By Robert Hass September 10, 2020
Where to begin? I am sitting at a desk, looking at a first edition of Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, and looking out the window at San Francisco Bay.
San Francisco Bay is the largest estuary on the West Coast of the North American continent. I grew up around the bay, spent hours as a young man fishing and boating on its waters, hunting ducks in its marshes, and much more time over the years later learning the birds and the flowering plants of the marsh ecosystem, a lifetime’s study. California was formed by the massive uplifting of the Sierra Nevada range, which makes a boundary to the Pacific Coast watershed about four hundred miles long, running north to south. California has a Mediterranean climate, with wet winters and dry summers. The winter storms deposit snow in the mountains, spring initiates a runoff, and two great rivers—the Sacramento in the north, the San Joaquin in the south (notice the Spanish names: part of the human history of the place)—flow into San Francisco Bay. Throughout the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, dams were built on all the rivers that feed the Sacramento and the San Joaquin to store fresh water for the cities and for the agriculture in California’s Central Valley.
California’s agricultural economy was valued at $47 billion in 2017, with another $100 billion in the services that support the agricultural economy. So it will surprise no one that the waters that flow into San Francisco Bay are argued over—by farmers, by the thirsty cities (especially by the cities of Southern California, which, in the twentieth century, turned its semiarid desert landscape into a vast garden). And by a third group, which the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries brought into being, a group called conservationists at first, and then, after about 1960, environmentalists. (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962.)
At least since the withdrawal of the glaciers ten or twelve thousand years ago, San Francisco Bay has been an immense and critical—I’m looking for the word—incubator? engine? (our language for the dynamism of ecosystems has been impoverished) source for the life of all the inhabitants of and visitors to this coast. In some other culture, the energy of the delta would have a name and perhaps a human form, and children, dressed appropriately, would dance its power on the spring equinox or the summer solstice (which would call the stars in the heavens and the rotation of the earth into play).
Even now, something like three million ducks and a million geese pass through this region on the Pacific Flyway. Another creature of the Pacific Flyway is the sandhill crane. Sandhill cranes as a species are at least 2.5 million years old. I haven’t seen any figures on the pre-Columbian population of the birds in California, but in the nineteenth century, their winter arrival was a common experience (though there is never anything common about watching the male cranes perform their courtship dance in a marsh as the sun is setting). In the forties, because of intense hunting for their feathers and loss of habitat, conservationists were able to count five pairs of cranes. The Audubon Society, working with farmers on conservation easements, had nursed the population up to 465 mating pairs in 2000.
But it was salmon I was particularly thinking about. Deltas breed life, particularly at the place where salt water meets fresh. Just how far inland the salt water spreads, just how far out the fresh water flows, largely determines what kind of life it breeds and in what abundance. You can imagine the complexity of the trophic cascade that flows year after year from that fact—the years when there is not much snow and the salt water seeps deep into the marshes, the years of heavy snow and spring torrents fresh water streaming into the bay.
The Pacific salmon, older than sandhill cranes, perhaps 4 to 6 million years old, has been swimming up California rivers to breed at least since the end of the last ice age. Salmon cultures rim the Pacific. The Ainu people, the original inhabitants of the islands of Japan, had a salmon culture, and so did the peoples of the Siberian coast from Kamchatka to the Aleutians. So did the Inuit peoples of Alaska and the Athabascan people, and the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest in Canada and the United States (whose cultures Gary Snyder studied at Reed College). And, it could be said, the Alaskan and Canadian and American coastal Euro-American cultures that depended on fishing had their own version. In my childhood, families still went to Fisherman’s Wharf on the day before the first day of fishing season to watch a local priest or bishop (usually Italian American) bless the boats. The ritual had to do with the safety of the fishermen, not the health of the fishery or gratitude to the fish or to the sea, but it at least made a gesture to the fact of a food chain that supported the life of the community.
