The typical way to write about Gary Snyder is to note his status as a poet and Zen Buddhist associated with the San Francisco Renaissance. I’m going to skip that part. Not that it’s inaccurate—Snyder, who was born in 1930, has long sat in the company of such writers as Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen. But that perspective obscures Snyder as an American environmentalist—which may well end up being his most lasting influence.
Snyder’s essays are the best place to acquaint yourself with his belief that we are all “rooted in nature.” Not only because he honors such “fundamental all-time values of our species” as sharing, humility, cooperation, hunter success, love for children, respect for others, and responsibility for community—but also because he reminds us that contemporary human beings are “caught between the remnants” of wisdom and a technology-obsessed civilization that seems bent on destroying itself. If there are new possibilities for humans to live in modernity with “no sense of special privilege,” we have to embrace “intellectual clarity.” We must do so, however, without discarding ancient myths.
Short on pages but long on decency, Tawny Grammar pairs two essays, both published three decades ago. The first cultivates the “depths of metaphor, of ceremony, and the need for stories.” The second laments the “destruction of species, the impoverishment and enslavement of rural people, and the persecution of nature-worship traditions.” It’s “not nature-as-chaos” that threatens human existence, Snyder warns, “but the State’s presumption that it has created order.” He aches for greater appreciation of the wild and its sacredness—which we see when we pay attention to the possibilities of wonder, when we feel humbled to cross boundaries of geography and consciousness, and when we relinquish our devotion to machines to remain in contact with the “undaunted spirit” of human modesty.
What are we to become, Snyder asks, if we don’t understand the “layers of localized contexts” that form the basis for common knowledge? How can we reclaim an “ecology of language” in which “levels, codes, slangs, dialects, whole languages, and languages even of different families” take shape in a single human being?
I don’t mean to portray Snyder as overly sentimental, or to create the impression that he isn’t dead serious about the planet’s precarious condition. Earth, Snyder argues, needs defending more than ever, and self-interest alone might not be enough. “We are defending our own space, and we are trying to protect the commons,” he says at last, arguing that a “true and selfless love of the land” is needed for all of us to survive.
David Biespiel’s most recent book is Republic Café.
• By Gary Snyder
• Counterpoint Press, 80 pages, $10