FREEWHEELING THE DETAILS:
A CONVERSATION WITH GARY SNYDER & PETER COYOTE
Gary Snyder, poet, environmental activist, Zen Buddhist, and UC Davis professor, recently celebrated the publication of The Gary Snyder Reader, the major selected volume of his essays, travel journals, letters, poems and translations. The collection gathers poems from his first book, Riprap, to the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Turtle Island (1975) through No Nature (finalist for the National Book Award, 1992) and the epic poem cycle Mountains and Rivers Without End (1996). That year, Gary Snyder, author of sixteen books, and longtime resident of the South Yuba River watershed in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in Northern California, was honored with the Bollingen Poetry Prize and the Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award/Los Angeles Ties. This year, his old friend Peter Coyote, actor, conservationist, activist, and Zen practitioner, also celebrated the paperback publication of his personal memoir of the sixties, Sleeping Where I Fall. The two, author/poet and author/actor, met in an unusual onstage conversation presented by A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, the San Francisco independent bookstore, at Fort Mason's Cowell Theater, June 2, 1999. The following is a transcript of what took place.
Peter Coyote: So by way of introducing Gary Snyder - not to plug my own book - I thought I would read the story, it's very short, about how I first met Gary, which was thirty some odd years ago, when his friend and my roommate Lew Welch - another one of the Beat poets who had filled by head with Snyder lore for at least the better part of a year - actually arranged an introduction. And, just to give you the setting, this was a dirt poor hippie commune, thirty to thirty-five souls, all eating road kill, and long-haired and bedraggled and occasionally sober. And into this setting, Gary came.
It's embarrassing to remember my first impression as I watched Gary's pristine Volkswagen camper pick its careful way over the rutted road to our ranch house. "How could Gary Snyder be driving a new camper? I thought. "So bourgeois!" It came to a stop under the willow tree at the edge of the yard. Lew hopped out with his customary manic enthusiasm, and I ambled over, lord of the manor. Salutations were exchanged, and Gary threw open the side door and invited me inside. Before I had climbed on board, he had already opened some peanut butter and a box of crackers.
He was wearing an old straw hat that shaded his eyes, and I remember him cocking his head to one side to look at me. His look was so clearly appraising, so without social camouflage as to be startling. The visit was uneventful. We ate crackers and talked. Gary was not overweening, and he made interesting conversation - in the parlance of the time, he was "together." His body was muscular and lithe. His eyes crinkled pleasantly when he smiled. His voice was cultivated, and his speech was very precise and peppered with geological terms like schist, upthrusts and substrate.
I was a little crestfallen by this initial encounter. He had not congratulated me for carrying the banner of Beat liberation struggles onto new battlefields, nor acknowledged me as a peer, nor questioned me in any way about my revolutionary lifestyle and politics. All he had done was look me over as if asking himself, "What's this guy about?" He did not find it necessary to locate me philosophically or politically. In fact, he did not seem to find it necessary to define himself in relationship to me at all! I had shared some peanut butter and crackers and a pleasant time with him, and that was that. After he had driven off, little remained in my memory except that initial penetrating visual query. It made me squirm mentally and I did not know why.
Well, thirty years later I no longer squirm, but I've become increasingly fond of that penetrating gaze, and I've never been disappointed by the intelligence that's behind it and supports it, and as well as being a close friend and a great comrade, Gary has been a spiritual companion. Somebody, an older student, kind of on the path of practice, who has guided me and nurtured me and been helpful beyond comparison, beyond measure. And so it's my great honor to be asked to introduce him tonight and ask you to join me in welcoming Gary Snyder.
GARY SNYDER: I don't know if Peter remembers this, but the first time we met was shortly after I got back from Japan in 1969 after a long residence there and some big crazy party at a house perched on the side of the slope over Muir Beach. Peter Berg and Lew and Joanne Kyger. Peter was this beautiful human being. He had hair down to his waist and more earrings than you can count and lovely tight fringed leather pants. I thought, now there is quite a guy! Turned out to be true. So, yeah, we've been learning about each other through the years.
