The Man in the Clearing
Iain Sinclair meets Gary Snyder
Coming through the woods, down a soft winding track, two minutes shy of the time we have been instructed to arrive, 10 a.m. on a bright Sunday morning, we see the man already there in the clearing, his right hand on the dog’s collar. Two minutes later, you feel, and he’d be gone. But this is the right person, undoubtedly, the one we have come to see. In a solid, heavy, hired car, a Chevrolet Impala, we have driven down the coast, on 101, from Seattle to Eureka, where a mudslide after weeks of rain diverted us over the mountains to Red Bluff, and on to goldmining country, Nevada City and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The man in the clearing, thin silver hair lit from behind, long blue work shirt over pink, is lean, of modest height, and steady as a post. The dog is more enthusiastic, a superior hillbilly poodle. It bounds forward to lick the passenger window, avid for society. As the man is not: he can take it when it comes, assess a situation, shape unshapely events to a predetermined programme and deliver what’s required, before returning to his proper business, a measured life in a portion of territory he has made his own.
The dog is called Emi. Beyond that pointy elongation of nose, and the wet welcome, this promiscuously affectionate, warm-breathed female is a canine in sheep’s clothing: a tumbling knotted rug of a thing. Emi has a supporting role in The Practice of the Wild, a documentary film featuring her human companion and the writer Jim Harrison, recently shot at San Simeon, on Hearst property; a leisurely senior citizen conversation on wilderness, Native American myths, the Beat Generation, mortality and memory. ‘Nature is not a place to visit,’ the man says, ‘it is home.’
He is Gary Snyder, poet, bioregionalist, teacher. Having bought out his early partners, Allen Ginsberg and Dick Baker, he is the sole proprietor of this estate, a hundred acres of manzanita thickets, with open stretches of ponderosa pine, black oak, cedar, madrone, Douglas fir, bunchgrass – and one of the most seductive houses in America, self-conceived and self-constructed. The land was purchased in 1966, after Snyder returned to California following periods as a Zen Buddhist monk in Kyoto, in the engine room of an oil tanker, travelling through India with his second wife, Joanne Kyger, in company with Ginsberg; and then revisiting Japan, participating in the Gathering of the Tribes – that finger-cymbal, Dionysiac, hippie rally in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco – and establishing through conferences, talks and readings a solid reputation as a direct and inspired spokesperson for a new ecology based on pushing the limits of influence and information back many thousands of years, to the Palaeolithic and beyond.
A hundred acres of ground is a substantial mind-map for a poet. Snyder’s friend and colleague Lew Welch saw eternity in an inch of lichen on a rock. ‘These are the stamps on the final envelope,’ he wrote, zeroing in on a yellow-green cluster of living organisms existing at a speed accessible to red-eyed witness. And accessible to this former Chicago copywriter with the profile and presence of the actor Jon Hamm in Mad Men. Welch, a troubled man, a drinker, was tall, red-haired, a cross-country driver of legendary finesse and a military-trained marksman. He had been at Reed College in Portland with Snyder and Philip Whalen, a formidable Pacific Rim triumvirate of youthful poets and seekers. Heavily dosed on Gertrude Stein, and fired up by a chance encounter with William Carlos Williams, Welch was confirmed in his destiny as an outsider, a casual labourer, cab driver, fisherman, backwoods hermit. He had his task, as writer and recorder, but, unlike Snyder, he never found his place. One day, according to rumour, he walked into the forest and didn’t come back. I’d forgotten where this happened, but I thought about it as we drove for days through the overwhelming shade and the eternal drizzle of Washington State’s Olympic National Park. We had to take the ocean on trust, hearing the roll of the breakers, but seeing nothing, blinded by the spray of enormous rigs carrying logs to railside woodyards and to Seattle.
