A Sense of the Land: An Interview with Gary Snyder

Last month I interviewed Zen poet and California native Snyder for an article in Newsweek; he had come to San Francisco’s Nourse Theater to read from his latest poetry collection, This Present Moment. So little of our actual talk made it into the article that I’m posting an edited version here, in honor of Independence Day. Long may he wave.

You were introduced at the Nourse Theater by Will Hearst, who said you shared a passion for watersheds. Were California watersheds an early interest of yours? Can you say more about that?

Of course that’s an interest of mine; I’m a bioregionalist. I’ve written about watershed consciousness, the intelligence of basing your thinking on the landscape, starting out by making sure you know what watershed you’re in and how watersheds relate to each other. Which most people don’t do because they’re thinking about place is dominated by the highways. That’s all that know, really is the roads. It changes things a lot when you clear the roads out of your mind and look at the watersheds. And watershed does not mean just one big river; it’s the main stem and all the tributaries all at once. …

This is part of being an environmentalist and having a sense of the land. Watersheds generally tend to contain ecosystems and there’s no difficulty about understanding the landscape. Watersheds are not arbitrary; they have been shaped by the land itself, the play of the ridges and streams, whereas boundaries that are on the map, especially in North America are arbitrary lines drawn with a ruler, often by people who had no idea where they were. Which means they’re temporary; 500 years from now we won’t be using those boundaries at all. So that’s just part of my toolkit. (laughs)

Hearst produced a film that you and Jim Harrison appeared in (The Practice of the Wild). Had you known Harrison before?

Oh yeah, way back. We did a poetry reading tour in upstate Michigan when we were young, as a pilot program to see if poets in the schools might be a viable idea. To see if students would sit still and listen to poets talk about poetry. That was before Jim wrote short stories…

Were students sitting down and listening to poetry when you read?

They enjoyed it a lot. For one thing we said bad words. Poetry gives you permission to say any kind of language, using any kind of grammar. … One of my neighbors has been doing that for years. He says, “One of the first things I do is I tell all the children in the third grade, ‘Write a lie’ and they love it. They say, “You mean we can write something down that’s not true?”… It’s a wonderful permission.

You were raised on a very small dairy farm outside Seattle in what you described as “a hardscrabble rural poverty life.” Would you say that existence informed you politically?

Definitely, but you have to understand, the whole Northwest was much more leftwing than it is now; the whole country was more leftwing. The west side of Washington state and western Oregon west of the Cascade Mountains, there was a lot of proto socialists and downright Marxists. Of course the labor movement is still strong in Seattle. It was the Depression; when I say “hardscrabble poverty,” I’m just talking about the Depression. Everyone was poor, everyone that we knew. My dad was out of work for 8 or 9 years, but we did all kinds of other things, including splitting shanks (?), cutting old cedar stumps off close to the ground… We had chickens and cows and eventually fruit trees. But I never had a consciousness of poverty until later when I realized there are people who have it a little easier. But compared to the kinds of poverty you see in other parts of the world, we always had a car that ran at least. It’s all a matter of degrees. I sat around and listened in on a lot of conversations. My father was part of the League of Unemployed Voters, an early Seattle-wide mutual aid association that had cooperative auto repair shops, cooperative food stores; it was flourishing so well — a lot of people were Communist party members in those days — a lot of people say that was why President Roosevelt started the welfare programs because he didn’t want the west coast to go Communist.

There’s a guy who’s working on my biography who has done a lot of research on that [period], John Suiter, lives in Chicago. It’s taking him too long.

How far has he gotten at this point?

He’s gotten at least up to 1953. He’s gotten me out of college. He’s gotten completely fascinated with details, the rhapsody of facts. …

I didn’t realize that I had a progressive background until I had to fight for my position when I was at Reed and decide whether I was Stalinist or a Trotskyite or anarchist or democratic socialist.

How did you identify yourself? Your grandfather was a Wobbly.

Yeah, [a member of] the International Workers of the World, and the IWW is still a good memory for all of us. I joined the IWW later, it still exists and I still have my IWW card. … Having an exact name for yourself wasn’t that important. I studied the [Peter] Kropotkin school of anarchism and his great book, Mutual Aid. And Mutual Aid kind of morphed into the whole bioregional project in my mind. Since anarchism is very much misunderstood I generally use the term bioregionalism these days.

How would you describe yourself politically now, or do you?

Self-definition is presupposed before we start talking politics, which is also to say: What picture of the world have you managed to create for yourself? One of the ways to get right at somebody is just ask, them, What do you subscribe to? …

A poet and a writer like myself — I have six prose books, books of essays — you can’t help but be a public intellectual. People ask you for your opinion whether you have one or not. …

Can you tell me about your early interest in Native American culture and traditions?

I was fascinated by anthropology museum on University of Washington; my parents would drop me off there when they were going shopping in that part of town. I took note of all that cedar carving and so forth, talked to Indian guys when I could. So it was a sort of easy gradual move from an interest in Native American [culture] to an interest in East Asia.

The first big hit on East Asia that came to me was at the Seattle Art Museum, which has a wonderful collection of East Asian and Chinese and Japanese landscape paintings…. Looking at the Chinese and Japanese mountain landscapes my thought was that it sure looked a lot like the Cascades in Washington. I also thought, “Gee, these guys really knew how to paint!” You look at a European landscape, I don’t know, maybe if you live on the East Coast it looks familiar but it was a very unfamiliar looking landscape to me. I already knew the West. East Asian painting covers a mountain landscape with ice and rocks and clouds that looks very much like the landscape of interior Washington.