Earlier this evening we were talking about how in our cultural,, political and literary life here in Northern California, friendships have been so important to our community of like souls - and have carried us all through the decades. This book, The Gary Snyder Reader, is dedicated to one of my earliest friends and mentors, a fellow student at Reed College in the early fifties, Philip Zenshin Whalen, retired abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center, who was one of the first people to seriously scold me for my intellectual shortcomings when we were both undergraduates at Reed. Except he was older, and he had been in the Air Force, one of these World War II GI Bill guys. So, the book's dedicated to Philip Whalen, with a quotation from Confucius.
Peter: Thank you, Gary. Anyone who listens to any of these poems is struck immediately by a sense of detail. I wanted to tell one little personal story on you which relates to this sense of detail and then ask you a question about it. One time Gary took me into his study, and in the center of his study was a large library card file actually from a library, you know, the kind before there were computers, with lots and lots and lots of little drawers with little cards in them. And each of these drawers was fully annotated alphabetically with Gary's readings for the last thirty years, cross-indexed to his journals. And I was simultaneously overwhelmed with that effort and also relieved that all of those details didn't come out of his memory because I was losing mine. So, one of the things that I wanted to ask you about - I remember when the Diggers first came up to San Juan Ridge, and we had this meeting. The Diggers were my leftist anarchist family in San Francisco, and we were going on a caravan to spread the word about living in place. And the first place we stopped was Gary's community, and they were a little suspicious about us as gypsies, not particularly as individuals - although they would have been wise to be suspicious by the community's commitment to live in place and defend this place, and it strikes me that there's a kind of commonality about detail, about becoming intimate with place through the detail of what lives there and grows there, detail in poetry and, for want of a better word, the suchness of detail and Buddhist practice. And those are all three kinds of themes that you and I have talked about a lot, and I would like you to just freewheel about detail and how the appreciation for precision and specificity relates to place, poetry and practice.
Gary: That's a big order, Peter.
Peter: We have time.
Gary: I don't know. Well, I'm very suspicious of detail.
Peter: That finishes me off for this evening, thank you very much.
Gary: But I'm suspicious of it because I'm so drawn to it. I hope at its best that by covering detail in work and community and political life, one is freed up to take risks, to venture into the formless. There's a delicate balance there, and I have to watch myself very carefully not to fall into the temptation to be a geek, which always lurks over your shoulder... Coyote, Coyote, old man, do you suppose Coyote old man carries a little calendar under his armpit as he trots along or something to keep up with what his plans are? Maybe he does; but attention in the moment, attention what's going on; hearing and seeing and listening is of utmost value; it is so beautiful. Whether or not you have to remember it or write it down is another question. However, if it's there, it comes back to you when you need it, maybe.
Peter: Well, I wasn't actually talking or listening so much of the writing. What I was thinking of was how the flip side of the formless is boundless detail, boundless, each grain of sand different, each flower petal; no one will ever have this face again...
Gary: Ohhh, leave that to God!
Peter: Yeah, so, one of the things of value about place is the detail of the gene pool, the detail of what grows here, and it seems to me that's something that has informed a lot of your work. And I'm not talking about the geek aspect; I'm actually talking about the reverential aspect.
Gary: Well, I appreciate the distinction. You know, it's been a lifelong struggle to keep the right balance between taking notes on my reading and trying to learn a few more birds and a few more flowers and losing track - as one many sometimes - of the fact that learning the name of a bird doesn't tell you a whole lot about the actual critter. You have to, as Basho says, go to the pine tree to learn of the pine, go to the bamboo to learn of the bamboo. And that means, go to that being, go to that presence and be with it experientially, feel it, be one with it, let it enter into you. You don't need a taxonomy to do that. Yet, having the the taxonomy at hand adds another dimension that is very valuable, especially when you're at a forest service hearing and you're called on to testify. So it's some balance there.
Peter: Well, let me ask it another way. Which is, what's the difference between traveling and staying at home? I mean, you were in the Arabian Sea and the Bosporus in Constantinople, and here you are when we visit - I mean, for twenty years it seemed every time I visited Gary at Kitkitdizze, which is the name of his house, we would clear brush, and we would talk, and we would hack and talk and pile up brush as a fire break. And over the years you could actually see the changes that you made, and so we were not cutting everything down in our path; we were cutting down specific bushes, specific undergrowth, and so, as I was listening to you read in all this travel and all this detail of things that you were seeing - is it the same thing as walking on the ridge, or is it something different?
