Gary Snyder and Wild Anarchism

For Gary Snyder

To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are—painful, impermanent, open, imperfect—and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us.

Gary Snyder, The Etiquette of Freedom

There is an extraordinary quality in Gary Snyder’s writing, of translucency, which may be mistaken for simplicity. Yet however simple it may appear to be, it is the simplicity of a finely distilled nature laboured over by multitudes, or for the more metaphysically inclined, of a Leibnizian monad, “a perpetual living mirror of the universe”.

Perhaps it is because he writes first as a poet and then as an essayist, or it is that his life, a “poetic life”, has so shaped him that his words strike us as well polished stones, resonating with an experience of rooted place.

But let us not serve to judge his written work, but rather to share it modestly, with a substantial selection from his essay, “The Etiquette of Freedom” (from the collection of essays, The Practice of the Wild, San Francisco, North Point Press, 1990), a short manifesto like piece of 1962 entitled “Buddhist Anarchism”, filmed interviews and a lecture, and an important essay dedicated to Snyder by Paul Messersmith-Glavin reflecting on his political ecology, “Between Social Ecology and Deep Ecology: Gary Snyder’s Ecological Philosophy”, and of course, poetry.

To begin with, a brilliant interview from 1972, at the Brockport Writers Forum.


Long Hair

Hunting Season:

Once every year, the Deer catch human beings. They

do various things which irresistibly draw men near them;

each one selects a certain man. The Deer shoots the man,

who is then compelled to skin it and carry its meat home

and eat it. Then the deer is inside the man. He waits and

hides in there, but the man doesn’t know it. When

enough Deer have occupied enough men, they will strike all

at once. The men who don’t have Deer in them will

also be taken by surprise, and everything will change some.

This is called “takeover from inside”.

Deer Trails:

Deer trails run on the side hills

        cross country access roads

        dirt ruts to bone-white

        board house ranches,

        tumbled down.

Waist high through manzanita,

Through sticky, prickly, crackling

        gold dry summer grass.

Deer trails lead to water,

Lead sideways all ways

Narrowing down to one best path –

And split –

And fade away to nowhere.

Deer trails slide under freeways

        slip into cities

        swing back and forth in crops and orchards

        run up the sides of schools!

Deer spoor and crisscross dusty tracks

Are in the house: and coming out the walls:

And deer bound through my hair.

                                     Gary Snyder


The Etiquette of Freedom (Selections)

Coyote and Ground Squirrel do not break the compact they have with each other that one must play predator and the other play game. In the wild a baby Black-tailed Hare gets maybe one free chance to run across a meadow without looking up. There won’t be a second. The sharper the knife, the cleaner the line of the carving. We can appreciate the elegance of the forces that shape life and the world, that have shaped every line of our bodies—teeth and nails, nipples and eyebrows. We also see that we must try to live without causing unnecessary harm, not just to fellow humans but to all beings. We must try not to be stingy, or to exploit others. There will be enough pain in the world as it is.

Such are the lessons of the wild. The school where these lessons can be learned, the realms of caribou and elk, elephant and rhinoceros, orca and walrus, are shrinking day by day. Creatures who have traveled with us through the ages are now apparently doomed, as their habitat—and the old, old habitat of humans—falls before the slow-motion explosion of expanding world economies. If the lad or lass is among us who knows where the secret heart of this Growth-Monster is hidden, let them please tell us where to shoot the arrow that will slow it down. And if the secret heart stays secret and our work is made no easier, I for one will keep working for wildness day by day.

I hope to investigate the meaning of wild and how it connects with free and what one would want to do with these meanings. To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are—painful, impermanent, open, imperfect—and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us. For in a fixed universe there would be no freedom. With that freedom we improve the campsite, teach children, oust tyrants. The world is nature, and in the long run inevitably wild, because the wild, as the process and essence of nature, is also an ordering of impermanence.

Although nature is a term that is not of itself threatening, the idea of the “wild” in civilized societies—both European and Asian—is often associated with unruliness, disorder, and violence. The Chinese word for nature, zi-ran (Japanese shizen) means “self-thus.” It is a bland and general word. The word for wild in Chinese, ye (Japanese ya), which basically means “open country,” has a wide set of meanings: in various combinations the term becomes illicit connection, desert country, an illegitimate child (open-country child), prostitute (open-country flower), and such. In an interesting case, ye-man zi-yu (“open-country southern-tribal-person-freedom”) means “wild license.” In another context “open-country story” becomes “fiction and fictitious romance.” Other associations are usually with the rustic and uncouth. In a way ye is taken to mean “nature at its worst.” Although the Chinese and Japanese have long given lip service to nature, only the early Daoists might have thought that wisdom could come of wildness. Thoreau says “give me a wildness no civilization can endure.” That’s clearly not difficult to find. It is harder to imagine a civilization that wildness can endure, yet this is just what we must try to do. Wildness is not just the “preservation of the world,” it is the world. Civilizations east and west have long been on a collision course with wild nature, and now the developed nations in particular have the witless power to destroy not only individual creatures but whole species, whole processes, of the earth. We need a civilization that can live fully and creatively together with wildness. We must start growing it right here, in the New World.

It has always been part of basic human experience to live in a culture of wilderness. There has been no wilderness without some kind of human presence for several hundred thousand years. Nature is not a place to visit, it is home—and within that home territory there are more familiar and less familiar places. Often there are areas that are difficult and remote, but all are known and even named.

All of the hills and lakes of Alaska have been named in one or another of the dozen or so languages spoken by the native people, as the researches of Jim Kari (1982; 1985) and others have shown. Euro-American mapmakers name these places after transient exploiters, or their own girlfriends, or home towns in the Lower 48. The point is: it’s all in the native story, yet only the tiniest trace of human presence through all that time shows. The place-based stories the people tell, and the naming they’ve done, is their archaeology, architecture, and title to the land. Talk about living lightly.

Cultures of wilderness live by the life and death lessons of subsistence economies. But what can we now mean by the words wild and for that matter nature? Languages meander like great rivers leaving oxbow traces over forgotten beds, to be seen only from the air or by scholars. Language is like some kind of infinitely interfertile family of species spreading or mysteriously declining over time, shamelessly and endlessly hybridizing, changing its own rules as it goes. Words are used as signs, as stand-ins, arbitrary and temporary, even as language reflects (and informs) the shifting values of the peoples whose minds it inhabits and glides through. We have faith in “meaning” the way we might believe in wolverines—putting trust in the occasional reports of others or on the authority of once seeing a pelt. But it is sometimes worth tracking these tricksters back.

The Words Nature, Wild, and Wilderness

Take nature first. The word nature is from Latin natura, “birth, constitution, character, course of things”—ultimately from nasci, to be born. So we have nation, natal, native, pregnant. The probable Indo-European root (via Greek gna—hence cognate, agnate) is gen (Sanskrit jan), which provides generate and genus, as well as kin and kind.

The word gets two slightly different meanings. One is “the outdoors”—the physical wprld, including all living things. Nature by this definition is a norm of the world that is apart from the features or products of civilization and human will. The machine, the artifact, the devised, or the extraordinary (like a two-headed calf) is spoken of as “unnatural.” The other meaning, which is broader, is “the material world or its collective objects and phenomena,” including the products of human action and intention. As an agency nature is defined as “the creative and regulative physical power which is conceived of as operating in the material world and as the immediate cause of all its phenomena.” Science and some sorts of mysticism rightly propose that everything is natural. By these lights there is nothing unnatural about New York City, or toxic wastes, or atomic energy, and nothing—by definition—that we do or experience in life is “unnatural.”

