Magus of the mountain
To get some of Gary Snyder’s jealously guarded time, one must display intellectual and physical mettle. Because, both ways, the poet exists at elevation.
HHead north on Highway 49, a half-mile high in the Sierra Nevada foothills, past Nevada City and the Yuba River gorge where teenagers on giant boulders sip from beer cans, and you’ll eventually come to the San Juan Ridge. This was once Gold Rush territory, not far from where the Donner Party cannibalistically passed. Now, it’s mostly a loose confederation of semi-isolationists living amid sprawling woodlands of ponderosa pines and manzanita shrubs.
If you veer east at the first highway of consequence, you ascend into a vertiginous congregation of dirt crossing roads, stately disinterested trees and an elementary school named after the grizzly bear, the region’s largest nonhuman predator. Hook a right at Jackass Flats Road, past a chalk-gravel lunarscape. Eventually, if you successfully follow a series of woodland turns without a cellphone signal or working GPS, you might discover Kitkitdizze, the 100-acre sanctuary of Gary Snyder — a man who doesn’t particularly want to be found.
For the first half of last year, I attempted to track down the enigmatic Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (“Turtle Island,” 1975), one of the “Dharma Bums” bronzed by Jack Kerouac in the 1958 novel. For the last half-century, the professor emeritus from the University of California at Davis has been plagued by those who surely exhaust him: restless seekers, sycophantic Beat bros and tedious journalists who mostly ask minor interpretations of the same questions.
It’s obvious why he doesn’t want to meet me.
After an extensive search, I procure his address from a friend’s father, a poet and conservationist who offers advance warning: “Gary is very jealous of his time.” My first letter to Snyder — carefully typed out, placed in a manila envelope and mailed up north — predictably goes unanswered. Apparently, he is much better with email. Even if you’re trying to find a reclusive 86-year-old Zen master, your best bet remains Google.
I dash off a straightforward inquiry, introducing myself, this publication, the slant of the story and my hopes of being granted an audience.
“Please say more about yourself and experience so far,” comes Snyder’s almost immediate reply, in a different email with a subject line that just reads: “you.”
“I try to do interviews that venture into new territory, and go deeper in the old, don’t just repeat what’s been said and done before,” he writes. “Education? Work? hands-on work? Back country experience? Family? Yr Practice? Age? Watershed? Etc.”
His email signature includes a 17th-century English folk poem about the perils of goose larceny and man’s pernicious encroachment on nature. Suffice to say that his definition of backcountry experience slightly differs from mine. Snyder grew up on a Depression-era dairy farm outside of Seattle, the spawn of radicals and atheists. He hiked Mount St. Helens alone at 15 and worked as a fire lookout, logger and seaman. His collection of essays, “The Practice of the Wild,” is arguably the closest thing the last century produced to Thoreau’s “Walden.”
As for myself, I grew up in a condo in the slums of Beverly Hills, the son of a tax lawyer and part of a blood lineage of urban Jews who haven’t camped since their ancestors wandered the Sinai.
“I can’t set aside time to meet and talk with you,” Snyder responded that same night. “Too much to do right here right now. At my age you don’t have much time left. You are old enough to have got it figured out already. Meeting me is not essential, doing your own practice and doing more and deeper reading in history, anthropology, and Buddhism is more to the point. The high Sierra still awaits you.”
The response forced me to reconsider exactly what sparked this story, this quest: the inexorable creep of mortality, the notion that by the time you read all of this the principals could already be ashes. I hoped to understand their interstitial thoughts, final opinions, offhand theories and hard-earned wisdom that often exists outside of formal writing. Out of pure selfishness, I hoped to learn secrets scarcely divulged, attempt to apply them to my own life and come to some slightly better understanding of what it means to be alive at this particular accident of time.
But Snyder is an outrider of the outsiders. His best poems, essays and interviews balance satori with self-effacing humor that would chop down those who deify him.