Gary: Taking what's at hand and taking it on... when I was working in the engine room of the Sappa Creek, I had some maintenance jobs that, if I didn't keep track of them, I could ruin this giant engine. And so I took it to heart as my responsibility. I even wrote a poem of compassion and sympathy for this tanker that I knew as going to be busted up as scrap in about five more years. So when you're up in the Sierra Nevada, you better clear the underbrush, or it's all going to burn down. In part, that's just taking on what's in your life, what's given to you in your surroundings, I guess.
Peter: Well, I'm trying to tease out of you, clumsily, an articulation about how you're thinking about living in place. What living in place and getting intimate with place really means. And somewhere in my mind that I can't articulate too clearly is a connection having to do with the details of a place, the way a place presents itself through the details, not the taxonomy, of its different species and the interactions of those species. And I see a connection between that language and the language of poetry. Maybe that's my own mind.
Gary: Well, let me tell a little story on me and on my life. Thirty years living in this one spot, most of the time there, developing a forest, managing a little forest, some big trees, wild, and developing a water system, a solar electric power system, a small garden, and moving about, keeping an eye on things, cutting down the pine trees that had been killed by western bark beetles before the bark beetles could spread, cutting that up for firewood, loading it in the truck, getting it out of the meadow so it wouldn't spread to the other trees, studying the cheat grass and other invader species of grass in some of the meadows that were expanding too rapidly, wondering about them, etc., etc. Thirty years. Back and forth by one old live oak tree that happened to be standing right alongside this trail, and one day I'm going by that live oak tree, and for no particular reason at all that I can figure, I saw it. I totally saw it. It came to me; it opened itself to me. And I stood there; and I thought, "I have never seen this tree before; I have never been in the presence of this tree like I am now." It was a fully living presence. It was deeply moving. And I also saw the tree in a way I had never seen it before, that is to say, in beautiful detail of the bark, the leaves, the serrations on the leaves, the scattered dead leaves on the ground, the shapes of the limbs, the shapes of the twigs. So I met the tree. And thought in reflection on that, that that's a wonderful experience. In a way, that's what we live for. But at the same time, doing all the chores, taking care of the place, changing the oil in the generator are absolutely necessary and just as beautiful, too. And they prepare the way for that moment when you get to meet the tree, meet the oak tree, that the two go side by side. And, indeed, that is the model of a Zen training center where there are all kinds of little details that you do well from day to day, and then maybe there's more that's going to happen too, but you don't insist on it. You do what you do as boring as it is or as repetitious as it is, in the same good spirit 'well', everyday; so that's called practice. Poetry is the same.
Peter: That's the answer I wanted.
Gary: I'm sorry I'm so slow.
Peter: I'm starting to feel selfish and greedy, and I think I want to include the rest of the audience in this. Do you think you could turn up the house lights so we could see people out there? And I would invite people to ask Gary questions or myself, and I will try to moderate and ask you to speak loudly, and I will repeat it in the microphone just in case people don't hear. So please feel free. A show of hands. Yes?
[muffled audience question]
Peter: The question is a question to Gary - how come you don't deal with the problems of overpopulation?
Gary: Well, you know, because poetry is not a program. I have talked about overpopulation in some of my essays, particularly a little manifesto called Four Changes. But that's basically a prose job.
[muffled audience comment]
Peter: Can you hear that in the back, that story? He's recounting the story about how Gary and he went to visit a poet in New Mexico, and the poet was apologizing that the upstairs toilet was leaking...and that...the question was about...a young man kind of mythologizing Gary and was startled when Gary launched into this fellow and said, "You know, this is a critical life tool. How can you let the toilet leak?" That was kind of a little Zen epiphany.
Gary: You said it so well, Peter.
Peter: I just repeated what he said.
Gary: Well, I guess I did that. I gave him a little dharma lecture on maintenance.
[muffled audience question]
Peter: The question to Gary was how do you deal with a sense of place; does a sense of place have to be related to an environment around it which is still alive?
Gary: You know, you can't be anywhere on this planet in which the environment around you isn't alive. Maybe in the cities, in the urban centers, it's not quite as evident, but there are mites in these seats and spiders under your chair, not to mention billions of germs flying around - these are all sentient, organic, living beings. We can enjoy that. As Dogen says,, "Tiles, bricks, broken walls teach the dharma to us. "Do not make a foolish distinction between sentient and non-sentient, Dogen would say. So we have an environment whether we like it or not, wherever we are. And it's a relationship, place is a relationship like a marriage. Either you enter into that relationship, and it's very rewarding, or you deny that relationship, and you live in loneliness.