A quick picture of the salmon population as it has weathered dams, pollution, invasive species, and the water diversion to farms and cities: in 1988, fisherman caught 1.4 million salmon in California; in 2018, they caught 175,000. There have been intense discussions and much planning as the human culture tries to parse out just how the waters will be distributed among contending needs and what the likely consequences will be. In the meantime, it seems clear that this extraordinary ecosystem is collapsing. Climate change—another human behavior being practiced religiously on California freeways—complicates the issue, of course. Water management as a profession depends almost entirely on historical records, and at the moment, because the future is unpredictable, all bets are off.
The farmers, municipalities, water managers, dam managers, environmentalists, engineers, environmental scientists, and environmental attorneys have been and will be arguing about solutions, and one can begin to understand their positions, representing the cities as economic generators. The farm economy is one of the most powerful on earth; the fishermen have their arguments, and so do the conservationists and the environmentalists. Our culture has not been very good at raising the questions that our economic and social practices have brought to us. Like, What is a 2.5-million-year-old species of wading bird worth? And wouldn’t it to be okay to raise a few specimens in captivity and put them in zoos and get on with it? And given the multiple demands on human communities and the prospects of aquaculture and farmed fish, wouldn’t it be good to figure out the minimum at which the Pacific ecosystem can survive, since the days of a million salmon in the boats of fishermen are over?
This is the California story—or one of the California stories—and every region in the country, every place on earth, has its own version. We can’t not think about these questions, but we don’t have a particularly good common language in which to think about them, which is why the tradition of North American environmental writing came into existence, why Gary Snyder’s book is called The Practice of the Wild, why the first essay is called “The Etiquette of Freedom” and why another is called “Tawny Grammar,” and it is also why it is a very good thing to have in hand the thirtieth-anniversary edition of this book.
Almost all the classics of North American environmental writing—Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, John Muir’s The Mountains of California, Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, the ocean books of Rachel Carson—have taken the form of a miscellany of essays. The Practice of the Wild, which was published in 1990, belongs to the genre. Probably the form has to do with the way the writers meant to address a public and to make an argument or to clarify the terms of an argument. The media in which to do that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were the magazine or journal or the lecturer’s podium.
Thoreau, for example, wanted to tell his readers that they were too busy using the earth to be able to see it. Walden describes how he set about teaching himself to see it. And John Muir, after working long hours through his teenage years on his family’s farm, wandered into Yosemite in a search for freedom and for majesty, and a passionate curiosity about the geology of the western mountains. He taught himself to see the place. A touchstone essay in Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, I think, is “Song of the Gavilan.” Leopold went into the Southwest with his forestry degree from Yale. The forests in New Mexico territory had been seriously abused and the range lands of the ranchers who were his constituents overgrazed, and the young Leopold did not quite understand what he was seeing in that landscape until a hunting trip took him into the Sierra Madre and to the Rio Gavilan. There he came to realize that he was seeing a healthy, fully functioning natural ecosystem for the first time, and he wrote about that. The struggles Mary Austin and Rachel Carson faced in getting a formal education in the sciences because of their gender are well known and have become part of the story of the way that they educated themselves to become writers.
Gary Snyder’s self-education began early. He was born in 1930 at the beginning of the Great Depression and spent his early childhood on his parents’ subsistence farm in the Pacific Northwest. War work took his father to Portland, and Snyder went to high school and college there. The place and the time matter. If one were to illustrate it, a photograph of the snowy peak of Mount Rainier might do, looming up visibly from Seattle on a clear day, or farther south in the Cascade Range, the half-magical sight of Mount Hood, also snowcapped, presiding over Portland from some fifty miles away. Portland is situated at the confluence of two mighty rivers, the Columbia and the Willamette, and in the mid-’50s, in the middle of the postwar economic recovery, the surfaces of the rivers were full of rafts of the logs floated downriver from the logging camps that were cashing in on the construction boom. They were taking down the pine forests of the Cascade Range—the forests that Snyder had grown up in—and the river was thick with the story of it. At Reed College, studying Chinese poetry and the myths of the indigenous people of the Northwest forest and coast, reading classical and English literature and the Modernist poets Eliot and Pound and Williams, Snyder began to write about what he saw. His reading of the Chinese poets and his study of the myth world of classical Greece gave him a way to see it in epic terms:
The ancient forests of China logged
….and the hills slipped into the Yellow Sea
Squared beams, log dogs,
….on a tamped-earth sill.