To assess Snyder’s tectonic effect on the Beats, you only need to know a familiar quote from Michael McClure: “Just look at Kerouac. He didn’t go back on Route 66, hugging Neal and weeping big sad tears. He climbed a mountain,” he told the New Yorker in 2008. It’s possible, but ultimately unthinkable, to profile the survivors without including Snyder. So I make plans to drive up to the San Juan Ridge, armed with his address and the narrow hope that he won’t emerge with a hunting blade and a Koan cryptically ordering me off the premises.
Before I depart, I visit my Buddhism professor from Occidental College, hoping for some scholarly insight capable of changing Snyder’s mind. Afterward, I write to Snyder as humbly as possible, apologizing for my nerve and invoking the Zen legend of Rinzai and Huang Po. According to the parable, Rinzai spent three years studying at the latter’s monastery without receiving an interview with the master. Each time he stepped forth to ask the meaning of Buddhism, the pupil received a slap. Yet he still kept coming until he discovered the way. Instead of a slap, I receive silence.
If my plan to crash his Sierra Nevada solitude fails, I figure I’ll spend a week at a Zen monastery in Big Sur. It’s the closest equivalent to “What Would Gary Snyder Do?” Except that Snyder went to Japan to study Zen and translate ancient poems, and stayed off and on from 1956 to 1969. But it never comes to that, because by random chance, while I’m in San Francisco to conduct other interviews, Snyder gives a pair of readings — one in support of his first volume since 2004, the ruminative and elegiac “This Present Moment,” which he says will be his final poetry collection; the other finds him at the opening of “California’s Wild Edge,” an exhibit at the San Francisco Public Library, featuring his words alongside a dazzling series of coastal woodcuts by artist Tom Killion.
When the 90-minute discussion is over, I linger around the desk where Snyder signs books, waiting until everyone has gotten his autograph and made the requisite small talk. After I introduce myself, he interrogates me on what this story will be about. When my answers are satisfactory enough, he tells me to email him again, which I do several days later. Two emails go unanswered. Finally, I rope in representatives from his publishing house, who tell me to write him once again with a more formal proposal. A few more missives are exchanged, a few more personal essays are written, and finally I receive the directions to Kitkitdizze.
Except at 9 a.m. on the morning of my appointed interview, I am hopelessly and perplexingly lost in the Sierra Nevada. Despite meticulous instructions emailed by Snyder, I take the wrong prong at a fork on an unnamed road, which sends my SUV barreling down a
six-foot-wide dirt trail clearly not built for automobiles. A minor twitch or sneeze could cause me to ram my car into a bulky black oak. If I die here, it’s clearly fate and at least the natives will know how to properly turn me into compost.
I swerve into a clearing and wander outside — birds tauntingly chirp as I frantically jump on top of the car in an effort to get a bar of cellphone service. Theoretically, this should be impossible because reception cut out about 30 miles ago. But miraculously, the call goes through, and after being dropped three times, Snyder tells me to wait there and he’ll come and get me. After 20 minutes, it becomes clear that I’m not at our agreed upon meeting place and that the Donner Party had a better sense of direction.
“You weren’t where you said you would be,” Snyder barks as soon as I finally reach him again on his landline.
I profusely apologize; all I had to do was follow an email printout.
With his Buddhist compassion almost evaporated, Snyder agrees to meet me once again. And after a short and agonizing wait, there he is, the aggravated lama, rappelling down the hill in a pale-blue Subaru Forrester, his apricot poodle Emi hanging out the window. Because this is Gary Snyder we’re talking about, even his Westminster-caliber dog has experience chasing bears. “Get in the car and follow me,” he growls. I leap into my 4Runner and drive off at whiplash speed, forgetting to take the scalding cup of coffee off the hood. No time for that, as he’s already hurtling through the gravel wasteland, shaded woods and tortuous curves, up the mountain at a velocity that you would expect from a teenager, not a man midway through his ninth decade. When we finally park at Kitkitdizze, he unleashes a stern but justified lecture on the importance of following directions and setting your odometer. The punishment is one hour with him instead of the two originally allotted.
“Even some Europeans found this place all right,” he says, with a prickly hacksaw laugh belying his small but sturdy physique.