Taking responsibility for a portion of Sierra ridge, once occupied, river valley to densely forested upper slopes, by Indian tribes, was a major statement of intent from Snyder. ‘We were cash poor and land rich,’ he said. ‘And who needs more second-growth pine and manzanita?’ Alexander Pope, in his upstream exile at Twickenham, laid out garden and grotto as a conceit, an extension of his work into the world, and a powerful attractor for patrons and lesser talents. To fund the Sierra reinhabitation, as Snyder saw it, he took on reading tours and an academic position at UC Davis, fifty miles down the road near the state capital, Sacramento. He called his land Kitkitdizze, after the Wintu Indian name for the aromatic shrub known as bear clover. Sliding down the electric window of the Chevrolet, to give Emi’s snout the opportunity for a proper greeting, we got that smell, like witch hazel. It drifts in from the surrounding bushes. To maintain what Snyder calls his ‘permeable, porous life’, the dissolution of artificial barriers between homesteader and terrain, he rides out, spending time in Alaska, in Portland with his son, Kai, and in San Francisco. Kitkitdizze has become, he reports, ‘a well-concealed base camp from which I raided university treasuries’. This Thoreau-inspired wilderness encampment, real as it appears, is underwritten by the requirement to represent itself as a topic for thesis writers, a reluctant paradigm. A magnet for approved visitors, students, localists, or anyone needing to understand if this thing can be managed: a self-funding, functioning centre that is not a retreat, but a resettlement, in what Snyder calls Turtle Island. Turtle Island is that old America, mountain and desert, before European colonialists and exploiters, before strip logging and the rapacious industrialism of goldmining operations. Or the present hunger for natural gas. ‘A lot of public land,’ Snyder told me, ‘has to be converted, in the most organised fashion, into hundreds and thousands of gas wells. It’s like the original oil era. They’ve tricked a lot of public land by offering inducements that haven’t been followed up on. It’s rocks and hard places for everybody, in terms of energy, from now on.’
The windscreen of the hired car detaches us from the road. A steady smear of rain, and the swish of the wipers, all the way across Puget Sound and for days down the Oregon coast, confirms this adventure as a memory movie, a sequence of prompts and quotations unpicking what we think we know. It was easy to understand why Seattle was chosen as a suitable translation for the Danish gloom of The Killing, a television series saturated in weather, hooded coats and crumbling human geology. The shards and spikes of the 1962 World’s Fair, still hanging about like an abandoned Coney Island, offer a seductive backdrop for the title sequence of a slowly unravelling murder mystery. Snyder grew up on a stump farm just north of Seattle. He delivered milk for his father. He learned how to chop wood, how to use a two-handled saw. Tools were important to him, the right kit for the right job. In Kitkitdizze, there are tools everywhere, racks and stacks of them, useful objects respected like artworks. Blades, chisels, axes, boots, helmets, guns. The actor Peter Coyote remembers Joanne Kyger laughing about ‘how much stuff Gary had to store so that he could go off to Japan and live simply’. The novice monk insisted that his future wife clear her credit-card debt, which had climbed to $1000, before she travelled out to join him. On arrival, she discovered a list Snyder had compiled, numbering her faults and the ways she could improve. The big difference in Japan, Snyder explained, was the necessity of having the right manners. His fourth wife, Carole Lynn Koda, was Japanese-American. But in Japan, she got everything wrong. ‘I walked too fast,’ she said. ‘I swung my arms too much. My stride was too long. I looked at people in the eye. That marked me out as American right away.’
Snyder talks about the ‘long view’. The vision of Pacific America from the high peaks. He was, from the start, a skier, climber, trail walker. These activities took precedence, when he was a schoolboy and young student, over academic work. At the age of 15, in 1945, he completed the ascent of Mount St Helens: ‘Step by step, breath by breath – no rush, no pain.’ The newspaper he read when he came down from the hike, on 13 August, was a day-old copy of the Portland Oregonian. It carried a photo spread of the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
From early on, after seeing Chinese scroll paintings in the museum in Seattle, Snyder adopted a linear continuity of narrative, with everything happening at once: the pilgrim with his staff on the mountain, the bridge over the stream, the forest and the ocean. Diary fragments, named persons, conversations in roadside cafés, bars, truckstops, prayers, chants, native shamanic lore, myths of place: they all enjoyed an equal status and emphasis. The delivery was crafted to move like natural speech, with a leavening of slow-burn humour. This was a country-smart poetry, beautifully balanced between frontier transcendentalism and the long gaze of Asia.
