Gary Snyder’s Practice of the Wild, Review by Mary Woodbury
In The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder mentions Grandmother wisdom, the kind of sagacity that our grandmothers pass on to us. This etiquette-knowledge that we grow up with is often in confluence with other systems that tell us how to get ahead in the world—not how to maintain integrity. He says that Grandmother wisdom also includes “several of the Ten Commandments and the first five of the Ten Great Buddhist Precepts.” (p 57) Gary Snyder gives Grandfather wisdom in his book of essays. Grandfather wisdom is similar to Grandmother wisdom. Both signify the kind of erudition that is passed on from kin to kin, from generation to generation.
I remember when I was young and in 4-H, I had drawn (by looking at a book of wildlife) several types of birds, trees, flowers, and animals. They were light pencil sketches on a large posterboard. My project was to label and color in the flora and fauna. My father suggested that I take the project with me during spring break to my grandparents’ home in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. My grandfather would be able to help me. He never had an education past fourth grade, but he built his own house and did all the electrical and plumbing work. He never owned or drove a car, but he drove oxen and often walked miles to the nearest town. Sure enough, my grandfather was able to name every being on my posterboard, and he knew the exact shade of color for every petal, wing, feather, tail, and leaf. He also knew each animal’s and plant’s behaviors and habitats. Most importantly, my grandfather, having lived with the land, not just on it, had a great respect for all living things surrounding him.
Gary Snyder is this type of person. He has had years of academic study, at Reed College in Oregon, Indiana University, Berkeley, and in Japan. Yet he got his best education, I believe, while growing up in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, and by later travels to various places as he furthered his understanding of nature and culture.
His first essay, “The Etiquette of Freedom,” talks about freedom, wildness, nature, and culture. It’s a crash course into Gary’s mindset, as well as into an expansive world view that goes beyond the typical connotations of words that yield a pre-set significance. “Wild,” for instance, is one of the words that early Europeans called American Indians that they encountered: “wild” seemed to equal words like “primitive” and “savage.” “Culture” meant sophistication. The word “freedom” is often applied to people, but often with analogies of nonhuman characteristics (free as the bird, free as a horse running across the meadow). Gary explicates words such as “nature,” “wild,” and “wilderness.” Giving Latin roots and going beyond the definitions of these and other terms as found in the Oxford English Dictionary, he talks about similar meanings in the Chinese language, or in Milton. He talks about nature illiteracy, a theme running throughout the book, and how language evolves away from the natural world when expansive bio-regions are ruined. We no longer know that much about each species of wildlife—not just the names of flora and fauna, but of their integration with human nature, myth, and religion—and this is what Grandfather wisdom will tell us.
The most intriguing essay in this book, in my opinion, is “The Place, the Region, and the Commons.” In it, Gary says, “I want to talk about place as an experience and propose a model of what it meant to ‘live in place’ for most of human time, presenting it initially in terms of the steps that a child takes growing into a natural community.” (p 25) Home places, from which most of us eventually travel out, include close-knit families and neighbors; specific dialects and language; lovely familiarity and memories; the passing-down of myth, religion, and wisdom; and the homestead (at least in earlier times) as a place well-managed within the surrounding habitat. Places change and evolve, much like we do as we venture out, but the heart of the place (the home) is one where elders return. A place is a mosaic, within a larger place, which in turn is within an even larger place. The analogy of children learning to walk is that they explore their homes first, then their yards or realms around the house, then the regions surrounding those immediate places. Getting used to walking involves the mastery of not just walking but walking in larger circles—until sometimes many mountains are climbed and many rivers are crossed. Regions such as deserts are more “open” than forests—as far as the eye can see, the further one might initially walk (thus, the bigger their regional habitat).
The commons is, as Gary says, “the contract a people make with their local natural system.” In several examples, Gary shows that when commons disintegrate, so do respect and the protection of habitats. It’s not only interesting but necessary that Gary goes outside the United States and parallels other commons, such as those in England, Japan, and China. This book is written with a cultural-anthropological perspective, which is not confined to sociological or psychological terms, but is more holistic in vision. He tells about other cultures; about their plant and animal species; and of their evolving technology, language, philosophy, and economy.
Some places change because of population growth (communities growing less autonomous, blending in with urban metropolitan areas). Other places, where this might not happen, are ruined because of de facto public domain, where different organizations manage the land and then get caught up in making a buck—instead of preservation—because of industry demands.