[muffled audience question]
Gary: I will have to say, as I said to Latif in Santo Domingo Pueblo, you seem to be in a very negative space...which hostile environment is this? We are companions to the whole universe; this isn't a hostile environment.
[muffled audience comeback]
Gary: Oh, there's mosquitoes, that's true.
Audience: Would you talk about the sense of place and possession, or ownership, of place?
Gary: Well, it's a different topic. Ownership is not a question. Again, let's think of it as relationship. A relationship does not require ownership, of a place or of a person. None of us own the wind; none of us own the yellow-rumped warblers; none of us own the sea. But we can have a relationship to them, also.
Peter: The question was would you compare, or compare and contrast, the epiphanies that come as a writer or an artist with those that come from some kind of spiritual practice and pursuit.
Gary: That's a hard question to answer because, first of all, not all spiritual practices and pursuits are the same. And there are several different tracks of practice and experience that cultivate and encourage somewhat different experiences. Devotional bliss, absorption in the One, is the focus of some traditions. The experience of the artist is hands-on; it is dealing with the material world regardless of which particular material you are dealing with, and so it is loving and close to matter; it cannot and would not deny matter. But there are schools of spirituality who would choose to leave that world behind, and so it's hard to say. However, in the Zen Buddhist tradition, for one, there is an qualified delight in the arts. But also the monks in Song Dynasty China or in Tokugawa Japan practicing painting or poetry laughed at themselves and each other and said the worst kind of Zen person gets involved in poesy...
Peter: Present company excluded?
Gary: However, you know, let's take one of the best thinkers in this territory. Basho - the great haiku poet who says, "Go to the pine tree to learn of the pine tree." And then in one little saying he sums it all up. Either for the artist or the would-be spiritual practicer he says, "Don't try to follow in the footsteps of the old masters; go to the source that they went to." There you are; go to the source.
Audience: What can we do educate the young about poetry?
Gary: The kind of poetry that I write gets a little hard for kids to read below sixth grade.
Audience: What about teenagers?
Gary: Well, teenagers, yeah. I do that in high school sometimes. In fact, just last week I was with the local grade school up in the Sierra Nevada hanging out with the kids and working on some environmental projects, sure. Although, you know, what we really need is a place-based, environmentally oriented curriculum built into the California school system, especially in K-8, so that local environmental education would not be a hit or miss proposition relying on one or two dedicated school teachers who love nature and do a whole lot extra for the kids. A curriculum that taught nature and biology and environment on the basis of exploring whichever place you're in and taking the kids out on field trips and into hands-on projects would be the very best sort.
Audience: How do you think that writing poetry to express your life and life experiences has effected your life and life experiences?
Gary: Like, what's the feedback loop? so to speak. I think poetry has sharpened my seeing and gratitude. Writing poetry is its own reward. It is so delightful to hit on the right language, the right music for a specific occasion or insight or image or moment. In an odd way, the universe is absolutely brand new every day, and there are unexpected things coming up that have never happened before. So you keep alert and are enlightened by that, and doing your art is - it's a kind of a prayer; it's a meditation and a constant teacher. You know, I could get really stoked about talking about this.
Audience: Relating to Gary's ideas of place, what are your thoughts on travelers and gypsies and nomads?
Gary: I'm glad you asked that question because it gives me an opportunity to clarify a little further some of the issues and questions that are around this idea of place that Peter and I have been working over for so many years, each in our own way. Place is a novel idea in American society. It's so novel that it is unsettling to people. Because it's unsettling, they don't realize that it's flexible, metaphoric and playful and that it doesn't automatically require that you sign up to live somewhere and not ever go anywhere again. It's not some new variety of political correctness; it's nothing that you have to do at all because you're already in a place. What it's asking us to do is simply to take this particular relationship that's always in our lives a little more seriously, to pay a little more attention to it, and that will be true wherever you are. It is also a way to think about the neighbors. The neighbors include the nonhuman as well as the human. Not just your human neighbors but these other critters and plants that are companions in your life and are part of the fabric of your place. Now, as for nomads, people often raise this question - what about nomads? Well, nomads always lived within a territory. They had a place; their place might have been the southwestern corner of the Kalahari Desert. But it was the southwestern corner; it wasn't the northeastern corner. Nomads move in a known annual circuit where they are circulating between certain water holes, plant species, seasonal cycles and so forth. There are no nomads that just promiscuously go off across the landscape forever.
