Learn Your Place and Do Good Things

The last section of Mountains and Rivers Without End focuses on man’s connection with the earth and our relationship to it. The first poem “Old Woodrat’s Stinky House” ends with Coyote saying to mankind, “ You people should stay put here,/ learn your place,/ do good things.” Learning our place and doing good things for the earth, of course, could serve as the motto of the whole book, but they are particularly relevant in this section.

My favorite poem in this section, oddly enough, is quite similar to “The Canyon Wren” particularly in that it describes a boating experience, in this case a kayak trip. Perhaps it’s just that as we get older it’s easier to boat than it is to climb mountains, but I too have recently discovered the joys of kayaking as a way to re-establish ties with the world of water:


Floating in a tiny boat
lightly on the water, rock with every ripple,

another skin that slides along the water
hung by sea and sky

green mountains turn to clouds
and slip slow by

two-mile saltwater channel
sucks and coils with the tide,

kayak like a cricket husk—
like an empty spider egg case,
like dried kelp fronds,
like a dry cast skin of a snake,
like froth on the lip of a wave,

trembles on the membrane
paddling forward, paddling backward

crossing at an angle to the
roiling shallow bars

the mountain slides, the moon slides,
the waters churn together,
the near bank races onward,

twin kayak paddles turn and glint like wings
casting spume,

there is no place we are
but maybe here

sky and water stitched together
with the oystercatchers screaming steady flight
the kittiwakes deliberate beat of wing
the murres bob up from underworlds
the seals heads dip back to it
the terns erratic dive and splash
the ravens tweet and croak and gurgle in the far-off
outflow alders;

wind ripples westward, the tide goes east,
we paddle east southeast
the world a rush of wings and waters,

up the slopes the mountain glacier
looses ice melt over gravel in a soft far roar
that joins the inlet-basin world of cries and whistles

(and all this realm was under icefields ten miles long,
when my grandfather drove his team
to pick berries at Port Orchard)

the glaciers shift and murmur like the tides
under the constant cross-current
steady drum of bird wings
full of purpose, some direction,
all for what
in the stroke
in the swirl of the float

we are two souls in one body,
two sets of wings, our paddles swing
where land meets water meets the sky,

where judges and speechmakers, actresses and carpenters,
drop their masks and go on as they were,
petrels, geese, oystercatchers, murrelets,
and small fish fry,

in the tide-suck dark draft sea,
floating in the weaving

of clouds, ice, tides, calls
-only to be here!

The tiny skin boat.

Kayaks are quite different from most boats, particularly for those of us raised with sea-going row boats built to withstand the pounding of ocean waves. The first impression when you get in one, besides the feeling that you’re about to tip over, is of being one with the water. You’re so close to the water that you feel every ripple against the boat. You move so easily that soon you almost believe you’re one with water. For all their fragility, kayaks are easy to maneuver and before long the sky and mountains slip by with amazing ease. Once you’ve mastered the kayak paddle, the tips of the paddle appear much like wing tips dipping into the water as the boat flies forward. Before long you feel more at one with the water than you could ever feel with a motor boat.

Of course, Snyder is describing the dream trip for all kayakers, a trip to the glaciers in Alaska, one of those places on earth where ocean, land, in the form of huge glaciers, and sky meet and become one. A place largely unspoiled by industry, a place where birds of all kinds gather to multiply. Here man can still imagine that he is part of the primeval wilderness, a “tiny skin boat” in a living universe.

Of course, it is this very feeling of being at one with the universe that Snyder has most tried to promote in his book. To the extent that he accomplishes this, I have enjoyed the work because I certainly share this feeling and wish that I could share it with everyone else. There are several poems that I admire as much as any nature poems that I have read.

On the other hand, as I’ve noted throughout this review, too much of the book seems devoted to trying to convince the reader that every religion on earth, with the possible exception of Christianity, is devoted to the sacredness of the earth and to saving it from mankind’s depredation. Perhaps someone more interested in, or more informed about, Buddhist manuscripts would find this book more compelling than I do.

The truth is that I don’t care what American Indian mythology, East Indian mythology, Chinese Mythology, or Buddhist mythology has to say about nature. All one needs to do is to experience nature directly and fully to realize that it is a vital part of who we are and to realize that we ignore that reality only at our own peril.

If I had the time right now, I would read Snyder’s No Nature: New and Selected Poems and review it because I know from reading parts of it that I prefer it to this book. Snyder is one of my favorite nature poets; so, it is with some regret that I admit that I am less enthusiastic about this work than the many reviewers on the net that I pointed out earlier.

Unfortunately, I’m poetried out for awhile. I need to get outside, get my hands dirty, and plant the seedlings I’ve been starting since February. But first the beds need to be rototilled and raked. Then the tulips and daffodils need to be cut back, and the weeds hacked out.

Ain’t Nature Grand?!!

The Simple Joys of Nature

Section III of Mountains and Rivers Without End seems to focus on the idea of purification and rejoining with mother earth. The section begins with a poem called The Circumambulation of Mt. Tamalpais. It begins:

Walking up and around the long ridge of Tamalapais “Bay Mountain,” circling and climbing—chanting to show respect and to clarify the mind. Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, and I learned this practice in Asia. So we opened a route around Tam. It takes a day.

