Nature’s Best Friend: A Tribute to Gary Snyder

(This is a long blog, so I am dividing it into three parts — to run today, Monday and Wednesday. Enjoy)

(Talk delivered to the Ananda College of Living Wisdom, near Nevada City, CA on Monday, May 17, 2010)

I have been asked to talk with you tonight about Gary Snyder, who will be giving a reading here next week. This is both a privilege and honor, because in my nearly 35 years as a journalist, poet, author and, most recently, editor of the literary anthology The Hummingbird Review, no one has made a greater impact on my writing – or the causes, subjects, concerns and themes that have informed and populated my journalism, poetry, essays, narratives, the way I teach writing, and my present and future books.

Gary Snyder is one of the world’s pre-eminent poets and essayists. He belongs in the pantheon of the top 15 poets in U.S. history, his face on a prosaic Mt. Rushmore with, say, figures like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Anne Waldman, Allen Ginsberg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Denise Levertov, and the foremost Native American poet, Joy Harjo. More than that, though, he is one of the most important literary figures, a man whose writings and activities bring out his brilliance, deep soul, compassion and childlike reverence for life itself. He’s a man of the wild, in both heart and place, who lives in integrity and full commitment to that which he cherishes – our backyard. He protects the Inimin Forest that surrounds us and the San Juan Ridge on which you have lived and studied with the love of a child and the ferocity of the mythical Nalagiri – half-tiger, half-elephant. Can you imagine angering such a creature?

But we’re not talking about anger, or confrontation – although the U.S. Forestry Service, Bureau of Land Management, State of California and numerous regional and local groups would beg to differ when they’ve had to deal with Gary as he fought to protect this area. If I were the Sierra Nevada, he’d be the first guy on my team. Actually, in a sense, the mountains have chosen him. Since he and his family moved here in 1970, a few years after joining Swami Kriyananda, Allen Ginsberg and Richard Roshi Baker to purchase 100 acres – the eastern side of which became Ananda’s first community, later the Ananda Meditation Retreat – Gary has sounded the proverbial conch for the ecological well-being of the northern Sierra like no other. When he blew a conch shell to call the fabled Human Be-In to order in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967, then recited poems and chants with Allen Ginsberg to the thousands gathered on this special day that also included music by Jefferson Airplane, Quiksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead, he essentially previewed things to come. That day heralded what we baby boomers know as the “back to the land” movement… intrinsically connected to Ananda’s history. Ananda turned out to be the most enduring of hundreds of intentional communities that sprouted nationwide from that movement – and certainly the most yoga-centered.

I first came into contact with Gary’s work when I was your age, a college freshman in San Diego. My creative writing professor, Dr. Don Eulert, was the founding editor of American Haiku magazine back in the ’60s. He and Gary were two of maybe five Americans who truly understood haiku at its deepest levels at that time, and they knew each other because of their mutual affinity for Zen Buddhism and love of traditional Japanese poetry. I’d already logged three years as a newspaper reporter, but I wanted to write books, poetry. Dr. Eulert deconstructed my inverted pyramid writing style – most important facts up top – and taught me to write subjectively, the way of the memoirist, novelist and New Journalism – inserting yourself into articles and essays as a participant, the rage of the day, the predecessor of today’s popular narrative non-fiction genre. Or, as Gary later put it: “Imagination–Direct Experience–the Ineluctable Present Moment.”

That’s my style now, to a T.

Dr. Eulert gave me some great books to read and told me to come back in two weeks, then we’d begin: they included White Album by Joan Didion; Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth; Sunflower Splendor, an anthology of 5,000 years of Chinese poetry; the then just-published The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe; On the Road and The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac; and one of his collections, Outposts: Letters from Buffalo Bill to Annie Oakley. He also gave me Turtle Island, Gary’s most famous collection, fresh off receiving the 1975 Pulitzer Prize. Immediately, I fell in love with the places about which Gary wrote, especially the ground on which we sit tonight. (Ten years later, my spiritual quest led me to Ananda, right next door to his place, Kitkitdizze. What great fortune to find both my spiritual and literary polestars in the same neighborhood!) Every poem and essay resonated –life on the Ridge, treasures from his years in Japan, mountains and rivers, the forests, beautiful interpretations of Native American myths, the creatures with which he co-existed as steward and equal, not exploiter and dominator. He showed the back-to-nature movement exactly what ahimsa, non-violence, looked like in practice.

(To be continued)

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