(The “supernatural”? One way to deal with it is to say that “the supernatural” is a name for phenomena which are reported by so few people as to leave their reality in doubt. Nonetheless these events ghosts, gods, magical transformations, and such—are described often enough to make them continue to be intriguing and, for some, credible.)

The physical universe and all its properties—I would prefer to use the word nature in this sense. But it will come up meaning “the outdoors” or “other-than-human” sometimes even here.

The word wild is like a gray fox trotting off through the forest, ducking behind bushes, going in and out of sight. Up close, first glance, it is “wild”—then farther into the woods next glance it’s “wyld” and it recedes via Old Norse villr and Old Teutonic wilthijaz into a faint pre-Teutonic ghweltijos which means, still, wild and maybe wooded (wald) and lurks back there with possible connections to will, to Latin silva (forest, sauvage), and to the Indo-European root ghwer, base of Latin fetus (feral, fierce), which swings us around to Thoreau’s “awful ferity” shared by virtuous people and lovers. The Oxford English Dictionary has it this way:

Of animals—not tame, undomesticated, unruly.

Of plants—not cultivated.

Of land—uninhabited, uncultivated.

Of foodcrops—produced or yielded without cultivation.

Of societies—uncivilized, rude, resisting constituted government.

Of individuals—unrestrained, insubordinate, licentious, dissolute, loose. “Wild and wanton widowes”—1614.

Of behavior—violent, destructive, cruel, unruly.

Of behavior—artless, free, spontaneous. “Warble his native wood-notes wild”—John Milton.

Wild is largely defined in our dictionaries by what—from a human standpoint—it is not. It cannot be seen by this approach for what it is. Turn it the other way:

Of animals—free agents, each with its own endowments, living within natural systems.

Of plants—self-propagating, self-maintaining, flourishing in accord with innate qualities.

Of land—a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact and in full interaction and the landforms are entirely the result of nonhuman forces. Pristine.

Of foodcrops—food supplies made available and sustainable by the natural excess and exuberance of wild plants in their growth and in the production of quantities of fruit or seeds.

Of societies—societies whose order has grown from within and is maintained by the force of consensus and custom rather than explicit legislation. Primary cultures, which consider themselves the original and eternal inhabitants of their territory. Societies which resist economic and political domination by civilization. Societies whose economic system is in a close and sustainable relation to the local ecosystem.

Of individuals—following local custom, style, and etiquette without concern for the standards of the metropolis or nearest trading post. Unintimidated, self-reliant, independent. “Proud and free.”

Of behavior—fiercely resisting any oppression, confinement, or exploitation. Far-out, outrageous, “bad,” admirable.

Of behavior—artless, free, spontaneous, unconditioned. Expressive, physical, openly sexual, ecstatic.

Most of the senses in this second set of definitions come very close to being how the Chinese define the term Dao, the way of Great Nature: eluding analysis, beyond categories, self-organizing, self-informing, playful, surprising, impermanent, insubstantial, independent, complete, orderly, unmediated, freely manifesting, self-authenticating, self-willed, complex, quite simple. Both empty and real at the same time. In some cases we might call it sacred. It is not far from the Buddhist term Dharma with its original senses of forming and firming.

The word wilderness, earlier wyldernesse, Old English wildeornes, possibly from “wild-deer-ness” (deor, deer and other forest animals) but more likely “wildern-ness,” has the meanings:

A large area of wild land, with original vegetation and wildlife, ranging from dense jungle or rainforest to arctic or alpine “white wilderness.”

A wasteland, as an area unused or useless for agriculture or pasture.

A space of sea or air, as in Shakespeare, “I stand as one upon a Rock, environ’d with a Wilderness of Sea” (Titus Andronicus). The oceans.

A place of danger and difficulty: where you take your own chances, depend on your own skills, and do not count on rescue.

This world as contrasted with heaven. “I walked through the wildernesse of this world” (Pilgrim’s Progress).

A place of abundance, as in John Milton, “a wildernesse of sweets.”

Milton’s usage of wilderness catches the very real condition of energy and richness that is so often found in wild systems. “A wildernesse of sweets” is like the billions of herring or mackerel babies in the ocean, the cubic miles of krill, wild prairie grass seed (leading to the bread of this day, made from the germs of grasses)—all the incredible fecundity of small animals and plants, feeding the web. But from another side, wilderness has implied chaos, eros, the unknown, realms of taboo, the habitat of both the ecstatic and the demonic. In both senses it is a place of archetypal power, teaching, and challenge.


So we can say that New York City and Tokyo are “natural” but not “wild.” They do not deviate from the laws of nature, but they are habitat so exclusive in the matter of who and what they give shelter to, and so intolerant of other creatures, as to be truly odd. Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order. In ecology we speak of “wild systems.” When an ecosystem is fully functioning, all the members are present at the assembly. To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came out of that wholeness, and to consider the possibility of reactivating membership in the Assembly of All Beings is in no way regressive.

By the sixteenth century the lands of the Occident, the countries of Asia, and all the civilizations and cities from the Indian subcontinent to the coast of North Africa were becoming ecologically impoverished. The people were rapidly becoming nature-illiterate. Much of the original vegetation had been destroyed by the expansion of grazing or agriculture, and the remaining land was of no great human economic use, “waste,” mountain regions and deserts. The lingering larger animals—big cats, desert sheep, serows, and such— managed to survive by retreating to the harsher habitats. The leaders of these civilizations grew up with less and less personal knowledge of animal behavior and were no longer taught the intimate wideranging plant knowledge that had once been universal. By way of tradeoff they learned “human management,” administration, rhetorical skills. Only the most marginal of the paysan, people of the land, kept up practical plant and animal lore and memories of the old ways. People who grew up in towns or cities, or on large estates, had less chance to learn how wild systems work. Then major blocks of citified mythology (Medieval Christianity and then the “Rise of Science”) denied first soul, then consciousness, and finally even sentience to the natural world. Huge numbers of Europeans, in the climate of a nature-denying mechanistic ideology, were losing the opportunity for direct experience of nature.

A new sort of nature-traveler came into existence: men who went out as resource scouts, financed by companies or aristocratic families, penetrating the lightly populated lands of people who lived in and with the wilderness. Conquistadores and priests. Europe had killed off the wolves and bears, deforested vast areas, and overgrazed the hills. The search for slaves, fish, sugar, and precious metals ran over the edge of the horizon and into Asia, Africa, and the New World. These overrefined and warlike states once more came up against wild nature and natural societies: people who lived without Church or State. In return for gold or raw sugar, the white men had to give up something of themselves: they had to look into their own sense of what it meant to be a human being, wonder about the nature of hierarchy, ask if life was worth the honor of a king, or worth gold. (A lost and starving man stands and examines the nicked edge of his sword and his frayed Spanish cape in a Florida swamp.)

Some, like Nuno de Guzman, became crazed and sadistic. “When he began to govern this province, it contained 25,000 Indians, subjugated and peaceful. Of these he has sold 10,000 as slaves, and the others, fearing the same fate, have abandoned their villages” (Todorov, 1985, 134). Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico, ended up a beaten, depressed beggar-to-the-throne. Alvar Nunez, who for eight years walked naked across Texas and New Mexico, came out transformed into a person of the New World. He had rejoined the old ways and was never the same again. He gained a compassionate heart, a taste for self-sufficiency and simplicity, and a knack for healing. The types of both Guzman and Nunez are still among us. Another person has also walked onto the Noh stage of Turtle Island history to hold hands with Alvar Nunez at the far end of the process—Ishi the Yahi, who walked into civilization with as much desperation as Nunez walked out of it. Nunez was the first European to encounter North America and its native myth-mind, and Ishi was the last Native American to fully know that mind—and he had to leave it behind. What lies between those two brackets is not dead and gone. It is perennially within us, dormant as a hard-shelled seed, awaiting the fire or flood that awakes it again.

