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.

I Expected More from Mountains and Rivers

I’ve been looking forward to reading Mountains and Rivers Without End since I read Dharma Bums several months ago. In fact, much of my motivation for studying the Beat poets was to gain the background needed to fully appreciate this work. I figured this would be the climax of that study, and I could move on and finally begin reading the The Unbearable Lightness of Being that Ted recommended to me just before going into the hospital for surgery.

Everything I read on the web has been wildly enthusiastic about Mountains and Rivers Without End. Look at any of the following:

Anima Mundi

Holistic Hipster

The Circumambulation of Mt. Tamalpais

Gary Snyder Reading

Maybe that should have been a warning point. But it wasn’t.

Now, admittedly, and regrettably, my background in Asian studies is nowhere near Snyder’s. Though my knowledge of Asian literature and religion is nowhere comparable to his, I have read widely in Asian literature, both in college courses and through personal exploration. I’ve visited the same Asian museums in Seattle and San Francisco and admired the same works. I’ve practiced Sumi painting and have learned to appreciate the skill required in such artwork. In other words, we both share an appreciation of Zen and its many artistic manifestations.

Perhaps more importantly, we were raised in the Pacific Northwest at approximately the same time and both developed the same love of the outdoors. I imagine that I’ve spent roughly the same time wandering the woods and mountains as he has, and I doubt that anyone could love them any more than I do.

I admire his attempts to protect the environment, particularly as that has been one of my greatest goals in the last thirty years. I belong to The Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, Greenpeace, etc. and have devoted the greatest part of my charitable contributions to those institutions.

When I read “The Making of Mountains and Rivers Without End,” Snyder’s essay about the book, I could identify with virtually everything Snyder said. This was, for me, at least, to be the crowning achievement of the Beat movement.

But it wasn’t. Despite the fact that I find innumerable passages that I identify with and there are several short sections I love, I didn’t identify with the “vision” as a whole. Maybe Jeff Ward is right when he says, “I think that all of them fail in one way or another, but it’s America’s nature to try and fail.” I’ll be trying to figure out in the next few days why the vision in Mountains and Rivers Without End doesn't work for me.

A War Against Earth

Gary Snyder reminds me more of Edward Abbey than any poet. His poems look at nature, and at life, from radically diverse perspectives. In his preface to No Nature he says, "There is no single or set "nature, either as 'natural world' or the 'nature of things.' The greatest respect we can pay to nature is not to trap it, but to acknowledge that it eludes us and that our own nature is also fluid, open, and conditional."

Snyder studied Zen at a monastery in Kyoto and Tibetan Buddhism and that is reflected in his poems, but you are also likely to find the loggers attitude reflected in them. His poem entitled "Why Log Truck Drivers Rise Earlier than Students of "Zen." though written in the simple language of a tanka or haiku, celebrates the "polished" "hubs" and "shiny" diesel "stack" of the logging truck, and ends with the simple declaration "There" is no other "life" That simple declaration could easily be made by either a truck driver or a Zen student.

"Call of the Wild" probably isn't a typical Snyder poem, but it does contain several reoccurring themes. Like most of his poems, it is pro-environmental, and it's not unusual for him to use native Indian themes. His poems often have a nice sense of humor, which certainly dominates this poem.

The Call Of The Wild

The heavy old man in his bed at night
Hears the Coyote singing
in the back meadow.
All the years he ranched and mined and logged.
A Catholic.
A native Californian.
and the Coyotes howl in his
Eightieth year.
He will call the Government
Who uses iron leg-traps on Coyotes,
My sons will lose this
Music they have just started
To love.

The ex acid-heads from the cities
Converted to Guru or Swami,
Do penance with shiny
Dopey eyes, and quit eating meat.
In the forests of North America,
The land of Coyote and Eagle,
They dream of India, of
forever blissful sexless highs,
And sleep in oil-heated
Geodesic domes, that
Were stuck like warts
In the woods.

And the Coyote singing
is shut away
for they fear
the call
of the wild.

And they sold their virgin cedar trees,
the tallest trees in miles,
To a logger
Who told them,

"Trees are full of bugs."

The Government finally decided
To wage the war all-out. Defeat
is Un-American.

And they took to the air,
Their women beside them
in bouffant hairdos
putting nail-polish on the
gunship cannon-buttons.

And they never came down,
for they found,
the ground

is pro-Communist. And dirty.
And the insects side with the Viet Cong.

So they bomb and they bomb
Day after day, across the planet
blinding sparrows
breaking the ear-drums of owls
splintering trunks of cherries
twining and looping
deer intestines
in the shaken, dusty, rocks.

All these Americans up in special cities in the sky
Dumping poisons and explosives
Across Asia first,
And next North America,

A war against earth.
When it's done there'll be
no place

A Coyote could hide.


I would like to say
Coyote is forever
Inside you.

But it's not true.

The Republican in the poem seems pretty predictable, almost stereotypical, but the ironic portrayal of the ex acid-heads and their ignorance of the natural world they claim to be concerned about makes us wonder if anyone in America really cares about "the" "wild" Do Americans all want nature to reflect our reality. Do we all want to remake the world in our own image rather than accept it for what it is?

The lines "And the insects side with the Viet Cong./So they bomb and they bomb" recall the American use of defoliants in Viet Nam to deny the North Vietnamese the ability to deliver arms to the Viet Cong. Unfortunately, in the process all the animals that depended on the jungle were destroyed, and the area still "hasn't" healed. But, hey, it is war.

In a very real sense, America seems to have declared war on the earth, "Dumping poisons and explosives" on the entire environment in order to remake it into our image of what it should be like and to serve our own purposes. It should be "bug free" and wild animals should be like the wild animals in Disney's movies, or, at the very least, kept out of our sight.

Snyder, like Abbey, seems to feel that the loss of nature will necessarily bring with it the loss of "coyote," that special spirit inside of us that can only come from our exposure to the real "wild."

Unlike Abbey, though, Snyder is able to view America's attempts to destroy the environment from a distance, to somehow find ironic humor in these actions. Perhaps it is absurdist humor, but laughing is better than crying, particularly when crying won't change the situation.

Open Directory - Arts: Literature: Authors: S: Snyder, Gary


Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

Gary Snyder from No Nature

Although Bill and I couldn't avoid talking about the state of the nation on our long drive to our hike, we slowly put our priorities back in order as we spent the day hiking Lookout Mountain, an old fire lookout just east of Mt. Hood. Like most of our late-season hikes, it is virtually straight up and ten to eleven miles long.

The 30 to 40 degree temperature at the beginning of the hike made the sharp uphill easier than usual, but it was still a long climb up, particularly since we haven't hiked in over a week. Luckily this left little room for talk, and I was able to sink into that kind of meditative rhythm that makes hiking so special to me. For a time, at least, I was able to simply be, without any thought for the day or for the future.

The views of Mt Rainer, Mt Adams, Mt Jefferson, and The Three Sisters from the top were breathtaking, more than justifying the peak's name. A simple meal of an organic orange and a handful of granola mix somehow seemed appropriate in this zen-like setting.

Too soon, though, we were back on our way down to the flatlands and our daily concerns.