe National Forest, which is situated next to
Snyder's Californian area, had been damaged in that time by gold mining and
deforestation which, according to Murphy, seemed to have a tremendous influence
on the poem. Snyder could have been afraid of the front line being shifted to
California, to the area he grew up in and the nature which he appreciated so
much. Nevertheless, a more general reading of the poem remains possible.
"Front Lines" Snyder uses very strong imagery to express his protest
against the exploitation of nature. This can also be considered a proof that
deforestation is one of mankind's ecological misdemeanors he is most angry
about. Apart from the negative portrayal of logging procedures, Snyder also
calls on his readers to "draw a line" which means to take action
against future deforestation.
Snyder starts in medias res by telling of the
cut-down of groves indicating right at the beginning what the poem is about. As
Christine Grewe-Volpp has pointed out, pre-civilized peoples who believed that
plants and animals had souls (animism) used to worship their nature gods, e.g.
"Cybele" in "groves" and the "cut down" of these
sacred groves by civilized people equals the destruction of an animistic view on
nature and of primitive archaic culture. "Pine of Seami" alludes to
the logging of pine trees for the Japanese Nō-Theatre whose best-known
dramatist in the 14th /15th century was Zeami Motokiyo
whereas "Cedar of Haida" refers
to the clearance of cedar forests by civilized man, taking away the habitat of
the Haida Indian tribes (Grewe-Volpp 116). Snyder mixes these examples of
destructiveness of civilization to show that such incidents do not only happen
today but can be found throughout history and are not limited to any particular
location. As culprits he names the advanced cultures of ancient Rome and ancient
Greece by which he implies that no matter which form civilization has taken in history, it
has always had a destructive potential. By including the "prophets of
Israel" in this list, Snyder's doubts about Christianity are revealed which
will be of further importance in the course of the poem.
Snyder then turns back to the modern world. Space for the suburbs is
needed and the trees have to vanish. The forestry company’s name is
"Luther and Weyerhaeuser" which can be interpreted as another ironic
side blow on Christianity. Snyder’s great knowledge of the business due to his
summer job as a logger can be sensed in the details he gives about tools
(chainsaw, crosscut, cat-skid) and
workers (finns, squareheads). In the last two lines of the first stanza Snyder
describes the result of the logging process. He skillfully puts seven
monosyllabic words in a row, first making three noun-adjective combinations of
the structure natural object ("trees, creeks, trout") and negative
adjective ("down, choke, killed") and lets the row and the whole
stanza end with the single word "roads". The monosyllabic words give
the reader an idea of how little the time spans between the single stages of
development are. The contrast of
the single word "roads" to the preceding combinations signalizes a
change: there’s no nature left which could be affected but only
In stanza two Snyder enforces his critique of Christianity to a level
which could be described as blasphemous and highly provocative. Sawmills are
portrayed as "temples" to worship "Jehova", the formerly
used first name of God. The previously logged trees are incinerated in
"squat black burners" which refers to the fact that by-products of
timber production are frequently burned in order to gain energy. The tree’s
"leaf" and "live sap", deliberately spelled with a v as in alive or
living, are transformed into smoke which rises up to heaven where Jehova is
eagerly waiting to sniff it. The image is very strong and offensive, and also
evokes the idea of a biological Holocaust in the reader. It reveals a strong
aversion of Snyder against Christian and Judaist tradition. According to the image God himself or at least
misguided faith in outdated notions of God are responsible for ecological
exploitation. It demonstrates Snyder’s opposition to the creation account's
assignment to subdue the earth which is due to Snyder’s belief in equality of
all living beings and living in harmony with the natural world.
In "The groves are down…" Snyder's
critique of modern civilization is not only of ecological nature but also
concentrates on religion. The Christian faith which is distinctly different from
Buddhist believes is portrayed as evil and destructive.
What Snyder resents concerning Christianity is the fact that it considers
man higher than nature thereby delivering justification for ecologically harmful
behavior. On the other hand Snyder does not forget that former civilizations
like Romans and Greeks whose religious believes were not at all Christian were
not much better.
Poem "Mother Earth: Her Whales" is one of the longest poems in
Snyder's volume Turtle Island and
is probably the piece containing the most biting criticism in Snyder's lyrical
work. It covers a variety of topics and is also one of the most controversial
poems among critics as far as its quality is concerned.
poem is related to Snyder's experiences at the United Nations Conference on the
Human Environment which Snyder attended in Stockholm in 1972. This is why the
critique in the poem addresses different nations. He wrote the poem about a
month after the conference and had it published in the New York Times on July
13th. In a foreword to the poem, Snyder complained that "everyone came to
Stockholm not to give but rather to take, not to save the planet but to argue
about how to divide it up..." (Murphy, Understanding GS 120) which
apparently prompted Snyder to turn his experience into a poem.
In spite of his anger about the outcome of the conference, Snyder does
not neglect nature and its reverence in the poem. "Mother Earth: Her
Whales" is an amalgam of descriptions of nature's beauty and indictments of
man's ecological harm. For great parts of the poem, Snyder chose a dialectical
approach where he first depicts nature's sublimity and afterwards its
destruction by which he hopes to increase the intensity of disgust of his
readers for civilization's acting and furthermore shows that it is worthwhile to
fight for environmental protection.
In the first two stanzas Snyder depicts nature ("owl, lizard,
sparrow") without human influence. The sun is considered as the basis of
all life providing the energy for
the plant's photosynthesis at the lower end of the food chain and thereby
indirectly growing man's meat. Murphy's assumption, the whole second stanza
might "consist[s] of a reverential chant that could serve as a grace
before meals" sounds plausible as the verbs ("turn" and
"grow") seem to be imperatives, but his assumption that the chant was
spoken by one of the animals mentioned in the first stanza (Understanding GS
121) is arguably too far-fetched as
there is no real connection between the stanzas. However, the beauty and
stability of nature build the centre of attention in the first two stanzas
before in stanza three Snyder's
critique starts off.
