by Sylvia Linsteadt
I first discovered Gary Snyder’s poetry the day after I had my wisdom teeth pulled. With a plastic bag of frozen peas against each cheek, held in place by a black fleece neck-warmer, I reached for the book my younger brother had left on my bed while I was napping: Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History and Prints, by Tom Killion and Gary Snyder. Killion’s luminous, carefully layered woodcut prints of Mt.Tamalpais, each capturing the spirit of a hillside, canyon, or vista with the all the grace of poetry, were flanked by Gary Snyder’s words to the mountain.
I re-entered a place I had wandered, longed for from far away (while living on the East Coast), and practically revered since age fifteen, through someone else’s heart. Snyder’s words beside Killion’s woodcuts knew my secret—they caught the way the dust smelled on a summer’s day on Old Railroad Grade, the red tangle of manzanita branches at sunset, the flicker of fence lizards between sticky-monkey flower and coyote brush. I recognized the bends and trees of the bald, gold Bolinas Ridge in Killion’s prints. And just out of view, the place my best friend Elsinore calls “the Birthday Walk,” where her family goes with thermoses of tea, a little cake—rain or shine—on each birthday. For Elsinore, in April, the blossoms of small lupines are always opening, dew-filled, blue. The steep hills are bright green, the fog is caught in the scattered dark patches of California bay laurel. The Pacific Ocean stretches, almost too beautiful to look at, like a great, silver skin puckered with waves. Sometimes, the Farallones are clear like woodcuts themselves against the horizon. In Killion’s print, they rise out of a mist. Elsinore and I have walked there on birthdays since we were little, our skirts always muddy, our hair sometimes damp with rain.
And just beyond the slopes of that print is the place my brother calls “the Sunset Spot,” where the sea opens far below in every direction and often the fog comes in and covers it up completely by dusk, so it seems like we are looking out at a landscape of clouds. To the left, a circle of granite rocks twined with bay trees. I named these “the Druid Rocks,” because the ring feels like a place of worship. On a summer day, the grass pale and dry with heat, my boyfriend and I found a perfect, egg-shaped nest fallen in the center of the rocks, woven from the golden hills. It sits beside our bed.
Snyder walked those paths, smelled the precise mixture of dust and coast-live oak, stopped at the landscape of fog over the ocean:
Walked all day through live oak and manzanita,
Scrabbling through dust down Tamalpais—
Thought of high mountains;
Looked out on a sea of fog.
Two of us, carrying packs.
In writing and etching these ecosystems, trails and serpentine outcrops I knew so well, Snyder and Killion turned Mt.Tamalpais sacred and then lowered it down to earth again. They reminded me that it is the specifics of our landscapes, both the animal, plant, and stone stories that they hold, and the places where our own memories and feet have touched them, that are sacred, and deserve our reverence, our art, and our mindful interaction.
Still aching and slow, I spent the next several days sitting on the chamomile lawn in my backyard with Snyder’s No Nature and my own notebook, for copying out my favorite poems, cradled in my lap. The sun dipped in and out of clouds, shading and illuminating the pages. Crushed chamomile under my calves smelled medicinal and sweet. The poem I wrote out with the most care made me pause, and shiver, and wonder:
In the blue night
frost haze, the sky glows
with the moon
pine tree tops
bend snow-blue, fade
into sky, frost, starlight.
The creak of boots.
Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know.
The paw-prints of animals are their own narratives, their own languages of flight, forage, fecundity. Snow, stars, moon, the way pines, the very oldest of trees, bend against the sky— these all possess their own narratives.
Snyder asks us to reexamine what it means to be human, what it means to “write about nature,” what it means to use language. Snyder knows the names of the non-human beings around him, that they have their own perfectly wrought and utterly wild languages, of which we know next to nothing, despite what we would like to think, despite our attempts to order, civilize, and control. He knows that language evolved out of specific interactions with elk, chaparral, grizzly bear and huckleberry. He knows that our words are as wild a system as a bayside marsh, a redwood forest, a tide-pool near Duxbury Reef. In A Place in Space, Snyder writes:
I will argue that consciousness, mind, imagination and language are fundamentally wild. “Wild” as in wild ecosystems— richly interconnected, interdependent, and incredibly complex. Diverse, ancient, and full of information. […] Languages were not the intellectual inventions of archaic schoolteachers, but are naturally evolved wild systems whose complexity eludes the descriptive attempts of the rational mind.
Poetry, then, by its very nature, is a wild, natural expression, like the patterns lichens make on Douglas fir trunks. When we write poetry, we engage the linguistic ecosystems that have been born out of our human past. We engage our very natures as human-animals that evolved for thousands and thousands of years as hunters. Carefully, reverently, we watched ungulate herds and fellow predators— wolves, lions— and the places they fed, migrated, birthed, died.
According to Paul Shepard, author of The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game and Coming Home to the Pleistocene, it is not our emotional relations to kin, clique, clan, or peer group that spurred the evolution of spoken language—other primates organize themselves in social hierarchies and have no need for complex grammars. It was our interest in the non-human world, Shepard argues, that necessitated words—
Perhaps language is associated with this extension of intelligence, with the need to label, analyze, store and retrieve that information which carries relatively little emotional charge. […] It is an adaptation to the enlargement of attention to the non-human environment […] As an instrument of intelligence it allows us to discriminate, differentiate, and remember. These are exceedingly valuable abilities for hunters.
Language, then, is by nature born out of our observations of nature. The concept of ecological poetry is nothing new. Words as a means of understanding, of entering into and following the rich complexities of the non-human world, is as old a concept as humankind itself. Words-as-art resonate remarkably close to their very origins. As Snyder writes,
Is art an imposition of order on chaotic nature, or is art (also read ‘language’) a matter of discovering the grain of things, of uncovering the measured chaos that structures the natural world? Observation, reflection and practice show artistic process to be the latter.
Those prints and poems of Mt.Tamalpais that I encountered on a swollen summer’s day got to the grain of things literally and figuratively. They measured, explored, and mapped the chaos of natural systems that I knew and loved and urged me to do the same. The holes left in my mouth by molars that I have supposedly evolved out of needing were filled by Snyder’s meditations, who has since taught me much about what it means to be human; what my own evolution has bequeathed me.
His work taught me that poetry is a means of engaging with the world around me—human, animal and mineral. With poetry, I learn my way into a place through the doors of reverence, like a hunter singing to the elk he has shot, saying— let my song be my thanks. Tell the other elk of our music. Poetry can be a means of paying homage: of saying—here are my words, let them be part of you. They always have been. Our languages—our grammars and stanzas—are part of our landscapes. Let them lead us back in again.
 Gary Snyder, Myths & Texts (New York: New Directions Books, 1978), 50.
 Snyder, No Nature: New and Selected Poems (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), 228.
 Snyder, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics and Watersheds (WashingtonD.C.: Counterpoint), 168-174.
 Paul Shepard, The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), 182.
 Snyder, A Place in Space, 168.