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Stepping into California's Range of Light

THE HIGH SIERRA OF CALIFORNIA; By Gary Snyder and Tom Killion; Heyday Books / Yosemite Assn.: 128 pp., $50

July 14, 2002|JONATHAN KIRSCH | Jonathan Kirsch is a contributing writer to the Book Review and the author of, most recently, "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People."

Beat poetry seems to boil up from the mean streets of America: "A Coney Island of the Mind" is the allusive title of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's most famous book of verse and Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" famously evokes "the negro streets at dawn." Yet there is also a pastoral tradition among the Beats, and it is richly evoked and honored in "The High Sierra of California" by Gary Snyder and Tom Killion.

The book is an appropriate and highly elegant mating of Snyder's poems and trail notes, excerpts from the writings of naturalist John Muir and--above all--the superb and often stunning woodcuts of printer and printmaker Killion.

"My Sierra-eye was clearly shaped by the East Asian landscape sensibility," writes Snyder, who worked as a logger, trail-crew member and forest lookout when he wasn't studying Buddhism in a Zen monastery in Japan. But the poet refuses to romanticize his own youthful experience of the High Sierra: "Being tired, cold, and hungry I didn't write all that much," he confesses, "and sometimes what looks like the admirable brevity of haiku is probably just my haste to put the pencil away and get some hot tea."

Killion annotates his artwork with an extended essay in which he explains the illuminating connection he finds between Snyder--"certainly the most powerful, and certainly most influential, contemporary voice to sing the poetry of the High Sierra"--and Muir, the pioneering naturalist of the 19th century: "Today, Muir's vision of the High Sierra as a resource for the soul is widely accepted," explains Killion, "but Snyder's insights into the relationship between humanity and nature take us beyond Muir's, for Snyder looks for the oneness of things beyond the mountain wilderness where Muir sought it."

Thus, for example, a woodcut by Killion titled "Cathedral Range" accompanies a poem by Snyder from a journal entry dated Aug. 20, 1955.


Wet rocks buzzing

Rain and thunder southwest

Hair, beard, tingle

Wind whips bare legs

We should go back

We don't.


If there is a visual equivalent to Snyder's poetry, it is found in Killion's hand-carved wood and linoleum block prints, each one "created in the tradition of early nineteenth-century Japanese ukiyo-e color landscape prints." Sometimes stately and solemn, sometimes mysterious and mystical, sometimes rollicking and even slightly ribald, the woodcuts are the real glory of "The High Sierra of California."

"The High Sierra of California" was originally produced by Killion's Quail Press studio in Santa Cruz from 1997 to 2000 in an edition of only 129 copies, each copy printed on handmade Japanese paper, and something of the same handmade quality can be discerned in the new edition from Heyday Books. Each of Killion's prints, 23 of them in full color and many others in black and white, is reproduced with the same passion and precision that can be found in the poetry and prose that frame them.

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