In those intervening centuries, tens of millions of North and South American Indians died early and violent deaths (as did countless Europeans), the world’s largest mammal herd was extinguished (the bison), and fifteen million Pronghorn disappeared. The grasslands and their soils are largely gone, and only remnants survive from the original old-growth eastern hardwood and western conifer forests. We all know more items for this list.

It is often said that the frontier gave a special turn to American history. A frontier is a burning edge, a frazzle, a strange market zone between two utterly different worlds. It is a strip where there are pelts and tongues and tits for the taking. There is an almost visible line that a person of the invading culture could walk across: out of history and into a perpetual present, a way of life attuned to the slower and steadier processes of nature. The possibility of passage into that myth-time world had been all but forgotten in Europe. Its rediscovery—the unsettling vision of a natural self—has haunted the Euro-American peoples as they continually cleared and roaded the many wild corners of the North American continent.

Wilderness is now—for much of North America—places that are formally set aside on public lands—Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management holdings or state and federal parks. Some tiny but critical tracts are held by private nonprofit groups like The Nature Conservancy or the Trust for Public Land. These are the shrines saved from all the land that was once known and lived on by the original people, the little bits left as they were, the last little places where intrinsic nature totally wails, blooms, nests, glints away. They make up only 2 percent of the land of the United States.

But wildness is not limited to the 2 percent formal wilderness areas. Shifting scales, it is everywhere: ineradicable populations of fungi, moss, mold, yeasts, and such that surround and inhabit us. Deer mice on the back porch, deer bounding across the freeway, pigeons in the park, spiders in the corners. There were crickets in the paint locker of the Sappa Creek oil tanker, as I worked as a wiper in the engine room out in mid-Pacific, cleaning brushes. Exquisite complex beings in their energy webs inhabiting the fertile corners of the urban world in accord with the rules of wild systems, the visible hardy stalks and stems of vacant lots and railroads, the persistent raccoon squads, bacteria in the loam and in our yogurt. The term culture, in its meaning of “a deliberately maintained aesthetic and intellectual life” and in its other meaning of “the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns,” is never far from a biological root meaning as in “yogurt culture”—a nourishing habitat. Civilization is permeable, and could be as inhabited as the wild is.

Wilderness may temporarily dwindle, but wildness won’t go away. A ghost wilderness hovers around the entire planet: the millions of tiny seeds of the original vegetation are hiding in the mud on the foot of an arctic tern, in the dry desert sands, or in the wind. These seeds are each uniquely adapted to a specific soil or circumstance, each with its own little form and fluff, ready to float, freeze, or be swallowed, always preserving the germ. Wilderness will inevitably return, but it will not be as fine a world as the one that was glistening in the early morning of the Holocene. Much life will be lost in the wake of human agency on earth, that of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Much is already lost—the soils and waters unravel:

“What’s that dark thing in the water?

Is it not an oil-soaked otter?”

Where do we start to resolve the dichotomy of the civilized and the wild?

Do you really believe you are an animal? We are now taught this in school. It is a wonderful piece of information: I have been enjoying it all my life and I come back to it over and over again, as something to investigate and test. I grew up on a small farm with cows and chickens, and with a second-growth forest right at the back fence, so I had the good fortune of seeing the human and animal as in the same realm. But many people who have been hearing this since childhood have not absorbed the implications of it, perhaps feel remote from the nonhuman world, are not sure they are animals. They would like to feel they might be something better than animals. That’s understandable: other animals might feel they are something different than “just animals” too. But we must contemplate the shared ground of our common biological being before emphasizing the differences.

Our bodies are wild. The involuntary quick turn of the head at a shout, the vertigo at looking off a precipice, the heart-in-the-throat in a moment of danger, the catch of the breath, the quiet moments relaxing, staring, reflecting—all universal responses of this mammal body. They can be seen throughout the class. The body does not require the intercession of some conscious intellect to make it breathe, to keep the heart beating. It is to a great extent self-regulating, it is a life of its own. Sensation and perception do not exactly come from outside, and the unremitting thought and image-flow are not exactly outside. The world is our consciousness, and it surrounds us. There are more things in mind, in the imagination, than “you” can keep track of—thoughts, memories, images, angers, delights, rise unbidden. The depths of mind, the unconscious, are our inner wilderness areas, and that is where a bobcat is right now. I do not mean personal bobcats in personal psyches, but the bobcat that roams from dream to dream. The conscious agenda-planning ego occupies a very tiny territory, a little cubicle somewhere near the gate, keeping track of some of what goes in and out (and sometimes making expansionistic plots), and the rest takes care of itself. The body is, so to speak, in the mind. They are both wild.

Some will say, so far so good. “We are mammal primates. But we have language, and the animals don’t.” By some definitions perhaps they don’t. But they do communicate extensively, and by call systems we are just beginning to grasp. It would be a mistake to think that human beings got “smarter” at some point and invented first language and then society. Language and culture emerge from our biological-social natural existence, animals that we were/are. Language is a mind-body system that coevolved with our needs and nerves. Like imagination and the body, language rises unbidden. It is of a complexity that eludes our rational intellectual capacities. All attempts at scientific description of natural languages have fallen short of completeness, as the descriptive linguists readily confess, yet the child learns the mother tongue early and has virtually mastered it by six.

Language is learned in the house and in the fields, not at school. Without having ever been taught formal grammar we utter syntactically correct sentences, one after another, for all the waking hours of the years of our life. Without conscious device we constantly reach into the vast word-hoards in the depths of the wild unconscious. We cannot as individuals or even as a species take credit for this power. It came from someplace else: from the way clouds divide and mingle (and the arms of energy that coil first back and then forward), from the way the many flowerlets of a composite blossom divide and redivide, from the gleaming calligraphy of the ancient riverbeds under present riverbeds of the Yukon River streaming out the Yukon flats, from the wind in the pine needles, from the chuckles of grouse in the ceanothus bushes.

Language teaching in schools is a matter of corralling off a little of the language-behavior territory and cultivating a few favorite features—culturally defined elite forms that will help you apply for a job or give you social credibility at aparty. One might even learn how to produce the byzantine artifact known as the professional paper. There are many excellent reasons to master these things, but the power, the virtu, remains on the side of the wild.

Social order is found throughout nature—long before the age of books and legal codes. It is inherently part of what we are, and its patterns follow the same foldings, checks and balances, as flesh or stone. What we call social organization and order in government is a set of forms that have been appropriated by the calculating mind from the operating principles in nature.

The World Is Watching

The world is as sharp as the edge of a knife—a Northwest Coast saying. Now how does it look from the standpoint of peoples for whom there is no great dichotomy between their culture and nature, those who live in societies whose economies draw on uncultivated systems? The pathless world of wild nature is a surpassing school and those who have lived through her can be tough and funny teachers. Out here one is in constant engagement with countless plants and animals. To be well educated is to have learned the songs, proverbs, stories, sayings, myths (and technologies) that come with this experiencing of the nonhuman members of the local ecological community. Practice in the field, “open country,” is foremost. Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind. Walking is the exact balance of spirit and humility. Out walking, one notices where there is food. And there are firsthand true stories of “Your ass is somebody else’s nieal”—a blunt way of saying interdependence, interconnection, “ecology,” on the level where it counts, also a teaching of mindfulness and preparedness. There is an extraordinary teaching of specific plants and animals and their uses, empirical and impeccable, that never reduces them to objects and commodities.