Peter: Only actors.
Gary: And there are gypsies whose second language is French; there are gypsies whose second language is Romanian. That should tell you something about gypsies.
Peter: Gary, I'm reminded of this game we played once around the campfire: try to describe the place where you lived without referring to manmade or man-named geographical signposts.
Gary: Yeah, great exercise.
Peter: Try to describe where you live in terms of drainages, coasts, creeks.ravines.basins....
Audience: This is for both Gary and Peter. Could you talk about hope and optimism and how it changes over the years?
Peter: Well, my sense of optimism has had the shit kicked out of it. But it's still kicking. I call it radical optimism because it exists without regard to the facts. Being culturally Jewish, I have a propensity to go right off the deep end of doom and gloom. I do have a passport and a hundred dollars cash under my bed. But, I actually believe that from this formless void that began to intrigue me thirty years ago, any form can be produced and that this particular world imagining is not the last stop on the train line. And if there can be dark ages, there can be golden ages. And much as I - you probably don't know that I do run the world everyday listening to National Public Radio; I tell them what to do, but they don't listen. But if there can be a dark age, there can he a golden age. And so, in spite of the facts, I try to retain a sense of optimism, if only so that I just don't depress the hell out of my sweetheart and my children. That's how I deal with it.
Gary: Very much the same. I think that, yeah, we've had some shit kicked out of utopian visions that we thought were about to become manifest. But on the other hand, the actual existing world isn't bad. It goes through some hard times, to be sure, but we do it in good spirit I hope. Another way of looking at it is, like in environmental terms, ecological terms, the truth is that nature doesn't need us to save it. Mother earth is extraordinary resilient, and she has millions of years to solve whatever problems we happen to create temporarily. So we do these environmental things not to save the earth but for the sake of our own characters and for the art and craft of this small human exercise, that's all it is.
Peter: And no matter how we screw up, every spring these flowers come back to greet us.
Audience: What can we do about urban sprawl, [and plans such as a] parking lot under Golden Gate Park; how can we protect a "potentially utopian" place?
Gary: You've got several choices; one choice is make them put the parking lots outside of San Francisco. That's what it comes to. If you get the forest service to stop logging on one parcel, they'll go and sell another parcel someplace else. So the same number of trees get logged every year regardless. We all have to put our heads together on how to slow down this runaway train of economic growth and population growth, and we might start with the global economy and with population as two key spots to start working on. It's good news to hear in the media that finally the mainstream American public is beginning to get fed up with urban sprawl. There are answers to suburban sprawl in some degree. One of them is the Portland, Oregon answer, which is a kind of zoning that requires land owners to build within the available lots inside the city before spreading into the suburban areas around the city and to concentrate the denseness within the city limits. That has gone a long way to save farmlands in the margins, in the outlying areas, and to make the city more like a city. Our cities need to be more like cities; our country needs to be more like the countryside. To make our cities more like cities, I'm sorry to say, you may have to build some huge underground parking lots or build some five-story parking lots. Or, ride bicycles everywhere and have more public transportation; that's what we really need. That's my practical answer.
Peter: One thing I'd like to just say, looking backwards thirty years. When Gary talks about doing this kind of work, and getting together, and people stand up and they say, "How do we save this place?" I think if I were to critique myself for the way that I behaved in the sixties, the level at which I would hold myself the most at fault was having clear and fixed ideas of what had to be, what had to change, and what had to happen and not listening as carefully to other people who were different from me. And one of the things that I always want to urge people to consider is that you can't pour a quart into a pint pitcher. You can't really make the world less than it is, and it's made up of lots of different kinds of people. And sometimes a small development, or a small mini-mall, or something like that which may offend your particular sensibilities may [turn out to] be something which is going to guarantee local employment. And it's really necessary to sit and think and listen and come up with some kind of system that's going to permit all the different kinds of people in a place, and all the contrary images of a place, to create a design that is harmonious and works. And if we just try to make it the way we see it, if we try to make the city like the wilderness, it's not going to work, and we're actually going to work backwards. That's my little two cents. I would like to thank everybody very much for coming and for asking such provocative questions.
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