Snyder brands Brazil's "sovereign use of Natural Resources" as
what it really is: just a euphemism for further exploitation of the land. He
calls the unknown plants the "living actual people of the jungle" who
get sold and tortured for financial gain in the name of the state of Brazil.
Brazil itself is only a "delusion" to Snyder because as we know he
finds all national and international borders, to be "arbitrary and
inaccurate impositions on what is really here" (Turtle Island 1).
The robot in a suit stands as a metaphor for the power-thirsty bureaucrat
longing for profit without any interest in ecological matters. Snyder denies
such people the right to make decisions that affect nature.
In stanza four and five, Snyder turns to another ecological misdemeanor:
whale hunting in Japan. He tackles
the topic similarly to the first two stanzas: First
the beauty and sublimity of these animals are described, focusing on the
elegance of the movements of the heavy creatures, just to end in harsh criticism
of Japanese whaling in the following. As in many poems, Snyder makes use of
comparisons with elements in outer space: whales are compared to "breathing
planets" floating in space. Everything seems to be in flux in this stanza
as the whales plunge and rise in the water. The light which comes down from the
water surface is described as "living", a further allusion to the
energy and life-giving function of the sun. The whales seem to be of great
importance to Snyder which can be seen by Snyder’s indention of the whole
stanza which corresponds to special voice and breath emphasis in comparison to
the others. Snyder attacks Japan for killing the whales for doubtful reasons.
Snyder holds a special grudge against the "once-great Buddhist nation"
as he had expected better from the representatives of the country which he knows
so well. He continues by reproaching Japan unscrupulous pollution of the sea,
using a strong image as he compares Japan's dribbling of methyl mercury into the
sea to gonorrhea dripping from sexual organs.
Snyder's next adversary in stanza five is China. Here Snyder's anger
focuses on events that date back more than 2000 years which shows that the
exploitation of natural resources is not only a contemporary 20th century
problem but had started a long time ago. In "The Wilderness" he
writes: "... the root of the environmental crisis [...] is not recent; it
is very ancient; it has been building up for a millennium" (Turtle
Island 106). He criticizes the
logging of "tule marshes" at the Yellow River to grow rice, which
destroyed the habitat of the "Père David's Deer" also known as the
Snyder is critical of man’s changing the natural set-up for own convenience
without considering the consequences for flora and fauna. To enforce his
reproach he adds the example of erosive devastations caused by the logging of
the Chinese forest of Lo-Yang in 1200 AD.
In stanza six Snyder continues writing about China but turns to nature
again, describing "Wild Geese" flying from Siberia to China as they
have done for millions of years. It is the stable equilibrium nature established
which Snyder admires and the fact that it works out for such a long time if
nobody intervenes. Snyder puts "China" in inverted commas to stress
that the geese as a representative of nature do not care about its name or its
political borders but use their flyways as they've always done. In middle of the
stanza Snyder denounces the deprivation of wild animals ("tigers,
wild boars, monkeys") of their natural habitat for the building of
parking spaces. At the end Snyder asks a crucial question: whether man has the
highest value of all things in existence. Taking into account what we know about
Snyder's attitude towards civilized man one would expect a negative answer and a
lowering of the human value to the level of all living beings. Instead, Snyder
goes the other way around by comprising all "fading living beings" as
brothers of man and subsequently raising their value.
From the next stanza on the atmosphere of the poem changes and gets a
rebellious and aggressive character. Snyder starts off with his idea of modern
Americans only being invaders of "Turtle Island", the original
population of which were plants, animals and the American Indians. It is also
plants and animals who Snyder addresses in the seventh stanza requesting them to
rise in rebellion and to drive out the invaders, namely Western civilization or
as Snyder calls it "the robot nations".
For the second time in the poem Snyder uses the image of a robot for
mankind to portray the loss of humanity and the machine-like behavior modern man
frequently shows by just functioning in modern society. Of course, Snyder's
appeal to the animals and plants of North-America is only meant symbolically. He
thereby expresses his protest against man's dealing with nature. Snyder hopes to
sensitize his readers for the rights of the nonhuman.
In the following stanza, Snyder calls for "solidarity" among
the "people". Here native American influence on him becomes obvious.
Snyder applies the term "people" to speak of nonhuman beings alluding
to Indian thought that all living beings have souls. Contrary to the common
classification into species, Snyder compromises all under the term
"people" differentiating only by their habitat and number of legs.
If one was to criticize Mother Earth: Her Whales for being too direct and
little poetic, this would not apply to the
last five stanzas which are a proof of Snyder's enormous creative potential. The
tenth stanza consists of a very catchy rhythmic pattern, enumerating similar
word-structures ("power-hungry, head-heavy, paper-shuffling / two-world,
third-world"), using alliterations ("how can the head-heavy power
hungry politic..."), words with identical stems ("Capitalist,
Imperialist, Communist") and anaphoras ("Speak for the green...? Speak
for the soil?") which gives the people's descriptions a
very mechanic and nervous sound. As
for the content, this stanza attacks all governments which attended the United
Nations Conference in Stockholm, who tried to "speak for the green of the
leaf" but who in Snyder's eyes neither were able nor authorized
to do so. The descriptions he uses for the participants such as
"power-hungry, paper-shuffling, non-farmer, jet set" or
"bureaucrats" mirror Snyder's disappointment and annoyance with their
behavior and little willingness to make concessions to the benefit of ecology.
The stanza is followed by a one-line interjection in brackets which means
that its content does not have much in
common with the rest of the poem and
indeed, the allusion to Margaret Mead's book Coming of Age in Samoa
does not seem to have much connection to neither the preceding nor the
succeeding stanza. It can be seen as a yearning for a life among primitive
people like the one Mead experienced where one does not have to deal with
ignorant nationalists to whom Snyder comes back after the insertion in the
Snyder's anger now culminates in very strong metaphorical images
describing the behavior of the participating nations: Not only does he take up
the robot metaphor again but the representatives are depicted as vultures dividing up a still alive carrion which is of course very
provocative. He continues by
inserting the old English ballad "The Three Ravens" in which three
ravens are plucking out the eyes of "a slain knight". According to
Patrick D. Murphy this allegory "implies that no honor and no respect for
others exist among the representatives of civilization" (122). In fact, the
slain knight symbolizes the earth which is plundered by the different nations
which are symbolized by the ravens.