It seems that a short way back in the history of occidental ideas there was a fork in the trail. The line of thought that is signified by the names of Descartes, Newton, and Hobbes (saying that life in a primary society is “nasty, brutish, and short”—all of them city-dwellers) was a profound rejection of the organic world. For a reproductive universe they substituted a model of sterile mechanism and an economy of “production.” These thinkers were as hysterical about “chaos” as their predecessors, the witch-hunt prosecutors of only a century before, were about “witches.” They not only didn’t enjoy the possibility that the world is as sharp as the edge of a knife, they wanted to take that edge away from nature. Instead of making the world safer for humankind, the foolish tinkering with the powers of life and death by the occidental scientist-engineer-ruler puts the whole planet on the brink of degradation. Most of humanity— foragers, peasants, or artisans—has always taken the other fork. That is to say, they have understood the play of the real world, with all its suffering, not in simple terms of “nature red in tooth and claw” but through the celebration of the gift-exchange quality of our give-and-take. “What a big potlatch we are all members of!” To acknowledge that each of us at the table will eventually be part of the meal is not just being “realistic.” It is allowing the sacred to enter and accepting the sacramental aspect of our shaky temporary personal being.

The world is watching: one cannot walk through a meadow or forest without a ripple of report spreading out from one’s passage. The thrush darts back, the jay squalls, a beetle scuttles under the grasses, and the signal is passed along. Every creature knows when a hawk is cruising or a human strolling. The information passed through the system is intelligence.

In Hindu and Buddhist iconography an animal trace is registered on the images of the Deities or Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Manjusri the Bodhisattva of Discriminating Wisdom rides a lion, Samantabhadra the Bodhisattva of Kindness rides an elephant, Sarasvati the Goddess of Music and Learning rides a peacock, Shiva relaxes in the company of a snake and a bull. Some wear tiny animals in their crowns or hair. In this ecumenical spiritual ecology it is suggested that the other animals occupy spiritual as well as “thermodynamic”

niches. Whether or not their consciousness is identical with that of the humans is a moot point. Why should the peculiarities of human consciousness be the narrow standard by which other creatures are judged? “Whoever told people that ‘Mind’ means thoughts, opinions, ideas, and concepts? Mind means trees, fence posts, tiles, and grasses,” says Dogen (the philosopher and founder of the Soto school of Japanese Zen) in his funny cryptic way.

We are all capable of extraordinary transformations. In myth and story these changes are animal-to-human, human-to-animal, animal-to-animal, or even farther leaps. The essential nature remains clear and steady through these changes. So the animal icons of the Inupiaq people (“Eskimos”) of the Bering Sea (here’s the reverse!) have a tiny human face sewn into the fur, or under the feathers, or carved on the back or breast or even inside the eye, peeping out. This is the inua, which is often called “spirit” but could just as well be termed the “essential nature” of that creature. It remains the same face regardless of the playful temporary changes. Just as Buddhism has chosen to represent our condition by presenting an image of a steady, solid, gentle, meditating human figure seated in the midst of the world of phenomena, the Inupiaq would present a panoply of different creatures, each with a little hidden human face. This is not the same as anthropocentrism or human arrogance. It is a way of saying that each creature is a spirit with an intelligence as brilliant as our own. The Buddhist iconographers hide a little animal face in the hair of the human to remind us that we see with archetypal wilderness eyes as well.

The world is not only watching, it is listening too. A rude and thoughtless comment about a Ground Squirrel or a Flicker or a Porcupine will not go unnoticed. Other beings (the instructors from the old ways tell us) do not mind being killed and eaten as food, but they expect us to say please, and thank you, and they hate to see themselves wasted. The precept against needlessly taking life is inevitably the first and most difficult of commandments. In their practice of killing and eating with gentleness and thanks, the primary peoples are our teachers: the attitude toward animals, and their treatment, in twentieth-century American industrial meat production is literally sickening, unethical, and a source of boundless bad luck for this society.

An ethical life is one that is mindful, mannerly, and has style. Of all moral failings and flaws of character, the worst is stinginess of thought, which includes meanness in all its forms. Rudeness in thought or deed toward others, toward nature, reduces the chances of conviviality and interspecies communication, which are essential to physical and spiritual survival. Richard Nelson, a student of Indian ways, has said that an Athapaskan mother might tell her little girl, “Don’t point at the mountain! It’s rude!” One must not waste, or be careless, with the bodies or the parts of any creature one has hunted or gathered. One must not boast, or show much pride in accomplishment, and one must not take one’s skill for granted. Wastefulness and carelessness are caused by stinginess of spirit, an ungracious unwillingness to complete the gift-exchange transaction. (These rules are also particularly true for healers, artists, and gamblers.)

Back Home

The etiquette of the wild world requires not only generosity but a good-humored toughness that cheerfully tolerates discomfort, an appreciation of everyone’s fragility, and a certain modesty. Good quick blueberry picking, the knack of tracking, getting to where the fishing’s good (“an angry man cannot catch a fish”), reading the surface of the sea or sky—these are achievements not to be gained by mere effort. Mountaineering has the same quality. These moves take practice, which calls for a certain amount of self-abnegation, and intuition, which takes emptying of yourself. Great insights have come to some people only after they reached the point where they had nothing left. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca became unaccountably deepened after losing his way and spending several winter nights sleeping naked in a pit in the Texas desert under a north wind. He truly had reached the point where he had nothing. (“To have nothing, you must have nothing!” Lord Buckley says of this moment.) After that he found himself able to heal sick native people he met on his way westward. His fame spread ahead of him. Once he had made his way back to Mexico and was again a civilized Spaniard he found he had lost his power of healing—not just the ability to heal, but the will to heal, which is the will to be whole: for as he said, there were “real doctors” in the city, and he began to doubt his powers. To resolve the dichotomy of the civilized and the wild, we must first resolve to be whole.

One may reach such a place as Alvar Nunez by literally losing everything. Painful and dangerous experiences often transform the people who survive them. Human beings are audacious. They set out to have adventures and try to do more than perhaps they should. So by practicing yogic austerities or monastic disciplines, some people make a structured attempt at having nothing. Some of us have learned much from traveling day after day on foot over snowfields, rockslides, passes, torrents, and valley floor forests, by “putting ourselves out there.” Another—and most sophisticated—way is that of Vimalakirti, the legendary Buddhist layman, who taught that by directly intuiting our condition in the actually existing world we realize that we have had nothing from the beginning. A Tibetan saying has it: “The experience of emptiness engenders compassion.”

For those who would seek directly, by entering the primary temple, the wilderness can be a ferocious teacher, rapidly stripping down the inexperienced or the careless. It is easy to make the mistakes that will bring one to an extremity. Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness.

People of wilderness cultures rarely seek out adventures. If they deliberately risk themselves, it is for spiritual rather than economic reasons. Ultimately all such journeys are done for the sake of the whole, not as some private quest. The quiet dignity that characterizes so many so-called primitives is a reflection of that. Florence Edenshaw, a contemporary Haida elder who has lived a long life of work and family, was asked by the young woman anthropologist who interviewed her and was impressed by her coherence, presence, and dignity, “What can I do for self-respect?” Mrs. Edenshaw said, “Dress up and stay home.” The “home,” of course, is as large as you make it.