A week on the road is enough to confirm my instinct that this western strip, all the way down from Canada to Mexico, with its climatic and ecological shifts, is a different consciousness. Our west is their east. The frontier myth, pushing across prairies and deserts, over mountains, dissolves into Pacific haze. There are new orthodoxies, and the poets are all, with varying degrees of rigour and scholarship, Buddhists. ‘We are on the edge of the East,’ Snyder wrote in The Etiquette of Freedom. ‘So where do we go next? Naturally, we look west, to the East. That’s where we go.’ He points out that it is about the same distance from the west coast of North America to Europe or Asia. ‘But coming from Asia is easier.’ In 1889 Robert Louis Stevenson, in the final chapter of a wandering life, settled on a hillside above Apia, the Samoan capital. He bought three hundred acres of jungle, and built a two-storey timber house. He was 39 and accompanied by his American wife, Fanny, her two children, his son-in-law, grandson, his mother and a maid. Snyder was 41 when he started peeling the timber for the Kitkitdizze buildings. But the Pacific Rim dream of a natural paradise was common to both writers. The cover photograph for the English edition of Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers without End, published in 1967, shows the poet, eyes closed, chanting mantras at the Banyan Ashram on the island of Suwa-no-se, where he later married his third wife, Masa. The volcanic island had been described to him, by a Japanese friend, as Edenic, a place of birds, fish, turtles. ‘The community is essential to the creative act,’ Snyder said. ‘The solitary poet figure and the “name” author will become less and less relevant.’
Our route to Kitkitdizze read, in the email Snyder sent, like one of his poems: ‘Crossing the Yuba river in the gorge, climb up out of the gorge, and about 12 miles from Nevada City you turn right (east) up the first highway of consequence …’ After that there are signs nailed on trees, dirt roads and Jackass Flats. We were also advised where to get breakfast, and which was the best Chinese restaurant. Nevada City trades on its history, the gold rush. In bookshops, hovering between antiquarian and crafty, they have signed copies of Snyder’s books in glass cabinets at New York prices. Weekend tourists take brunch in revamped saloons with sepia photographs of the mining days.
The man in the clearing stays just where he is, his back to the house, as we clamber out of the car, and walk towards him, Emi butting against our thighs, nudging us on. Snyder is 82. He has presence before language, in the outdoor way of taking the temperature of a situation before acting. He’s had his brushes with the shadows that come with time, but he’s fit, weathered, narrow-eyed, skin creased and printed like a proper manuscript of mortality. Jack Kerouac, in The Dharma Bums (1958), took Snyder, in the person of Japhy Ryder, as the second American hero of his open-form mythology, a scholar-poet of the mountains and the Pacific west, after Neal Cassady’s transcontinental road rat, driver-talker, energy vortex. Ryder is encountered in his Berkeley cottage with his prayer mats and orange-crate bookcases:
He wore a little goatee, strangely Oriental-looking with his somewhat slanted green eyes, but he didn’t look like a Bohemian at all … He was wiry, suntanned, vigorous, open, all howdies and glad talk … and when asked a question answered right off the bat from the top or bottom of his mind I don’t know which and always in a sprightly sparkling way.
Answering questions, Snyder is both open and guarded, the difficulty being that he doesn’t understand what I want, what I’m after, making this long trip. What he is very clear about is that Kerouac was a fabulist; actual events such as the ascent of the Matterhorn Peak in the Northern Sierra were accurately reported, other aspects were romanced. Later, after I returned home, Snyder emailed: ‘I am as you know a reluctant beat icon – and have never considered myself a beat writer.’ In London bookshops, he is more widely represented as a wilderness essayist than a poet. Finding a reissued copy of The Practice of the Wild in the window of the London Review Bookshop had been the spur for this conversation. ‘I’m particularly interested in talking around The Practice of the Wild,’ Snyder said.