San Francisco 2 x 4’s
….were the woods around Seattle:
Someone killed and someone built, a house,
….a forest, wrecked or raised
All America hung on a hook
….& burned by men, in their own praise.
Groves of Ahab, of Cybele
….Pine trees, knobbed twigs
thick cone and seed
….Cybele’s tree this, sacred in groves
There is this vast sense of elegy in the work, and also the sense of a time when the sacred was rooted in material processes. And the poems were full of his almost physical rendering of the rhythms of work in the logging business:
Crosscut and chainsaw
….squareheads and finns
….high-lead and cat-skidding
Creeks choked, trout killed, roads.
The logging poems of his remarkable early book Myths and Texts were published in 1960 and came out of his summer jobs working on trail crews for the U.S. Forest Service, as a choke setter for a commercial logging operation, and as a lookout for the National Park Service. His first poems of that experience begin with a quotation from Exodus: “But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves.” At Reed College, he was also able to pursue his interest in Native American culture, and he did a senior honors thesis on Haida myth. The Haida are a people of southern Alaska and the northern coast of Canada, known to the world for the aesthetics of their monumental carvings that have come to define the art of the Northwest coast. At twenty years of age, Snyder was trying to understand the imagination of the Paleolithic cultures that preceded the great metropolitan cultures of Greece and Rome and Jerusalem and Xian. He was already thinking that it was there, in the first imperial cities, that something had gone profoundly wrong with the human relation to the earth.
His education next took him to graduate school in comparative literature in Indiana. That didn’t work. (One recollects John Muir’s experience of higher education.) So he enrolled in a graduate program in Asian languages at Berkeley and set to studying Japanese and classical Chinese. He was already interested in the sensibility of Chinese poetry, especially the monk poets of the Tang dynasty, and already interested in the spiritual traditions of Zen and of Taoism. Wasn’t Taoism a nature philosophy, the beginning of ecological thinking? And wasn’t the Zen Buddhist conception of a nature rooted in contingency and change a description of evolutionary biology? Once he was into his course work, he undertook the translation of an obscure eighth-century hermit monk, Han Shan, whose name, probably a pen name, translated as “Cold Mountain.”
It was in Berkeley that he met Allen Ginsberg, a graduate student in English, and Ginsberg’s college friend Jack Kerouac, and that was how Kerouac and Snyder came to go hiking in the California hills and how Kerouac came to memorialize those hikes in his novel The Dharma Bums, which had the effect of turning Snyder into a cultural hero for the young in the seventies. But in 1957, Snyder had decided to take Zen Buddhism seriously and to go to Japan and get some training. So he got into the International Seamen’s Union and, union card in hand, got a job on a freighter that took him to Kyoto. That would have been May 1956. In August 1957, he got a job in the engine room of a tanker, the SS Sappa Creek, which was going to get him back to San Francisco.
The Sappa Creek took him from Yokohama through the Persian Gulf into the Mediterranean, eventually across the Pacific—Okinawa, Guam, Samoa—and that was another stage of his education.