The lessons we learn from the wild become the etiquette of freedom. We can enjoy our humanity with its flashy brains and sexual buzz, its social cravings and stubborn tantrums, and take ourselves as no more and no less than another being in the Big Watershed. We can accept each other all as barefoot equals sleeping on the same ground. We can give up hoping to be eternal and quit fighting dirt. We can chase off mosquitoes and fence out varmints without hating them. No expectations, alert and sufficient, grateful and careful, generous and direct. A calm and clarity attend us in the moment we are wiping the grease off our hands between tasks and glancing up at the passing clouds. Another joy is finally sitting down to have coffee with a friend. The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home.

And when the children are safe in bed, at one of the great holidays like the Fourth of July, New Year’s, or Halloween, we can bring out some spirits and turn on the music, and the men and the women who are still among the living can get loose and really wild. So that’s the final meaning of “wild”—the esoteric meaning, the deepest and most scary. Those who are ready for it will come to it. Please do not repeat this to the uninitiated.


Revolution in the Revolution in the Revolution

The country surrounds the city
The back country surrounds the country

“From the masses to the masses” the most
Revolutionary consciousness is to be found
Among the most ruthlessly exploited classes:
Animals, trees, water, air, grasses

We must pass through the stage of the
“Dictatorship of the Unconscious” before we can
Hope for the withering-away of the states
And finally arrive at true Communionism.

If the capitalists and imperialists
          are the exploiters, the masses are the workers.
                    and the party
                    is the communist.

If civilization
          is the exploiter, the masses is nature.
                    and the party
                    is the poets.

If the abstract rational intellect
          is the exploiter, the masses is the unconscious.
                    and the party
                    is the yogins.

comes out of the seed-syllables of mantras.

Gary Snider


Buddhist Anarchism

Buddhism holds that the universe and all creatures in it are intrinsically in a state of complete wisdom, love and compassion; acting in natural response and mutual interdependence. The personal realization of this from-the-beginning state cannot be had for and by one-“self” — because it is not fully realized unless one has given the self up; and away.

In the Buddhist view, that which obstructs the effortless manifestation of this is Ignorance, which projects into fear and needless craving. Historically, Buddhist philosophers have failed to analyze out the degree to which ignorance and suffering are caused or encouraged by social factors, considering fear-and-desire to be given facts of the human condition. Consequently the major concern of Buddhist philosophy is epistemology and “psychology” with no attention paid to historical or sociological problems. Although Mahayana Buddhism has a grand vision of universal salvation, the actual achievement of Buddhism has been the development of practical systems of meditation toward the end of liberating a few dedicated individuals from psychological hangups and cultural conditionings. Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or ignore the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under. This can be death to Buddhism, because it is death to any meaningful function of compassion. Wisdom without compassion feels no pain.

No one today can afford to be innocent, or indulge himself in ignorance of the nature of contemporary governments, politics and social orders. The national polities of the modern world maintain their existence by deliberately fostered craving and fear: monstrous protection rackets. The “free world” has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated and hatred which has no outlet except against oneself, the persons one is supposed to love, or the revolutionary aspirations of pitiful, poverty-stricken marginal societies like Cuba or Vietnam. The conditions of the Cold War have turned all modern societies — Communist included — into vicious distorters of man’s true potential. They create populations of “preta” — hungry ghosts, with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles. The soil, the forests and all animal life are being consumed by these cancerous collectivities; the air and water of the planet is being fouled by them.

There is nothing in human nature or the requirements of human social organization which intrinsically requires that a culture be contradictory, repressive and productive of violent and frustrated personalities. Recent findings in anthropology and psychology make this more and more evident. One can prove it for himself by taking a good look at his own nature through meditation. Once a person has this much faith and insight, he must be led to a deep concern with the need for radical social change through a variety of hopefully non-violent means.

The joyous and voluntary poverty of Buddhism becomes a positive force. The traditional harmlessness and refusal to take life in any form has nation-shaking implications. The practice of meditation, for which one needs only “the ground beneath one’s feet,” wipes out mountains of junk being pumped into the mind by the mass media and supermarket universities. The belief in a serene and generous fulfillment of natural loving desires destroys ideologies which blind, maim and repress — and points the way to a kind of community which would amaze “moralists” and transform armies of men who are fighters because they cannot be lovers.

Avatamsaka (Kegon) Buddhist philosophy sees the world as a vast interrelated network in which all objects and creatures are necessary and illuminated. From one standpoint, governments, wars, or all that we consider “evil” are uncompromisingly contained in this totalistic realm. The hawk, the swoop and the hare are one. From the “human” standpoint we cannot live in those terms unless all beings see with the same enlightened eye. The Bodhisattva lives by the sufferer’s standard, and he must be effective in aiding those who suffer.

The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both. They are both contained in the traditional three aspects of the Dharma path: wisdom (prajna), meditation (dhyana), and morality (sila). Wisdom is intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one’s ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into the mind to see this for yourself — over and over again, until it becomes the mind you live in. Morality is bringing it back out in the way you live, through personal example and responsible action, ultimately toward the true community (sangha) of “all beings.”

This last aspect means, for me, supporting any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless world. It means using such means as civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty and even gentle violence if it comes to a matter of restraining some impetuous redneck. It means affirming the widest possible spectrum of non-harmful individual behavior — defending the right of individuals to smoke hemp, eat peyote, be polygynous, polyandrous or homosexual. Worlds of behavior and custom long banned by the Judaeo-Capitalist-Christian-Marxist West. It means respecting intelligence and learning, but not as greed or means to personal power. Working on one’s own responsibility, but willing to work with a group. “Forming the new society within the shell of the old” — the IWW slogan of fifty years ago.

The traditional cultures are in any case doomed, and rather than cling to their good aspects hopelessly it should be remembered that whatever is or ever was in any other culture can be reconstructed from the unconscious, through meditation. In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspects of our archaic past. If we are lucky we may eventually arrive at a totally integrated world culture with matrilineal descent, free-form marriage, natural-credit communist economy, less industry, far less population and lots more national parks.

(“Buddhist Anarchism” was originally published in Journal for the Protection of All Beings #1 (City Lights, 1961). A slightly revised version appeared in Earth House Hold (New Directions, 1969) under the title “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution”, and is posted at the Anarchist Library)



Those are the people who do complicated things.

they’ll grab us by the thousands
and put us to work.

World’s going to hell, with all these
villages and trails.
Wild duck flocks aren’t
what they used to be.
Aurochs grow rare.

Fetch me my feathers and amber


A small cricket
on the typescript page of
“Kyoto born in spring song”
grooms himself
in time with The Well-Tempered Clavier.
I quit typing and watch him through a glass.
How well articulated! How neat!

Nobody understands the ANIMAL KINGDOM.


When creeks are full
The poems flow
When creeks are down
We heap stones.

Gary Snyder


The Earth’s Wild Places

Your eyes, your mouth and hands,
the public highways.
Hands, like truck stops,
semis rumbling in the corners.
Eyes like the bank clerk’s window
foreign exchange.
I love all the parts of your body
friends hug your suburbs
farmlands are given a nod
but I know the path
to your wilderness.
It’s not that I like it best,
but we’re almost always
alone there,
and it’s scary but also calm.

