Gary Snyder

[Gary Snyder] a friend, colleague and a major literary figure of the twentieth century. A major poet and ethical voice in the best honored traditions of the American Thoreau and the Japanese haiku-master Dogen. His work makes us far more alive and attentive; it reaches into our deepest and best resources, heartens us to the challenges and promises of restoration to a natural place from which many of us now feel ourselves estranged. -- Robert Haas, US Poet Laureate

For the past forty years, Gary Snyder has pursued a radical vision which integrates Zen Buddhism, American Indian practices, ecological thinking and wilderness values. The vision has informed his poetry, shaped the cause of Deep Ecology, and produced a distinctive answer to the eternal question of what it is to live a human life. -- Jack Turner

If Ginsberg is the Beat movement's Walt Whitman, Gary Snyder is the Henry David Thoreau. -- Bruce Cook

I hold the most archaic values on earth ... the fertility of the soul, the magic of the animals, the power-vision in solitude, .... the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe. -- Gary Snyder

In wilderness is the preservation of the world. -- Henry David Thoreau

Wilderness is not just the 'preservation' of the world, it is the world. .... Nature is ultimately in no way endangered; wilderness is. The wild is indestructible, but we might not see the wild. -- Gary Snyder

Human beings themselves are at risk - not just on some survival-of-civilization level, but more basically on the level of heart and soul. We are ignorant of our own nature and confused about what it is to be a human being. -- Gary Snyder

'The secret of this kind of climbing,' said Japhy in a tone that might be reminiscent of Snyder's, 'is like Zen. Don't think. Just dance along. It's the easiest thing in the world, actually easier than walking on flat ground.' -- Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums

We are defending our own space, and we are trying to protect the commons. More than the logic of self-interest inspires this: a true and selfless love of the land is the source of the undaunted spirit of my neighbours. -- Gary Snyder

Bioregional awareness teaches us in specific ways. It is not enough to just 'love nature' or to want to 'be in harmony with Gaia.' Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience. -- Gary Snyder

You know, I think if people stay somewhere long enough - even white people - the spirits will begin to speak to them. It's the power of the spirits coming from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren't lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them. -- Crow elder

The landscape was intimately known, and the very idea of community and kinship embraced and included the huge populations of wild beings. -- Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder (1930- ), American poet, Zen Buddhist, mountaineer, environmental activist, deep ecology philosopher, founder member of the Beat Generation, one of the Black Mountain poets.

Gary Snyder was born 8 May 1930 in San Francisco. He grew up near Puget Sound in Washington. His early love of nature led him to mountaineering. At fifteen he had climbed Mount St Helens and by seventeen most of the major peaks in the northwest.

Snyder graduated from Reed College, Portland, Oregon, from where he received a BA in Literature and Anthropology. Postgraduate studies at Indiana University where he studied linguistics, then a further three years at University California, Davis, where he studied Asian languages.

Snyder worked as a mountain lookout, forest ranger, logger, on the docks at San Francisco and as a seaman.

It was whilst Snyder was climbing Matterhorn Peak in the Sierra Nevada with Jack Kerouac that Kerouac decided to use Snyder as the semi-mystical poet in his autobiographical Dharma Bums (1958).

In 1956, Snyder left for Japan, where he spent twelve years studying Rinzai Zen Buddhism, researching and translating Zen texts. He spent six months travelling throughout Asia, where he had the honour of a meeting with the Dalai Lama.

Snyder travelled through India in the company of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, all three founders of the Beat Generation. Ginsberg's Howl (1956), in which he laments the destruction through insanity of some of the best of his generation, is considered to be the most significant publication of the Beat Generation. Ginsberg was at Columbia University with fellow Beats, Jack Kerouac and William Boroughs.

In 1969, Snyder returned to the States, where he established a farmstead on the San Juan Ridge in the foothills of the northern Sierra Nevada. It is from here that Snyder has become a major figure in the deep ecology movement.

In the late 1960s, Snyder became one of the founders of deep ecology, along with Arne Naess, Bill Devall, George Sessions, Dolores LaChapelle, Alan Drengson, Michael Zimmerman, Robert Aitken.

