Gary Snyder

Interview by Val Litwin / Photography by Justine Kurland

For those of you that haven’t yet encountered the work of Gary Snyder, I am jealous. You have a universe of deep and urgent thoughts still to discover. As an English Literature undergrad, I first met Snyder’s writings at the University of Victoria in 1996 and recall being struck by the uncomplicated—but precise—musicality of his poems. Snyder is perhaps best known as a poet of the Beat Generation—he was a close friend of Jack Kerouac and the inspiration for Japhy Ryder, the protagonist in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. He is also the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. At eighty-five, he is still considered a vital figure in the global Deep Ecology movement and has penned some of the most seminal essays on humankind’s place in the natural world. Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, says “I have always found it difficult to imagine this century without the life and work of Gary Snyder. After reading [his] collection of essays, I now find it impossible”. Gary and I had a chance to discuss some of these essays from The Practice of the Wild the morning of September 21st, 2015, from his home in California’s northern Sierra Nevada.

Val Litwin. — Hi Gary, this is Val calling from Whistler. How are you this morning? This is very generous of you to give of your time. I’d love it if we could take up to forty-five minutes to chat, but we may not need that.
Gary Snyder. — As long as we can bring it in between forty-five minutes and an hour, I’m fine with that. I got a guy out there right now repairing my busted down 7K water-cooled old Onan generator. And he’s going to be working on it all this time.  

— That sounds fine – getting the generator fixed is important. I thought it might be a nice way to start the dialogue by hearing a little bit about the physical area where you live.
— I live in the Northern Sierra Nevada, on the west side of the Sierra slope, which is the gradual side. I’m at a 3,000-foot elevation. I’ve been up here for forty-five years. I moved here when I came back from Japan. We are not on the grid, we’re off the grid, and we have ended up making our electricity with solar panels and a back-up generator. We are responsible for our own water, which right now is a well. We are three miles by dirt road from the nearest paved road. I have a number of very clever and well-adapted neighbors who all live pretty much the same way. We’re comfortable living on the margins of developed society. And we all have computers and we all have Wi-Fi. [laughs]

— That’s terrific. I suppose there are certain elements of technology and civilization we can’t quite do without.
— Why bother without it? It would be artificial to say I’m going to do without it. But we do without the electric grid because we can’t even get it here. I’m sure if it were possible to get it that most people, virtually everyone, would have it.

— Why did you and your partner choose to live off the grid as much as you could?
— We didn’t choose to. The area we’re in is now across a huge two-mile wide gravel bed that was leftover from hydraulic mining. The Pacific Gas and Electric Company couldn’t even bring a line out here, and we knew that we would be on our own.

— It seems like there is more romance associated with that kind of living today. As opposed to it being for political or moral reasons, it’s sort of hip to be off the grid and turn your nose up at civilization and all the accouterments that it comes with.
— You know what I tell people? I didn’t choose to live off the grid. I had no choice, and if I could be on the grid, I would. I don’t do solar panels because of my environmental virtue, it’s not a moral issue, it might be and it will be eventually, but if you’re going to live out in the mountains with a family for forty-five or fifty years, you’ve got to be really practical. There are enough things to worry about and deal with without creating extra problems for yourself.

— Maybe we can start to steer the conversation, a little bit, to a notion you write on frequently. I’m interested in exploring this idea of “place-based thinking”. Your knowledge of the area, like where to get your water from, these are things that the average person doesn’t think about. I understand necessity is a driver for you because you live off the grid, so you have to have a more intimate understanding of your space. But what are the rest of us missing when we don’t understand or know much about the space we live in?
— First of all, we’re missing an understanding of ethics and etiquette. Not to know about your natural surroundings is a moral failing, in a way, and it is a matter of etiquette to know the names of your neighbors, which includes plants and animals, as well as human neighbors. And that’s a profound ethical question to begin with, the question of the Occidental world, or even the developed world: What do we owe non-human nature in the way of a moral regard? That’s why I’m a Buddhist. I became a Buddhist for ethical reasons years ago, not because I wanted to improve myself . And long before I moved here, I grew up at a farm up in Washington State, north of Seattle, where we had a few cows and chickens. We were surrounded by cut-over old-growth forest, just literally on the other side of a barbed wire fence. It was stumps and cascara trees coming back in, young pines, young firs. And I grew up learning all of that because I wanted to know my neighbors, so to speak. Then I began to identify on many levels with Native Americans.