Nevertheless Snyder sees hope as he turns back to nature
in the last stanza which represents a mixture of the first and the fourth,
connecting owl and lizard with the whales which seems to assert the unity of
nature. It seems that in spite of all harmful influence of mankind depicted in
the poem, Snyder did not want it to end critically but with the beauty of nature
thereby implying that nature deserved better.
is hard to pass a final judgment on "Mother Earth: Her Whales" as it
contains so many different elements. Snyder's critique is less implicit in his
poem than in most of his other works. For
the most part he does not trouble to couch his anger into allusive images but
attacks his opponents in a direct manner which might be the reason why the poem
has not exclusively received positive criticism. Nevertheless, "Mother
Earth: Her Whales" is an outstanding example for Snyder's will to fight for
his ecological convictions both by attending the UN Conference on the
Environment and by writing about it.
half of "LMFBR" has become obsolete today as the nuclear Liquid
Metal Fast Breeder Reactor, which Snyder tried to
warn of in this poem, has never been implemented in any commercial nuclear power
plant due to uneconomical cost-effectiveness, Snyder did not fail to include his
most furious sign of protest against nuclear power in his best-of-anthology The
Gary Snyder Reader in 1998. This is indicative for his holding on reluctance
against this form of energy production, but also pays tribute to the second half
of the poem which deals with an ever-present environmental problem: garbage
the early 1970s when Snyder wrote this poem, public discussion about nuclear
power plants was still on the rise. The Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor was
the latest technical innovation in nuclear technology at that point of time and
looked set to replace older reactor types. The crucial thing about this reactor
is that more fissionable material is produced (bred) than consumed by the
generator ("breeder reactor" 2: 495),
which at first glance seems of advantage, but also increases the devastation in
the case of a nuclear accident. The idea of a nuclear disaster must have
encouraged Snyder to take up a hard-line stance on the matter in this poem.
The poem is divided into two sections, one for each subject. As a title,
Snyder uses an abbreviation which pertains to the technical jargon of nuclear
energy production, an acronym which must have been unknown to most of Snyder's
readership at that point of time. The effect is simple: Besides arousing the
reader's interest, it is symbolic of the unknown and danger such a reactor comes
along with in Snyder's eyes. People neither know the meaning of the abbreviation
(which Snyder explains in the second line), nor do laymen understand the
processes taking place in such reactors, which makes it difficult to assess its
possible risk for the immediate environment.
Furthermore, it is no coincidence that the first word of the poem is
"death", which makes a fairly heavy start and clearly shows Snyder's
negative opinion on nuclear power plants. In order to give a good impression of
the danger arising from such technology, Snyder makes use of a strong negative
metaphorical image: The reactor is personified as death himself, who is
"grinning" as if he was laughing at mankind, an image which is
underlined by the "Plutonium tooth-glow". The personified deathlike
reactor stands there with a "scythe", "beckoning" in order
to seduce mankind and to bring ruin, not only to man, but to the whole world.
The image, Snyder uses here is the "Grim Reaper" which in modern-day
European-based folklore is a well-known "iconographic
portrayal of death wielding a scythe" ("Reaper" 13: 282).
In the seventh line, Snyder changes cultures but not his statement.
The Hindu deity Kālī, goddess of death and destruction, dances
on the body of the reactor because of her victory over mankind. She is normally
described as a "hideous four-armed emaciated woman with fang-like teeth who
devours all beings" (Stutley 137), holding a noose, a skull-topped staff, a
sword and a severed human head in her hands. By using both a Western
mythological image and a Hindu one, Snyder shows his respect for each culture,
whereas his intention behind the images is the same: the gain of nuclear energy
by means of these reactors is fatal and deadly. The stiff cock she is dancing on
actually represents a symbol of fertility, but as it is dead, it has lost its
life-giving function. Nuclear power plants are a menace to all life and mankind
should get rid of them is the simple but convincing message. In "Four
Changes" Snyder writes on the topic:
happens, we must not go into a plutonium-based economy. If the concept of a
steady state economy can be grasped and started in practice by say, 1980, we may
be able to dodge the blind leap into the liquid metal fast breeder reactor [...]
a path once entered, hard to turn back.
(Turtle Island 91)
But in the second part of "LMFBR", Snyder also denounces
another subject which he does not approve of: human mass production of inorganic
packaging, like aluminum, plastic and PVC. He attacks the artificial inorganic
waste people produce for their convenience, but without considering the
long-term consequences for nature. "Aluminum beer cans, plastic spoons, PVC
pipe" etc. are unnatural and
can neither be composted nor burnt without leaving toxic remains. None of these
materials are biodegradable, which means that the world has to cope with a daily
increasing amount of it. To emphasize the mass of these materials produced by
mankind and the fact that they do not fit into biological cycles, and therefore
remain left-over, Snyder uses the image of a flood of garbage, burying both
human and nonhuman nature underneath.
At the end of the poem, Snyder has worked in another image from Hinduism:
the Kālī-yūga which is
"the fourth age of the world in Hindu mythology, the last and worst, in
which we are now living. […] At the end of the age the world is
dissolved…" (Parrinder 149). Waste and litter are metaphorically
portrayed as the "robes and garbs" of this age which is just another
image for the flood of garbage Snyder mentioned above.
At first glance, the combination of nuclear energy and public waste in
"LMFBR" appears to be bizarre as the two subjects do not seem to have
much in common. It is mainly the last line which completes the image and makes
the poem appear as a whole. "End of days" marks "LMFBR" as
Snyder's idea of ecological apocalypse. He portrays the end of the world as we
know it. In this new age, death (in the shape of a nuclear reactor) reigns, the
goddess of destruction dances on nuclear reactors and life has been drowned in a
flood of refuse. Mankind has finally destructed itself.
