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Thrall of the wild

Back on the Fire Essays Gary Snyder Shoemaker & Hoard: 168 pp., $24

February 25, 2007|Thomas Curwen | Thomas Curwen is an editor at large for The Times.

GARY SNYDER -- poet, philosopher, firefighter, merchant seaman, common laborer, lay Buddhist monk, friend of Ginsberg, inspirer of Kerouac, author of many a dog-eared New Directions paperback, bio-regionalist and Pulitzer winner -- has been our sharp-eyed, quick-witted interpreter of the Pacific West for more than 50 years. Reading him nowadays is like taking a walk in the woods with an old friend. His discursive but always direct and plain-spoken style is more earnest than polemical, more mischievous than inflammatory. What Kenneth Rexroth wrote nearly 40 years ago -- "Snyder is a master of challenge and confrontation, not because he seeks controversy but because his values are so conspicuous, so plainly stated in the context of simple, sensuous, impassioned fact that they cannot be dodged" -- is just as true today.

In "Back on the Fire," Snyder enters "the vast world of energies and ecologies" with a series of ruminations about fire ecology, the meaning of the wild, migration, bio-regionalism, poetry, literature and his own life. Any conclusions to be drawn from his simple, quiet accretion of fact ("riprap," to borrow the title of one of his early poems) are left to the reader.

In the central piece, "Lifetimes With Fire," he considers the irony of having spent a part of his youth in a fire lookout tower in the Cascades, scanning the forest for blazes to be extinguished, whereas today he argues for fire's role in forest management. He has sharp words for journalists (for focusing on acres burned), for the U.S. Forest Service and logging industry (for not recognizing "the magisterial pace of life of a forest") and the current administration (for using the fear of fire to harvest more trees).

But he's also aware of his own flawed thinking. He ends the essay by describing a moment beside a 12-foot-high burning brush pile in his backyard in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It's a late November day, with a storm coming in from the Pacific. A thermos of coffee is on a stump beside him. "Let the flames finish their work -- a few more limb-ends and stubs around the edge to clean up," he writes, "a few more dumb thoughts and failed ideas to discard -- I think -- this has gone on for many lives!

"How many times

have I thrown you

back on the fire"

Having absorbed the spiritual and aesthetic values of the Pacific Rim, Snyder has cultivated an enviable ecology of the mind, which sees a living connection among all beings. He quotes the 13th century Zen Buddhist teacher Dogen: "We study the self to forget the self. When you forget the self, you can become one with the ten thousand things." And he argues for the role of ahimsa (Sanskrit for nonviolence) in "the practice of the wild." "Wild mind," he writes, "reflects the larger truth of our ancient selves, of our ancient animal and spiritual selves."

Imprints from his youth -- when he sought out the company of birds, deer, foxes or bobcats, for want of other childhood companions -- still define him. His education in San Francisco's North Beach and Berkeley in the '50s still inspires him. Trickster, coyote, he revels in the inevitability of change, in nature as dynamic, not static: "The quest for permanence has always led us astray," he writes. "We must live with change, like a bird on the wing, and doing so -- let all the other beings live on too. Not permanence, but living in harmony with the Way."

This is, he reminds us, the way of the Dao. If you want to prevent fires, set off controlled burns, and if you want to prevent floods, tear down the levees. If such a common-sense course of action seems counterintuitive, that is only a measure of how far the world has turned.

Never hectoring, never preaching, Snyder persuades us with his sense of playfulness. In an essay written for a nonprofit organization working to preserve a western Sierra watershed, he writes, "Peace is won by winning hearts and minds. Watershed imagining, bio-regional ideas of governance, the actual existence of communities that include the nonhuman in their embrace, dreams of ecological justice, and the faint possibility of a long-term sustainable land and culture -- all this nutty ancient stuff is a matter of engaging hearts and minds."

Today, at the age of 76, Snyder still lives on the San Juan Ridge, where he has made his home since the late 1960s. It is his place on "Turtle Island," the title of his 1974 Pulitzer-winning collection of poems and essays -- and the name Native Americans have given to this continent. His hair is gray. His wife, Carole Lynn Koda, to whom this book is dedicated, died last June. But his values, in a world often rife with muddled, contentious thought, are as clear and unwavering as they have ever been. He is surely our western Thoreau. *

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