This poem and the web page cited above, in particular, remind me that I’m much more of an Emerson-Thoreau transcendentalist than a New-Age, Buddhist. I don’t need to chant to be reminded how “sacred” Mount Hood or Mt Adams are when I’m walking around them. For me, the silence, the overwhelming silence, accentuated perhaps by the occasional sound of running streams or bird songs provides its own sanctity that certainly needs no interruption of human chants.

Although there are several long, complex poems in this section demanding a rather sophisticated understanding of Buddhism, my favorite poem is a simple one called, “The Canyon Wren:”

The Canyon Wren

I look up at the cliffs
but we’re swept on by downriver
the rafts
wobble and slide over rolls of water
boulders shimmer
under the arching stream
rock walls straight up on both sides.
A hawk cuts across that narrow sky hit by sun,

we paddle forward, backstroke, turn,
spinning through eddies and waves
stairsteps of churning whitewater.
Above the roar
hear the song of a Canyon Wren.

A smooth stretch, drifting and resting.
Hear it again, delicate downward song
ti ti ti ti tee tee tee

descending through ancient beds.
A single female mallard flies upstream-—

Shooting the Hundred-Pace Rapids
Su Tung P’o saw, for a moment,
it all stand still.
"I stare at the water:
it moves with unspeakable slowness."

Dogen, writing at midnight,
"mountains flow
water is the palace of the dragon
it does not flow away."

We beach up at China Camp
between piles of stone
stacked there by black-haired miners,
cool in the dark
sleep all night long by the stream.

These songs that are here and gone,
here and gone,
to purify our ears.

Those who have rafted are immediately struck by the details in the poem, particularly phrases like “the rafts/wobble and slide over rolls of water” or “A hawk cuts across that narrow sky hit by sun.” The second stanza captures the constant sense of physical motion, the constant roar of motion which makes rafting so compelling — only to be dispelled by the “song of a Canyon Wren.” And later, when drifting along, the same voice becomes even louder. Those who spend hours outdoors regularly will certainly identify with the ability of a single bird song to pierce the silence, or even the regular roar of rushing water. Though it may be the whole experience of nature, particularly the flowing waters that appear to stand still even while moving at exhilarating speed, that captures our hearts, it is often the song of single bird that stands out in our memories. Certainly Snyder seems right on when he says that these songs are “here and gone/to purify our ears.”

Section III is obviously meant to reveal the holiness of nature and of life as revealed through many cultures, but again, it is the simple poems, not the complex ones, that capture my heart:

The Bear Mother

She veils herself
to speak of eating salmon
Teases me with
“What do you know of my ways”
And kisses me through the mountain.

Through and under its layers, its
gullies, its folds;
Her mouth full of blueberries,
We share.

I’ve often felt this way while hiking the huckleberry fields in Indian Heaven during the fall. As I pause to eat a fistful of huckleberries while keeping a watchful eye out for bears sharing my repast, I often contemplate how little I know about bears and am amazed at their ability to survive at these heights where I am only an occasional visitor.

Getting Rid of Excess Baggage

Section II of Mountains and Rivers Without End begins with a poem called “Market” and ends with a poem called “The Hump-backed Flute Player.” Thematically it’s not always clear what the point of the section is, but generally the section seems to be about the “baggage” that we carry with us. And, as we all know, 20th century Americans, lucky Canadians and Australians, carry way too much baggage.

“Market” begins with a rather benign description of John Muir packing “pears in the best boxes” and taking them off to market. After, in my opinion, an overly-long listing of market “equivalencies,” i.e., “Seventy-five feet hoed rows equals/ one hour explaining power steering,” the poem concludes with a gruesome description of a market in Varanasi where animals are held for sale in abysmal conditions: “ They eat feces/ in the dark/ on stone floors/ one-legged monkeys, hopping cows/ limping dogs blind cats/ crunching garbage in the market.” The concept of “market” is a complex one and the poem portrays two extremes of the market quite well.

“Journeys” contrasts a rather magical hike in the mountains to the view the narrator discovers when he hits the LOWLANDS:

Underground building chambers clogged with refuse
discarded furniture, slag, old nails,
rotting plaster, faint wisps, antiques newspapers
rattle in the winds that come forever down the hall

Again, we discover how man has polluted what should be “sacred” ground.

A later poem, “Covers the Ground” begins with the John Muir quotation, “When California was wild, it was one sweet bee garden…” Now the land is covered with “mobile homes, pint-sized portable housing, johnny-on-the-spots, “cubic blocks of fresh fruit loading boxes,” and “trucks on the freeways.” In other words, as the last line of the poem suggests, “us and our stuff just covering the ground.”

To me the most interesting poem in the section is the last one, “The Hump-backed Flute Player.” The poem begins with the lines “The hump-backed flute player/ walks all over/ Sits on the boulders of the Great Basin/ his hump…is a pack.” A later line suggests that the pack he carries is really emptiness: “he carried/”emptiness”/ he carried/ “mind only”/vijnaptimatra.”