One could certainly argue that Snyder has a
tendency to exaggerate in this matter. It's unlikely that Snyder really fears
the complete destruction of the world by hazardous incidents in nuclear power
plants or tipping. Snyder has most probably chosen these strong images to
enforce his protest against the society's careless treatment of its environment
and has chosen only two of the many ecological threats to the world caused by
The last poem of the volume Regarding Wave
deals with Snyder's ecological adaptation of Marxist ideas to illustrate his
plea for a change in the relationship between civilization and nature.
The title is a play on either the Trotskyst slogan
of permanent revolution or an allusion to Regis Débray's guerilla warfare
manual Revolution in the Revolution. The reference of the title is of
marginal importance; the crucial thing is that Snyder adds a third
"Revolution" not only to create a play on words but to point out that
a new overthrow of the present situation is needed.
The first stanza introduces the second by simply drawing the attention to
the fact that apart from the dwellings of civilization (cities) and the land
which surrounds it -which is domesticated by them to grow their food and serve
other human needs (country)- there's the "backcountry" which is
synonymous for the unknown, the wild, for nature and also the primitive. The
backcountry's surrounding everything else is significant for wild nature being
of an immense dimension compared to human habitats. In the second stanza Snyder
seems to have included a kind of quotation, the origin of which is unclear. The
phrase tells about two sorts of "masses" which somehow relate to each
other but whose relation remains indistinct due to the omission of the verb.
Whereas Murphy dodges the problem by simply not discussing the sentence, Charles
Molesworth sees this quotation as a key phrase of the poem and delivers two
possible interpretations (86): The first is to see the masses of nature serving
the human masses or in other words the human masses making use of nature. The
second interpretation he offers is to consider the "from…to…"
construction as an act of transfer: the old most exploited class (the
workers) passes its values and principles on to the new most exploited
class (the natural realm). A third interpretation Molesworth fails to see would
simply be to read "from the masses to the masses" as a variation of among
all masses which is just as plausible as the two other solutions.
Molesworth's view of this phrase being the key to the poem is doubtful as the
key sentence is still to come: The most exploited class is no longer the
workers, but the nonhuman natural world, namely "Animals, trees, water,
air, grasses", which has substituted the former working class of the
Snyder continues transforming communist creeds in the third stanza. The
dictatorship of the proletariat, arguably the most frequently cited phrase to
sum up what communism is all about, is changed into the "Dictatorship of
the Unconscious" which refers to Buddhism and the wilderness. The power to
fully understand nature, to become one with it lies within every man's
unconscious mind. According to Snyder, meditation and poetry are ways to reach
it, to see one's own involvement in nature and to live in harmony with it
instead of against it. In the next line, political and
ecological terms are combined in the metaphor of withering states. As we
have mentioned in 2.4.2, Snyder supports a bioregional concept of civilization
which renders political borders redundant as natural characteristics of the
landscape define the limits of a bioregion. The image of a withering flower is
used to express that by accepting and participating in a natural way of life,
political civilization-made conventions would crumble as they would become
obsolete. In addition, the combination of the political word "state"
and the nature-pertaining word "withering" mirrors the fact that by a
return to natural rules it is nature that does the politics: in a way human
politics gets "ecologized". At the end of the stanza, Snyder put the
goal of this concept: "true Communionism", an expression blending the
words communism and (comm)union.
This new word coined by Snyder unites both communist ideas (equality, no
suppression of the weak, absence of elite…) and Snyder's ecological vision of
a new community which integrates nature.
The following three stanzas are as Molesworth calls it "a serious of
would-be syllogisms" (87) paralleling each other in order to provide
further exemplification of "true Communionism". In the first
syllogism, communist thought is illustrated: the capitalists as the exploiters,
the workers as the exploited and the party which helps the exploited: the
communists. The structure of the remaining two syllogisms is exactly the same,
only changing the protagonists. Snyder lowers the line formerly drawn at the
exploitation of the working class to the level of all natural beings, seeing
civilization as the exploiter, nature as the exploited and the poets as help for
nature as they are its advocate, which meets Snyder's view of the poet being a
natural spokesman. The third syllogism is of a more abstract nature, refers to
Buddhism and illustrates what Snyder meant by "Dictatorship of the
Unconscious". The "abstract rational intellect" is seen as the
exploiter as it oppresses the "unconscious" which is the exploited
class. Help is offered by the "yogin",
or in other words Buddhism, through which the rule of the "rational
intellect" can be ended and original mind can be found.
The last stanza can be seen as a supplement or postscript of the previous
stanza and goes deeper into meditational practice. As we already know, in order
to reach satori and thereby a higher stage of perception, the abstract
rational intellect, or in other words human thought, has to be left aside. A
Buddhist method to avoid thinking is to repeatedly recite mantras: little
phrases of short words containing Buddhist dictums (Parrinder,
"Mantra" 176). Snyder pictures the syllables of the words as seeds
which metaphorically help to grow the satori.
in the Revolution in the Revolution" is one of Snyder's many ways to
express his idea of a new relationship between mankind and nature, skillfully
mixing political and Buddhist thought. A solution to the ecological crisis the
planet is facing cannot be provided by politics, but has to come out of a new
sense of community with nature. Buddhism and poetry are depicted as a medium or
method to reach this new state of mind.
A nice poem uniting both criticism and depiction of nature's beauty is "Civilization" the very last poem in the volume Regarding Wave.
the title already indicates the poem is about "civilization", an
expression which, as Snyder continues in the first line, is in his opinion a
collective term describing people doing "complicated things". This
might be seen in opposition to primitive people or Buddhists whose life is far
simpler and easy going but more enjoyable. By "they'll grab us by the
thousands…" Snyder emphasizes that it is not the people who decide to go
to work, but who are forced to go to work by civilization. The majority of
civilized people have to do jobs for a living which, without the necessities of
modern life such as money or prestige, they would not normally do. Society
imposes work on them and thereby limits their freedom.
