“We can take advantage of this pause, this break in normal, to turn onto a path of reunion, of holism, of the restoring of lost connections, of the repair of community and the re-joining of the web of life.”
– The Coronation, Charles Eisenstein
“Once at Cold Mountain, troubles cease –
No more tangled, hung-up mind.
I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff,
Taking whatever comes, like a drifting boat.”
– Han Shan, trans. Gary Snyder
Things have ground to a halt. The stock market drops daily. Global air traffic has largely ceased. Unemployment soars as citizens around the globe adjust to the new realities of staying in place and social distancing. Confronted with climate catastrophe, biodiversity collapse, and terrorism, it has taken a microorganism to put us on hold. As Charles Eisenstein noted in his widely circulated essay, The Coronation, the crossroads that have hitherto eluded us are now here. Is this the Collapse foretold by numerous commentators, such as Jem Bendell , whose significant Deep Adaptation (http://lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf) has been influential in shaping the debate concerning the trajectory of world civilization? The answer to this question remains unknown. Might this moment be merely a foretaste of what might come?
All that we know is that we are, in this moment, in a threshold state. Integral and systems theorists R. Smith and C. DeVos, (https://integrallife.com/deeper-into-the-great-release/) posit that we find ourselves, following stages of rapid growth and conservation, in a moment of “release”, “a phase shift that complexity theorists call a system release, a phase that will lead to a reorganization of the prevailing world order that liberates innovation and increases its capacity to absorb future shocks and change.” Maybe. We shall see. Eisenstein suggests that, “we have a choice. We are right to stop, stunned at the newness of our situation. Because of the hundred paths that radiate out in front of us, some lead in the same direction we’ve already been headed. Some lead to hell on earth. And some lead to a world more healed and more beautiful than we ever dared believe to be possible.”
Arising as a response to this moment, in this paper I entertain some thoughts about the relevance of the writings of poet, Gary Snyder. As writer, researcher, and model of re-inhabitory living, Snyder has been a significant influence in my life. I first met him, as many of us did, as the character Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s popular novel, The Dharma Bums. Kerouac writes of Snyder, he was “a kid from eastern Oregon brought up in a log cabin deep in the woods with his father and mother and sister, from the beginning a woods boy, an axman, farmer, interested in animals and Indian lore so that when he finally got to college by hook or by crook he was already well equipped for his early studies in anthropology and later in Indian myth and in the actual texts of Indian mythology. Finally he learned Chinese and Japanese and became an Oriental scholar and discovered the greatest Dharma Bums of them all, the Zen Lunatics of China.”
There are those amongst us, myself included, who have been standing outside of the mainstream trajectory of cultural life for many decades. Those of us who came of age in the 1960s often found little support for the intuition that the political and cultural institutions in which we found ourselves were fundamentally pathological. In his Living In a World That Can’t Be Fixed: Reimagining Counterculture Today, novelist and social critic Curtis White reviews the history of the idea of the counter-culture. Offered in contrast to the banalities, lies and destructiveness of the world, he celebrates the impulse to impertinence and improvisation that burst upon the scene as “the 60’s.” Counter-cultures embody a freedom “to do something other than collaborate in our own destruction.”
Historically, elements of this counter-cultural tendency were on full display in the 1960s. The 1960’s saw the publication of Shumaker’s Small is Beautiful, Meadow’s et al Limits To Growth, and Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality. The “underground press” provided an alternative to mainstream media, as typified on the West Coast by the Berkeley Barb, the San Francisco Oracle, and in Vancouver, The Georgia Straight. Poets, writers, artists, and musicians were compatriots in resistance and explorers and co-creators of the new story.
Gary Snyder is recognized as a central figure in the so-called Beat Generation of the New York-San Francisco axis. In 1952, I was five years old. On my birthday in July, Gary was working as a lookout on Crater Mountain in the Cascade Mountains of northern Washington. He was twenty-two years old, writing in his journal,
“After a long day’s travel, reached the ridge,
followed a deer trail down
to five small lakes,
in this yuga, the moral imperative is to COMMUNICATE.
He was already preparing the ground for what has become a lifework that has embodied, in writing and experience, a vision that might sustain us in these unprecedented times, and going forward. In 1969, Snyder, along with others in the San Francisco’s Bay Area, including Michael McClure, Richard Brautigan, Alan Watts, Keith Lampe, Stewart Brand, and Diane di Prima published and distributed widely “Four Changes”, a seminal manifesto describing the current State of Affairs, contrasted with a vision of viable alternatives and suggested personal and cultural practices to get us there. Four Changes presented an analysis and response to current conditions under four headings: population, pollution, consumption, and transformation. The manifesto was nothing less than a clarion call for radical change: “Civilization, which has made us so successful as a species, has overshot itself and now threatens us with its inertia…. To achieve the Changes, we must change the very foundations of our society and our minds. Nothing short of total transformation will do much good.”
