Posted on November 19, 2013
“Poets on the Peaks” by John Suiter is a very cool book. Buy it. Read it. Let its story sink in, slowly, with appreciation, like watching a mountain at sunup. It is a scholarly book about the connections between people, places, cultures (and culture), politics, religion, scholarship, wilderness, mountains, rivers, poetry, literature, ecology, community, environment and revelation. It is full of information, insight, inspiration, history and wisdom. As the back cover reads, “….it tells how the solitary mountain adventures of three young men helped to form the literary, spiritual, and environmental values of a generation.”
“Poets on the Peaks” does that and much more. Those three young men, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac and Philip Whalen worked as fire lookouts in the North Cascades in the early 1950s. Snyder was the leader, the pioneer, the guide, the only one of the three with a mountaineering background and the temperament and training to flourish in a solitary, isolated environment surrounded by wilderness. It was Snyder who convinced his two literary friends to take jobs as fire lookouts. First Whelan, then Kerouac. All three were (Snyder and Whelan still are) serious Zen practitioners, and Snyder quoted the Zen lunatic Han Shan a thousand years earlier: “Who can leap the world’s ties/And sit with me among the white clouds?” Suiter writes, “Gary could, Whelan could; and so should Jack.” An experienced and accomplished northwest mountaineer by the time he was 20, Snyder and his young friends climbed “….to develop a fresh mountaineering mind set that was totally opposed to the notion of conquest.” He writes, “I and the circle I climbed with were extremely critical of what we saw as the hostile, jock Occidental mind-set that thought to climb a mountain was to conquer it….I always thought of mountaineering not as a matter of conquering the mountain, but as a matter of self-knowledge.”
This is not the sort of writing about mountains that tends to make it into Climbing Magazine or The American Alpine Club Journal, but it did help form the core values of a particular generation of mountaineers, backpackers, writers and readers that, in turn, has influenced the generations to follow. Still, climbers of all attitudes and intentions will be charmed to find Fred Beckey, of all people, popping up in the text somewhat the way he has popped up in the mountains of the world for the past 70 years. This book has too many layers to explore here, but the top one is the effect the solitary fire lookout experience had on the thinking and work of these three major American writers. There are several other layers in “Poets on the Peaks,” all of them fascinating, well-researched and eloquently described. Suiter had access to “scores of previously unpublished letters and journals” as well as recent interviews with Snyder and Whelan and others, giving a fresh perspective and quality and a deeper dimension to a story of great significance to American literature and thought, and to members of America’s “rucksack revolution.”
Anyone who has read Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums” will remember the character Japhy Ryder who is based on the person of Gary Snyder, and remember, too, the climb up MatterhornPeak in the Sierra described in the book. It is one of the most memorable climbs in American literature. The actual climb which Kerouac used as the basis for what he wrote cemented the friendship/brotherhood between him and Snyder. Kerouac’s alcoholic withdrawal from Snyder, Buddhism, the West and the zest for life that had driven his best work and best times is presented here in his own sad, fascinating words.
The Evil Axis of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee makes an appearance, as it must, in this record of the connections between politics and the life of the mind. Snyder was blackballed by McCarthy and the HUAC as not patriotic enough to work any longer as a fire lookout for the U.S. government. Such jingoistic stupidity would be humorous but for the serious impact it had on Snyder’s life. Unfortunately, such stupidity is still alive and well and active in American life, like a cobra living under the front porch.
Snyder made poetry out of such viciousness:
“I never was more broke & down
got fired that day by the usa
(the District Ranger up at Packwood
thought the wobblies had been dead for
but the FBI smelled treason
–my red beard)”
Suiter writes, “In the end, his blacklisting from the Forest Service had not been a huge catastrophe for Snyder. Unquestionably his rights had been egregiously violated—as were those of many thousands others—but in Zen fashion Garymanaged to make the latest obstacle part of his journey.”
Each of the three made the Cascade experience a part of their own literary, spiritual and personal journey. In the spring following his first season as a fire lookout, Whalen found the experience running through his work. Suiter writes, “….Philip began thinking of the mountains again. A sharp memory of the Avalanche Lilies on Sourdough boring up through the thin snowdrifts above Riprap Creek the year before touched off a short naturalistic poem with a twist:
‘Now and then they ask me
To write something for them
And I do’”
It seems to me that John Suiter had a sharp memory of Snyder, Whalen and Kerouac in the Cascades boring up through their fine body of literature, and they asked him to write something for them, and he did. And it is good.