Talking around was the essence of our encounter. Snyder discoursed on logging. ‘They used to have bigger trees when I was a kid,’ he said, recalling the dairy farm, and the stumps, ten feet high and 12 inches in diameter, on the hill ‘back of where the pasture was’. That forest had been logged in 1890. The focus of our conversation, as we remained between car and house, shifted from the memory ground of Oregon to the recent nuclear meltdown in Japan, and the practicalities of sustaining Kitkitdizze. Snyder was no Amish-style purist. His practice, through meditation and spiritual discipline, was rigorous, but it was programmed to sustain rather than deny the mundane realities of life in this scattered community of the woods. Snyder’s son, who lives in Portland and ‘knows about computers’, had told him that the best coverage of what was happening in Japan came from al-Jazeera. ‘How do I find out how to get al-Jazeera?’ Snyder asked. ‘Just Google it.’
The electronic world, which Snyder recognises as a thief of time as well as a research tool, is tolerated. ‘I resisted, but I found how useful it could be.’ The house, built from the forest that surrounds it by students and friends, is a graceful blend of two cultural legends: the frontier cabin or pioneer homestead out of The Searchers and a traditional Japanese structure based around a central fire pit, a hanging pot and an open roof. The roof sweeps low, skirted with pinkish-red tiles and clumps of moss. Snyder is in no hurry to move inside. There are other buildings, barns, meditation halls, stretching back further into the woods. As Peter Coyote notes, when you intrude on this place, and on the writer’s day, you should know what you want. ‘I remember him cocking his head to one side to look at me … “What’s this guy about?”’ Until the right model for conversation is identified, we will stay where we are, listening to a leathery croak of native life forms somewhere in the trees. ‘What are those birds?’ my companion asked. ‘Frogs,’ Snyder replied. ‘Bullfrogs.’ It was hard to talk over their throaty, repetitive chorus. ‘How do you put up with it?’ ‘I shoot them.’ They are a non-native species, and they eliminate the local yellow-legged variety. It’s like a shockingly obvious solution to a Zen koan. Bang! I recall Jack Nicholson’s cameo in Easy Rider. The manic white-gleam orthodontics at the campfire, before the redneck attack that will kill him. He mouths Terry Southern’s dialogue against a racket of cicadas and lone dogs. ‘You ever talk to bullfrogs in the middle of the night?’ That Cheshire Cat grin in the dark. The thump of clubs and boots. The career-defining shift from drive-in B-features to offbeat independent adventure, to global celebrity and self-impersonation. Croak! Croak!
The pond, dug by Snyder’s early construction crew, is an alligator-hued sludge, picking up the colours of the surrounding evergreens. The bullfrogs sound more like turkey buzzards. Lew Welch, down the coast, in his cabin near Mount Tamalpais, talked of Zoroastrianism and the ‘buzzards that eat the dead’. He registered the forest as a gathering of vertical coffins, ready to wrap their bark around humans who stood still too long. ‘The trees are just passing through,’ he wrote in a letter to Snyder. The poets on their far-flung travels, their neurotic migrations, kept in touch with anecdotal letters, discussions of craft and influence. When Welch corresponded with Charles Olson, on the East Coast, he told him that he had ‘finally taken to the woods, I hope for ever’. Like Snyder, he kept a gun. There was a bad moment when his companion in solitude, a cat called Stanley, dragged itself back to camp with terrible scratches and two legs missing, forcing Welch to shoot and bury the beast. There had been some talk about him building a home at Kitkitdizze, but Snyder felt that in the remote cabin beyond Forks of Salmon, where he worked on his Hermit Poems, Welch had ‘really achieved the meeting of an ancient Asian sage-tradition, the “shack simple” post-frontier back country out-of-work working man’s style, and the rebel modernism of modern art’.