Gary Snyder


Between Social Ecology and Deep Ecology: Gary Snyder’s Ecological Philosophy

Paul Messersmith-Glavin (The Institute for Anarchist Studies)

March 11, 2018

Gary Snyder is not a philosopher, nor does he “consider himself particularly a ‘Beat.’”[1] Snyder is a poet, an essayist, an outdoorsman and a practitioner of Buddhism. But despite his reluctance to identify with the Beat title, he has been an undeniable influence on the Beat generation and its writers. He was fictionalized as the character Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums,[2] and helped initiate the San Francisco Renaissance by organizing poetry readings with his close friend Allen Ginsberg, among others, thus ushering in the Beats as a recognized social force. Although not technically a philosopher in the traditional or academic sense, his writings contain a very complex treatment of modern society’s relationship to the natural world. Snyder’s chief concerns are protecting nature from the ravages of civilization, putting humans back in touch with our “wild” selves and returning us to a sense of self-contemplation, community and embeddedness in nature.

Snyder puts his philosophical views into practice in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where he has made his home since 1970. Eschewing publicity, he sits za zen every day, and is a life-long proponent of ecological thinking. Snyder also draws from Mahayana Buddhism, bioregionalism and social anarchism in developing his perspective and philosophical orientation. Snyder most clearly spells out the beliefs he conveys through his poetry and practices in his essay work and interviews.

Because Snyder’s views are so nuanced, it’s possible for various schools of thought to adopt him as their own. Despite being claimed by proponents of deep ecology, and finding his place within this school of thought, Snyder’s background, his reading of Marx and anarchism, and his philosophical and political concerns align him also with social ecology, making him an appropriate bridge between these two polarized nature philosophies. The debates between social ecology and deep ecology characterized the emergent Green movement in the 1980s and 90s, and had a tremendous influence within the Earth First! movement. They reverberate today as we face an increasingly dire ecological future. Social ecology is primarily concerned with the dialectic between forms of domination in the human world, and how this leads to the domination of nature. It is a view that emphasizes that the solution to humans’ destruction of non-human nature is a social one. Deep ecology is more concerned with changing human consciousness, drawing from religious and philosophical perspectives. Snyder acknowledges both, emphasizing the need to change consciousness, while advocating for social changes to reharmonize human’s relationship to non-human nature.

Snyder’s Early Life and Influences

you bastards my fathers and grandfathers,
stiff-necked punchers, miners, dirt farmers, railroad-men

killd off the cougar and grizzly
nine bows. Your itchin my boots too,
-your sea roving tree hearted son

from “Dusty Braces,” Turtle Island [3]

Snyder’s background is helpful in understanding his philosophical impulses. He spent most of his early years in rural Washington state, and then moved with his mother, following a divorce, to Portland, Oregon. Snyder first developed an appreciation for nature at a young age: “I found myself standing in an indefinable awe before the natural world. An attitude of gratitude, wonder, and a sense of protection especially as I began to see the hills being bulldozed down for roads, and the forests of the Pacific Northwest magically float away on logging trucks.”[4] Yet observing these realities, Snyder did not have the tools at hand to apprehend them. He explains that his parents were Wobblies, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), but he could find nothing in their politics to help him understand what was happening. For that he needed imagination and reading Marx and anarchist texts.[5]

Snyder’s radical parentage, working class childhood, and early grounding in Marxism and anarchism come across quite clearly in his essays and interviews. As he points out, “One of the most interesting things that has ever happened in the world was the Western discovery that history is arbitrary and that societies are human, and not divine, or natural, creations — that we actually have the capacity of making choices in regard to our social systems.” [6]

Snyder was also exposed to local native Coast Salish people at a young age. They influenced his views of how it was possible to exist in the world, resulting in a lifelong fascination with Native American beliefs and rituals. As we will see, it is Snyder’s understanding of Native American views and customs that ultimately rounded out his reading of Marx. Snyder criticizes Marxists both for looking down upon so-called primitive people, and for not sufficiently understanding the effects of capitalism upon nature and the destruction of wilderness.

Poets and Poetry

As for poets The Earth Poets Who write small poems, Need help from no man.

from “As For Poets,” Turtle Island [7]

Snyder’s love of poetry began in his childhood. At the age of seven, Snyder was bedridden for weeks as a result of an accident. During this time his parents checked out books for him at the Seattle library, and from that he developed a voracious appetite for reading. By his early teens, Snyder was reading poetry, particularly that of Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters, and at the age of seventeen, D.H. Lawrence and Walt Whitman.

Although a prolific essayist, Snyder’s primary medium of expression became poetry. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Turtle Island in 1974[8], and went on to write sixteen books of poetry. For Snyder, the poet plays an essential role in society, laying the foundation for people’s self-understanding and connection to tradition and place. Snyder sees poets as transmitting the “complex of songs and chants” that “a whole People sees itself through.” In the West, he sees this role filled initially by “Homer and going through Virgil, Dante, Milton, Blake, Goethe, and Joyce. They were the workers who took on the ambitious chore of trying to absorb all the myth/history lore of their own past traditions, and put it into order as a new piece of writing and let it be a map or model of the world and mind for everyone to steer by.” [9]

For Snyder there are at least two levels of poetic expression. The first is that which seeks to show the “implicit potentials of the language,” making language work better and bring more “delight,” since language is primarily a means of communication. Thus, increasing the clarity, playfulness and interest in communication is one level of expression. But for Snyder, his primary focus is on another level, that in which “poetry is intimately linked to any culture’s fundamental worldview, body of lore, which is its myth base, its symbol base, and the source of much of its values — that myth-lore foundation that underlies any society.”[10] Poetry, ideally, holds a society together by giving it shared meaning. Despite his reading of Marx, and his anarchism, Snyder does not see poetry as “the work of prophecy. Nor is it, ultimately, the work of social change.” While admitting that it can play this role in a minor capacity, poetry is really meant to bring “us back to our original, true natures from whatever habit-molds that our perceptions, that our thinking and feeling get formed into. And bringing us back to original true mind, seeing the universe freshly in eternity.”[11] This perspective echoes Snyder’s interest in Buddhism, particularly Zen of the Mahayana tradition. For Snyder, the gifted poets speak not for themselves, but for everyone: “And to express all of our selves you have to go beyond your own self. Like Dogen, the Zen master said, ‘we study the self to forget the self. And when you forget the self, you become one with all things.’ And that’s why poetry’s not self-expression in those small self terms.”[12] Snyder seeks to express the importance of nature, beyond the concerns of humans, even adopting wild nature’s standpoint, in his poetry.

While looking to poets to express the myth and lore that underlie any civilization, Snyder insists on staying in touch with the simple things, and not forgetting his roots. Snyder advises poets, and people generally, to “get back in touch … with ordinary things: with your body, with the dirt, with the dust, with anything you like, you know — the streets. The streets or the farm, whatever it is.” He expresses what might be misinterpreted as a kind of anti-intellectualism, suggesting that we “get away from books and from the elite sense of being bearers of Western culture and all that crap. But also, ultimately, into your mind, into original mind before any books were put into it, or before any language was invented.”[13] This kind of celebration of ‘ordinary folks’ and anti-elitism characterizes Snyder’s work. Here he also echoes Zen Buddhism, emphasizing the importance of self-understanding, of knowing one’s mind.[14]

Western philosophers from the Sophists on may differ with Snyder here, saying it is impossible to achieve such a state of mind. In an interview with Paul Geneson in 1976, for instance, Snyder was asked to respond to Jean Paul Sartre who, upon approaching a tree, thinks “‘I feel in an absurd position — I cannot break through my skin to get in touch with this bark, which is outside me,’ the Japanese poet would say what?” Snyder responds, “Sartre is confessing the sickness of the West. At least he’s honest.” He goes on to say that “The Oriental will say, ‘But there are ways to do it, my friend. It’s no big deal.’ It’s no big deal, especially if you get attuned to that possibility from an early life…to learn about the pine from the pine rather than from a botany textbook…They also know that you can look at the botany textbook and learn a few things too.”[15] Here Snyder draws from his experience in nature. He spent much time hiking trails and breathing fresh air to counter an urban-based perspective which may not be able to imagine embracing, let alone understanding, a tree. Because he is a poet, Snyder injects some levity and playfulness into the discussion. For Snyder, the poet plays the part of the Trickster, opening minds and considering fresh perspectives. Here he suggests, contrary to Sartre, that we really can understand the pine, that we can know the natural world beyond ourselves.

