The Gary Snyder Reader
Gary Snyder
Counterpoint, Washington DC (USA), 1999 (1999)
617 pages, including inndex

From the Lookout's Journal:

The stove burning wet wood —windows misted over giving the blank white light of shoji. Outside wind blows, no visibility. I'm filthy with no prospect of cleaning up. (Must learn yoga-system of Patanjali—)

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, p. 7)

Boys on bicycles in the asphalt playground wheeling and circling aimlessly like playful gulls or swallows. Smell of a fresh-parked car.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, p. 14)

Last night: thunderstorm. A soft piling of cumulus over the Little Beaver in late afternoon —a gradual thickening and darkening. A brief shower of hail that passed over &aml; went up Thunder Creek valley: long gray shreds of it slowly falling and bent in the wind— while directly above Ruby Creek sunlight is streaming through. Velvety navy blue over Hozomeen, with the sun going down behind Mr. Terror and brilliant reds and pinks on the under-clouds, another red streak behind black Hozomeen framed in dark clouds. Lightning moving from Hozomeen slowly west into red clouds running gray, then black; rising wind. Sheet lightning pacing over Little Beaver, fork lightning striking Beaver Pass.

This morning a sudden heavy shower of rain and a thick fog. A buck scared: ran off with stiff springy jumps down the snowfield. Throwing sprays of snow with every leap: head held stiffly high.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, p. 18)

From The "East West" Interview, with Peter Barry Chowka, published in the summer of 1977 in the East West Journal:

[On Baudelaire and Rimbaud] The model of a romantic, self-destructive, crazy genius that they and others provide us is understandable as part of the alienation of people from the cancerous and explosive growth of Western nations during the last one hundred and fifty years. Zen and Chinese poetry demonstrate that a truly creative person is more truly sane; that this romantic view of crazy genius is just another reflection of the craziness of our times. In a utopian, hoped-for, postrevolutionary world, obviously, poets are not going to have to be crazy and everybody, if they like, can get along with their parents; that would be the way it is. So I aspire to and admire a sanity from which, as in a climax ecosystem, one has spare energy to go on to even more challenging —which is to say more spiritual and more deeply physical— things. Which is not to disallow the fact that crazy, goofy, clowning, backwards behavior isn't fun and useful. In mature primitive societies the irrational goofy element is there and well accounted for.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, p. 114)

Also, from the same interview, some reflections on the difference between global consciousness and planetary thinking that fully apply to our day, especially when it comes to the so-called (perhaps incorrectly) anti-globalization movement:

There are two kinds of earth consciousness: one is called global, the other we call planetary. The two are 180 degrees apart from each other, although on the surface they appear similar. "Global consciousness" is world-engineering-technocratic-utopian-centralization men in business suits who play world games in systems theory; they include the environmentalists who are employed at the backdoor of the Trilateral Commission. "Planetary thinking" is decentralist, seeks biological rather than technological solutions, and finds its teachers for its alternative possibilities as much in the transmitted skills of natural peoples of Papua and the headwaters of the Amazon as in the libraries of the high Occidental civilizations. It's useful to make this distinction between a planetary and a global mind. "Planetary mind" is old-ways internationalism which recognizes the possibility of one earth with all of its diversity; "global consciousness" ultimately would impose a not-so-benevolent technocracy on everything via a centralized system.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, pp. 116-117)

Once again from the same interview, some thoughts on the importance of individualism in American society and where to go from here:

I think it's inevitable that American society move farther and farther away from certain kinds of extreme individualism, for no reason other than that the frontier is gone and the population has grown; partially, it may be the social dynamics of crowding. (Although, of course, many societies that are not crowded are nonetheless highly cooperative.) But I didn't raise this point as a prophecy, but as a question. The negative side of the spirit of individualism —the "everybody get their own" exploitative side— certainly is no longer appropriate. It can be said to have been in some ways productive when there were enormous quantities of resources available; but it's counterproductive in a postfrontier society. It's counterproductive when the important insight for everyone is how to interact appropriately and understand the reciprocity of things, which is the actual model of life on earth —a reciprocal, rather than a competitive, network. The ecological and anthropological sciences are in the forefront of making models for our new value systems and philosophies. We are moving away from social Darwinism. As the evolutionary model dominated nineteenth- and early twentieth-century thinking, henceforth the ecological model will dominate our model of how the world is —reciprocal and interacting rather than competitive.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, pp. 119-120)

