Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Birthday, Gary

Another of my literary heroes. As a college student suffering from the disconnect with my western roots, I was drawn to his poetry of mountains and pine trees, outer and inner space.

Gary Snyder is a poet, author, scholar, cultural critic, and Professor Emeritus of UC Davis. He graduated from Reed college in Portland, Oregon (where his roommates were poets Lew Welch and Philip Whalen) in 1951. In the Bay Area, Snyder associated with Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and others who were part of the remarkable flowering of west coast poetry during the fifties. In 1956 he moved to Japan to study Zen Buddhism and East Asian culture. For the last thirty-eight years, he has lived in the northern Sierra Nevada. He divides his time between environmental and cultural issues with a focus on the Sierra Nevada ecosystem, and teaching with a focus on creative writing, ethnopoetics, and bioregional praxis.  He is the author of numerous books of poetry and prose. He has been awarded the Pulitzer prize for poetry (1975) as well as the Bollingen Prize (1997). His selected poems No Nature was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1992.

I'm fine with him teaching "ethnopoetics" and "bioregional praxis." Someone has to do it, I suppose. And I'm sure whoever wrote that bio thought people would be impressed as hell by those terms. (I don't think Snyder wrote it.)

What impressed me about Snyder was something this bio doesn't mention: that in the course of growing up in and wandering around the Pacific Northwest, he had been a fire lookout, a logger, and a seaman. He knew the mountains and forests and waters, and the people who lived in and on and around them, and who made their living off of them. His life had been a praxis of the western experience.

This was and is one of my favorite poems of his, as western and as Zen as I can imagine::


Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

He was associated with the Beat Generation, knowing and hanging around with the likes of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Rexroth. But in many ways he was a Hippie before there were Hippies. He was ahead of his time in trying to make sense of the world and experience by seeking spiritual oneness with himself and the Creation.

You know, that's what it was all about in the beginning. It's hard to remember that in this day and age when the word "party" has become a verb and a way of life. But in those days it wasn't just about getting high; it was about getting High, man.

And having fun while doing it:


Once in the Jurassic about 150 million years ago, the Great Sun Buddha in this corner of the Infanite Void gave a discourse to all the assembled elements and energies: to the standing beings, the walking beings, the flying beings, and the sitting beings – even the grasses, to the number of thirteen billion, each one born from a seed, assembled there: a Discourse concerning Enlightenment on the planet Earth
“In some future time, there will be a continent called America. It will have great centers of power called such as Pyramid Lake, Walden Pond, Mt. Rainier, Big Sur, Everglades, and so forth; and powerful nerves and channels such as Columbia River, Mississippi River, and Grand Canyon. The human race in that era will get into troubles all over its head, and practically wreck everything in spite of its own strong intelligent Buddha-nature.”
“The twisting strata of the great mountains and the pulsings of volcanoes are my love burning deep in the earth. My obstinate compassion is schist and basalt and granite, to be mountains, to bring down the rain. In that future American Era I shall enter a new form; to cure the world of loveless knowledge that seeks with blind hunger: and mindless rage eating food that will not fill it.”
And he showed himself in his true form of


A handsome smokey-colored brown bear standing on his hind legs, showing that he is aroused and watchful.
Bearing in his right paw the Shovel that digs to the truth beneath appearances; cuts the roots of useless attach- ments, and flings damp sand on the fires of greed and war;
His left paw in the mudra of Comradly Display-indicating that all creatures have the full right to live to their limits and that of deer, rabbits, chipmunks, snakes, dandelions, and lizards all grow in the realm of the Dharma;
Wearing the blue work overalls symbolic of slaves and laborers, the countless men oppressed by a civilization that claims to save but often destroys;
Wearing the broad-brimmed hat of the west, symbolic of the forces that guard the wilderness, which is the Natural State of the Dharma and the true path of man on Earth:
all true paths lead through mountains-
With a halo of smoke and flame behind, the forest fires of the kali-yuga, fires caused by the stupidity of those who think things can be gained and lost whereas in truth all is contained vast and free in the Blue Sky and Green Earth of One Mind;
Round-bellied to show his kind nature and that the great earth has food enough for evryone who loves her and trusts her;
Trampling underfoot wasteful freeways and needless suburbs, smashing the worms of capitalism and totalitarianism;
Indicating the task: his followers, becoming free of cars, houses, canned foods, universities, and shoes, master the Three Mysteries of their own Body, Speech, and Mind; and fearlessly chop down the rotten trees and prune out the sick limbs of this country America and then burn the leftover trash.
Wrathful but calm. Austere but Comic. Smokey the Bear will Illuminate those who would help him; but for those who would hinder or slander him…


Thus his great Mantra:
Namah samanta vajranam chanda maharoshana Sphataya hum traks ham mam
And he will protect those who love the woods and rivers, Gods and animals, hobos and madmen, prisoners and sick people, musicians, playful women, and hopeful children:
And if anyone is threatened by advertising, air pollution, television, or the police, they should chant SMOKEY THE BEAR’S WAR SPELL:





And SMOKEY THE BEAR will surly appear to put the enemy out with his vsjra-shovel.
Now those who recite this Sutra and then try to put it in practice will accumulate merit as countless as the sands of Arizona and Nevada.
Will help save the planet Earth from total oil slick. Will enter the age of harmony of man and nature. Will win the tender love and caresses of men, women, and beasts. Will always have ripened blackberries to eat and a sunny spot under a pine tree to sit at.


…thus we have heard…
(may be reproduced free forever)

1 comment:

  1. Great post. It's been a while. Time to reconnect. I listened to him at a reading in Missoula in the early 80's. I like your point about the physical labor he's done in his life.