There was no simple retreat for Snyder. The land was relatively cheap because nobody had much use for it; the scars of industrial mining came close. The community to be supported included ‘two grown sons, two stepdaughters, three cars, two trucks, four buildings, one pond, two well pumps, close to a hundred chickens, 17 fruit trees, two cats, about ninety cords of firewood and three chainsaws’. The bees were destroyed by black bears. The kitchen garden went dry in winter and was raided by deer. The chickens were taken by northern goshawks, red-tailed hawks, racoons, feral dogs, bobcats. The forest was full of noises. When visitors arrived in the early days, it was to a set that might have attracted the Easy Rider crew or the Antonioni of Zabriskie Point. A would-be Snyder apprentice, Gary Lawless, recalls a visit in the summer of 1973. ‘You followed dirt roads,’ he wrote,
through a desert moonscape left over from hydraulic mining practices from the preceding century. You then passed through the adjoining Ananda Meditation Retreat, and followed a footpath through the woods down the ridge. As I came closer to the house I could see a group of naked people sitting in the shade. Others were dumping buckets of cold water over their heads … Sunday was a sauna day, a day of relaxation, a day of community … Gary suggested that I put down my pack, take off my clothes, and go sit in the sauna.
The helpers shared a work roster, freeing Snyder to write and research. The manner of the man now, when he is alone in this place, is calm, dignified, easy-paced, pedagogic. He instructs, he remembers, he references: books on fire by Stephen Pyne of Phoenix, Arizona; a text called Primeval Forest by ‘a biology guy’ called Chris Maser; articles from the Nation on food stamps. Like many American poets inspired by open-field poetics – the monologues, essays and never-ending exchanges of such as Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, East Coast and West – Snyder trades in specifics, unmediated present-tense evidence. When he gives public performances, the reading is beautifully constructed between translations from the Japanese and Chinese, short sharp on-the-road squibs, and longer, serial compositions that may have been cooking for decades. Listening to recordings of the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965, you can hear the big audience being drawn in, the warmth of the laughter. Snyder spoke about the sequence Mountains and Rivers without End. Journey after journey, down 99, from the Pacific Northwest to San Francisco. He borrows an epigraph from Lew Welch about being ‘forced by poverty to move with leisurely grace’. There is no fretful urgency about anything Snyder does. Returned from Japan, he discovers that the old road is no longer there: Highway 99 is now Interstate 5. ‘Pine trees coming up through asphalt … see what happens when you try to be country.’ The poem was already taking shape in 1955, as Kerouac has Snyder announce in The Dharma Bums:
Know what I’m gonna do? I’ll do a new long poem called ‘Rivers and Mountains without End’ and just write it on and on on a scroll and unfold on and on with new surprises and always what went before forgotten, see, like a river … I’ll spend three thousand years writing it, it’ll be packed full of information on soil conservation, the Tennessee Valley Authority, astronomy, geology, Hsuan Tsung’s travels, Chinese painting theory, reforestation, Oceanic ecology and food chains.
When I try to bring the practicalities of composition, the gossip of craft, into the conversation, Snyder misreads my questions or veers sharply away. In letters he wrote to Kerouac and to his friend Will Peterson, during his six-month voyage as a ‘wiper’ in the oil tanker engine room, the act of poetry is rarely mentioned. Inspiration is fugitive, like a ‘rabbit with horns’; it comes, when it comes, as a chimera, a freak. His letters are about boredom, drudgery, clouds, money earned, bars, prostitutes, thefts, marine tourism. He makes temporary landfall in Stevenson’s Samoa: ‘volcanic green flowery hills … lotus-eater land, a buddha-realm of flowers and delight which is really like old captain cook and herman melville’. Money is stolen from his pocket while he swims; he doesn’t care. ‘Other guys lost money too, but it’s all so good-natured.’ Wild pigs. Horses eating flowers. The tanker spewing out its oil, before the return to America.
