OJAI — Gary Snyder knows how to sit still. The young poet from West Los Angeles doesn't.
A mountaineer, scholar, hunter, gatherer, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Buddhist monk, Snyder came to the Ojai Foundation's hillside site in rural Ventura County last weekend to talk about something he terms "wild wisdom."
As a bonus, he threw in a bit of Sunday morning instruction in zazen , the Zen Buddhist practice of silent meditation. Seated in full lotus position, on the floor of a round canvas yurt tent, Snyder was as poised and still as the bronze Buddha behind him.
But 10 minutes into the session, the young guy from Los Angeles started squirming. Shifting. Fidgeting and flopping about and grunting. Finally, as other meditators became hard-pressed to repress snickers, he got up and left.
That man's behavior might be construed as a metaphor for what Snyder came to discuss.
Although he used "excessively polysyllabic" terms such as bioregionalism, and reinhabitation, the crux of the Snyder's message is simply that it's time for Americans to settle down.
Stop moving once every three years. Sink some roots and really get to know the place you decide to call home, admonished Snyder, who has been called the most influential voice in the budding and controversial "deep ecology movement"--which rejects the "human centered" view of nature and urges a sweeping reevaluation of our political, economic, and cultural values.
To convey this message and its link to "wild wisdom," Snyder led 34 people--among them a Beverly Hills attorney, two Santa Barbara psychotherapists, a Los Angeles producer of television commercials, several teachers, a construction worker, a physician, a potter, a journalist, and a handful of poets--on a circuitous journey through intellectual, poetic, and actual wild lands.
A good place to join these pilgrims might be on the pathways of your own childhood.
"If you look in your mind, you have a vivid landscape that you lived in between the ages of 7 and 11," Snyder said, paraphrasing an essay by writer Edith Cobb.
'They All Come Back'
"You can, with a very minor effort of imagination, walk completely through that landscape and recall everything in it: the paths, the houses, the mean dogs, the mean old lady, the kids you don't like, the stores, the trees, the forts, the hideouts. They all come back to you. And no other landscape in your life will ever be as vivid."
Seated in the opaque light of the canvas and wood-lattice yurt, as if inside a paper lantern, everyone seemed to be taking pleasant mental strolls past the yapping dogs and tree houses of their childhood.
But Snyder recalled that when he shared this idea with a friend who grew up in the San Diego County town of Escondido, the friend replied that images of his boyhood landscape invariably enraged him. Developers were constantly bulldozing the chaparral-covered hillsides and avocado orchards he roamed as a boy, he said. "I saw my childhood world disappear in front of me."
"There are a lot of angry children out there right now," a psychiatrist chimed in.
Snyder nodded. But he told the group what he told his friend: "Look, you can't save your childhood landscape, but there's a landscape out there right now you can work on."
Snyder's childhood landscape was his "atheist, working-class, Irish, Scotch, Marxist" family's small Depression-era dairy and egg farm north of Seattle, Wash., and the surrounding wilds.
Few Neighbors or Playmates
"With very few neighbors and very few playmates, one of the pleasures I found was just getting into the woods . . . a fascinating and healing place," he said.
At 5 or 6 years old, he would crawl through the farm's barbed-wire fence to hike into the second-growth Douglas fir and Western red cedar, where he encountered black-tailed hares, squirrels, foxes, bobcats and deer.
"I was totally at home . . . It was the most comfortable sort of thing for me," he said. . . . I came back feeling good."
He also returned with kernels of "wild wisdom"--integral, "physical" understanding of how plants and animals and earth and air interact as an ecology.
At 15, he climbed the snow-covered peak of Mt. St. Helens, and discovered that the Pacific Northwest is really two worlds--the drizzling, gray world of Seattle, Tacoma and Portland, and the sunlit realm of peaks: Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Glacier Peak, Mt. Olympus.
"Discovering the world above the clouds was like discovering mythology," Snyder said. "I got into mountaineering as a form of mysticism."
Snyder's passion for the wild led him to distrust "Occidental thought and its evidently self-destructive behavior," he said. "My interest in Buddhism proceeded from that."
Snyder studied literature and anthropology at Oregon's Reed College, focusing on American Indian languages and literature. He dabbled in linguistics as a graduate student, then entered University of California, Berkeley's graduate program in Oriental languages--studying classical Chinese and Japanese.