The next two lines are slightly ambiguous and can be interpreted in
different ways. Snyder says that the world is being destroyed but it remains
uncertain whether the villages and trails go "to hell" because they
are part of the world, or whether they are responsible for the world's coming
apart. At a first glance, the second option fits Snyder's ecological attitude
better as "trails" could be understood as railways and the dwellings
of people cause much ecological harm to nature. However, the question arises why
Snyder has chosen the word villages and not towns or cities as he
usually does. Villages and trails are expressions also related to Indian tribes
which make an alternative interpretation possible, namely the suffering of
Indians from ecological damage that modern civilization inflicts.
Snyder continues by giving examples of victims. The change of "wild
duck flocks" and the rare occurrence of aurochs stand symbolically for a
receding natural world backing away from human threats. The first stanza ends by
the request to return to a simpler way of life, the primitive or Indian way
which is symbolized by the "feathers and amber" which are Indian
It is typical of Snyder to digress from the first stanza's topic in the
second one, replacing critique with observation of the beauty of nature. In this
case, nature has found its way into the human world: a cricket is described
sitting on one of the speaker's papers grooming itself. By using the word
"himself" instead of "itself" Snyder equips the insect with
personality which corresponds to his view of animals and trees as his brothers
and sisters in the natural world. The personalization is even emphasized in the
next two lines: A piece of music
from Johan Sebastian Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier is playing and it
appears to the speaker that the insect moves in time to the beat. The image
exemplifies a possible accord of biology represented by the hopper, and human
culture represented by Bach's music. As the poem tells in the next line, the
speaker had been typing when he first saw the cricket and stopped typing just to
take a look at it with a magnifying glass for better observation of its
elegance. It is the articulation of the insect which the speaker finds "neat". It is unlikely that Snyder uses the term
"articulated" metaphorically for the chirping of the insect as it
could hardly be heard while the piece of music is on. It seems more probable
that Snyder uses the word in its technical sense, meaning "jointed, having
segments united by joints" ("articulated" 1: 665) which
designates the fine and precise arrangement of the insect's limbs.
This indicates Snyder's opinion of biology as being far more complex than human
technology (see 2.4.3). Yet at the end of the stanza the speaker has to realize
that most people do not see the beauty of the hopper and cannot understand the
animal kingdom. Apart from the title, "ANIMAL KINGDOM" is the only
expression capitalized in the poem which stresses Snyder's affection for the
fauna but also establishes an opposition to the title "CIVILIZATION".
In fact, "CIVILIZATION" might not even be considered as the title but
rather as only the topic of the first stanza, whereas animal kingdom summarizes
the content of the second stanza. This view is supported by the little match
stick man-like symbols Snyder inserted between the stanzas but also above the
The origin or significance of the symbols is not given by Snyder and remains
unclear, but the fact that the first symbol is arranged above the title gives
rise to the suspicion that the first stanza and the title are supposed to form a
The third stanza is by far the most difficult one and there seems to be
hardly any relation to the other stanzas at all. Snyder talks about creeks and
their differing water levels and makes use of these images to talk about the
right time to write poetry. According to Snyder's imagery, poems are written
when the "creeks are full" but physical work such as heaping stones is
done "when creeks are down". It is hard to say whether Snyder means
real creeks in which he finds poetical inspiration, or uses creeks as a metaphor
for ideas, as a stream of creativity so to say. The ambiguity of the words is
probably deliberate. One thing is clear: poetry as well as real work have their
right time and are not done simultaneously. Even heaping stones is a work which
has to be done and, at this moment, is the most important thing in the world.
The same applies to poetry. There are times when poetry is more needed and times
when it is less needed. It is the poet who realizes when the time has come to
write a new poem, it is him, who acts as the shaman or warning system.
is surely one of the Snyder's best and most convincing poems as it contains all
elements that are important to Snyder: criticism of modern civilization,
appreciation of nature and the poet and his poems as the intermediating element.
Each of these elements has its own section in the poem. The first two stanzas
seem to work against each other, but the third reconciles nature and
If one poem was to be found in Snyder's work which summed up most aspects of his ecological consciousness, "For All" would certainly be the best-suited as it contains a majority of buzzwords which are of importance to Snyder. The poem is part of one of his later volumes Axe Handles (1983) which mainly focuses on family and community. However, in the closing poem of the volume, Snyder could not help but return to the celebration of nature.
The title is highly
ambiguous. "All" could
mean 'all the people' which would equal Snyder’s dedication of the poem to
everybody or "all" could simply mean 'everything'
which would refer to the named elements in the poem or mere existence itself.
In the first two stanzas, Snyder just praises the simple fact of being
alive and being able to delight in nature. Snyder tells of an autumn morning in
the Rocky Mountains and uses his usual impersonal form avoiding a first person
narrator and thereby making the reader feel as if it were himself reminiscing on
this particular day. Snyder depicts an almost romantic scene of an early morning
crossing of a little creek and does not fail to include his typical minute
nature details such as "the ice in the shallows" or the
"stones" on the riverbed. The experience is portrayed with use of all
kinds of sensations including seeing ("shimmer"), hearing ("rustle"), smelling
("smell") and tactile sensation ("stones turn underfoot").
In the second stanza, Snyder tells of an inner experience provoked by the
perception of nature, a kind of singing which can be interpreted either as
simple joy or shamanistic interaction with nature. At the end of the second
stanza, Snyder uses a synesthetic
image combining sun and smell to emphasize the uniqueness of every natural
experience. The reader cannot really make head nor tail of the "smell of
sun on gravel", but context and the arousal of curiosity provide the
expression with a positive connotation.