We move inside, for green tea, at the table which has replaced the authentic but inconvenient fire pit. There are dried fruits on small saucers. ‘Shall we talk?’ Snyder asks. ‘How much time have you got?’ Meaning, when will you leave? We settle for another hour. There is much to be done on a Sunday. In the film shot on the Hearst estate, Jim Harrison asks if Gary felt the need to retreat from the world after the loss of his wife Carole. The answer is immediate and considered, in that style Snyder has: there wasn’t a melancholy fugue, but a necessary three-month period during which he simply didn’t want to see, or deal with, other people. Contemplation of the fact of the thing: death. Carole’s presence remains here in the house, and more especially in the barn, which has been converted into a library. Her books and papers, the projects with which she was involved, are spread out in her adjoining workroom. The house itself is uncanny in its relationship between interior and exterior, in the way that, quite unexpectedly, sipping tea, it feels as if you are back outside; or in the way the beams fold into the forest like smoothed branches, and the narrow alcoves expand to fulfil their purpose, for storage or prayer. Daily routines can be set by the weather, by the winter snows and the months when cooking and eating moves to an open-sided kitchen-shelter. We come at a quiet time. But the spirit of the naked bathers, the wood-choppers, the chanters, the poets who gathered or passed through, is strongly felt. Snyder was sitting here in March 1997 when he got the call from Allen Ginsberg in New York, the liver cancer, the gloomy prognosis. He had climbed with Ginsberg in the High Cascades, travelled with him in India, and together they had bought this land.
While Snyder was waiting for the proper interview to begin, my instinct was to keep quiet, drink the tea, look around. Standing outside, by the pond, we had covered plenty of ground: how the FBI had blacklisted the young poet and ordered the forest rangers to terminate Snyder’s job as a mountain-peak fire-watcher, simply because he had been a member of the National Maritime Union, which was perceived as a Communist conspiracy hellbent on strikes. This was in 1953. ‘That was the last government employment I ever had.’ We discussed edgelands. He had seen photographs of the huts of the Manor Garden allotments in the Lower Lea Valley in East London, before they disappeared to make way for our great Olympic Park. ‘It’s money for basically nothing,’ he said. ‘It’s the global against the local, absolutely. Semi-urban wilderness is valuable. What about Epping Forest, have they left any of that? Epping Forest is too valuable to touch.’ It was touching, to hear Gary Snyder take notice of developments in Hackney, and to see him align recent enclosures there with grander landscape sweeps in Canada, Alaska, California. He spoke of his love of John Clare, of ‘The Badger’ being one of his marker poems. Driving down to work at UC Davis, Snyder had noticed another kind of urban edgeland. ‘There is a big rice field, flooded paddy, near Sacramento airport. It used to have a sign on it: “This rice field annually feeds 40,000 people.” That’s export only. There are a billion people in China. The Japanese don’t import so much rice, they have their own subsidised industry. But they import wheat from Canada. It goes out through Vancouver.’ Along with wood, stripped forests, future furnishings for the new China.
‘But we’re reinhabiting the land,’ Snyder said, his little fingers out as he lifted the small cup between his two hands. ‘This was a high priority place to live for the Indians. They were all wiped out, there’s only a few left. They’re around though. The valley was all marsh, wetlands. They go down there for the fishing and for duck. The valley is covered in tule fog for quite a few weeks in the winter. And it’s very chilly. It’s sunny up here. We’re at the snowline. Higher up, there’s deer all season. So the original inhabitants made their living in the rather benign foothills. Cooler than the valley too. This is a benign place to live.’
And Snyder has a benign aura too. The marks are on him of a long and complex relationship with both sides of the Pacific Rim, a balance achieved. The stump farm, the logging crew, the fire-watching, the Buddhist studies and disciplines, the oil tanker. There have been a lot of photographs over the years, from huts and sandals, to dapper black collarless jacket and motorbike, to dark glasses against high peaks. A confident artisan of language, ripe with paradox, monkish austerities and early libidinous pleasures: the bathing pools and parties at which, as Kerouac reports, San Francisco dignitaries, scholars and art patrons were entertained in a Marin County retreat by their naked hosts, Ginsberg, Orlovsky and Snyder. The stud in the left ear still strikes a jaunty note. The light beard. The narrowed eyes. And thin spectacles nested on the creased brow. The years press down a little, rounding the shoulders in the dark blue shirt, as we walk across to inspect the library in the converted barn. But the stride is sure. Snyder is undeceived. He was tempted to use horses to pull logs, but thought better of it – impractical. You can’t live on this ridge without cars. People tell him: ‘Nobody can afford to become a farmer.’ You have to inherit the land. When young folk come down from these hills, they go to Portland to retire. ‘Reinhabiting and biovisionary ideas are useful, practical and brilliant. But they don’t catch on. It’s not for the time. You cannot sell voluntary simplicity to people. And that’s what we’re talking about. Voluntary simplicity. Or, in some cases, downward mobility.’
