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.