— Connecting it to another idea in one of your essays in The Practice of the Wild, and I think it was in “Tawny Grammar” where you said, “with no surroundings, there can be no path, and with no path, one cannot be free, or become free.” I’m wondering if you can connect the idea of knowing our natural surroundings to this notion of being free as human beings? What does that mean?
— Oh, that’s a good question, isn’t it? Well, what does ‘free’ mean? Free means being, for one thing. It means being able to outgrow that knee-jerk reflection of what your human society around you wants you to think – and so ‘free’ means thinking for yourself and not accepting every piece of information or opinion heedlessly. It means critical thinking and everybody has always said this, you know? This is what was said by the Greek philosophers or the early Buddhist or Indo philosophers: You’ve got to think for yourself. Otherwise, you’re just reflecting the dominant psychology of the local masses. And that’s also what the Christians would say — it’s the moral challenge that everyone faces. Which is that you make your own decisions, ultimately, and some of the decisions you make may be good and some of them may be bad, but they are your decisions. That’s the human condition. I would argue that you learn a lot from being tuned into and having the proper etiquette with the natural world. That takes you beyond just the human etiquette and equips you to respond to a larger world with greater subtlety and a greater sense of beauty than being purely dominated by the human world.

— I wanted to quote another line in your essay that’s really stuck with me. The line is: “if the lad or lass is among us who knows where the secret heart of this growth monster is hidden, please let them tell us where to shoot the arrow that will slow it down.” What I’m wondering is, what is the potential for our place-based learning to inform a healthier, more sustainable way of being?
— Well, first you have to know what the growth monster is.

— Perfect. Tell me.
— Capitalism. You better know what it is. It’s also banking, and all of the more sophisticated techniques of lending, and making bets on loans, and underwriting projects that do not work, and huge, massive amounts of income that come in strange ways and go in strange directions. Giant public works projects that turn out to be flawed. The idea that if you stop growing, you go backward, which is a belief that people in the capitalist, developed world take to heart. You’ve gotta know the growth monster, which means, basically you better read Marx, for one thing. And what drives all of capitalism is cheap energy right now. In the past, slavery drove the growth monster, back all the way to Egyptian times. But the economics of slavery in the new world are striking and there are some very good new books on that. Do you know which nation was the last to make slavery illegal?

— Was it in North America?
— In North America, in South America, in the Western Hemisphere, in the world, the last one was Brazil.

— It’s funny you make the connection. The old fuel that used to drive the growth monster was slavery, now it’s cheap energy. I mean they’re analogous, aren’t they
— Yeah, they are. Sure.

— Another theme that comes up in some of your essays in The Practice of the Wild is how we live in a tricky pluralistic society, and there are many of us living a bit of a schizophrenic life. For those of us that are somewhat attuned to the natural world, we revere it, we enjoy it on weekends, if not find opportunities daily to get out into it, but we plunder it, day by day, as well. So where does language and how we speak about nature, and our knowledge of our space help us live on better terms?
— That would require talking about language, which is not as simple a thing to talk about as some people think. It’s a really rich territory of talking and thinking, and you open yourself up to the intellectual explorations of the post-modernists, which is a whole territory on its own.