“I have other things happening today,” he continues. “It probably doesn’t look like it to you, but I’ve got a busy schedule. Which I should apologize for but I can’t. When you get to be my age, everybody wants to talk to you.”
His gait is stiff but merry, his face sunweathered; his almond-shaped eyes a deeply inset green granite color, still glowing with animist trickster glee. He wears olive shorts and a salmon-pink shirt. Only the usual etchings and fault lines of time differentiate him from Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” description: “He wore a little goatee, strangely Oriental-looking with his somewhat slanted green eyes, but he didn’t look like a Bohemian at all. . . . He was wiry, suntanned, vigorous, open, all howdies and glad talk . . . and when asked a question answered right off the bat from the top or bottom of his mind I don’t know which and always in a sprightly sparkling way.”
Kerouac has his Allen Ginsberg surrogate describe him even more effusively as “the wildest, craziest, sharpest cat we’ve ever met . . . a great new American hero.”
“You saw all those cars up there?” Snyder asks as we sit down outside in a rough-hewed gazebo with a hanging New Mexico license plate. Wheelbarrows, kettles and steel canteens are scattered. “Do you know what those people are here for? You didn’t even ask me!”
When I shake my head, he tells me that they’ve arrived for a week-long intensive Zen retreat, where the participants meditate practically 24 hours a day — just down the hill in the Ring of Bone Zendo, the Buddhist center built on the property in the early ’80s. He’s abstaining for health considerations, but also because he considers himself retired from teaching.
Shortly before the Summer of Love, Snyder, Ginsberg and Richard Baker, the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, purchased Kitkitdizze. (It is named with the Wintu Indian word for “bear clover.”) It’s scenic, but in a subtle way, minus the spectacular panoramas and natural wonders you’d expect from a prime vacation destination.
“When they think about beautiful land, they think about Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Well that’s charismatic land. I’m glad this is not a charismatic landscape,” Snyder says. “So I can just say to people, ‘Nah, you don’t want to come here. There’s rattlesnakes and poison oak. And that’s true, too.”
Before I ask a single question, Snyder strafes me for hard specifics. What is the main concern of the piece? What do I hope to pursue? It’s an inquiry so boundless that my brain goes blank, and not in the salutary Buddhist way. It’s like when someone asks what kind of music you like and your only answer is the worthless “everything.” So I tell him that I’ve read all his books and have a cursory grasp on his philosophy of economic self-sufficiency, community responsibility and respectful engagement with the wild. I want to know what a man so steeped in past mythologies and cultures thinks about the constant lunacy of the present.
“Isn’t that something you’d ask everybody?” Snyder parries with that mellifluous sandpaper voice, a turquoise stud in his left ear — pierced since the early Eisenhower era. “Presumably, yes,” I mumble. “Can you be a little more precise?” I start babbling about goddess worship in ancient cultures and how it pertains to the modern culture of celebrity, but within a few sentences, Snyder has picked apart my illusions. It’s Socratic method applied by a Zen guru, question after question until you’re humbled and confused, all hubris destroyed. This is like a scene in an old Western where a character is effortlessly disarmed as soon as he walks in, forced to watch his arsenal lying in plain view.
We talk about the California drought, which he sees more as a few dry years rather than a full-scale ecological crisis. I ask if he followed Black Lives Matter and the ensuing protests.
“You’re treating me like a public intellectual, right?” he interrupts. “’Cause that’s what I really am. There are two things that I really do. One is poetry, and the other is thinking about attitudes toward the environment in practical terms, the meaning of the world wild, and in particular what we have taken of that from East Asia.”
To understand Snyder is to artfully reconcile paradoxes. Every insight seems long contemplated, but his poems present themselves in lotus bursts of inspiration. Shortly after I arrive, he hands me a folder containing a copy of “Remaining Unprepared,” an essay based on a lecture he delivered at the University of Michigan in 2013. It’s Tao in condensed form, clearly a way for him to circumvent having to answer redundant questions about the craft. A few of the gems:
“To be a serious artist is to be obsessed with the craft, with the work. Both crazy and sane, both disciplined and goofily free, celibate or profligate, artists baffle themselves, their families, their societies.”
