Living on Turtle Island

America’s ‘poet of deep ecology’ brings his politics and passion to Chico

In August of 1945, a boy of 15 named Gary Snyder who would go on to become one of America’s great poets climbed Mount Saint Helens for the first time. Nearly 60 years later he wrote about it in his 2004 collection of poems and mini-essays Danger on Peaks:

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. Whatever the numbers say, snowpeaks are always far higher than the highest airplanes ever get. I made my petition to the shapely mountain, “Please help this life.” When I tried to look over and down to the world below—there was nothing there.

The date was August 13. News traveled slowly then, and it wasn’t until the next day that Snyder learned that two atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan. Whole pages of the Portland Oregonian had been pinned to the bulletin board at the Spirit Lake lodge: “photos of a blasted city from the air, the estimate of 150,000 dead in Hiroshima alone …. 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 the cruel destructive power and those who would seek to use it, for all my life.’ “

And so Snyder has done, in his poetry and other writings (19 books so far), as translator and scholar and university teacher and lecturer who has spoken before audiences around the world and been widely honored for his work, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 (for Turtle Island) and the coveted Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1997. And although he was never officially part of the Beat Generation, he became friends with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who both held him in highest regard.

Snyder’s long fight has never been narrowly defined. He learned early on that the bomb was a metaphor for or symptom of something that had divorced human beings from both the non-human nature of forest, mountain and sea and the “wild side” of our own minds. And he knew that this loss of connection with nature, inner and outer, had much to do with the “cruel destructive power” that was destroying species, polluting the air and the oceans, eroding topsoil and overheating the planet that Native Americans call Turtle Island.

In “Writers and the War Against Nature,” one of the essays in his latest book, Back on the Fire, he writes:

One can ask what might it take to have an agriculture that does not degrade the soils, a fishery that does not deplete the ocean, a forestry that keeps watersheds and ecosystems intact, population policies that respect human sexuality and personality while holding numbers down, and energy policies that do not set off fierce little wars. These are the key questions worth our lifetimes and more.

Since 1970, Snyder has lived in a house built by hand on a piece of forest land on the San Juan Ridge, near Nevada City. There are several outbuildings as well as a zendo, or meditation hall, where members of the Ring of Bone Buddhist practice community meet.

Snyder is therefore this area’s premier local poet as well as a great American poet. The connection isn’t just a matter of location, either: His work is deeply grounded in a sense of place, in his love for and knowledge of the Sierra Nevada, its plants and herbs, its deer, foxes and hawks, its mountains and rivers and ancient geologic formations, and the myths and tales of the Native people who once lived here.

Snyder has spent his life in an effort to offer a counterpoint to the capitalist reductionism that sees Planet Earth primarily as a resource to exploit for the material benefit of human beings. In doing so, he has turned to other poets and story tellers in both the West and the East, with a long-time special interest in the nature poets of Japan, China and Korea.

He also has studied and practiced Zen Buddhism for many years, including six years spent living in a Kyoto monastery during the late 1950s and early ‘60s. With its emphasis on the interconnectedness of all things and the impermanence of phenomena, Buddhism appealed to him as a practice that encompassed a vision of nature that enhanced his own.

He was trying to find a way to live in the world and do as little harm as possible. As he writes in the essay “Ecology, Literature, and the New World Disorder” (in Back on the Fire), “What we refer to as nature or the ‘environment’ or the wild world is our endangered habitat and home, and we are its problem species. Living in it well with each other and with all the other beings is our ancient challenge.”

This effort begins on the level of art and spirit and story. “Poems, novels, plays, with their great deep minds of story, awaken the Heart of Compassion,” he notes in “Writers and the War Against Nature.” “And so they confound the economic markets, rattle the empires, and open us up to the actually existing human and non-human world.”

In a short e-mail message, Snyder, who will be 77 in May, says in Chico he expects to “make some selections from the new book, and I mean to give a little weight to the Northern California feel of some of it, plus attention to the criteria for sustainability, and a few poems. A couple of very recent poems.”

The presentation will include, no doubt, a wide-ranging discussion of poetry and poets and story telling and his nearly 60 years as an artist. Snyder also probably will talk about the importance of committing oneself to a place and working to better it, about deep ecology and interconnectedness and the possibility of reclaiming a sense of belonging to nature.

Perhaps he’ll also talk about his wife, Carole Koda, who died from cancer last June 29 at the age of 59 after working for many months gathering the essays that went into Back on the Fire. “It has been great,” he writes in the book’s final essay, “Grown in America,” to be near her as she worked on it, watching her comings and goings, musings and transcribings.”

And surely he’ll talk about fire. He lives in a fire zone and deeply understands the role fire plays in the ecology of the Sierra Nevada. One of the essays in Back on the Fire is titled “Lifetimes with Fire,” and in it Snyder writes of the many ways he uses fire in his life: for heat, for cooking, to warm up the sauna, for sitting around and telling stories. For many years he had an open fire pit in the center of the house. He writes appreciatively and vividly of the hatchets and axes he’s used, the chain saws and mauls and wedges for cutting and splitting wood.

He ends the essay by describing a late-November brush pile burn:

A thermos of coffee on a stump. Clouds darkening up from the west, a breeze, a Pacific storm headed this way. Let the flames finish their work—a few more limb-ends and stubs around the edge to clean up, a few more dumb thoughts and failed ideas to discard—I think—this has gone on for many lives!

How many times
have I thrown you
back on the fire