The barn, open to daylight, is stacked with information, books organised not fetishised. Snyder stressed again: ‘I’m not a prose writer, I’m a poet. That means I write when it hits me. I scribble a few things. When I do my organised editing and classifying, rewriting, I do it here, mostly in the morning. But not real early. Because the first thing I do is that I meditate.’ We appreciate that we have taken up enough of his day. We are like polite but road-weary strangers in the middle of nowhere, nodding across red Formica in some café, a big US flag fluttering outside, and all the convenience stores shuttered, along with the banks. There is a piece in Danger on Peaks (2004) set on the road we will drive to San Francisco, then Los Angeles. Snyder’s sister, Anthea Corinne Snyder Lowry, noticed that a pickup ahead of her had lost a grass-mower from the back. ‘She pulled onto the shoulder, and walked right out into the lane to take it off. That had always been her way. Struck by a speedy car, an instant death.’
The poets who survived from the San Francisco renaissance of the late 1950s and early 1960s branded themselves, or were branded, becoming identified with various philosophies or styles. Voluntary simplicity was never an easy pitch. ‘There are books about that,’ Snyder said, ‘but many people looking for the simple life didn’t do it well. They came out of the bourgeois background. They didn’t have the cultural context with which to do it. But there are places that are flourishing still. Like Southern Oregon. And parts of Northern California. Or south of Eureka on the river basin. Not everybody knows about them.’
The seminal event at which poetry, or the figure of the male poet, became visible was the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco in 1955. Michael McClure, the youngest participant that night, recalled earlier performances by Gerd Stern ‘with belly dancers and bongo drums’. Ginsberg, who had moved from New York to Berkeley, launched Howl. But just as significant, McClure felt, was Snyder’s ‘A Berry Feast’, which closed the evening. ‘Gary,’ McClure told me, when I visited him in his house above Oakland, ‘opens the door to seeing the heart.’ In Snyder’s poem the two major strands of much that would follow – urban apocalypse, the madness of cities, and a new interest in ecology, shamanism, biology – were aired and made public. McClure read his elegy ‘For the Death of 100 Whales’. Seventy-nine bored US servicemen from a Nato base in Iceland had gone out in small boats, armed with rifles and machine guns, and massacred a pod of a hundred killer whales.
The difficulty of sudden exposure after years of benevolent neglect, and the years to come of casual labour and occasional academic patronage, took their toll. If a viable persona could not be constructed, and sold, there was erasure, suicide, Mexico. The surrealist Philip Lamantia, declining to expose his own work, read the poems of his friend John Hoffman. Hoffman vanished under mysterious circumstances in Guadalajara. Ginsberg in Howl has him disappearing ‘into the volcanoes of Mexico leaving behind nothing but the shadow of dungarees and the lava and ash of poetry’. Snyder’s friend Philip Whalen was also present at the Six Gallery, performing with his usual awkward grace. But the third member of the Reed College gang was not there: he was out of town, in the hills. It has been suggested that Lew Welch’s absence contributed to what happened on 23 May 1971. Welch wrote: ‘I feel like an outcast often.’ The confession of his role as a poet to fellow fishermen or cab drivers was painful. It didn’t matter that he came from a privileged background in Phoenix, that his grandparents knew the Goldwaters at the country club. He was handy, he drank, he fitted in. But, as he remarked, ‘it used to be just about worth your life – to say you were a poet, in a tough bar.’ The survival kit had to include the means of getting away, fast: a car. And that car should be a ‘Jeep station wagon’. He piloted Kerouac and the Japanese-American Albert Saijo coast to coast, improvising poetry as they went. The Mojave Desert, Las Vegas, New Mexico. Fluff that came from a stripper’s costume in East St Louis attached itself to a memorial cross they plucked from the empty highway in Arizona, a marked road death. The cross was presented to Ginsberg in New York and placed on the wall above his bed. ‘Lew was a poor and fine poet who really couldn’t be employed,’ Whalen said. ‘He was going for nothing. That was what was inside him.’