Reflections on the concept of nature and the wilderness from his essay, The Etiquette of Freedom:

When we think of wilderness in America today, we think of remote and perhaps designated regions that are commonly alpine, desert, or swamp. Just a few centuries ago, when virtually all was wild in North America, wilderness was not something exceptionally severe. Pronghorn and bison trailed through the grasslands, creeks ran full of salmon, there were acres of clams, and grizzlies, cougar, and bighorn sheep were common in the lowlands. There were human beings, too: North America was all populated. One might say yes, but thinly —which raises the question of according to whom. The fact is, people were everywhere. When the Spanish foot soldier Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his two companions (one of whom was African) were wrecked on the beach of what is now Galveston, and walked to the Rio Grande valley and then south back into present-day Mexico between 1528 and 1536, there were few times in the whole eight years that they were not staying at a native settlement or camp. They were always on trails.

It has always been part of basic human experience to live in a culture of wilderness. There has been no wilderness without some kind of human presence for several hundred thousand years. Nature is not a place to visit,, it is home —and within that home territory there are more familiar and less familiar places. Often there are areas that are difficult and remote, but all are known and even named. One August I was at a pass in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska at the headwaters of the Koyukuk river, a green three-thousand-foot tundra pass between the broad ranges, open and gentle, dividing the waters that flow to the Arctic Sea from the Yukon. It is as remote a place as you could be in North America, no roads, and tghe trails are those made by migrating caribou. Yet this pass has been steadily used by Inupiaq people of the north slope and Athapaskan people of the Yukon as a steadily north-south trade route for at least seven thousand years.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, pp. 169-170)

By the sixteenth century the lands of the Occident, the countries of Asia, and all the civilizations and cities from the Indian subcontinent to the coast of North Africa were becoming ecologically impoverished. The people were rapidly becoming nature-illiterate. Much of the original vegetation had been destroyed by the expansion of grazing or agriculture, and the remaining land was of nbo great human economic use, "waste," mountain regions and deserts. The lingering larger animals —big cats, deser sheep, serows, and such— managed to survive by retreating to the harsher habitats. The leaders of these civilizations grew up with less and less personal knowledge of animal behavior and were no longer taught the intimate wide-ranging plant knowledge that had once been universal. By way of tradeoff they learned "human management," administration, rhetorical skills. Only the most marginal of the paysan, people of the land, kept up practical plant and animal lore and memories of the old ways. People who grew up in towns or cities, or on large estates, had less chance to learn how wild systems work. Then major blocks of citified mythology (Medieval Christianity and then the "Rise of Science") denied first soul, then consciousness, and finally even sentience to the natural world. Huge numbers of Europeans, in the climate of a nature-denying mechanistic ideology, were losing the opportunity for direct experience of nature.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, p. 173)

It seems that a short way back in the history of occidental ideas there was a fork in the trail. The line of thought that is signified by the names of Descartes, Newton, and Hobbes (saying that life in a primary society us "nasty, brutish, and short" —all of them city-dwellers) was a profound rejection of the organic world. For a reproductive universe they substituted a model of sterile mechanism and an economy of "production." These thinkers were as hysterical about "chaos" as their predecessors, the witch-hunt prosecutors of only a century before, were about "witches." They not only didn't enjoy the possibility that the world is as sharp as the edge of a knife, they wanted to take that edge away from nature. Instead of making the world safer for humankind, the foolish tinkering with the powers of life and death by the occidental scientist-engineer-ruler puts the whole planete on the brink of degradation. Most of humanity —foragers, peasants, or artisans— has always taken the other fork. That is to say, they have understood the play of the real world, with all its suffering, not in simple terms of "nature red in tooth and claw" but through the celebration of the gift-exchange quality of our give-and-take. "What a big potlach we are all members of!" To acknowledge that each of us at the table will eventually be part of the meal is not just being "realistic." It is allowing the sacred to enter and accepting the sacramental aspect of our shaky temporary personal being.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, p. 178)

An ethical life is one that is mindful, mannerly, and has style. Of all moral failings and flaws of character, the worst is stinginess of thought, which includes meanness in all its forms. Rudeness in thought or deed toward others, toward nature, reduces the chances of conviviality and interspecies communication, which are essential to physical and spiritual survival. Richard Nelson, a student of Indian ways, has said that an Athapaskan mother might tell her little girl, "Don't point at the mountain! It's rude!" One must not waste, or be careless, with the bodies or the parts of any creature one has hunted or gathered. One must not boast, or show much pride in accomplishment, and one must not take one's skill for granted. Wastefulness and carelessness are caused by stinginess of spirit, an ungracious unwillingness to complete the gift-exchange transaction. (These rules are also particularly true for healers, artists, and gamblers.)