After the second stanza, Snyder’s illustration of his natural
experience is over and he turns to an abstract pledge of allegiance to nature,
or rather to the components nature consists of in his opinion. He pledges
allegiance to "Turtle Island" instead of America which implies a
native American view of the country, that is to say native in the sense of
considering the land as your own, knowing its characteristics such as plants,
animals etc. and what is most important, caring about it. Allegiance is pledged
"to the soil" and "the beings" and the ecosystem, which
refers to Snyder's approval of bioregionalism. Snyder also names the diversity
of the species as well as the sun as the energy-providing source of all life. At
the end he mentions the most important characteristic of nature: the
interdependence of all beings. He comments this Buddhism-deriving principle as
with all elements being interdependent on one another, mutual harm is prevented,
mutual benefit encouraged and all beings can enjoy their existence. At the very
end of the poem, Snyder finally comes back to the title, which also constitutes
the last two words. The ambiguity of the title has vanished by now as the
context does only allow one conclusion: "for all" is not
meant as a dedication but means 'for everything' (in nature) thereby underlining
again the natural principle of interdependence.
As a whole, "For All" is once more a sign
for Snyder’s deep veneration for nature and ecology. The first part of the
poem portrays the beauty of nature and why it is wonderful to be alive; the
second part holds main parts of Snyder's ecological consciousness. The
expression "for all" builds a circle around the rest of the poem as it
marks the beginning and end and makes the poem which Snyder considers nature to
be: a meaningful whole.
Before his latest poetry volume Danger on Peaks appeared in 2004, Gary Snyder had not published any new poems in 20 years. In his latest poetry volume Snyder deals for the most part with topics such as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center or the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha-statues. However, his latest volume does still contain poems of ecological matter such as "Loose on Earth".
so often in Snyder’s poems, the title is ambiguous. The word "loose"
holds a variety of meanings, the most plausible of which seem to be
either ‘free’ or ‘uncontrolled’. Whereas
stanzas four, five and six of the poem are of sufficient clarity, the first
three stanzas remain rather obscure and pose a challenge to the reader. To see
the "tiny spark […]creeping toward where ergs held close" as a
non-metaphorical image for i.e. the delayed firing of explosives in order to
reach the natural resources mentioned in stanza two would make little sense as
access to "petrol, saltpetre" and "mine gas" is not gained
by blasting, due to their flammability. The only solution to the problem is to
consider the glow in the first stanza a metaphor, e.g. a metaphor for civilized
people who in human development have always been after places "where ergs
[are] held close" which refers to the minerals mentioned in stanza two.
Civilized mankind strives for energy which is contained in fossil fuels.
three stands out of the poem as its relation to the other stanzas is unclear. By
"hard words, dark mood" and "shame" Snyder might be alluding
to the conflicts and fights which crop up in the competition for fossil fuels
and the hatred which is frequently stirred up by it between entire peoples.
In Stanza four Snyder refers to Robinson Jeffers, who -as is told in the
following stanza- was of the opinion that "humanity […] is like a quick
explosion", a comparison which corresponds to the imagery used in the first
stanza. It is here that the real meaning of the title is clarified.
"Looses" is not meant as ‘free’ or ‘uncontrolled’ in this case
but as ‘let somebody loose on something’. The imagery can be explained as
follows: Humanity -or in Snyder’s case rather civilized humanity- is seen as a
glow of a fuse. It develops slowly but surely and with the help of fossil fuels
(transportation, factories,…) it explodes and spreads all over the planet.
Snyder reckons the time for humanity to remain on earth to be "half
a million years" after which mankind will have destroyed itself which is
why the last stanza lacks any reference to humanity. In this last stanza, nature
has taken over again, clears the world of man’s traces with the help of time.
At the very end , the planet finally regains ecological stability.
"Loose on Earth", civilized mankind is only considered a temporary
problem of the planet which will take care of itself by self-destruction. The
explosive spread depicted in the poem can also be understood as an allusion to
the excess of population on the earth in the last decades. The overpopulation
the earth faces in the upcoming century is a phenomenon Snyder has already
warned of in his essay "Four Changes": "There are now too many
human beings and the problem is growing rapidly worse. It is potentially
disastrous not only for the human race but for most other life forms" (Turtle
Island 92). Yet giving up on humanity would be untypical of Snyder. The poem
should not be understood as a prediction but rather a warning not to let
Jeffers's prophecy be fulfilled. What Snyder points out in the poem is that if
humanity cannot get to grips with its spreading, it will wipe itself off the
As we have seen, Gary Snyder
has included a multitude of ecological matters into his poetry. His range varies
from plain natural description, to the concrete denunciation of extensive
deforestation, whaling, strip-mining, species-extinction, pollution and nuclear
energy, to more general discussions about how civilized mankind would have to
change its attitude towards ecology, not only to prevent an environmental
crisis, but also to avert its own self-destruction.
The uniqueness of Snyder’s poetry is founded on his mix of motives
which he takes from different sources: Hindu deities, Buddhist spirituality, the
Indian view of nature, ecological theories like the Gaia Hypothesis, energy
circulation and biomass, but also the communist manifesto, Old English ballads
and historical facts are artfully crafted into his poems and make them –
together with Snyder’s distinctive poetical style of building his lines – a
brilliant unmistakable proof of Snyder’s creative potential.
However, Snyder’s ecological melting pot attitude and his manner of
expressing it in his poetry is far from being flawless and some serious critique
does seem appropriate. Especially Snyder’s references to Buddhism (satori,
interpenetration, mantras…) and other oriental forms of spirituality require
plenty of background knowledge to be fully understood, background knowledge
which the majority of his readership probably does not have. If Snyder’s
definition of poetry’s purpose was that poetry is an art form, which does not
need to be understood by all people because this is not what a poem is made for,
the esotericism of his poems would not pose any problems. However, Snyder
considers himself a mediator between nature and civilization and he ought to
assure his poems cannot only be understood by a minor group of experts, but by
all of his readers, especially if he wanted to provoke a change in their
mentality. On the other hand, he has also stated his arguments more clearly in
his prose essays and if his poetry was entirely understandable at first glance
it would certainly risk losing a part of its appeal. Nevertheless Snyder would
have done well to disentangle some of his images, particularly in poems where he
aims to cause a change in the reader’s attitude.
