Monday, January 30, 2012


A few paragraphs from Gary Snyder

I've been reading poet Gary Snyder's book The Practice of the Wild (published 1990 by Counterpoint in Berkeley, California -- in the page at the above link, scroll down till you come to the book), a collection of wide-ranging essays, thoughtful talk, meditative prose, on all manner of subjects related to wildness, wilderness, environment, the nature of life and culture and animal nature, and whatever else may be related.

Here are some paragraphs from the first piece in the book, "The Etiquette of Freedom," that have held my attention.


Do you really believe you are an animal? We are now taught this in school. It is a wonderful piece of information: I have been enjoying it all my life and I come back to it over and over again, as something to investigate and test. I grew up on a small farm with chickens, and with a second-growth forest right at the back fence, so I had the good fortune of seeing the human and animal in the same realm. But many people who have been hearing this since childhood have not absorbed the implications of it, perhaps feel remote from the nonhuman world, are not sure they are animals. That's understandable: other animals might feel they are something different than "just animals" too. But we must contemplate the shared ground of our common biological being before emphasizing the differences.

Our bodies are wild. The involuntary quick turn of the head at a shout, the vertigo at looking off a precipice, the heart-in-the-throat in a moment of danger, the catch of the breath, the quiet moments relaxing, staring, reflecting -- all universal responses of this mammal body. They can be seen throughout the class. The body does not require the intercession of of some conscious intellect to make it breath, to keep the heart beating. It is to a great extent self-regulating, it is a life of its own. Sensation and perception do not exactly come from outside, and the unremitting thought and image-flow are not exactly inside. The world is our consciousness, and it surrounds us. There are more things in mind, in the imagination, than "you" can keep track of -- thoughts, memories, images, angers, delights, rise unbidden. The depths of mind, the unconscious, are our inner wilderness areas, and that is where a bobcat is right now. I do not mean personal bobcats in personal psyches, but the bobcat that roams from dream to dream. The conscious agenda-planning ego occupies a very tiny territory, a little cubicle somewhere near the gate, keeping track of some of what goes in and out (and sometimes making expansionistic plots), and the rest takes care of itself. The body is, so to speak, in the mind. They are both wild. [...]

[...] It would be a mistake to think that human beings got "smarter" at some point and invented first language and then society. Language and culture emerge from our biological-social natural existence, animals that we were/are. Language is a mind-body system that coevolved with our needs and nerves. Like imagination and the body, language rises unbidden. It is of a complexity that eludes our rational intellectual capacities. All attempts at scientific description of natural languages have fallen short of completeness, as the descriptive linguists readily confess, yes the child learns the mother tongue early and has virtually mastered it by six.

Language is learned in the house and in the fields, not at school. Without ever having been taught formal grammar we utter syntactically correct sentences, one after another, for all the waking hours of the years of our life. Without conscious device we constantly reach into the vast word-hoards in the depths of the wild unconscious. We cannot as individuals or even as a species take credit for this power. It came from someplace else: from the way clouds divide and mingle (and the arms of energy that coil first back and then forward), from the way the many flowerlets of a composite blossom divide and redivide, from the gleaming calligraphy of the ancient riverbeds under present riverbeds of the Yukon River streaming out from the Yukon flats, from the wind in the pine needles, from the chuckles of grouse in the ceanothus bushes.

Language teaching in schools is a matter of corraling off a little of the language-behavior territory and cultivating a few favorite features -- culturally defined elite forms that will help you apply for a job or give you social credibility at a party. One might even learn how to produce the byzantine artifact known as the professional paper. There are many excellent reasons to master these things, but the power, the virtu, remains on the side of the wild.


Counterpoint Press has published much other worthwhile writing, including other work by Gary Snyder. The main page for the press is here.

If by any chance you're not familiar with Gary Snyder's poetry, the webpage about him in the Modern American Poetry website (at U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), here, is a good place to start.

I'm mortified to admit that I've had this book on my shelves since it was published and have yet to read it. I've pulled it out and added to the must-read-soon stack. Thanks, Lyle!
Lyle - Thanks for writing about Gary Snyder. He is someone I consider heroic. Forty years ago when i was in college I saw him read and do a rain dance. He talked about climate change and fossil fuels way before it became recognized as an issue. Funny timing because i am going to post something of his too. Hope all is well. Jon

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