Songs To Purify Our Ears
Mountains and Rivers Without End
Of late, he can be seen making his way quickly into the upper echelons of the American literary canon.
My first impression when I met Snyder, in 1974, was of a man who was patronizingly old, prematurely set in his ways, and who was carrying a heavy load. The lines from his poem "Night Highway, 99" (from the 1950s) "Well, man, I just don't feel right/without something on my back" would have described him to a tee.
He seemed burdened with karmic luggage. The weight of the world strapped to his back. Hardly the Zen anarchist beatnik Japhy Ryder I had carried romantically around in my head for years.
But, then again, I had been disappointed in many, if not all, of the Beat literary elite I had come to know in the '70s in San Francisco, none of whom seemed to be anything remotely like their work.
At the end of that decade, and after a year or more of living along the North San Juan Ridge in the Sierra foothills north of Nevada City, and then almost 20 years from that coast and life in the shadow of the patriarch, much has changed both in myself and in this man who has rip-rapped his way into the American literary establishment as an icon of the '60s counterculture and the ecologically and culturally aware with books like Myths & Texts, The OId Ways, Turtle Island, The Back Country, Axe Handles, and The Practice of the WiId.
In the years after I departed the Nevada City scene, Snyder's letters began to soften. The mystic and spiritual began appearing prominently in his work. Photos usually caught him in a smile. Clearly, he had lightened his load. In a phrase (and I hate to say it but if poetry is nothing else it is paradox) Snyder has become a kinder, gentler man, reflected in his stewardship and generosity toward friends and colleagues, as well as his work, evidenced most recently in his magnum opus Mountains and Rivers Without End, released last month by Counterpoint Press.
But even after such a long time away from northern California and "The Ridge," I have fond memories. Of the place and of the man, the Gary Snyder who would become almost childlike with concentration and enthusiasm during the Native American-style team gambling games which were part of the annual May Day rituals celebrated by the Ridge community.
Much like Li Hu, who appears in one of his earliest poems, "Endless Streams and Mountains," which initiates the text of Mountains and Rivers Without End, I remember Snyder, too, telling me in so many words, gestures and actions: "I love the company of streams and boulders."
I know this from our walks on the ridge near his home, and our conversations at the community swimming holes on the South Fork of the Yuba River, as well as in the ways he had landscaped water and large rocks into his back-country yard.
But maybe I remember him best as someone who has lived an ideology and vision based on the notion of "forming the new society within the shell of the old" ("Night Highway, 99") a line from an early poem from which I later quite literally coined the phrase "new native," which became both the title of my second book as well as the imprint of New Native Press.
I don't think I've ever, really, seen or thought of Snyder as a beatnik, even though those ties are seminal to his beginnings as a literary figure.
True to his anarchist leanings, he has always seemed to be his own man. A member of his own tribe and yet part of a much larger community than that of a literary movement with a restricted membership. Particularly, a community of cultural and creative awareness that is not afraid to incorporate a bit of politics no matter how unfashionable it may be into "the real work." A community that is not afraid to go up against the big bullies and taboos of the post-Industrial Age, such as the Information Super Highway, which he takes on in his new book's poem "Walking the New York Bedrock," where he launches a descriptive attack on the over-the-edge aspects of our modern hi-tech culture swimming (drowning?) in its "sea of information," its "sea of economy":
Glass, aluminum, aggregate gravel,
Iron, Stainless steel.
Hollow honeycomb brain-buildings owned by
Columbia University, the landlord of
Alive, in the Sea of Information...
Mountains and Rivers Without End, although it encompasses the same time frame as would a bibliography of his collected work, comes off as a kind of distillation of those 40 and some odd years. It is, appropriately, like a river running through the stacks of those titles piled up (like small and larger hills) on the tables of contemporary literature during the last half of this century.
It is a river which runs around, yet through, the oeuvre of a man whose life has been that of a focused, single mind writing to the future seven generations hence and those who will inherit this legacy in the form of a literary time capsule of ecological and cultural awareness couched in the principles and practice of diversity, interdependence, wildness, gratitude and respect for the past.
Over the past 40 years of writing Mountains and Rivers Without End, Snyder has lived what he has written, has practiced what he has preached in "thinking globally and acting locally" and, in doing so, deserves the cult hero status he has garnered from two generations of admiring readers and friends.
Snyder has come a long way since that ride leaving Portland in 1954 with a no-count rodeo rider and a hooker passed out in the back seat of his old car to become "us and our stuff just covering the ground" along the ridge in California's Sierra foothills. To become a post-Industrial bard singing "songs that are here and gone/here and gone/to purify our ears" for generations of us that have joined the chorus as well as those generations yet to hear the song that will add to the refrain. To become the hopeful voice of the collective conscious as he proclaims "To the healing to the healer hail!/So be it."
Having made his way over an entire Earth of mountains and rivers during this lifetime, Snyder has come a long way for a man that in the end will no doubt willfully fulfill the prophetic premonitions in the lines of his own poem "The Flowing," which sensually portends both the completion of this remarkable collection as well as the climax of a brilliant career:
The root of me
hardens and lifts to you,
thick flowing river,
my skin shivers. I quit
making this poem.
Thomas Rain Crowe is a writer who lives in Cullowhee, N.C.