Deep ecology grants intrinsic value to all life, shallow ecology sees only utilitarian value, as Snyder noted in his journal, 20 August 1953, whilst working as a mountain lookout at Sourdough Mountain:

Forest equals crop / Scenery equals recreation / Public equals money. : : The shopkeeper's view of nature.

Zen Buddhist, ecologist and biologist, Michael Soule, with the help of Robert Aitken and Gary Snyder organised one of the first deep ecology conferences at the Zen Centre in Los Angeles (April 1982). Those attending included several Buddhist scholars, Arne Naess, Bill Devall, George Sessions, Robert Aitken. Gary Snyder was prevented from attending by deep snow in the Sierra foothills.

George Sessions was deeply influenced by Snyder. Deep Ecology by Bill Devall and George Sessions is dedicated to Arne Naess and Gary Snyder.

A close friend of fellow poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry. Berry shares with Snyder a deep sense of place and community.

Several of the poems in Axe Handles (1983) refer directly or indirectly to Berry. In 'What I have Learned', Snyder continues the dialogue of the generations of father to son in Berry's 'The Gathering':

	What I have learned but
	the proper use of tools,

	. . . . . . . . .

	Seeing in silence:
	never the same twice,
	but when you get it right,
				you pass it on.

In 'Berry Territory', Snyder refers to Berry's wife Tanya, then to Berry:

	Under dead leaves Tanya finds a tortoise
		matching the leaves - legs pulled in -

	. . . . . . . . . . . .

	Wendell, crouched down,
		Sticks his face in a woodchuck hole
		'Hey, smell that, it's a fox'.

Inherent in Snyder's philosophy is the concept of place and community:

We are all indigenous to this planet, this garden we are being called on by nature and history to reinhabit in good spirit. To restore the land one must live and work in a place. The place will welcome whomever approaches it with respect and attention. To work in a place is to bond to a place: people who work together in a place become a community, in time, grows a culture. To restore the wild is to restore culture.

The poetry of the Pulitzer Prize winning Turtle Island (1974) speaks of place:

The poems speak of place, and the energy pathways that sustain life. Each living being is a swirl in the flow, a formal turbulence, a 'song.' The land, the planet itself, is also a living being - at another pace. Anglos, Black people, Chicanos, and others beached up on these shores all share such views at the deepest levels of their old cultural traditions - African, Asian or European. Hark again to those roots, to see our ancient solidarity, and then to the work of being together on Turtle Island.

Snyder practices what he preaches. At San Juan Ridge, he has established a lay Zen centre and an ecology centre. He has politicised the local community, helped them to understand nature and to be able to respect and defend their space.

Jack Turner:

Gary Snyder has lived this vision. He and his friends reinhabited San Juan Ridge in the northern Sierra Nevada. They have practised a quasi-subsistence economy, and they have established one of America's first lay Zen centres. They interact with their land, and they are devoted to grassroots politics. Over the years they have established numerous organisations - the San Juan Ridge Tax Payers Association, the Ridge Study Group - then recently they created the Yuba Watershed Institute, a bioregional organization devoted to the total Yuba River community - human, biological, and topographic.

Zen master and poet Robert Aitken:

When Michael Kieran and I visited Gary Snyder in the Sierra foothills in December 1975, we talked of many things. One thing that sticks in my head is Gary's dictum: the community as dojo.' While we were talking, members of the community, some of them coming in from long distances, were bathing in the Snyder sauna.

For Snyder, one can only understand wilderness by experiencing it, to experience nature is to find 'the world is as sharp as the edge of a knife':

The wilderness pilgrim's step-by-step breath-by-breath walk up a trail, into those snowfields, carrying all on back, is so ancient a set of gestures as to bring a profound sense of body-mind joy. The same happens to those who sail in the ocean, kayak fiords or rivers, tend a garden, peel garlic, even sit on a meditation cushion. The point is to make contact with the real world, real self. Sacred refers to that which helps us (not only human beings) out of our little selves into the whole mountains-and-rivers mandala universe. Inspiration, exaltation, and insight do not end when one steps outside the doors of a church. The wilderness as temple is only a beginning.

Nikko, in Japan, is a place of natural beauty and has been a Buddhist centre since the 8th century. It has associations with Kobo Daishi (774-835) founder of the Shingon sect and Jikaku Daishi (792-862) founder of the Tendai sect. For pilgrims it was an arduous journey by foot, now it is reached by a freeway.

Haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) celebrated the beauty he found on his pilgrimage to Nikko:

	Ah, how glorious!
	Green leaves, young leaves
	Glittering in the sunlight.

To appreciate the beauty of a place one has to have experienced hardship to get there.

Basho travelled on foot with his load on his back, as he writes in his journal:

Most of the things I had brought for my journey turned out to be impediments, and I had thrown them away. However, I still carried my paper robe, my straw raincoat, inkstone, brush, paper, lunch box, and other things on my back - quite a load for me. More and more my legs grew weaker and my body lost strength. Making wretched progress, with knees trembling, I carried on as best as I could, but I was utterly weary.

Zen master Yamada Koun:

Pain in the legs is the taste of Zen.

Snyder draws on the mystical experience of his everyday life for his poetry and essays. His works include: Myths and Texts (1960), Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems (1969), Earth House Hold (1969), Turtle Island (1974) winner of Pulitzer prize, The Old Ways (1977), The Real Works: Interviews and Talks 1964-1979 (1980), The Practice of the Wild (1990).

Comes a time when the poet must choose: either to step deep in the stream of his people, history, tradition, folding and folding himself in wealth of persons and pasts; philosophy, humanity, to become richly foundationed and great and sane and ordered. Or, or to step beyond the bound onto the way out, into horrors and angels, possibly madness or silly Faustian doom, possibly utter transcendence, possibly enlightened return, possibly ignominious wormish perishing.

In Turtle Island Snyder draws up a Pledge of Allegiance, an oath to be sworn by all:

	For All

	... I pledge allegiance

	I pledge allegiance to the soil
		of Turtle Island
	and to the beings who thereon dwell
		one ecosystem
		in diversity
		under the sun
	With joyful interpenetration for all.

Journal entry, 20 August 1953, whilst working as a mountain lookout at Sourdough Mountain:

	Skirt blown against her hips, thighs, knees
			hair over her ears
		climbing the steep hill in high heeled shoes

In addition to the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Snyder can count the 1966 Poetry Prize from the National Institute of Arts and Letters among his many awards. The wide range of awards reflect the many dimensions of Snyder's life: the Bollingen Prize for Poetry (1997), the John Hay Award for Nature Writing (1997), the prestigious Buddhism Transmission Award (1998) by the Japan-based Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai Foundation (Buddhist Awareness Foundation). The internationally recognized foundation makes annual awards to distinguished scholars, artists, and monks who make outstanding contributions to the theory and practice of Buddhism. Snyder, the first American literary figure to receive the award, is honored for distinctive contributions in linking Zen thought and respect for the natural world across a lifelong body of poetry and prose.

Since 1985 Snyder has spent half of each year at University of California, Davis, teaching Ethno-Poetics, Creative Writing, and the Literature of Wilderness.

Snyder is married to Carole Koda and has two sons (by previous wife Masa Uehara) and two young step-daughters.

The Beat Generation, also known as the beat movement, were a group of American writers who emerged in the 1950s. Among its most influential members were Gary Snyder, the radical poet Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Jack Kerouac was the acknowledged leader and spokesman for the Beat Generation. What could be loosely described as the underlying philosophy was visionary enlightenment, Zen Buddhism, Amerindian culture. The Beat Generation were centred around the artist colonies of North Beach (San Francisco), Venice West (Los Angeles) and Greenwich Village (New York City). The Beat Generation rejected the prevailing academic attitude to poetry, feeling that poetry should be brought to the people. Readings would take place in the Coexistence Bagel Shop and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, often to the accompaniment of Jazz. A common theme that linked them all together was a rejection of the prevailing American middle-class values, the purposelessness of modern society and the need for withdrawal and protest.

Bob Dylan, The Beatles were heavily influenced by the Beat Generation. Members like Allen Ginsberg were influential in the anti-war movement. Others who were influenced include: Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez, Country Joe and the Fish, Crosby Stills Nash and Young. The Beat Generation were followed by the hippies, anti-war movement, which led to the environmental movement, deep ecology and Earth First!

