Nature studies

New books by Kim Stanley Robinson and Gary Snyder tackle humanity’s environmental impact

It might be a sign of karmic alignment that two noted area writers have new books this spring that put the planet’s environmental crisis at center stage. And it might be a spiritual convergence that the road both of these authors travel—and write about—is a path long trod by students of Buddhism.

Then again, it just might be that both Gary Snyder and Kim Stanley Robinson, rather than attempting to strike a balance between the intellectual and the spiritual, reject such an arbitrary duality outright.

Snyder, a prize-winning poet and critic with an international reputation, has collected a number of nonfiction pieces written over the past several years into Back on the Fire: Essays. Like his most recent collection of poems, Danger on Peaks, these essays are devoted to discussing a planet—and a culture—in the grip of catastrophic change.

For Snyder, change is not a bad thing. The trouble arises when humans mistakenly assume a position outside nature. Snyder returns again and again to his basic premise: that we are not just part of nature, we are nature. No matter what our technological feats have accomplished, what happens to the planet happens to us.

The heart of the book is a pair of essays: “Entering the Fiftieth Millennium” and “Lifetimes with Fire.” In the first, Snyder adopts a way of thinking about time that is different from the Western mind’s habit of counting eras based on its own civilization. He neatly moves the time scale back to more accurately reflect humanity’s position in the natural world. As a result, we’re not nearly as “new and different” as a 21-century timescale might lead us to believe. Taking the cave paintings of France as an example, Snyder shows that art—and, by extension, human consciousness—has long existed in ways that we perceive as contemporary. Putting humanity’s history on a 50,000-year time scale, he helps us see ourselves right-sized. “Modern man” is a blip on the radar, not the apex of evolution.

Thinking about time in this larger way changes our perceptions of the world. As a poet, Snyder is well aware that language alters both time and reality. If humans see ourselves as part of a long, natural tradition, we might—just might—be less likely to disrupt nature’s order.

That attitude of living in nature rather than observing it inhabits “Lifetimes with Fire.” From his first “real” job on fire watch to a lifetime spent attempting to both respect fire’s place in the ecology of the Sierra and also save his own home, Snyder’s narrative is respectful and honest. Among the ironies: As a young man on fire lookout, he thought stopping forest fires heroic. He now believes that forest-management policy was the worst possible for the health of the forests—especially since, in the long run (the only time that matters), it actually made fires worse.

But Snyder doesn’t lose his sense of humor. The delightful “Regarding ‘Smokey the Bear Sutra'” mixes spirituality and a huge dose of ironic laughter. Snyder crafts a sutra—a “talk given by a Buddha-teacher,” which, according to tradition, is both anonymous and free—that reveals the true nature of Smokey the Bear, so misunderstood by the USDA Forest Service.

In the sutra, Smokey is freed from mascot status to become a defender of the natural, including humans. He takes on the title of the “Great Bear” with the “role of teaching and enlightening through the practice and examination of both the creative and destructive sides of Fire.”

Like Snyder’s essays, Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, Sixty Days and Counting, holds out hope that humans can find a way to live in nature. The final installment of a trilogy of novels that takes place in a near future rocked by rapid climate change, Sixty Days gives humans a chance to not undo but, in some small ways, mitigate the damage we have done to the planet.

The series uses impeccable science to underpin its speculative leaps and to detail how human impact through carbon release (especially burning fossil fuels) might play out within a relatively short period of time. In Robinson’s world, change appears to be happening slowly, with occasional catastrophic events, like a flood in Washington, D.C. Then it speeds up. Particularly useful to fiction readers without much background in earth science and climatology, Robinson has a gift for explaining the interlinking, web-like nature of climate: one event doesn’t lead to one event—it leads to a whole series of significant changes.

With a realistically flawed hero in scientist Frank Vanderwal, several adventure- and conspiracy-laced subplots, and a little boy who may or may not be an incarnation of a great lama, Robinson doesn’t skimp on plot. Sixty Days and Counting, like the other novels in the series (Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below), is, first and foremost, good storytelling. And if there’s a great deal to learn from the story, so much the better.

In fact, “Smokey the Bear’s War Spell,” from Snyder’s sutra, would be a fitting curse for the ignorant and self-centered forces in Robinson’s novel who won’t change their ways for the good of the planet: “DROWN THEIR BUTTS / CRUSH THEIR BUTTS.”

Or just quit using up so much of the planet’s resources. Smokey’s cool with that, too.