Now in 2007 a new book of essays appears: Back on the Fire (Shoemaker & Hoard.) I saw a review of it that implied it is a minor work, but that’s not so. These essays, including those written as talks or prefaces to other people’s books, are in no sense minor. They are often distillations—not so much argument as succinct statements of profound if still largely unacknowledged truths, simply and generously interwoven with history, anecdote, example, biography and autobiography.
Though there may appear to be no unifying theme, and though the specific subject of the role of fire in healthy forests recurs, this volume is a whole defined by itself, and by the quality of Snyder’s observation, thought and expression. For me, the connection between his immersion in East Asian writing, in Buddhism, in the realities of living and working in the natural world, in American literature (Native and non-Native), and his own writing and approach to the world, has never been clearer. It is clear moreover in reading these essays, beyond any summary or description. But reading together such essays as “Ecology, Literature and the New World Disorder,” “Thinking Toward the Thousand Year Forest Plan,” “The Mountain Spirit’s True (No) Nature,” “Writers and the War Against Nature,” “Coyote Makes Things Hard,” among others, nourishes this impression.
Some pieces are short and specific, and thanks to Snyder’s writing, evocative, including fond and informative remembrances of one of the best known “Beat” poets, Allen Ginsberg, and of the least known, Philip Zenshin Whalen. But even these, are important because of Snyder’s knowledge of them and perspective over time. Others about particular people and places (especially about Snyder’s own family, as in “Helen Callicotte’s Stone in Kansas”) are also fun to read, but always connect to larger mysteries.
In the essays in this book, Snyder writes with warmth as well as pith, and with the occasional bursts of exuberant humor we especially loved in the old days. He writes with specific humility, yet is not afraid to state the largest possible conclusions: “These environmental histories are cautionary. They tell us that our land planning must extend ahead more than a few decades. Even a few centuries may be insufficient.”
This of course represents a sea-change in decisive thinking that seems improbable at best. In “Sustainability Means Winning Hearts and Minds,” he describes what hope there is and what’s at stake in the opening paragraph: “ If societies were incapable of surprising shifts and turns, if religions and philosophies, language and clothing never changed, we’d surely have to grimly crunch away in the same old story, and certainly drown in some sort of Blade Runner-type movie.”
So what’s the answer? Changing hearts and minds, with but beyond the usual suspects. “The oh-so-foolish deep ecologists, greens, eco-feminists, etc.—are out there, providing imagination, vision, passion, a deeply felt ethical stance, and in many cases some living examples of practice.”
There’s a more than gentle nudge there with the “some” examples of practice, enough to make people like me, who identify with everything after the dash until the practice part, wince. But that’s a vital part of Snyder’s authority: he practices. Just the description of the tools he acquired for his home on a ridge of the Sierras in “Lifetimes With Fire” installs his somewhat intimidating credibility with me. He’s lived what he’s advocated, and helped create a real community in a real place based on these attitudes and approaches, practical enough to accommodate change and allow for human and other weakness. And it’s by living what he advocates and values (not only on that ridge, but in literature and the Buddhist precepts, and in performance) that in turn informs his thought and writing.
I found also a significant comment that bears on how he’s lived his life, as well as those readings (and even those jingling boots) I remember from long ago. “Song, story and dance are fundamental to all later ‘civilized’ culture… Performance is of key importance because this phenomenal world and all life is, of itself, not a book but a performance.” Committed to a deep involvement in the place where he lives, and to meditation, scholarship and writing, he nevertheless has integrated travel, going forth, and his own kind of performance—his readings and talks as well as informal essays.
To read these essays as a collection is to see the relationship between nature, time and literature that also outlines Gary Snyder’s world. This is a book of an elder. We have so few, really.