Of course Plato exiles all the poets from his Republic, thinking that they lie too much. Plato would probably have little patience for Snyder. But as Snyder points out, Plato’s “The Republic, is a great myth, a totalitarian vision that nobody took seriously until the twentieth century. The ideas were disastrous, whether they came through Hitler or Stalin.” In contrast to this, Snyder says that poets “stay with the simple old myths that are clearly just plain stories, and don’t presume (as a rule) to try and formulate public policy. Poets’ lies are easily seen through and not dangerous because they promise so little. Plato’s Big Lie is sinister because it promises control and power to the leaders.”[16] Snyder is suspicious of leaders, and of the State. Although Snyder accuses Plato of providing a justification for the crimes of Hitler and Stalin, he also writes that “the Tragedians asked Plato to let them put on some tragedies. Plato said, ‘Very interesting, gentlemen, but I must tell you something. We have prepared here the greatest tragedy of all. It is called The State.’”[17] Snyder categorizes the State as being part of what he calls “biosphere culture,” the global organization of the planet along totalitarian lines. Snyder sees that biosphere culture began with “early civilization and the centralized state; (they) are cultures that spread their economic support system out far enough that they can afford to wreck one ecosystem, and keep moving on. … It leads us to imperialist civilization with capitalism and institutionalized economic growth.”[18]

Snyder’s Mahayana Buddhism

Out there somewhere a shrine for the old ones, the dust of the old bones, old songs and tales.
What we ate — who ate what — how we all prevailed.

from “Old Bones,” Mountains and Rivers Without End [19]

As should be clear from Snyder’s views on the role of poets and poetry in society, one of the biggest influences on his work is the philosophy of Buddhism. Like Alan Watts, Snyder has done a great deal to popularize Buddhism in the West, both by explicitly talking about it, and by presenting a Buddhist perspective in his poetry. Snyder first read Ezra Pound’s and Arthur Waley’s translations of Confucius, the Tao Te Ching, and Chinese poetry. He read the Upanishads, Vedas, Bhagavad-Gita, and other Chinese and Indian Buddhist classics. He explains “the convergence that I found really exciting was the Mahayana Buddhist wisdom-oriented line as it developed in China and assimilated the older Taoist tradition… Then I learned that this tradition is still alive and well in Japan. That convinced me that I should go and study in Japan.”[20] In a certain sense, Snyder is right to reject a Beat identity. He spent six years in Japan when the Beats were making a name for themselves in the US, and he was not a part of the original New York circle. Through much of the mid-fifties until the late 60s, when the Beats were in their heyday, Snyder was shutting back and forth between California and Japan as a practicing Buddhist.

Deep ecologists, such as George Sessions and Bill Devall, authors of Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered, draw a great deal from this tradition as well. In a chapter entitled “Some Sources of the Deep Ecological Perspective,” Sessions and Devall state “contemporary deep ecologists have found inspiration in the Taoist classic, the Tao Te Ching, and the writings of the thirteenth-century Buddhist teacher, Dogen.” For these authors: “Eastern traditions express organic unity, address what we have called the minority tradition, and express acceptance of biocentric equality in some traditions.”[21] Sessions and Devall dedicate their book to Snyder, and state “among contemporary writers, no one has done more than Gary Snyder to shape the sensibilities of the deep ecology movement.”[22] So what is the significance of Buddhism to Snyder, and to deep ecologists?

The Buddhist teachings, or Dharma, are separated into three schools, associated with the spread of Buddhism to different countries. These three schools are often referred to as ‘Turnings of the Wheel.’ The early Buddhist school of thought is the Hinayana, originating in India. It puts emphasis upon individual enlightenment or an end to personal suffering through the achievement of nirvana. As C.W. Huntington, Jr. points out, “release from fear and suffering can be achieved only by learning to see completely through this illusory appearance of a self, and beyond even death, to the underlying collocation of perceptual and conceptual data responsible for the illusion. This is defined as ‘wisdom.’”[23]

The second ‘Turning of the Wheel’ is the Mahayana, which developed in Japan as Zen, and in China as Chan. The Mahayana represents an internal self-critique of the Buddhist tradition. Practitioners of the Mahayana believed that the Hinayana emphasis upon wisdom, or insight into the nature of suffering, was insufficient, and elevated compassion to the same level as wisdom. Concurrent with this development was the introduction of the Bodhisattva ideal, in which Buddhist practitioners were instructed to postpone individual enlightenment until all can be freed of suffering. Thus compassion for the suffering of others became of prominent importance. The third and final ‘Turning of the Wheel’ occurred with the development of Buddhism in Tibet, ushering in the Vajrayana, which saw the mixing of indigenous Tibetan religious beliefs with Buddhism, and an emphasis upon visualization techniques and rituals. About the Vajrayana, Snyder says of “all the sophisticated and learned religious traditions in the world today, (Vajrayana) seems to be the only one that has traditional continuous links that go back to the Stone Age…These are the religious insights and practices that belonged to the Paleolithic hunters at the beginning. This is the real nature mysticism.”[24]

Of the three ‘Turnings of the Wheel,’ Snyder, while appreciative of the Vajrayana, is most immersed in the Mahayana. Despite his fascination with ‘primitive’ cultures and shamanism, Snyder says, “There is nothing in primitive cultures that is at all equivalent to Mahayana philosophy or logic. There is a science and true sophistication of certain states of mind and power that can come through shamanism but the shaman himself doesn’t understand the power. Buddhism and yoga have been gradually evolving as a true science of the mind and science of the nature of things but of a different order from the physical sciences we’ve had so far.”[25]

After spending the better part of six years in a Japanese Zen monastery, Snyder returned to the US. Since then, he has attempted to bring his meditation practice into everyday life. For Snyder, what we need to do “is to take the great intellectual achievement of the Mahayana Buddhists and bring it back to a community style of life which is not necessarily monastic.”[26] For Snyder, Zen is “a way of using your mind and practicing your life and doing it with other people. It has a style that involves others. It brings a particular kind of focus and attention to work. It values work…At the same time it has no external law for doing it. So you must go very deep into yourself to find the foundation of it. In other words it turns you inward rather than giving you a rulebook to live by. Zen is practice that is concerned with liberation, not with giving people some easy certainty.”[27]

Thus for Snyder, the ‘real work’ is to achieve liberation for all sentient beings, working alongside others to make the world a better place: “The poet is right there … in the area that says ‘Let the shit fly,’ which is different from the religious person in civilized times, who is operating in the realm of control, self-discipline, purity, training, self-knowledge.”[28] This position may reflect Snyder’s decision to leave the Japanese monastery, and rejoin the world, with all its troubles and difficulties. It also represents an attempt to live up to the Bodhisattva ideal, to work alongside others to help everyone end suffering together. As Snyder notes, “the mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void.”[29]

Buddhists have an expansive concept of the self. It is an anti-essentialist philosophy, rejecting both the idea of a ‘soul’ and of God. A central principle in Mahayana is that of ‘emptiness,’ which is a dialectical concept. Emptiness, or Sunyata, posits that nothing has an essential nature, and can only be understood only in relationship to its context. As Huntington explains, “As components of worldly experience all elements of conceptualization and perception come into being through an unstable conjunction of the requisite circumstances, and cease to be through disjunction of these same circumstances: Their intrinsic nature is like a bundle of hollow reeds.”[30]

This insight leads Snyder to quote Dogen, in saying, “in his funny cryptic way … ’whoever told people that ‘Mind’ means thoughts, opinions, ideas, and concepts? Mind means trees, fence posts, tiles, and grasses.’”[31] Buddhism allows Snyder to see human mind in nature, and nature in the human mind. And it provides an alternative philosophical framework for deep ecologists disillusioned with the West.