As a second point of criticism, one could see the fact that Snyder tries
to provide solutions to the ecological crisis the earth and its residents face,
but stays vague in how to achieve them. Eberhard Kreutzer has a point
when he criticizes that Snyder fails to mention how exactly the
revolution of our modern society is supposed to happen, how people could be
lured away from technologies already invented, and how millions of people in
urban centers should be reeducated and transform a mostly urban country into
agrarian bioregions (351). Gary Snyder will have to put up with the allegation
of being an unrealistic visionary, who lacks any sense of what is achievable. On
the other hand, one could argue that all serious change has its origin in a
vision and that the visionary first has to convince as many people as possible
of his idea being the right way before he can work it out in minute detail. In
any case, Gary Snyder has tried to go further than other poets and risen above
the stage of plain lament.
As Gary Snyder had not
published any new poetry for over twenty years until 2004, and his latest
collection Danger on Peaks turns, for
the most part, to more recent problems and contains only little ecological
critique, the question arises whether Gary Snyder has abandoned his ecological
stance. Mainly three arguments speak against this assumption:
Firstly, the ecology and ecological critique are little but are still
there. Apart from the already analyzed poem "Loose on Earth", Snyder
has also included "Atomic Dawn" (see 2.4.3) and the volume contains
many poems descriptive of nature as well. Secondly, Snyder published the
collection of essays A Place in Space
in 1995, in which he included a "Postscript" to his early but most
accusatory essay "Four Changes"
from 1969, in which he writes:
it’s 1995 and a quarter century has elapsed. The apprehension we felt in 1969
has not abated. It would be a fine thing to be able to say, "We were wrong.
The natural world is no longer as threatened as we said then. Many of the larger
mammals face extinction and all manner of species are endangered. Natural
habitat is fragmented ("raw") and then destroyed
("developed"). The world’s forests are being relentlessly logged by
multinational corporations. Air, water and soil are all in worse shape.[…]
Naive and utopian as some of it sounds now, I still stand by the basics of
"Four Changes." (A Place in Space 45/46)
Snyder also included this "Postscript"
into his anthology No Nature in 1999,
which is proof that Snyder has not given up on ecological matters in the early
1980s. And thirdly, Snyder published a new collection of Essays called Back
on the Fire in 2007 where he included an essay called "Writers and the
War against Nature" in which he states that "What is happening now to
nature worldwide, to plant life and wildlife, in ocean, grassland, forest,
savannah, and desert in all spaces and habitat can be likened to a war against
nature" (62). As one can conclude from this sentence, Gary Snyder's
campaign for ecology is not stopped. His diction seems even harsher than before.
If Gary Snyder is to publish another collection of poetry -he is in his late
seventies-, Turtle Island might even be left behind in its severance.
A Place in Space. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1995.
San Francisco: North Point, 1983.
Back on the Fire: Essays. Emeryville,
CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007.
Danger on Peaks. Washington, D.C.:
Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004.
Earth House Hold. New York: New Directions, 1969.
---. Interview with Juliet Harding. "Online
interviews with Gary Snyder". 2000. Northern Light. 23.09.2007
Myths and Texts. New York: New Directions, 1978.
New York: Pantheon, 1992.
---. "Practicing the Wild-Present and Future Plans: An Interview
with Gary Snyder." Interview with David Robertson. Critical
Essays on Gary Snyder. Ed. Patrick D. Murphy. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co,
Regarding Wave. New York: New Directions, 1970.
Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems. San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1965.
The Gary Snyder Reader. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999.
The Old Ways.
San Francisco: City Lights, 1977.
The Real Work. Interviews & Talks,
1964-1979. New York: New Directions, 1980.
New York: New Directions, 1974.
Aberley, Doug. "Interpreting Bioregionalism: A Story from Many
Voices." Bioregionalism. Ed. Michael Vincent McGinnis. London:
Routledge, 1999. 13-42.
Almon, Bert. "Buddhism and Energy in the Recent Poetry of Gary
Snyder". Critical Essays on Gary Snyder. Ed. Patrick D. Murphy.
Boston: G.K. Hall & Co, 1991. 80-89.
---. Gary Snyder. Boise State University Western Writers Series
37. Boise: Boise State UP, 1979.
Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.
The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.
Peter. Interview with Richard Evanoff. "Bioregionalism
Comes to Japan." June 1998. SustainableCity.com.
"Breeder Reactor." The New Encyclopædia Britannica.15th ed. 2002
Breinig, Helmbrecht, and
Susanne Opfermann. "Übergänge zur Romantik: die Entdeckung der
amerikanischen Natur." Amerikanische
Literaturgeschichte. Ed. Hubert Zapf. 2nd ed. Stuttgart: Verlag
J. B. Metzler, 2004. 64-65.
Bryson, J. Scott. Introduction. Ecopoetry.
A Critical Introduction. Ed. J. Scott Bryson. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P,
Castro, Michael. "Gary Snyder: The Lessons of Turtle Island."
Critical Essays on Gary Snyder. Ed. Patrick D. Murphy. Boston: G.K. Hall
& Co, 1991. 131-44.
Carolan, Trevor. "The Wild Mind of Gary Snyder". Mai
1996. Shambhalasun.com. 21.09.2007
Christensen, Paul. "Olson, Charles (John)". Reference
Guide to American Literature. Ed.
D.L. Kirkpatrick. Chicago:
St. James Press, 1987.
Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.
"Erg." The New Encyclopædia
Britannica.15th ed. 2002.
Grewe-Volpp, Christine. Das
Naturbild im Werk von Gary Snyder. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag,
"Die amerikanische Avantgarde in Europa: Stein, Pound und Eliot". Amerikanische
Literaturgeschichte. Ed. Hubert Zapf. 2nd ed. Stuttgart: Verlag
J. B. Metzler, 2004. 233-243.
"Zur Aktualität zeitgenössischer Naturdichtung: Gary Snyder und der ökologische
Imperativ" Englische und amerikanische Naturdichtung im 20. Jahrhundert.