“One’s writing benefits enormously from good thinking. True facts, new facts, insights, corrections of old misperceptions, or really grisly and scary well-said errors or horrors.
“The real world is our ultimate teacher — and as you’ll hear again, great art is beyond good and evil. But it is never evil. Art is not church either.”
He ends the lecture by quoting the “marvelous haiku poet Buson: ‘More than anything else, it important to remain unprepared for verse writing.’ ”
But few, if any, have prepared so thoroughly for unpreparedness. He seems to possess total recall, referencing the names of polyandrous castes in Southern India, the various manifestations of Hindu goddesses, 18th-century Japanese poets, contemporary Vietnamese Buddhist thinkers. Yet for a man who prizes seclusion, his engagement with the world defies Luddite cliches and romantic notions of the wildlife poet.
For the last half-century, he has publicly advocated for a more long-term approach to settlement patterns, encouraging people to
put down roots and engage with their local community and its organizations. At California Gov. Jerry Brown’s behest, Snyder chaired the California Arts Council in Sacramento. Closer to Kitkitdizze, he has closely worked with the Yuba Watershed Institute, a local environmental protection group, which has partnered with the federal Bureau of Land Management to help manage the region’s forests, reduce fires, and catalogue its flora and fauna.
“Being called a nature poet’s not a bad thing. That won’t hurt you for long. I don’t think of myself as a nature poet though,” Snyder admits, wary of tags, but aware that when you’re surrounded by 100 acres of manzanita groves, pines, Douglas firs, buzzing insects, scampering lizards and the occasional grizzly that wanders into your pantry, it’s part of your narrative.
“Somebody said to me not long ago, ‘Well, you write about nature, but you also write about the rest of the technological and industrial side of society, too,’ ” Snyder continues. “I’m not a nature poet; I’m a poet of reality. They’re all real.”
This desire for specificity undergirds his particular strain of genius. His intellect delineates minor but crucial distinctions from things that more pedestrian minds gloss over. For instance, he refuses to make broad, sloppy generalizations about America, instead picking apart regional and class differences, the stark contrast between High Plains cattle culture and the South, the rural culture of the Upper Midwest and the Scandinavian laborunion culture of urban areas of the Lower Midwest. It can come off as mildly pedantic, but it’s consistent with his approach to culture and politics.
As for his long-dead hiking buddy Kerouac, Snyder offers the tempered praise that you rarely hear in reference to such a divisive artist.
“Jack wasn’t a terribly good thinker, but he was a good writer, who certainly did have a way with language,” Snyder says. “And a wonderful human way of connecting with people, trusting and respecting them. He’s never really cruel to anybody, even in language. It’s a wonderful, naive, Catholic-boy energy.”
The afternoon warms, the conversation progresses, and Snyder becomes more affable. His authoritarian temperament reflects Zen strategy, a timeless device to toughen up flabby reasoning, destroy the ego and lead the benighted toward the path. To paraphrase Biggie Smalls: He’s nice, but it’s on the low.
As his first email recommended, the discussion drifts toward new territory: the immediate crises of the present, the nagging terrors of the future, the gradual drift toward death.
“I’m not one of those people who say technology will somehow pull us out of it,” Snyder says, referring to the threat of diminished supplies of water and food in an overpopulated world. “The same thing that might help Greece, biting the bullet and being more austere, expecting less, settling down more, might help the world at large. But there are parts of the world, like Bangladesh, that I don’t think anybody’s going to be able to help. What do you do with a starving population of that size?”
We tend to view modern-day prophets in a cultish light, favoring ancient Magi who had access to only a remote fraction of worldly information. But Snyder is as close as we’ll find to a legitimate visionary, a man simultaneously attuned to the present and asymmetric to the last millennium — whose prescient views on recycling, overconsumption and leaving a modest footprint are now accepted wisdom among all but the most gluttonous.
