Poet in prose: Gary Snyder, subject of The Practice of the Wild, offers thoughts about living on Earth.

Dialogues: Gary Snyder on Art, Anarchy and the Environment

Robert Avila May 3, 2010

While intimately associated with the Beat Generation and the San Francisco Renaissance (launched at the famous Six Gallery reading in 1955), Gary Snyder is too protean or just too much his own man to fit easily under any rubric. He’s a revered poet and essayist, an environmentalist, Buddhist, public intellectual, and teacher. But categories are misleadingly partial. His longtime friend and colleague Jim Harrison is no doubt right in calling him “an utterly whole creature.” Harrison shares the screen with Snyder in a series of wide-ranging conversations that make up John J. Healey’s new documentary, The Practice of the Wild, which premieres at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival and borrows its title from Snyder’s influential (and difficult to categorize) 1990 prose work advancing his conception of bioregionalism. Snyder spoke to SF360 by phone from his home in the foot of the Sierras about some of the ideas and experiences that went into the film’s memorable conversations. [Editor’s note: Part 1 of this interview, with Jim Harrison, ran April 23, and can be found here on SF360.]

SF360: Jim Harrison, whom you’ve known for 30 years or more, told me he was involved very early on in the film project and was the one to approach you about it. Your friendship as much as your conversations anchor the film, of course. What do you remember about first meeting him?

Gary Snyder: He was still living in Traverse City, Michigan, at the time. He and I were both, as I recall, invited to do a poets-in-the-schools program, from the state of Michigan. And this was really kind of like a pilot project. There weren’t many places that they were doing poets-in-the-schools then. At that time, Jim was not known as a prose writer at all. He was beginning as a poet. His daughter was six or seven years old. They lived in a big farmhouse out on the road, out in Traverse City. I stayed out there with them. Then Jim and I visited several different schools in Michigan. And we had a great time doing it together. So that was the beginning of that. Jim later on got into all kinds of things–sports writing, food writing, novels–amazing. And then he worked in the movies. Amazing guy. So then a few years ago he said, you know we should do a conversation together, see if we can get it into a film. I usually don’t do that kind of thing. I turn film invitations down a lot. But I knew that this was for real and that the people would be able to do it well. They weren’t just trying to get a master’s degree or something [laughs]. So as it evolved it was a lot of fun, I really enjoyed doing it.

SF360: The film presents an at least superficial contrast between the two of you, but then as it unfolds it becomes clear you share many deep things, beliefs and interests, in common.

Snyder: We are quite close in many ways, of course. Close in age, and similar backgrounds in North America with our interests in literature. Then also in being in the outdoors, in being practical. But I never wrote any prose fiction. I never wrote short stories or even tried a novel. So the only kind of prose I do is nonfiction essays. And I do poetry in translation. Jim has been much more various, and good at everything he’s done over the years. I’m really impressed by Jim. I just wish that–well, he quit smoking pretty much. I hope he can keep his health.

SF360: The film borrows the title of your book. Was that an afterthought?

Snyder: That’s right. We had not hit on that initially. In fact, we didn’t even have a title for it initially, I don’t think. My thought was, well, we’re probably going to do more in the territory of poetry. Jim is a very fine poet also. And I thought we would be doing some things in poetry, and I was hoping to actually be able to ask Jim some questions about his novels and his novellas and short stories. In the end, I knew, we might be talking some about Buddhism, because we’re both Buddhists. But as it evolved, The Practice of the Wild sort of kept coming back and coming out as touchstones that we shared–touchstones that went over the arts and to prose. So at some point we said, I guess that this should have to be called The Practice of the Wild.

SF360: Harrison was noting how that book had a unique capacity for shaking up and re-focusing our imaginations and intellects on certain fundamental subjects, something the film too tries to do, which again makes the choice of the title an apt one.

Snyder: That’s what I’d hoped it would do, you know, in some ways. I wanted to clarify the working distinctions that we acknowledge in speaking–but we don’t have such a clear intellectual or philosophical distinction in our minds–between the term “nature” and the term ‘wild,’ for one thing. If I made any contribution at all with that book, I made a contribution to pointing out that wild doesn’t mean disorderly; it means a different kind of order.