Ed. Günter Ahrends and Hans-Ulrich Seeber. Tübingen:
Narr, 1985. 335-351.
Leary, Lewis. "Thoreau, Henry David." Reference Guide
to American Literature. Ed. D.L.
St. James Press, 1987.
Lovelock, James E. Gaia: A
New Look at Life on Earth. London: Oxford UP, 1982.
Lyon, Thomas J. "The Ecological Vision of Gary Snyder." Kansas
Quarterly 2 (1970): 117-24.
McNeill, William H. "Civilization." The Encyclopedia Americana. Internat. Ed. 1986.
Mather George A., and Larry A. Nichols. "Shaman." Dictionary
of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan
Publishing House, 1993.
"Mead, Margaret." The New Encyclopædia
Britannica.15th ed. 2002.
Molesworth, Charles. Gary Snyder's
Vision. Poetry and the Real Work.
Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1983.
Murphy, Patrick D. "Robinson Jeffers, Gary Snyder and the Problem of
Civilization." Robinson Jeffers and a
Galaxy of Writers: Essays in Honor of William H. Nolte. Ed. William B.
Thesing. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1995. 93-107.
---. Understanding Gary Snyder.
Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1995.
O’Connell, Nicholas. At The Field’s End. Seattle: Madrona
Dictionary of Non-Christian Religions. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. 1971.
---. "Mantra." A
Dictionary of Non-Christian Religions. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
Quetchenbach, Bernard W. "Primary
Concerns. The Development of Current Environmental Identity Poetry." Ecopoetry.
A Critical Introduction. Ed. J. Scott Bryson. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P,
"Reaper." The Oxford
English Dictionary. 2nd
Rodenberg, Hans-Peter. Subversive
Phantasie. Untersuchungen zur Lyrik der amerikanischen Gegenkultur
1960-1975. Giessen: Focus Verlag, 1983.
Steuding, Bob. Gary Snyder. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co, 1976.
Stutley, Margeret and James. "Kali." A Dictionary of
Hinduism. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 1977.
Yamazato, Kasunori. "How to Be in This Crisis: Gary Snyder's
Cross-Cultural Vision in Turtle Island." Critical Essays on Gary
Snyder. Ed. Patrick D. Murphy. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co, 1991. 230-46.
Oxford-Lexikon der Weltreligionen. Trans. Karl-Heinz Golzio. Ed.
John Bowker et. al. Düsseldorf:
Patmos Verlag, 1997.
"Literarische Gegenkultur als intellektuelles Zentrum". Amerikanische
Literaturgeschichte. Ed. Hubert Zapf. 2nd ed. Stuttgart: Verlag
J. B. Metzler, 2004. 98-109.
Lexikon des Zen. Goldmann: München, 1986.
In Understanding GS, Patrick D. Murphy gives a very detailed
biography of Snyder (1-20). The facts of Snyder's life mentioned here are
based on this biography, focusing exclusively on details which are relevant
for the shaping of Snyder's ecological consciousness.
Snyder explains in the introductory note of the book, "Turtle
Island" was the original Native American Name for the North American
continent which derives from the image of the earth or even the cosmos as a
shell of a giant turtle
As Snyder explains in The Old Ways,
the name of this hypothesis derives from an
ancient Greek earth goddess (38)
In an interview with Juliet Harding Snyder has pointed out what exactly is
meant by this term:
"'Nature-literate' here means knowing the wild
(and tame) plant, the annual rainfall, knowing what the maximum lows and
highs are through the year, knowing what your annual solar input is at your
latitude, and being aware of where your water comes from and where your
garbage goes, so to speak. These are things that everybody should know. It's
partly a matter of paying attention. What is the biotic diversity here?
These are the neighbors! We should know the neighbors. Nature literacy
starts with information"
is why Gary Snyder has done a huge amount of poetry readings all around the
world. "Giving poetry readings is part of my work, because the poem
lives in the voice. […] The poem has to be sung once in a while" (The
Real Work 37).
Snyder explains the forester’s term "riprap” on the first page of RipRap
and Cold Mountain Poems as "a cobble of stone laid on steep slick
rock to make a trail for horses in the mountains".
This does not apply to all of Snyder’s poems. Especially poems from the
collection Turtle Island
frequently do not follow this structure (e.g. "Mother Earth: Her
Whales, LMFBR, Front Lines")
In this case, listen can only be an imperative, otherwise Snyder would use
the progressive form of the verb.
Snyder had read the major part of the classics of Chinese and Indian
Buddhist literature during his early college years and already developed an
interest in Mahayana Buddhism at that point of time (
The Real Work 94)
e.g. Patrick Murphy writes that "For many critics, `'Mother Earth: Her
Whales' is Snyder's most grandly accomplished poem in this section" (Understanding
GS 120) whereas Bert Almon sees that "the anger gets out of hand
and turns the poem into a weak harping on glib stereotypes" (Gary
The Elaphure is "a species of reddish-tawny deer" which used to
live in Northern-China and is nowadays only known in captivity
("Elaphure" 5: 107)
Margaret (1901-1978) Mead did anthropological field work, living with
natives in Samoa in 1925/26 to get some first-hand knowledge for her book
("Mead, Margaret" 7: 987).
Unfortunately Snyder's blend has a linguistic flaw: it is easily overlooked
and read as communism because the difference is in the middle of the word
but the mind tends to read words as a whole, verifying only letters at the
beginning and end. This is why H.P. Rodenberg, for instance, misses the
difference in his interpretation of the poem and writes and interprets "communism" (94)
Normally a Yogin is of course somebody who practices Yoga and therefore
pertains to Hinduism. However, the term can also be applied in tantric
Buddhism ("Yoga" 1099) which inherits, as mentioned, many Hindu
For a version of the poem with the black symbols see appendix
An erg is an alternative unit for Jule
measuring work or energy (
The essay was published in Turtle
Island in 1974 but was already distributed as free print copies by
Snyder and some of his friends in 1969 (Turtle