And I had a definite argument about the ethics of Christianity, or the absence of what I thought was ethics, in their inability to extend concerns to non-human beings. That’s when I quit going to Sunday school, when I found out that our heifers that died couldn’t go to heaven. Then I learned somewhere that Buddhists and Hindus included all the different creatures in their moral concern and I said, “Well, that’s for me!”

Went to Indiana University for one semester on linguistics, then I went to Berkeley and started studying Chinese full time for a while. Got a certain vocabulary, some Chinese characters and so forth. … Then I went to Asia with the goal of studying with a Zen teacher; by that time I had run on to Buddhism and narrowed my territory to Zen Buddhism, its’ particular kinds of discipline and its poetry and its heart. It was accessible in Japan but at that time China was totally closed. Managed to make my way to Japan and stayed there for 12 years.

How were you embraced as a Westerner?

As long as you speak the language and have good manners you can go anywhere. At first they think you’re a little odd and then they get used to you.

Can you say more about what those 12 years were like? Were you in monasteries?

I was partly in monasteries and partly living in a little place nearby; I had to do that because I needed to be able to look things up, which you cannot do in a monastery. They don’t have a library or a dictionary in a Zen monastery so I had a place just a 10-minute walk away. To pay the rent I took on conversational English teaching jobs. Part of the time I was very much in the Buddhist world but also I got to know Japanese intelligentsia and various European and American expat types, the bohemian subculture of western Japan… Learned a wide variety of Japanese that way. Zen Buddhists speak the most learned and polite Japanese when they want to. All the way down to Kyoto dialect, the southern part of Kyoto, which has gambling and prostitution and bar zones. And they have quite a vocabulary too. [laughs]

When did you return to the US?

I made the big trip back here in ’68 with my Japanese wife and my firstborn son. We came back by ship and I brought my library back. Moved here a couple years later and built a house in 1970.

How did you come to build a house there, in the foothills near Nevada City?

It’s a simple story. Dick Baker from San Francisco Zen center had been assigned the job of finding a piece of country land that the Zen Center could buy and make a country branch. He narrowed it down to some land up here and the Tassajara land, and Suzuki Roshi chose Tassajara partly because it had a hot springs… So then Dick said to me and Allen Ginsberg, “I know another piece of land that Roshi doesn’t want and maybe we could buy it. This is a really good deal right now and it’s an interesting place.” We came up here and looked at it. I wasn’t familiar with this part of California; on the other hand I was familiar with what I saw when I got out of the car and started taking my handheld compass and looking at everything. I recognized ponderosa pine, incense cedar, black oak madrone and several species of Manzanita, and I said, “Oh this is just like southern Oregon. Same climate probably, same maximum and minimum temperatures, same rainfall. This is a good place to be.” I would go in on this place, knowing what to expect in the West…

Dick had to leave the Zen Center [for alleged sexual improprieties], or thought he did anyway. Now he’s based in Colorado. Still in touch with him, he has students in Germany. Goes there for a few months at a time. … He made a big impression on people. That’s the kind of guy he is. People take note of him. And in a way he’s kind of scary too.

Both interests (Native American culture, Buddhism) were later embraced by a lot of young people in the sixties and the seventies. Did you ever see yourself as sort of a trailblazer in that regard?

I had no intention of it; most of what I see I think, “They’re not doing a very good job of it.” But I appreciate the steadiness of a lot of the Buddhist people. I have a current companion and she practices Vipassana; she’ll probably eventually find her way into Zen. She asked me, “What is the relationship of Vipassana to Zen?” and I said, “Vipassana is like going to college; Zen is graduate school. You really get down to where you’ve got to make it work.”

The one thing I haven’t said, and I should say something about poetry: Of all the things I do, poetry is the one I think I do well. I’ve been watching what poetry can be and what I think it can be for a long time and part of that is orality. Poetry is very old; it predates literature and predates writing. … That’s also part of my linguistic and anthropology background; I learned to appreciate non-literate cultures and prehistory, and what is now called deep history.

You also said that This Present Moment would be your last collection; does that mean you’re not continuing to write poetry?

You don’t plan to write poetry; if it comes to you, fine; if it doesn’t, that’s fine too. It took me ten years before I felt like I could let this collection go. I’ll be writing some more of course, but I don’t think I’ll be putting together another collection. In fact I’m gearing up to do a new prose book, [taken from] a history of the environment of China I was working on in the 70s. Most of it is already written… [To be called] The Great Clod, which is a Chuang Tzu line; he was a contemporary of Lao Tzu’s — the other great creative Taoist writer. He says, “The great clod nourishes me, comforts me, chills me, feeds me. If I appreciate my life I should appreciate my death.” …

The Chinese communists don’t talk about Chuang Tzu at all, they talk about Lao Tzu a little bit; they decided they have to talk about Confucius after attacking him for 40 years. What made China a viable culture and an interesting culture over the centuries was that it was constantly playing between the Taoist outlook and the Confucian outlook. Men used to say during your working career you’re a Confucian and after you retire you’re a Taoist. Taoist say, “The Buddhists meditate, the Taoist take naps.”