The most revolutionary consciousness is to be found among the most ruthlessly exploited classes: animals, trees, water, air, grasses. Gary Snyder
Gary Snyder reached the consciousness of a wide reading public as Japhy Ryder, the name given to him in Jack Kerouac's 1958 novel The Dharma Bums. Kerouac, then the best known of the USA-based Beat Generation, sums up Snyder's life till then "the number one Dharma Bum of them all was he, Japhy Ryder, who coined the phrase. Japhy Ryder was a kid from eastern Oregon brought up in a log cabin deep in the woods with his father and mother and sister, from the beginning, a woods boy, an axman, farmer, interested in animals and Indian lore so that when he finally got to college by hook or crook he was already well equipped for his early studies in anthropology and later Indian myth and in the actual texts of Indian mythology. Finally he learned Chinese and Japanese and became an Oriental scholar and discovered the greatest Dharma Bums of them all, the Zen Lunatics of China and Japan. At the same time, being a Northwest boy with idealistic tendencies, he got interested in old-fashioned Industrial Workers of the World anarchism and learned to play the guitar and sing old workers songs to go with his Indian songs and general folksong interests."
The adventures of Snyder as Japhy
Ryder in the mid-1950s San Francisco Renaissance, along with
Allen Ginsberg, the older poet Kenneth Rexroth and the scholar
of Asian thought Alan Watts are well told in The Dharma Bums,
a book less known than the Kerouac classic On the Road but still
worth reading. A reflection of the Beat period comes from Snyder's
1955 poem "For a Far-out Friend":
By the time The Dharma Bums was published in 1958, Snyder was living in Japan, studying Zen and working on translations from Japanese and Chinese. He spent most of his time in Japan until 1968. When he returned to the USA, the Beat Generation of San Francisco had gone on its way. Allen Ginsberg had gone back to New York to lead a Zen-poetical battle against the war in Vietnam.
Snyder's return to the USA was on the eve of a broad ecological consciousness that took its political form with the UN-sponsored 1972 Stockholm conference on the environment. Synder was influenced by the most famous of the American "back to nature books, Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854). For Snyder "Human economies are based on utilizing whatever nature makes available, and it would be very prudent and healthy for all complex societies to be informed about ecological and economic systems at the same time. A lot of what happens in the economic realm runs counter to the health of the ecological system."
Gary Snyder has become the poetic spokesman for bioregionalism. "The differing regions of the world have long had -each- their own precise subsistence pattern developed over millennia by people who had settled in there and learned what particular kinds of plants the ground would 'say' at that spot. Countless local ecosystem habitation styles emerged. People developed specific ways to be in each of those niches: plant knowledge, boats, fishing, the smaller animals and smaller tools - a spirit of what was to be there evolved, that spoke of a direct sense of relation to the 'land' - which really means, the totality of the local bio-region system, from cirrus clouds to leaf-mold. Bio-regional problems are always linked to the larger biological world. But paying attention to your immediate region gives us a quicker way to monitor and understand what is happening and thus to be able to apprise our citizens more swiftly."
For Gary Snyder, there is a close
link between the spirit of a region and creativity.
Snyder brings his long study of Eastern religious thought to present wholeness and a sense of time. While we live in a world of seeming separation and division, our universe is a unified whole brimming with life and infused with a spiritual presence. He writes "I try to hold both history and wildness in my mind, so that my poems may approach the true measure of things and stand against the unbalance and ignorance of our time." A good introduction to the writing of Gary Snyder is his 1974 book Turtle Island. The title comes from the native Indian name for North America. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry - a leading award for literature.