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, pp. 179-180)

Interview with Eliot Weinberger, titled The Art of Poetry, where Snyder reflects on the role that art (and poetry) play on our lifes. When asked if poetry is, perhaps, "the religion of the twentieth century", Snyder replies:

I had a funny conversation with Clayton Eshleman, the editor and poet, many years ago while he was still in Kyoto. Clayton was talking, at length and with passion, about poetry. And I said to him, "But Clayton, I already have a religion. I'm a Buddhist." It's like the Pope telling Clare Boothe Luce, "I already am a Catholic." I don't think art makes a religion. I don't think it helps teach your children how to say thank you to the food, how to view questions of truth and falsehood, or how not to cause pain or harm to others. Art can certainly help you explore your own consciousness and your own mind and your own motives, but it does not have a program to do that, and I don't think it should have a program to do that. I think that art is very close to Buddhism and can be part of Buddhist practice, but there are territories that Buddhist psychology and Buddhist philosophy must explore, and that art would be foolish to try to do.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, pp. 329-330)

In the very same interview, he also comments on his using the term anarchist to define himself politically, and the problems it carries with it:

You know I really regretted saying that on the radio. That was on "Fresh Air". I try not to say that on the radio. In fact, I try not to even use the word anarchist because it immediately raises the question that you just raised which is, "Can you explain that?" The term shouldn't be used, it has too many confusing associations. Anarchism should refer to the creation of nonstatist, natural societies as contrasted with legalistically organized societies, as alternative models for human organization. Not to be taken totally literally, but to be taken poetically as a direction toward the formation of better and more viable communities. Anarchism, in political history, does not mean chaos, it means self-government. So a truly anarchist society is a self-governing society. We all need to learn better how to govern ourselves. And we can do that by practice, and practice means you have to go to meetings, and going to meetings means you'll be bored, and so you better learn how to meditate.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, pp. 337-338)

A reflection from his essay Is Nature Real? deals with a very contemporary issue, the whole postmodern project of deconstruction:

It's a real pity that many in the humanities and social sciences are finding it so difficult to handle the rise of "nature" as an intellectually serious territory. For all the talk of "the other" in everybody's theory these days, when confronted with a genuine Other, the nonhuman realm, the response of the come-lately anti-nature intellectuals is to circle the wagons and declare that nature is really part of culture. Which maybe is just a strategy to keep the budget within their specialties.

A lot of this rhetoric, if translated into human politics, would be like saying "African-American people are the social construction of whites." And then they might as well declare that South Central Los Angeles is a problematic realm that has been exaggerated by some white liberals, a realm whose apparent moral issues are also illusory, and that the real exercise in regard to African Americans is a better understanding of how white writers and readers made them up. But liberal critical theorists don't talk this way when it comes to fellow human beings because they know what kind of heat they'd get. In the case of nature, because they are still under the illusion that it isn't seriously there, they indulge themselves in this moral and political shallowness.

Conservationists and environmentalistss have brought some of this on themselves. We still have not communicated the importance of biodiversity. Many if not most citizens are genuinely confused over why such importance appears to be placed on hitherto unheard-of owls or fish. Scientists have to be heard from, but the writers and philosophers among us (myself included) should speak our deep felings for the value of the non-human with greater clarity. We need to stay fresh, write clean prose, reject obscurity, and not intentionally exagerate. And we need to comprehend the pain and distress of working people everywhere.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, pp. 388-389)

A poem from Myths and Texts:

Each dawn is clear
Cold ait bites the throat.
Thick frost on the pine bough
Leaps from the tree
    snapped by the diesel

Drifts and glitters in the 
    horizontal sun.
In the frozen grass
    smoking boulders
    ground by steel tracks.
In the frozen grass
    wild horses stand
    beyond a row of pines.
The D8 tears through piss-fir,
Scrapes the seed-pine
        chipmunks flee,
A black ant carries an egg
Aimlessly from the battered ground.
Yellowjackets swarm and circle
Above the crushed dead log, their home.
Pitch oozes from barked
    trees still standing,
Mashed bushes make strange smells.
Lodgepole pines are brittle.
Camprobbers flutter to watch.

