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?!!