Gary presents three fates for common pool resources (which, by the way, this author participates in and lives in—a neighborhood of close-knit families who protect their land, try to rebuild ruined forests, and fight back when there’s a bulldozer potential):
- Administration by government authority
- True commons, managed by local inhabitory people
He also speaks of bio-regions, areas that are not defined by map lines, buildings, or city names but by watershed areas, tree lines and ranges, valleys or mountains or basins, and the roaming grounds of animal and human wildlife. Using this method of defining my place, I would say that I live in the valley north of Aliso Creek, between the coastal foothills and Santiago Mountains. I might include the species of trees and animals found here, too, instead of “I live in Laguna Beach.” He states, “We must consciously fully accept and recognize that this is where we live and grasp the fact that our descendants will be here for millenia to come.” (p 40)
In his next essay, “Tawny Grammar,” Gary discusses song and dance, and their cultural significance. Just as many of us have lost a common place to call our own (I’m from ‘many places’ instead of ‘one place’), we also have no song or dance—ritual celebration—to call our own. A dance is not just a metered and melodic movement: it manifests spirituality, self-realization, and culture-bearing. Again, Gary gives examples of such dances, such as in South India and Northwest Alaska.
About grammar, he says, “The world may be replete with signs, but it’s not a fixed text with archives of variora. The overattachment to the bookish model travels along with the assumption that nothing of much interest happened before the beginning of written history.” (p 69)
Gary encourages keeping native languages alive and introducing bilingual studies in all schools. Languages are not hard to learn. They have an important ecology, too, which “might start with recognizing the common coexistence of levels, codes, slangs, dialects, whole languages, and languages even of different families—in one speaker.” (72) That grammar fits into a bigger realm of ecology is no surprise: it is a necessary cultural tool, which expresses “wild and dusky knowledge, Gramatica parda, tawny grammar, a kind of mother-wit…”
In his essay, “Good, Wild, and Sacred,” Gary expands a bit from his first essay (the definitions of “wild,” for instance) and talks about what is sacred. Really, all wild places are sacred, meaning that in order to leave them well for future descendants, we of course must respect them and take care of them now. But perhaps one of the main points that Gary makes in this book isn’t just that we must preserve things for humans’ sake, or our planet’s future’s sake, but for now’s sake: we should not take more than what we need, now or anytime. It is a self-control kind of discipline, one that can rise out of automatic respect for other living things—and see them as not there for our over-consumption but as equals. Of course we need to eat, and we will eat. This may mean slaughtering an animal. But if we see that animal as kin-folk, appreciate the food, and say grace, therein lies the “optimal habitat.”
Then there is the word “sacred” that implies a shrine, which is a place of pilgrimage, prayer, meditation, seclusion, dreaming, and other things. Sometimes these shrines are very much respected places in the wild—a grove of old trees, a mountain top, a riverbed. To have these sacred places is to preserve the traditional spirituality and ecology embedded within. Even in commercialized areas, if these sacred places are around, they offer green space, legendary importance, balanced ecosystems, and so forth. An example is a wilderness preserve. There is one where I live called Aliso Woods and Canyons, which spans thousands of acres in the otherwise rapid-growth area of southern Orange County (or, the valley north of Aliso Creek, between the coastal foothills and the Santiago Mountains!). A mile from a business park is one trail entrance to these woods—an area of desert and foothill trails, leading all the way to the ocean. Within five minutes of entering the gate, there is a museum, which tells of the history of the place and which displays pictures of flora and fauna as well as live species (in cages) that dwell in the area. Within ten minutes into the entrance, via a quick walking or hiking pace, are hills, tiny groves of trees, and dirt paths. Take off from one of these paths, and it is not difficult to get lost and see only sky and hills and trees and meadows for miles. Then you walk into the sacred areas, I think, wherein it’s not unusual to see a family of coyotes playing in the grass or a rattlesnake behind the rock up ahead or even a bobcat or mountain lion disappearing around the next bend. Walking off the path seems to be the best path.
In “Blue Mountains Constantly Walking,” Gary discusses Dõgen Kigen’s essay Sansuikyo, “Mountains and Waters Sutra,” which was written in 1240. The opening paragraph is:
Fudõ and Kannon
The mountains and rivers of this moment are the actualization of the
way of the ancient Buddhas. Each, abiding in its own phenomenal
expression, realizes completeness. Because mountains and waters
have been active before the eon of emptiness, they are alive at
this moment. Because they have been the self since before form arose,
they are liberated and realized. (p 97)
Walking is that adventure from the first step into outer realms of discovery. It takes six months to walk across Turtle Island (North America). Gary says that the way to see the world is in our bodies. (p 99) By walking, we get a spatial and temporal knowledge of distance, and we do so without the aid of machinery or technology. Walking into and through sacred places is a pilgrimage, and such walks are often documented in history—and we may take these walks ourselves, if we choose to. Mountains, spiritual embodiments of some pilgrimages and often the backdrops of local cities and governments, have their own vitality. They are hard and rocky and pointy compared to soft, flowing, feminine rivers.