In 1995, Snyder wrote, “naïve and utopian as it sounds now, I still stand by the basics of “Four Changes.” Another 25 years have passed. The basics still stand. Snyder’s work, in prose, letters, interviews, and some fifteen volumes of poetry, and on the land itself at his homestead in Northern California, provides a singular perspective that may assist in informing our thoughts as we sit and continue to dream.
What are the “basics”? Snyder long ago suggested that a more important question than “who am I?”, is “where am I?” It was this question that placed him in the 1970s at forefront of the movement for re-inhabitation. In an essay by that name, in 1977, he writes, “We once more know that we live in a system that is enclosed in a certain way; that it has its own kind of limits, and that we are interdependent with it…The biological-ecological sciences have been laying out (implicitly) a spiritual dimension…and we must incorporate that insight into our own personal spiritual quest and integrate it with all the wisdom teachings we have received from the nearer past…Entering such paths, we begin to learn a little of the Old Ways, which are outside of history, and forever new.”
I suggest that the engagement of such paths constitutes the development of a practice of “settling.” Such settling is integral to the project of “Reconciliation!” As immigrant peoples we so-called “settlers” have never truly settled. (The verb, “to settle” derives from the Old English, “setlan”, cause to sit, place, or put, from “setl”, a seat.) The pause in which we currently find ourselves invites a profound inquiry into what it means “to settle”. We are forced, in this time of physical distancing, of sheltering in place, of quarantine, and self-isolation to stop and question our restless movement and consumption. In this moment of pause, hiatus and threshold, what directions forward might we discern in Snyder’s body of work? In a pause, it seems, there is not just a slowing but also the opening of a gap, similar to an unveiling, or rending of a veil, to reveal what was hidden or yet to be born; a brilliant, blue hole in the clouds in the sky.
Describing the poet’s role as medicine person, Snyder writes, “the role of the singer was to sing the voice of corn, the voice of the Pleiades, the voice of bison, the voice of antelope. To contact in a very special way an “other” that was not within the humans sphere; something that could not be learned by continually consulting other human teachers, but could only be learned by venturing outside the borders and going into your own mind-wilderness, unconscious wilderness.”
In making the move from Snyder’s prose to his poetry, specifically the magisterial epic, Mountains and Rivers Without End (1996), we experience with immediacy our location in space, and also in time, deep time, which we share with all beings, both human and other-than-human. Snyder describes this project, which had its genesis in 1956 and was finally announced as completed in April, 1996, as “a sort of sutra – an extended poetic, philosophic, and mythic narrative of the female Buddha Tara.” Entering the poem, we find ourselves in many places, many times. “The Yogin and the Philosopher” (published 1977), Gary writes, “But I can’t think about our situation in anything less than a forty thousand year time scale. Fifty thousand is not very long.” In an age more accustomed to the emotional intensity of the lyric, the epic is more suited to both the shift in pace and the transmission of information that the threshold permits and requires.
Ah, Deep Time. Let us begin to settle then, gather and sit with the bones of our ancestors, and begin finally to find ourselves at home again. The scale is announced in “Old Woodrat’s Stinky House.” “Coyote and Earthmaker whirling about in the world winds found a meadowlark nest floating and drifting; stretched it to cover the waters and made us an earth….A spoken language works/ for about five centuries,/ lifespan of a douglas fir;/ big floods, big fires, every couple hundred years,/ a human life lasts eighty, a generation twenty.// Hot summers every eight or ten, four seasons every year/ twenty eight days for the moon/ day/night the twenty four hours// & a song might last four minutes, // a breath is a breath.”
And in Space, this long poem travels far, showing us both journeys and arrivals. It holds traces of Snyder’s own sojourns in Japan and India, following his wandering throughout the land of Turtle Island. It hangs out in Seattle, Portland, the Cascades Range, San Francisco, Kyoto, Los Angeles and New York, and on the open Pacific; visits markets in Saigon, Kathmandu, and Varanasi; meanders up and down this Pacific Coast on Night Highway 99; visits dream Elwhas across the Strait from me on the Olympic Peninsula. We travel with him from “Raven’s Beak River at the End”: “Doab of the Tatshenshini River and the Alsek Lake, a long spit of gravel”, to Canyon de Chelley. To listen to the whispers of mountain goat and Kokopelli, and hearken to the Canyon Wren while rafting the river, watch Macaques in the jungle with Red Pine, Lo’Ching and wife, Carol. Listen to the Mountain Spirit on visits to Bristlecone Pine: “walking on walking,/ under foot earth turns// Streams and mountains never stay the same.”