SF360: If anything, the disorder arises from not paying it heed, then?

Snyder: That’s one kind of disorder. The natural systems of the world certainly pay heed. They’re constantly paying heed–because they have no choice, for one thing. [Laughs.] You know, I keep learning new things. The other day, I learned that Great Horned Owls are probably the most effective avian predator, at least in the temperate zone, and they can kill an eagle. And they can take an Osprey down. A friend of mine, he’s a falconer, lost his Osprey probably to a Great Horned Owl in the night. That’s one thing Ospreys are afraid of.

SF360: Never thought of owls as quite that major a predator.

Snyder: Well there are all sorts of owls, from little tiny owls on up. But the Great Horned Owl is big. It’s as big an eagle, or a little deer.

SF360: I guess I’m only familiar with the little kind, the suburbanites.

Snyder: Well, the Great Horned Owl is totally nocturnal. He’s out there. You can hear him at night but it doesn’t sound like an owl. It doesn’t go ‘hooo, hooo, hooo,’ it screams like a banshee. [Laughs.] And they live in deeper forests, so you have to be more out in the woods. Anyway, Jim and I have fun going around with things like that.

SF360: The conversations you had over the course of the film included some dinners .

Snyder: Speaking of dinners, I just want to say Will Hearst and company did not go over the top with the food. It was just right. Jim wanted richer and better fish or food, but I thought it was just wonderfully balanced.

SF360: He was talking to me earlier about the importance of the perfect meal and bottle of wine in setting the right mood for conversation.

Snyder: [Laughs.] Well, it turns out Jim is not quite as demanding as he makes himself sound sometimes in his food writing.

SF360: In reading The Practice of the Wild recently, I was struck all the more by the historical streams of thought feeding bioregionalism, including everything from modern anarchism to perhaps ancient Taoism. How do you situate bioregionalism in a larger political and philosophical tradition? Is it right, in your opinion, to be referencing the libertarian socialist tradition, for example?

Snyder: Yeah, I think so, although there’s as much an ancient conservative side to the bioregional idea as an anarchist side. But then early anarchism, as the ideas were presented by [Peter] Kropotkin, for example, in Mutual Aid –Kropotkin bases a lot of his thinking on his experience living with Siberian tribes, where he was exiled. And then he also draws insights and conclusions from earlier biological sciences, like early ecology before they had the word ecology. So it’s true that pre-modern people, especially Neolithic and Upper Paleolithic people, or what we would call ‘primitive,’ they really know their region, they know economically how to live in it completely. They have a great deal of respect for it. And they’re very cooperative with each other. They know how to work together. That’s tribal culture, the culture of elders. There are plenty of examples of it that we really could admire. There probably are a few examples that we would admire less. But it’s a very, very ancient line of thought–although it surfaces again in the contemporary world from two sides.

One side is like the land-management biologists, the bio-geographers, who rather than just dividing up the landscape, say, like Northern America, rather than dividing it up into blocks of land for political purposes, were trying to analyze it in terms of its watersheds and ecological capacities, agricultural capacities, and so forth. So the bio-geographers are the early North American bioregionalists. [People] like John Wesley Powell, who was an amazing man, who was head of the Smithsonian Institution for a while, and the first guy to ever run the Colorado River too. He tried to map out and get people to develop the states of the far west before statehood, and divide it up more by watersheds because, he said, then people will be more aware of where they are, what they’re doing, and the relationship of the water to the land will be clearer. It was wonderful thinking, but he was already very much opposed by some of the early Western politicians. You know, you talk to bio-geography watershed-type people today–which they have in the forest service in California, commissioners of forestry, watershed workers of all kinds, hydrologists, and so forth–that’s cut-and-dried science, but they’re really looking at things in this way.