It’s interesting to consider this. That boom in suburban construction was fueled by President Dwight Eisenhower’s program to build a continental freeway system in the United States, four- and six-lane roads from Maine to San Diego. The farmland and the orchards that surrounded U.S. cities were being transformed into housing for commuters to the city, with land use designed—drive-in movies, drive-through restaurants—to celebrate the automobile and the idea of the freedom of the road that Snyder’s friend Kerouac had celebrated in his novel On the Road. In the mid-’50s, other poets were not thinking—in fact, social thinkers were not thinking—about a global economy or fossil fuels or a half century of wars based on fossil-fuel dependency and the long-range consequences of these social arrangements on the atmosphere of the planet. The Practice of the Wild was published in 1990. James Hansen, a NASA climate scientist, first testified before the U.S. Congress in 1988 and introduced them to the new term climate change. Here is Gary Snyder in the mid-’60s:
soft rainsqualls on the swells
south of the Bonins, late at night. Light
from the empty mess-hall
throws back bulky shadows
of winch and fairlead
over the slanting fantail where I stand.
but for men on watch in the engine room,
the man at the wheel, the lookout in the bow,
the crew sleeps. in cots on deck
or narrow iron bunks down drumming
the ship burns with a furnace heart
steam veins and copper nerves
quivers and slightly twists and always goes—
easy roll of the hull and deep
vibration of the turbine underfoot.
bearing what all these
crazed, hooked nations need:
steel plates and
long injections of pure oil.
When Snyder returned from Japan, his early books of poems—Riprap, Myths and Texts, The Back Country—had appeared. Hard to convey—except that it is still available—the freshness and originality of his vision. The most striking voices in North American poetry in the fifties and early sixties—post-Hiroshima, post-Auschwitz, what W. H. Auden called “the age of anxiety”—wrote a poetry of psychological crisis: the ferocious poems of Sylvia Plath, the struggles of Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke with bipolar disorder and of John Berryman with alcoholism and depression, and Allen Ginsberg’s hyperbolic address to a generation “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” There was a slight shock turning from that work to Snyder’s evocation of the sheer energy of the living world:
Birds in a whirl, drift to the rooftops
Kite dip, swing to the seabank fogroll
Form: dots in air changing line from line,
………the future defined.
Brush back smoke from the eyes,
………dust from the mind,
With the wing-feather fan of an eagle.
A hawk drifts into the far sky.
A marmot whistles across huge rocks.
Rain on the California hills.
Mussels clamp to sea-boulders
Sucking the Spring tides
He came back from Japan married, with one son and another on the way. In 1969, the second son was born, and he published a first book of prose—journals of his time as a forest lookout and a student of Zen in Kyoto, essays with titles like “Buddhism and the Possibility of a Planetary Culture” and “Poetry and the Primitive.” The first book describing this education, it was entitled Earth House Hold, the title a rough translation of the Greek root eco that gave the science of ecology its name. He also wrote an essay published as a broadside entitled “Four Changes,” which proposed ways in which human beings needed to address four issues: population, pollution, consumption, and a fourth, which he called transformation. He meant the cultural transformation necessary to address the other three and described its term in this modest way: “A basic cultural outlook and social organization that inhibits power- and property-seeking while encouraging exploration and challenge in things like music, meditation, mathematics, mountaineering, magic, and all other ways of authentic being-in-the-world.” The next year, he headed to land in the Sierra Foothills east and north of San Francisco and built a house—powered off the grid—a study with a library, and eventually a meditation hall, which became Ring of Bone Zendo, a center for a rural Buddhist community.
The young Gary Snyder who studied Native American mythology loved the figure of Coyote, the mammal embodiment of the wanton, slippery, unappeasable force of life, the wily creature who kept his distance from the civilized center and its solemnities. An appropriate totem for a poet who, looking out across the high mountains, would write, “history / after the Jurassic is a bore” and “Agents: man and beast, beasts / got the Buddha-nature / All but / Coyote.” The Gary Snyder of 1970—father, husband, householder, citizen, and taxpayer—had become a public figure at a moment when the environment was suddenly on the U.S. political agenda. These were the years of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. As Snyder was moving into his new life, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Endangered Species Act came into being. In 1970, he was invited to speak—how poets patch together a living—by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara. In 1972, he spoke at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. In 1975, he was appointed by his friend Jerry Brown, the governor of California, to serve on the board of the California Arts Council.