Snyder’s immense body of lyric work remains a treasure house of the range of knowledge, skills, and wisdom deserving of close attention! But as primary base for our attention in this moment, “Mountains and Rivers” provides all that we need. Taking inspiration and modelling from a Sung Dynasty landscape scroll that currently resides in Cleveland, Ohio, the geographical range and topographic spread of the poem mirrors both its intent and colouration. Tiny human figures engaged in both mundane and sacred activities inhabit the vast and complex spaces of the land and waters. Dogen, ancestor of Soto Zen, instructs us in how to hold the whole:
“Unsurpassed enlightenment is a painting. The entire phenomenal universe and the empty sky are nothing but a painting.
Since this is so, there is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice cake. Without painted hunger you never become a true person.”
The poem, and Snyder’s work as a whole, brings together the wisdom teachings of the Buddha-dharma and the animist presence of engagement with the land and the many other-than-human inhabitants thereof. His poetry and scholarship are medicine. We are in the realm of ancient Buddhas’, the Buddhas of Deep Time, indigenous, Palaeolithic, neolithic, Buddhas’ from Before:
- “it would take you twelve thousand summer vacationsdriving a car due east all day every dayto reach the edge of the Lapis Lazuli realm ofMedicine Old Man Buddha –East. Old Man RealmEast across the sea, yellow sand landCoyote old man land
Silver, and stone blue”
In this moment, so many of us humans world-wide are staying at home. In Practice of the Wild (1990), Snyder reminds us, “The heart of a place is the home, and the heart of the home is the firepit, the hearth.” When this pause comes to an end, some of the many roads before us will return us to a belonging to a place, to the calm and equanimity that settling brings.
In the essay, “Exhortations for Baby Tigers ” (1991) Snyder writes, “Whatever sense of ethical responsibility and concern that human beings can muster must be translated from a human-centered consciousness to a natural-systems-wide sense of value…Such an extension of human intellect and sympathy into the nonhuman realms is a charming and mind-bending undertaking. It is also an essential step if we are to have a future worth living…. It is my own sort of crankiness to believe there is still hope.”
Recently I stood on the grass of the Legislative Buildings in Victoria in a circle of maybe two hundred, gathered around the fountain joining in solidarity with Indigenous Youth who have been occupying the front steps of the colonial edifice within which our Legislature meets. We stand, collectively, in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who on behalf of their land and nation, are resisting the latest incursion of resource extraction from indigenous territory. Several of the youth, who have come from nations of all parts of so-called British Columbia, speak. They honour their ancestors. They call upon us to honour and respect the Land and the many beings who make their home here, reminding us that these animals, plants, mountains, and waters, are not mere resources to be exploited, but agencies and powers, presences of power, beauty and awareness. When Snyder began his anthropology studies, the professional anthropologists of the academy believed that the indigenous people of North America and elsewhere were done, languages gone, fully assimilated. But guess what! They are still here and they are so strong and beautiful! The pride I feel in these young ones brings tears to my eyes. Great blue herons, high above us, fly over the harbour. They watch.
In solidarity, a few old-timers, such as myself, stand with these young ones, those who bravely stand and resist the shame and trauma of the 500 years of colonial violence that has been visited upon this land by the invaders from beyond the sea, my ancestors. I stand in awe of my own journey and the central role Snyder played in bringing me, in getting all of us, to this place. May the young ones and those who follow remember all who got them here, may they know the lineage of poets whose tracks they follow.
- “To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children: stay together
learn the flowers
Note: in addition to turning directly to Gary Snyder’s voluminous work, two other texts are particularly worthy of mention: Jason Wirth’s (2017, New York: SUNY Press), Mountains, Rivers, and the Great Earth: Reading Gary Snyder and Dogen in an Age of Ecological Crisis, and Mark Gonnerman’s (Ed.) (2015, Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint), A Sense of the Whole: Reading Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End.
Kerouac, J. (1958). The Dharma Bums. New York: Viking Press.
Snyder, G. (1996). Mountains and Rivers Without End. Washington, DC: Counterpoint
Snyder, G. (1991). Exhortations for Baby Tigers: The end of the cold war and the end of nature. Reed College Commencement Speech, May 19, 1991. Reed College, Portland, Oregon. The Reed Magazine, 11-12.
Snyder, G. (1990). Practice of the Wild. Berkeley, CA: North Point Press.
White, C. (2019). Living In a World That Can’t Be Fixed: Reimagining Counterculture Today. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.
Scott Lawrance, Ed.D., R.C.C.
A retired member of the B.C. Teacher’s Federation, Scott has taught at all levels of public education from grade two to post-Secondary. His current professional interests include Buddhist approaches to eco-therapy. Scott and his Salish Sea Eco-retreats partner, Tara Souch offer annual eco-retreats for wilderness guides and interested professionals. He is the author of four books of poetry and has, in the past, edited two poetry magazines, “Raven” and “Circular Causation”.