RANT FOLLOWS: TOO MUCH of this poem seems intent on tying this figure, Kokop’ele, to important cultural figures in Chinese and Buddhist history. Now, I’m not sure how other readers may react to this kind of linkage, but it annoys me. I feel like I’m reading Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” or taking more Joseph Campbell lessons on archetypes. Hell, I’m not going to take a summer-long seminar at Stanford in order to understand the subtleties of this poem. I JUST WANT TO KNOW HOW THE HELL SNYDER THINKS THIS RELATES TO “MARKET.” Wasn’t it the Beat poets that objected to academic poets? I’ll take Snyder’s word that this is a universal archetype. … RANT ENDED

The point of the section seems to be that we need to get rid of the excess baggage that weighs us, and our society, down. We need to free ourselves of our obsession with things if we are going to put ourselves back in touch with nature. I’m not sure, though, that Thoreau didn’t convey the same idea better in Walden’s Pond.

Snyder begins the Journey

Mountains and Rivers Without End is admirably ambitious. As the jacket notes, it was “Initially inspired by East Asian landscape painting and his [Snyder’s] own experience within ‘a chaotic universe where everything is in place,’ Snyder’s vision was further stimulated by Asian art and drama, Gaia history, Native American performance and storytelling, the practices of Zen Buddhism and the varied landscapes of Japan, California, Alaska, Australia, China, and Taiwan.”

The book begins with a poem called “Endless Streams and Mountains” which describes a famous Chinese scroll that was the original inspiration for this work. It begins, “ Clearing the mind and sliding in/ to that created space,/ a web of waters streaming over rocks,/seeing this land from a boat or a lake,/ or a broad slow river,/ coasting by.” This line is further amplified later in the poem with the lines, “The Fashioner of Things/ has no original intentions/ Mountains and rivers/ are spirit, condensed.” In other words, this long poem suggests a way of clearing the mind and seeing the world from the perspective of spirit, the spirit derived from experiencing and understanding mountains and rivers. This beginning poem ends with the lines “Walking on walking, /underfoot earth turns/Streams and mountains never stay the same.”

The book ends with a poem entitled “Finding the Space in the Heart.” Echoing the phrase “clearing the mind” in the first poem in the book are the lines, “O, ah! The/ awareness of emptiness/ brings forth a heart of compassion.” In the middle of this long poem the narrator “Walked the hills for a day,/ looked out where it all drops away,/ discovered a path/ of carved stone inscriptions tucked into the sagebrush/ ‘Stomp out greed’/’The best things in life are not things.’/ words placed by an old desert sage.” The poem closes with the lines “—the wideness, the / foolish loving spaces/ full of heart. Walking on walking/ underfoot earth turns/ Streams and mountains never stay the same.” These lines echo the opening poem, suggesting the closing of the sacred circle, the empty space encircled.

These lines are followed, finally, by, “The space goes on./But the wet black brush/tip drawn to a point,/lifts away,” ending the book exactly the same way the Chinese scroll was ended, as any work of art must always be ended.

The difficult part, of course, is transforming the space between the beginning and the end of the work, the void, as it were, into a spiritual space, a “holy” space that illuminates the whole. In essence, the poem seems like the narrative of Snyder’s journey, both a physical and spiritual journey. I suspect, as described in some of the web sites I referred to yesterday, that’s why Snyder has given readings of the book accompanied by musicians or delivered part of it while walking around the mountains he has hiked. I suspect his being there, actually being able to see him and listen to him helps to add another dimension to the work.

Section I of the work focuses on the journeys he has taken, beginning with “Night Highway 99,” which describes the physical journey from northern Washington to San Francisco. In essence, this seems similar to Kerouac’s On the Road with lines like “The road that’s followed goes forever; in half a minute crossed and left behind” and “Each time you go that road it gets more straight.” The poem “Three Worlds, Three Realms, Six Roads” goes even farther, moving from Seattle to San Francisco to Kyoto and ending with the lines “Throwing away the things you’ll never need/Stripping down/ Going home.” You get the feeling that he’s throwing away more than just “things” and that going “home” doesn’t mean moving back to Seattle.

The final journey, though is a non-physical journey to “The Blue Sky,” “…a world called/ PURE AS LAPIS LAZULI/ its Buddha is called Master of Healing,/ AZURE RADIANCE TATHAGATA” though Snyder points out that it would “take you twelve thousand summer vacations/ driving a car due east all day every day” to reach the edge of this realm. This journey passes through “The Spell of the Master of Healing”: “Namo bhagaate bhaishajyaguru-vaidurya … to “T’u chueh a border tribe near China to “Shakyamuni.” Ultimately, if you accept Snyder’s map, and I’m not sure that I do, you end up at “The Blue Sky/is the land of/ OLD MAN MEDICINE BUDDHA/ where the eagle that flies out of sight/ flies.”

It’s not always easy to follow, or, perhaps, to accept, Snyder’s journey, but so far it’s certainly an interesting one.