His philosophical journey took him through Trotskyism and classic European and Southern European anarchist thought, but he’s aware that none of it properly fits modern complications.
“We need a political position that can handle science and technology and these rapid changes, the complexities of handling money and finance and fundamental morals. And it’s hard to work through that,” Snyder says.
“I think a necessary politics for the future would be one that includes a moral sense of the nonhuman world. And religiously speaking, that is only the Buddhists, some Hindus and nature religion-based people scattered across the globe in tiny numbers.”
If the story of the present is inflamed extremism, whether through social media, homicidal rampages or political demagoguery, Snyder strives for an unusual subtlety. He’s not a pure pacifist, acknowledging the need to kill for self-defense or to fight back against something unreasonable and hopeless. For him, it’s not merely the attack strategy, but the attitude of the reprisals — the tenet of non-harming, or ahimsa in Hindu and Buddhist tradition, being the ultimate goal.
Then there is enlightenment, the rarefied end that he has presumably spent a lifetime to achieve. Of course, there’s no answer, but I can’t resist asking him if he believes he has found it, and if so, what the difference is between enlightenment and wisdom.
“You know, Buddhists wouldn’t answer the question, ‘What is enlightenment?’ How can you explain what enlightenment is to someone who is not enlightened? Anybody who asks the question is not enlightened, so why tell them?” Snyder says, letting loose that winking coyote laugh once again.
“But you know, Zen commonly says enlightenment is your ordinary mind,” he continues. “Try to take account of your ordinary mind. Thich Nhat Hanh once said: ‘The good thing about meditation is it’s boring. So if people can just get really bored with themselves, then, they’re making progress.’ ”
With the hour almost elapsed, he asks if there’s anything else. I can’t help but notice that he’s still wearing a wedding band on his finger, a constant reminder of his late wife, Carol Koda, who died of cancer several years ago. It’s the subject of “Let Go,” his final poem of what might be his final book — a paralyzingly beautiful requiem.
“It was amazing that it came to me just like that,” Snyder says about the poem, which he wrote two months after Koda died. “It was effortless and I wrote it all down at once. I couldn’t have thought I could do it. So that’s the meaning of unprepared. And it’s true, some of our best work is that which we are least prepared for. Except we might say that years of your life went into the preparation.”
As for his own mortality, it’s not something that necessarily haunts him, but it’s an inescapable reality to confront.
“The main shift, and it comes about gradually, is realizing that you really will die,” Snyder laughs. “It’s not a joke. You really have to die. Even though you think you know it already, you don’t know it until you feel it around the corner.”
Then he looks at his watch and it’s 20 minutes past 11. There are people coming and phone calls to make, and he has no more time left. As he walks me out to the car, he apologizes to me that it didn’t work out for quite as long as I hoped, and thanks me for the experience.
We shake hands and I open the door to my car, and start to get in. But before I can, Snyder calls out to me and says:
“Robert Frost had a guy who drove up to his farm in Vermont one time, and they talked for a while, and then Frost said to him, ‘Do you remember how you got here?’ “And the guy said, ‘Yeah.’ “And Robert Frost said, ‘Well, then you can go back the way you came.’ ” We both laugh this time. “I think you can figure it out,” he adds. “Next time, you’ ll be able to come right away.”
I turn the key in the ignition and start the long descent down the mountain, slowly navigating back to civilization. I only make one wrong turn.
TOP: From left, Pulitzer Prizewinning poet Gary Snyder, Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg, with the Himalayas behind them, pause during a trip to India in the early 1960s.
BELOW: Snyder teaches a class in 1980 in San Francisco. He considers himself retired from teaching both poetry and Zen.
Snyder stakes his claim outside his woodshed in the 1980s. Kitkitdizze, his 100-acre sanctuary, is nestled about a half-mile high in the San Juan Ridge of California’s Sierra Nevada range.
“Somebody said to me not long ago, ‘Well, you write about nature but you also write about the rest of the technological and industrial side of society, too,’ ” Snyder said. “I’m not a nature poet; I’m a poet of reality. They’re all real.”