And the other kind of bioregionalism are people like myself and some of my friends who say, “Well look, there’s also a cultural dimension to this.” If people saw their jurisdictions as innate and natural landscapes it might be easier to have a political action that takes care of the natural landscape better too. The fundamental point that lies under that is that if we talk about neighborhoods and being neighbors together, it means not just human beings, it means also plants and animals who are also part of the neighborhood. You can’t ignore them, both scientifically and morally. So that becomes an alternative way of looking at politics. However, those of us who work in the field of bioregionalism, we can’t be utopian about this. So we say this is not a program for changing politics, it’s a program for helping people see their landscape more clearly. It’s an educational project. You can live in the state of California, but you can also be aware that the state of California falls into four or five different ecosystems, and three or four different watersheds. It helps a lot to understand that. So we’re still working all that out. It goes into years, actually.

SF360: In the film, you reference all this in speaking of our ‘moral engagement with the nonhuman.’

Snyder: Yeah, and that’s also a Buddhist thing. The Buddhists have always said that we should be morally aware of the nonhuman as well as the human.

SF360: The Buddhist connection is obviously very important in your work. In the film, there’s a line in which you realize something while sitting in a Zen monastery in Japan back in the 1960s: the austerity of the life was already familiar to you from your upbringing on a hardscrabble Depression-era farm. Would you say that such an ability to relate and sympathize across different cultures and different time periods has been important in your life and career?

Snyder: Well, the thing is, I am, as it happens, a person who grew up in a rural area working on a farm, and helping my father do carpentry. So I just took for granted that one has to learn skills, and we also kept cows and I milked the cows, and took care of the chickens, and so forth–and you don’t really think about that. I went off to college, and the war came, and so on. But then I was in Nepal one time, going up the High Himalaya. There were no roads; it’s all trail. So I was going up a trail that went right by a little farm with some yaks and some cows, and I was noticing something about the way the cows were stabled up. So I just went right to the fence and went over and looked at the stable and looked at the cows. And then a Nepali guy came around the corner and looked at me. We had to sort of talk by signals. But what he understood was: I knew about cows. And so he was totally friendly. So I moved things around, I sort of indicated what I was trying to figure out, and he showed me. Then I sort of saluted and waved goodbye and went on my way. But I realized my childhood had prepared me to step into somebody else’s yard. And that’s kind of interesting, because that could happen in Tuscany, it could happen in Spain, it could happen in all kinds of places in the world. I don’t think we even talked about that [during the film shoot] but it’s one of the things I remember in my life.

SF360: Were there other things that you did talk about in the shoot that were particularly striking to you?

Snyder: Well, it was five days all day and it’s more than I can recall, but I do remember I got Jim a few times to talk to me about his own novels and prose and his working methods. I really loved his book Off to the Side, which was his literary memoir. I learned a lot from that because he went through some similar things that I went through, with similar people. So there were some things I enjoyed a lot that we talked about that didn’t get into the film. I don’t even remember which version of the film I last saw. I don’t think I’ve actually seen the final version that’s going to be shown. But my press, Counterpoint Press–they’re already sort of working on it–they’re going to transcribe all of the conversations and publish it as a book. The managing editor there, Jack Shoemaker, said all of that–not all of it, they edited a little out–but a lot of that was really interesting, and more than you could ever get into the film.

SF360: Sounds like a great read.

Snyder: Yeah, I’m curious to see that myself.

SF360: You’ve been mentioning your admiration for Jim Harrison’s facility with a variety of prose forms, including fiction. Is there a reason you never attempted fiction yourself?

Snyder: Actually, I think poetry is very different from fiction. It’s a different kind of imagination. That’s kind of a technical thing and I won’t get into it, but it was some kind of a choice of mine, I guess, to not try that and to leave my energy free for what I do first, which is poetry, and essays, which I do second. You know, my essays would be described as ‘poet’s prose’ by some people. That is a term that is used sometimes. The prose is little more compressed and a little more quirky than a good honest prose writer’s approach.

SF360: It’s hard to reduce it to any typical category for that reason. I can imagine it being filed under environmentalism, philosophy, memoir, etc., but every label seems far too reductive.

Snyder: You’re absolutely right. You know, when that book first came out, bookstores–they had no idea where to put it. I found it in different categories in different bookstores. [Laughs.]

SF360: Further testament to the freshness of its approach no doubt.

Snyder: Well, it’s in the nature I guess of the poet’s imagination, you know. If it’s good it’s good, and if it’s not good it’s bullshit.

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