Raised on a small dairy farm that bordered on the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, from an early age Gary Snyder had a strong sense of our connection to the natural world. Surviving on a subsistence farm in the Great Depression demanded such knowledge. Being able in a matter of minutes to walk deep enough into the woods to lose sight of all signs of human civilization was a quick lesson in the vast scale of the non-human. As a boy and adolescent, Snyder spent many days and nights hiking and camping in those woods.
But he also came of age during a time when the great old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest were being clear-cut for their lumber, when thousands of acres of some of the oldest living things on the planet were being cut down with little attention paid to their importance to the ecosystem. Snyder not only felt a deep connection to the natural world at an early age, but saw its exploitation first-hand as ancient trees rolled by on massive logging trucks. These experiences were as crucial a part of his education as anything he learned at school or from books, and made him a lifelong environmentalist.
For Snyder, the wild is not something separate from us. It is simply a balanced ecosystem managing itself perfectly well without human manipulation. It is our source, not only of all we need to survive, but of our species, where we literally sprang from. At one time in our history we did not seek to control it. Those attempts only came after we began to see ourselves as separate from and, in many belief systems, superior to it.
He experienced first-hand that there was an alternative way to relate to the natural world through his relationships with the Native Americans he knew as a boy. Their belief system, which sees humans as only one of the many peoples, including bear, deer, salmon and coyote, who share the planet spoke directly to the young Snyder’s sense of connection to his non-human neighbors. So it is no surprise that as he came of age he discovered a natural affinity with Buddhism, which he has practiced throughout his adult life, spending many years studying Zen in Japan.
One of the basic tenets of Buddhism is that any notion of ourselves as separate from the world around us is an illusion. Another basic tenet is that any sense of permanence is also an illusion. In the grand scale of geological time, earth time, universal time, even mountains are as transitory as waves. From geological science, which shows us how mountains rise, roll, fold and gradually collapse, we know this is literally true.
From this perspective, all of human existence is a brief moment in the history of the earth. Snyder has been an environmental activist all his life, not out of any unrealistic romantic notions of saving the planet, but out of the awareness that if we don’t pay attention to our actual place on it, the planet will be perfectly content to go on after allowing us to annihilate ourselves.
He has lived a life, in a house he built in the 70’s in the foot hills of the Sierras, where his work as a poet, environmentalist and Buddhist merge seamlessly. The poems emerge from how he has chosen to live in the world, by giving it careful attention; and that quality of attention is shaped by years of meditation, and by studying, translating and writing poems. This would, in Buddhism, be called his practice, which is uniquely his own and not contained by the titles poet, environmentalist or Buddhist. Gary Snyder is Gary Snyder. Visit the Poetry Foundation and Academy of American Poets for a sampling of the work of this unique and influential voice in contemporary poetry.
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