Snyder, guiding us around his home at Kitkitdizze, was able to settle, to reinhabit, to make a space where inspiration came, if it did, as a natural occurrence, against a practice of daily life. ‘He loved uncoiling his mind into a large inclusive loop,’ Peter Coyote said, ‘and expressing elegant formulations.’ Welch lived with American restlessness, constant migrations, at home nowhere but car and cabin. He looked for conclusions that were never to be found. ‘This is the last place,’ he wrote on Mount Tamalpais. ‘There is nowhere else to go.’
At 82, Snyder is a supreme technician of the ordinary, relishing kerosene lamps, back-up generators, benches of blades: how it all functions. When and how to serve tea. When to blast the frogs in the pond. The facial expressions you get from him, talking or leafing through old photographs, are of quizzical humour and certainty of purpose, developed on solitary trails and in high places. Snyder writes a poetry of statement: location, weather, movement. ‘This life:/We get old enough and finally really like it!’ As Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Lew Welch never did. Kerouac in parodic Florida retirement, hounded by unlooked for visitors, beaten in bars, drinking himself grimly to the finishing line. A swollen-faced athlete of excess at 47. Cassady, crossing the border, walking out along the railway lines after a wedding party in Mexico. Heat haze, terminal exhaustion. Mortality became a competition. ‘I wonder which one of us’ll die first,’ Kerouac wrote in The Dharma Bums. ‘Whoever it is, come on back, ghost, and give ’em the key.’
Kitkitdizze is the tree-muffled absence of ghosts. Survival strategies are in place for snow, bears, power cuts or the collapse of the entire Californian economy. Snyder’s sense of time is geological. ‘Our records only go back a couple of hundred years. We don’t know what the past held.’
On the point of departure, I’m still not sure what I was searching for, but I think I may have found it. I’ve always been fascinated by pests like Thomas De Quincey, the way he hiked to the Lake District and attached himself to Wordsworth and Coleridge, before ‘betraying’ them with gossip and mangled histories. Virtue is never transmitted. When I journeyed across America, 15 years ago, making a nuisance of myself with the figures of my early reading, Ginsberg, Corso, Burroughs, I missed Gary Snyder. Thanksgiving was approaching and he didn’t want to disturb a family gathering. The writers I met, apart from Burroughs in his red clapboard Kansas bungalow, were in rooms in cities. They had answered too many questions, spent too many years in the echo chamber of old recordings. Snyder’s engagement was much more direct. He played a political role, with the California Arts Council, in Sacramento. He travelled. He spoke at conferences. The only rule in politics, he reckoned, was to tell the truth.
We had returned to the precise footprints in the soft ground where our conservation started. ‘Where was Lew Welch when he went into the woods?’ I asked. ‘Right here.’ Welch had been staying with Snyder, camping, thinking about another move. His car parked up above the house. Snyder, going out in the evening to call him for dinner, found the note. The gun was missing.
I never could make anything work out right … I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It’s all gone … I have $2000 in Nevada City Bank of America – use it to cover my affairs and debts. I don’t owe Allen G. anything yet nor my mother. I went southwest. Goodbye.
The car was full of beer cans. Snyder and around forty other neighbours and friends searched the forest for five days, crawling through the manzanita. And they watched the sky too. No vultures. No turkey buzzards. Nothing. Gone. Until, as ever, the man walks back through dreams of place. Snyder wrote a poem.
Lew Welch just turned up one day,
live as you and me. ‘Damn, Lew’ I said,
‘you didn’t shoot yourself after all’
‘Yes I did’ he said.