It may seem that mountains do not move, even when we take a long time to walk up and down them, but mountains and rivers (often alive in landscape poetry) have long-term cycles. There is the slow erosion of mountainsides into rivers, the water cycle, and so on. The silt from mountains slowly slides into the rivers. Some river water evaporates into the sky. Rain falls back into the rivers and onto the mountains. This goes beyond pilgrimages and sacred shrines; it’s the process of Earth. In Dõgen’s poem is the line:
“The blue mountains are constantly walking.” (p 102)
and the line:
“If you doubt mountains walking you do not know your own walking.” (p 103)
About mountain processes, Gary says, “So the blue mountains walk to the kitchen and back to the shop, to the desk, to the stove. We sit on the park bench and let the wind and rain drench us. The blue mountains walk out to put another coin in the parking meter, and go on down to the 7-Eleven. The blue mountains march out of the sea, shoulder the sky for a while, and slip back into the waters.” (p 103)
In the essay “Ancient Forests of the Far West,” Gary talks about forest management. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, he was accustomed to being in the forests often (taking steps to bigger realms outside the household)—first outside, then to older-growth forests, and then further, up into the high mountains. When he was 15, he climbed Mt. Saint Helen’s. When older, he worked with his father and other relatives and friends in logging, first on the two-man crosscut saw and then as a chokersetter. In those times, in the early to mid-fifties, forest management in his area was in accordance with the local tribal council. Also, they practiced selective cutting in the dry pine forests—not clearcutting the Douglas Fir rainforests west of the Cascades. Enter in some Grandfather wisdom: the explanations of logging tools and processes. You might smell the pines.
Gary gives a history of our great forests and tells what species (used to) thrive there. Then he gives some rather sad statistics—loss of thousands of acres of ancient forests and the increases each year of timber cut. Since 1935, the logging industry has grown exponentially, and has moved up above the 4,000-foot level. He says, “We ask for slower rotations, genuine streamside protection, fewer roads, no cuts on steep slopes, only occasional shelterwood cuts, and only the most prudent application of the appropriate smaller clearcut.” (p 134)
Realize that this book was written 25 years ago. Ten years after, in the Cumberland Plateau, in Tennessee, a new chip mill industry was been born. It used to be that chip mills operated by using only extra lumber not qualified for furniture making and so forth. Now, however, entire forests (old and young growth trees) are clearcut just for the chip mills. The environmentalists protest, and the industry defends.
In “On the Path, Off the Trail,” he discusses the metaphorical (and pragmatical) “going off the path.” Where then, is what? No path, or everything else. Dao, or the way, is “the nature and the way of truth,” which is related to skillmanship and the passing on of that—as well as spiritual enlightenment. According to the Dao De Jing, “The way that can be followed (‘wayed’) is not the constant way.” And, “A path that can be followed is not a spiritual path.” (p 150) The Buddhist philosophies (such as Pure Land, “Give up trying to improve yourself, let the true self be your self”) go against the contemporary and common Western philosophy arising out of the manifest destiny goals—to always improve yourself, to expand outward, to claim, to capture, to own!
To go off the path means to go into the wilderness. To the everything else. To no path. If you do not go into the wilderness, you may never see the nest of the Bushy-tailed Woodrat. The true way is off the path. And when you come home, you are filled with a wider vision and knowledge of things—at which time, you can do your best handiwork. But going off the path does not mean to pave the path or clear-cut the path, just to walk it.
Gary next reprints the delightful story of “The Woman Who Married a Bear,” which was given with permissions by Catherine McClellan, professor emerita of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. Catherine heard the story from Maria Johns. This tale is constructed as a narrative and recounts a woman who married a bear, turned into a bear, and then went back to her people. She did not fit into any world, and her husband bear was killed. The morals of this story are in line with Gary’s essays and main point: respect the bear, the others—if you must kill for food or hide (for sustenance), be grateful and utilize respectfully.
The final essay, “Survival and Sacrament,” is about preservation in order to “carry on the capacity of the planet.” We think of the food chain model, from early theology in Europe, and wonder why tiny bugs should be as important as ourselves. Or why we shouldn’t use what is found off the path, in the wild. Perhaps our minds need to be reset. Instead of thinking in terms of one life being more important because one is bigger (or more intelligent or more capable of destruction), we need to think the importance of entire ecosystems. Perhaps we are bigger and meaner than ants, but when all things are impermanent, “all the more reason to move gently and cause less harm.” (p 176) Gary points out that in 1650, the population was 10 percent of what it is now. Since the 1950s, the world population has doubled. India’s population just past the one billion mark.
We have our “little territory,” our small window of life that will exist between the last ice age and the next. Gary says, quite deftly, “If we are here for any good purpose at all (other than collating texts, running rivers, and learning the stars), I suspect it is to entertain the rest of nature.” (p 178) He adds a few pages later, “It seems to take about two thousand years to exhaust the nutrients in a high civilization.” (p 185)
He ends his book of essays with the importance of saying grace, in whatever tradition you are used to.
The Practice of the Wild, essays by Gary Snyder. 1990
Published in Canada by HarperCollinsCanadaLtd
Reprinted with permissions from Jack Magazine 2000