— Maybe I can ground it in a real-world example and we could tackle it from there. I work for a business support organization, but I live in a community that’s perhaps a little bit more progressive in its philosophies in terms of how business should exist within the natural world. Much of our economy is based on tourism, and green tourism specifically. But a lot of the rhetoric in my province is around the fact that 94% of our land in British Columbia is Crown land. There’s an idea held generally that the land holds immense value and it’s just waiting to be tapped. And that’s a very obvious example of how a belief, the way we speak, a myth about our place in British Columbia can lead to very uncritical approaches to resource extraction. And I think we are seeing a more enlightened group of business people, and certainly citizens who would like to unpack that conversation. But what could we do to elevate the conversation, to stop thinking about British Columbia, as just a regional example, as a place that’s always had this magnificent tradition of resource extraction? How do we change the myth, if that’s even the right question?
— You guys are stuck with the term Crown land. Down in the United States, it’s called public land, and public land – as I keep reminding people – is not federal land. It does not belong to the government, it belongs to all the people. And the people should take that to heart, and the public should also engage itself, much more than it does, in the policymaking and decision-making over how public land is used. That’s how we know that public land really is public. Even the law says that the public must participate in the decision-making. People talk about working wilderness, and my answer to that is, wilderness is always working. [laughs] It isn’t necessarily working for human beings but it sure as hell is working for lizards, jackrabbits, pronghorns, antelopes, whatever. It’s always working and it’s working in its own way, and ways we cannot see. And, then, we have to respect that to start with. And, doing nothing with the public land, is not doing nothing. It’s a positive in its own way.

— If we were to prescribe some human homework to anyone that ends up reading this reading, where would you recommend they start? What would you recommend as our human assignment so that we might live on better terms with the natural world?
— Point one is what I call “nature literacy.” That’s a useful term. We all know about, and the schools teach “cultural literacy.” But nature is no longer something just to be left to specialists and scientists. There has to be a “nature literacy” that takes it as an assumption that we need to know and be more acquainted with all of what the natural world is doing. People can come in at their level. One of the levels, one of the primary levels that I suggest is, “know what watershed you’re in. What is the closest major river? And what is the closest minor stream and tributary river to where you live? And how do they all relate to each other?” Simple things like that; basic vegetation, basic morphology, watersheds and vegetation. And then the very basics, of which there are some good books: Marston Bates’ old book The Forest and the Sea, was a good one. And there’s all kinds of things like that now and you can pick them up pretty locally too. There are a lot of local handbooks. That’s where you begin. And for a while you let that kind of study be its own study, and you don’t scare people right away with the politics and legislation. [laughs]

— Right. So let the study be the focus, and then you can transition into politics later?— That’s the way you have to do it. And the way you translate and transition into politics could sound like: “gee, maybe they shouldn’t build that road there in this upcoming timber plan. That road would have a lot of erosion.” [laughs]

— The other thing I wanted to follow up with, and we can maybe wrap it up here, is one of your new poems I really enjoyed from The Present Moment – “Fixing the System.” “Every valve leaks a little, there’s no stopping the flow.”
— [laughs] That’s funny isn’t it?

— Is there any reflection from that poem in some of the conversation we just had?
— I think it’s quite obvious. Anybody that reads that is going to get it, especially in other contexts of the natural world. I’ll tell you one little thing I’ve been griping about lately though, is how the US Forest Service down here has positioned its Smokey the Bear rhetoric. It’s always saying that human beings are responsible for forest fires, or implying that. Even some of the radio commentary right now is always saying, “94% of forest fires are human caused.” And, you know, they are not looking at information that is right in front of them, which is, the fact that most forest fires are started by lightning.

— Do you not like the rhetoric because it removes our understanding of the reality that forest fires are also very natural and necessary?
— That’s part of it, but also, the public becomes inevitably – ultimately – cynical when they are given too much of a story that they know is not true. It’s better to get down to the truth of it and then talk about what has to be done. The main thing about forest fires is that you have to be prepared yourself on how to deal with them. And, of course, there still are a lot of dumb jerks. They go out without thinking and start a campfire. That’s true, too, and unfortunate. The rhetoric has served some good for a long time, but I don’t think it serves the scientists or the public to keep on saying the same thing.

— Gary, I want to honour your time so perhaps we should wrap it up here. Thank you so much for having this conversation with me – and I really hope your generator starts on first pull now.
— Oh, I’m sure it’ll be okay. This guy is really a genius.