For those of us writing poetry in my student years at Knox College, Gary Snyder’s was the most momentous of many visits by real poets, with the possible exception of Robert Creeley’s week of readings in 1964. I saw Snyder read again in 1970 as part of a group of Bay Area poets. By then, the relationship to the natural world we felt lacking in our lives had names: ecology, environmentalism, and this was a benefit reading for that cause. Many of the major Beat era poets were there, including Lew Welch, who disappeared months later, presumed to be a suicide. Even then, I saw Snyder as an elder, not only for his sunburned, gnomish, Zen monk face and form, but for the authority and clarity he carried.
We were young, unanchored, floundering in the winds of Vietnam, doom and consumerism as well as sex, drugs, rock & roll and cultural change, and most of us lacked discipline as well as direction. But those of us of good heart sought out elders and tried to learn from them. Gary Snyder was certainly one of those, and so he would remain for the forty plus years since.
It’s largely forgotten but not irrelevant that when we smoked weed and did psychedelics in our 1960s searching, we often sought natural settings. We were conscious of that lost connection. Some of us didn’t take too many more direct steps to integrate the wild into our lives (I expect mostly those who’d learned no skills applied in woods or water as children) but in his poetry and prose, Gary Snyder was a guide for both those who did and those who didn’t.
In these post-60s decades, Snyder’s essays in particular have been beacons. Sometimes they are integrated with poems, as in Turtle Island (1974) and The Old Ways (1977), sometimes formed as interviews and talks, as in The Real Work (1980), but also collected as formal essays in The Practice of the Wild (1990) and A Place in Space (1995). Together they have been enormously influential. The Practice of the Wild in particular is among my favorite books of all time, especially as I read it shortly after becoming a resident of northern California (although farther north and in a more coastal environment that Snyder’s mountain homestead to the south and east.)