The Beat Generation inspired the Black Mountain poets, so named as they wrote for the Black Mountain Review. The Black Mountain poets were a loose group of poets who coalesced around Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan and Charles Olson while they were teaching at Black Mountain College, North Carolina. Their style was typified by a move away from the structured poetry of T S Eliot to a freer, looser style. The essay 'Projective Verse' by Charles Olson became the group manifesto. Creeley edited the Black Mountain Review, which featured the work of William Carlos Williams, Paul Blackburn, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder. Much of the group's early work was published in Origin.

The term deep ecology was coined by its founder and leading guru, the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. Deep ecology is the philosophy of environmental ethics, the spirituality of Gaia. Deep ecology leads to direct action.

Web Resources


Robert Aitken, A Zen Wave: Basho's Haiku & Zen, Weatherhill, 1978

Wendell Berry, A Part, North Point Press, 1980

Bruce Cook, The Beat Generation

Tim Dean, Gary Snyder and the American Unconscious, St Martin's Press, 1991

Bill Devall & George Sessions, Deep Ecology, Peregrine Smith, 1985

Edward Halsey Foster, Understanding the Beats, 1991

Barry Gifford & Lawrence Lee (eds), Jack's Book: An Oral Biography, 1978

John Halper (ed), Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life, Sierra Club Books, 1991

Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums, 1958

Dolores LaChapelle, Sacred Land, Sacred Sex: Rapture of the Deep, Way of the Mountain Learning Centre, 1988

John Arthur Maynard, Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California, 1991

Katherine McNeill, Gary Snyder, Phoenix, 1983

Arne Naess, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1989

Keith Parkins, Deep Ecology, June 1999

Keith Parkins, Gaia, to be published

Thomas Riggs (ed), Contemporary Poets, St James Press, 1996

Robert Schuler, Journeys Towards the Original Mind: Long Poems of Gary Snyder, Peter Lang, 1994

George Sessions (ed), Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, Shambhala, 1995

Gary Snyder, Riprap, Origin Press, 1959

Gary Snyder, Myths and Texts, Totem Press/Corinth Books, 1960

Gary Snyder, Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End, Four Seasons, 1965

Gary Snyder, The Back Country, New Directions, 1968

Gary Snyder, Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, Four Seasons, 1969

Gary Snyder, Earth Household, New Directions, 1969

Gary Snyder, Regarding Wave, New Directions, 1970

Gary Snyder, Myths and Texts, New Directions, 1960, 1978

Gary Snyder, The Fudo Trilogy, Shaman Drum, 1973

Gary Snyder, Turtle Island, New Directions, 1974

Gary Snyder, The Old Ways, City Lights Books, 1977

Gary Snyder, Songs For Gaia, Copper Canyon Press, 1979

Gary Snyder, The Real Works: Interviews and Talks 1964-1979, New Directions, 1980

Gary Snyder, Axe Handles, North Point, 1983

Gary Snyder, Passage through India, Grey Fox Press, 1983

Gary Snyder, He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth, Grey Fox Press, 1984

Gary Snyder, Buddhism and the Possibilities of a Planetary Culture [in Bill Devall & George Sessions, Deep Ecology, Peregrine Smith, 1985]

Gary Snyder, Left Out in the Rain, North Point, 1988

Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, North Point Press, 1990

Gary Snyder, No Nature, Pantheon, 1992

Gary Snyder, Coming into the Watershed, Pantheon, 1994

Gary Snyder, A Place in Space, Counterpoint, 1995

Gary Snyder, The Rediscovery of Turtle Island [in George Sessions (ed), Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, Shambhala, 1995]

Gary Snyder, Mountains and Rivers Without End, Counterpoint, 1996

Gary Snyder & D Steven Conkle, Tree Zen, Broken Stone, 1984

Gary Snyder & Gutetsu Kanetsuki, The Wooden Fish: Basic Sutras and Gathas of Rinzai Zen, First Zen Institute of America in Japan, 1961

Jack Turner, Gary Snyder and the Practice of the Wild [in George Sessions (ed), Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, Shambhala, 1995]

John Tytell, Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation, 1976

Kenneth White, The Tribal Dharma: An Essay on the Work of Gary Snyder, Unicorn, 1975

Literature ~ Robert Aitken ~ Wendell Berry ~ Allen Ginsberg ~ Henry David Thoreau
(c) Keith Parkins 1999 -- June 1999 rev 3