A few stumps, drying piles of brush;
Under the thin duff, a toe-scrape down
Black lava of a late-flow.
Leaves stripped from thronapple
Taurus by nightfall.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, pp. 409-410)

Another poem from the same book:

How rare to be born a human being!
Wash him off with cedar-bark and milkweed
      send the damned doctors home.
Baby, baby, noble baby
Noble-hearted baby

One hand up, one hand down
"I alone am the honored one"
Birth of the Buddha.

And the whole world-system trembled.
"If that baby really said that,
I'd cut him up and throw him to the dogs!"
said Chao-chou the Zen Master.  But
Chipmunks, gray squirrels, and
Golden-mantled ground squirrels
      brought him each a nut.
Truth being the sweetest of flavors.

Girls would have in their arms
A wild gazelle or wirld wolf-cubs
And give them their white milk,
      those who had new-born infants home
Breasts still full.
Wearing a spotted fawnskin
      sleeping under trees
      bacchantes, drunk
On wire or truth, what you will,
Meaning: compassion.
Agents: man and beasts, beasts
Got the buddha-nature
All but 

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, pp. 416-417)

Poem titled A Walk, from The Back Country:

Sunday the only day we won't work:
Mules farting around the meadow,
                         Murphy fishing,
The tent flaps in the warm
Early sun: I've eaten breakfast and I'll
                           take a walk
To Benson Lake. Packed a lunch,
Goodbye. Hopping on creekbed boulders
Up the rock throat three miles
                         Piute Creek —
In steep gorge glacier-slick rattlesnake country
Jump, land by a pool, trout skitter,
The clear sky.  Deer tracks.
Bad place by a falls, boulders big as houses,
Lunch tied to belt,
I stemmed up a crack and almost fell
But rolled out safe on a ledge
                           and ambled on.
Quail chicks freeze underfoot, color of stone
Then run cheep! away, hen quail fussing.
Craggy west end of Benson Lake —after edging
Past dark creek pools on a long white slope—
Lookt down in the ice-black lake
                        lined with cliff
From far above: deep shimmering trout.
A lone duck in a gunshightpass
                         steep side hill
Through slide-aspen and talus, to the east end,
Down to grass, wading a wide smooth stream
Into camp.  At last.
              By the rusty three-year-
Ago left-behind cookstove
Of the old trail crew,
Stoppt and swam and ate my lunch.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, p. 430)

Poem title After Work, from The Back Country:

The shack and a few trees
float in the blowing fog

I pull out your blouse,
warm my cold hands
      on your breasts.
you laugh and shudder
peeling garlic by the
       hot iron stove.
bring in the axe, the rake,
the wood

we'll lean on the wall
against each other
stew simmering on the fire
as it grows dark
            drinking wine.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, p. 434)

Poem Revolution in the Revolution in the Revolution, from the book Regarding Wave:

The country surrounds the city
The back country surrounds the country

"From the masses to the masses" the most
Revolutionary consciousness is to be found
Among the most ruthlessly exploited classes:
Animals, trees, water, air, grasses

We must pass through the stage of the 
"Dictatorship of the Unconscious" before we can
Hope for the withering-away of the states
And finally arrive at true Communionism.


If the capitalists and imperialists
        are the exploiters, the masses are the workers.
                and the party
                is the communist.

If civilization
         is the exploiter, the masses is nature.
                 and the party
                 is the poets.

If the abstract rational intellect
        is the exploiter, the masses is the unconscious.
                and the party
                is the yogins.

comes out of the seed-syllables of mantras.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, p. 457)

Poem Love, from the book Regarding Wave:

Women who were turned inside-out
Ten times over by childbirth

On the wind-washed lonely islands
Lead the circle of obon dancers
Through a full moon night in August

The youngest girl last;

Women who were up since last night
Scaling and cleaning the flying fish

Sing about love.

Over and over,
Sing about love.

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, p. 460)

Poem titled Earth Verse, from the book Mountains and Rivers Without End:

Wide enough to keep you looking

Open enough to keep you moving

Dry enough to keep you honest

Prickly enough to make you tough

Green enough to go on living

Old enough to give you dreams

(Gary Snyder: The Gary Snyder Reader, p. 598)

Entertainment Factor: 6/10
Artistic Factor: 8/10