The layers of the vision that he was exploring in his poetry and prose between 1950 and 1970 were intricate. First, a sheer love of the wild and the passion for natural history that comes with it. Then a socialist/anarchist sensibility picked up from the IWW tradition of the Northwest lumber camps. Then an interest in what he sometimes called the primitive and sometimes called paleolithic values: a sense of something like courtesy or formality in the hunter-gather relation to animals, wild places, and weather that survived into the classical mythology he studied at Reed College. And then the Modernist poets’ attempts to revive animist and polytheist mythologies in the early twentieth century. Also Chinese and Japanese literature and the philosophical traditions of Taoism and Zen, and the aesthetic of Chinese landscape painting that was going to be so important for the development of his poetry. The old mythologies were still alive there in the Noh drama of Japan and the mountain poets of Tang dynasty China. And ecology, the science of the entire set of living, constantly changing interactions in any given natural system. He had been interested in forests since he was a teenager. He had spent two summers as a fire lookout on a mountain peak. Having built a home for his children, he found that the idea of forest management, especially forest management with respect to fire, was no longer a theoretical issue. Here is his poem on the subject:
What the Indians
used to do, was,
to burn out the brush every year.
in the woods, up the gorges,
keeping the oak and pine stands
tall and clear
and kitkitdizzie under them,
never enough fuel there
that a fire could crown.
(a fine bush in its right)
crowds up under the new trees
mixed up with logging slash
and a fire can wipe out all.
Fire is the old story.
I would like,
with a sense of helpful order,
with respect for laws
to help my land
with a burn, a hot clean
…..(manzanita seeds will only open
…..after a fire passes over
…..or once passed through a bear)
it would be more
when it belonged to the Indians
In the essay “Ancient Forests of the Far West,” Snyder, the poet/scholar/citizen, is able to underline a point by referring to Plato’s fifth century B.C. dialogue Critias, in which the philosopher complains about the soil erosion created by clear-cutting in the mountain forests outside Athens.
So the nine essays that make up The Practice of the Wild are a record of Snyder’s education as an artist, thinker, and citizen in the twenty years between 1970 and 1990. There was then, as there still is, work to be done. The partial successes of the environmental movement in the sixties and seventies had bred their predictable reactions.
Ronald Reagan, running for governor in 1966, had this to say about the ancient forests of the far West:
I think, too, that we’ve got to recognize that where the preservation of a natural resource like the redwoods is concerned, that there is a commonsense limit. I mean, if you’ve looked at a hundred thousand acres or so of trees—you know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?
And academics in the universities and environmental attorneys in the courts were asking, in the wake of the Wilderness Act—which passed in 1964—what was meant by wilderness. Wasn’t it a fairly arbitrary cultural construction? Wasn’t nature, like natural, a term used by the state to police and control human behavior? Snyder, who tends to think in geological time, seems to have had these issues in mind, even while he was thinking about the transformation of human societies since the end of the last ice age.
That work took him to Kobuk, an Inupiaq village in Northwest Alaska, in order to help the National Endowment for the Humanities think about what the humanities meant in a native Alaskan village and what values the people of Kobuk had been thinking in for the last ten thousand years. He tells the story of that experience in the essay called “Tawny Grammar.” It took him also to the Australian desert south of Alice Springs to get a sense of how the aboriginal people of that place, the Pintubi, think about what place is. That story gets told in the essay “Good, Wild, Sacred.” So it seemed useful to tell those stories, to try to work out definitions of nature and wildness and wilderness, to say what place is, to introduce the notion that we would serve the land more wisely by thinking in biological regions rather than in the political entities created by land surveys.
The Practice of the Wild, then, is itself an example of the practice of the wild, of thinking hard about our residence on earth. And about—as Snyder says in the first essay—how to cultivate a social and economic life that puts us in touch with the wild in ourselves and cultivates the wilderness around us as a place where “the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order.”
Robert Hass is a Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winning author and a former poet laureate of the United States. His books include Time and Materials, Sun under Wood, and Summer Snow: New Poems. Read his Art of Poetry interview.