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.”

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