Gary Snyder + Yosemite National Park

Contributed by Zachary Czuprynski

Grasping the reins of life and taking every experience as a privilege is exactly how an accomplished poet, Gary Snyder, carried himself in his language, his spirituality, and his community. Raised in the Pacific Northwest, Gary Snyder quickly pursued his love for mountain climbing and summited most of the major peaks in the northwest United States by the end of his teenage years. He was intrigued by Native American lore and the legends passed down on moonlit nights with fire smoke-pungent air. Many of his writings are rooted within Native American mythology:

I dance on all the mountains
On five mountains, I have a dancing place
When they shoot at me I run
To my five mountains
Home by night
drunken eye
Still picks out Taurus
Low, and growing high:
four-point buck

An accomplished traveler by his mid-twenties, Gary Snyder set off to Japan where he intensely studied Zen Buddhism and became a monk for the better part of a decade. Long periods of deep meditation infused his poetry with self-contemplation and union between man and nature.

In the blue night
frost haze, the sky glows
with the moon
pine tree tops
bend snow-blue, fade
into sky, frost, starlight.
The creak of boots.
Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know.

The mind wanders. A million
Summers, night air still and the rocks
Warm. Sky over endless mountains.
All the junk that goes with being human
Drops away, hard rock wavers
Even the heavy present seems to fail
This bubble of a heart.
Words and books
Like a small creek off a high ledge
Gone in the dry air.
A clear, attentive mind
Has no meaning but that
Which sees is truly seen.

On the return from his spiritual enterprise, Gary settled down in a homemade cabin within the foothills of the Sierra Nevada where he continues to scratch poetry with vulture feathers, take midnight star-walks with a thermos of sake, and stir environmental charisma. He considers himself a gateway, a speaker to quench the gap between “those without voice – the trees, rocks, river and bear” and those with political agendas. Others acknowledge him as an environmental leader of the counterculture who has bequeathed riveting lectures at a variety of conferences and universities, including the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment which led Snyder to write a poem expressing his frustration:

Brazil says “sovereign use of Natural Resources”
Thirty thousand kinds of unknown plants.
The living actual people of the jungle
sold and tortured-
And a robot in a suit who peddles a delusion called “Brazil”
can speak for them?

And Japan quibbles for words on
what kinds of whales they can kill?
A once-great Buddhist nation
dribbles methyl mercury
like gonorrhea
in the sea.

How can the head-heavy power-hungry politic scientist
Government two-world Capitialist-Imperialist
Third-world Communist paper-shuffling male
non-farmer jet-set bureaucrats
Speak for the green of the leaf? Speak for the soil?

The robots argue how to parcel out Mother Earth
To last a little longer
like vultures flapping
Belching, gurgling,
near a dying doe.

Yosemite is an area that is particularly close to Gary Snyder, one that kindled the poet’s inspiration and rattled his soul. Employed as a trail crew laborer for the National Park Service, he began scripting poetry quite unlike any of his previous work. Snyder himself said it was an entirely new phase of creativity where he wrote of beautiful rocks and blue jays through his observations while breaking trail. “It just happened…I found myself writing poems that I hadn’t even intended to write,” Snyder said. It could be suggested that the Zen Buddhist found his flow with Mother Nature at Yosemite. His soul, soaring with the blue jays. His mind, peaceful and still, like a rock.

The Sierra Nevada is an iconic American wilderness that hosts massive, glacier-carved valleys, four million acres of graceful-green forests, and provides clean water for the majority of California. Warming temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns threaten the survival of glaciers in the Sierras. Accelerated rates of glacial retreat can result in hazardous changes in water regulation to heavily-dependent areas within California, a state that is slowly beginning to choke from the dusty droughts amplified by climate change.

It is also noteworthy that the Sierra Nevada is not immune to the penetrating forces of environmental degradation and privatization. Yosemite is an incredible tourist attraction, making it a prime target for corporate interests that can whittle away this token landscape. Powerful and influential companies sit at the backdoor of the Sierras, waiting for political consent to drain the genuineness of our land. Protection of this homeland is a responsibility; a duty to the Natives who came before, a duty to Snyder’s rabbit and deer that meander on frost-hazed nights, and a duty to the community that relies on this momentous landscape.

Photo by Jean-Luc Bertini

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