Deep Ecology

The rising hills, the slopes, of statistics lie before us. the steep climb of everything, going up,up, as we all go down.
In the next century or the one beyond that, they say, are valleys, pastures, we can meet there in peace if we make it.
To climb these coming crests one word to you, to you and your children: stay together learn the flowers go light

“For the Children,” Turtle Island [32]

Arne Naess coined the term deep ecology in his 1973 article, ‘The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movements.’[33] According to Sessions and Devall, “Naess was attempting to describe the deeper, more spiritual approach to Nature exemplified in the writings of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. He thought that this deeper approach resulted from a more sensitive openness to ourselves and nonhuman life around us. The essence of deep ecology is to keep asking more searching questions about human life, society, and nature as in the Western philosophical tradition of Socrates.”[34] Deep ecology had a major influence on the Earth First! Movement in the 1980s and 90s, and today has helped shape the perspectives of Primitivists and anti-civilization advocates.[35] Deep ecology, in addition to drawing from Buddhism, Taoism, and Native American traditions, also draws from Western philosophy, what it calls the ‘minority tradition.’ This includes the anarchists Peter Kropotkin and Murray Bookchin and “such diverse individuals as Thomas Jefferson, Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie and Carl Sandburg, as well as Paul Goodman, and in the novels of Ursula LaGuin,” among others. [36]

The Western philosopher that most impresses Sessions is Spinoza. For Sessions, “Spinoza’s metaphysics is a conceptualization of the idea of unity; there can be only one Substance or non-dualism which is infinite, and this Substance is also God or Nature. What we experience as the mental and the physical have no separate metaphysical reality, but rather are aspects or attributes of this one Substance. Individual things, such as Mt. Everest, humans, trees, and chipmunks, are temporary expressions of the continual flux of God/Nature/Substance.”[37] For Sessions, Spinoza’s position here echoes the insights of Buddhism. Sessions points to the Norwegian philosopher Jon Wetlesen’s “meticulous comparison of Spinozism and the ways of enlightenment of Mahayana Buddhism” to support his claims. [38]

Deep ecology developed as a critique within the environmental movement confronting what were seen as the reformist shortcomings of mainstream environmental activists. Mainstream environmental organizations are criticized by deep ecologists for sharing an industrial paradigm with polluters. Snyder says the debate “within environmental circles is between those who operate from a human-centered resource management mentality and those whose values reflect an awareness of the integrity of the whole of nature. The latter position, that of deep ecology, is politically livelier, more courageous, more convivial, riskier, and more scientific.”[39] For Sessions and Devall, “deep ecology goes beyond a limited piecemeal shallow approach to environmental problems and attempts to articulate a comprehensive religious and philosophical worldview.” They site the Australian philosopher, Warwick Fox, who “expressed the central intuition of deep ecology: ‘It is the idea that we can make no firm ontological divide in the field of existence: That there is no bifurcation in reality between the human and the non-human realms…to the extent that we perceive boundaries, we fall short of deep ecological consciousness.”[40] It is this lack of differentiation between the human and the non-human, between humans and nature, which is one of social ecologists many problems with deep ecology.

Social Ecology vs. Deep Ecology

Fifteen years passed. In the eighties With my lover I went where the roads end. Walked the hills for a day, looked out where it all drops away, discovered a path of carved stone inscriptions tucked into the sagebrush
“Stomp out greed” “The best things in life are not things”
words placed by an old sage.

from “Finding the Space in the Heart,” Mountains and Rivers without End [41]

Social ecology’s fundamental premise is that the ecological crisis is rooted in the social crisis, and that social hierarchies lead to the attempt to dominate nature. Therefore, according to Bookchin, in order to solve the ecological crisis, we must resolve the social crisis, which leads some humans to dominate others. Thus the ecological crisis is rooted in a class-based, hierarchical, patriarchical society.

The failure to make a distinction between human and non-human nature, and the general tendency to emphasize ‘oneness’ is a chief concern of social ecologists in their debates with deep ecologists. As Janet Biehl and Murray Bookchin argue, “Deep ecology…views first nature, in the abstract, as a ‘cosmic oneness,’ which bears striking similarities to otherworldly concepts common to Asian religions. In concrete terms, it views first nature as ‘wilderness,’ a concept that by definition means nature essentially separated from human beings and hence ‘wild.’ Both notions are notable for their static and anticivilizational character.” Biehl and Bookchin continue, arguing, “Deep ecologists emphasize an ungraded, nonevolutionary continuity between human and nonhuman nature, to the point of outright denial of a boundary between adaptive animality and innovative humanity.” [42]

Murray Bookchin was undoubtedly deep ecology’s leading critic in the 1980s, when this nature philosophy was gaining traction within the emergent Green movement. In 1987, at the first national gathering of the Greens, Bookchin launched his first polemic, entitled “Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement.” Bookchin was addressing the new movement which was “looking for an ecological approach, one that is rooted in an ecological philosophy, ethics, sensibility, and image of nature, and ultimately for an ecological movement that will transform our domineering market society into a nonhierarchical cooperative society — a society that will live in harmony with nature because its members live in harmony with one another.”[43] Bookchin proposes social ecology, a view he began to develop in the early 1960s. [44]

Bookchin viewed the differences between social and deep ecology as being of the utmost importance, saying that they “consist not only of quarrels with regard to theory, sensibility, and ethics. They have far-reaching practical and political consequences. They concern not only the way we view nature, or humanity; or even ecology, but how we propose to change society and by what means.”[45] Bookchin brings a Left perspective, and a social orientation to ecological issues.

Rather than taking on deep ecology through an imminent critique in which he would explore deep ecology from the inside out, drawing out its implications to show its limitations, Bookchin chose a polemical approach, taking deep ecology head on, in a polarizing fashion. Bookchin’s approach presented two starkly different nature philosophies, one (his) leading to human liberation and reconciliation with nature, and the other (deep) leading to a wishy-washy kind of liberal reformism at best, and eco-fascism at worst.[46] This style of debate led Snyder to say that Bookchin “writes like a Stalinist thug.”[47] Yet Bookchin raised many essential issues confronting deep ecology. For instance he criticized Edward Abbey, a revered figure to members of Earth First!, for the racism of his views on non-European immigrants, however couched in ecological terms they were; he denounced a writer in the Earth First! journal who, using the pseudonym ‘Miss Ann Thropy’ welcomed the AIDS virus as a necessary population control (along with “war, famine, humiliating poverty”]; and he took on Dave Foreman, at the time an Earth First! spokesman and de facto leader, who said in an interview that, “the worst thing we could do in Ethiopia is to give aid — the best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let the people there just starve.”[48] However polarizing Bookchin’s debate style was, he raised essential problems with many positions taken by deep ecologists. The lack of a social analysis, informed by the values of the left, lead many prominent proponents of deep ecology to embrace profoundly racist political positions. While Snyder did not support these views, nor did he publicly condemn them, largely staying out of the fight.

One of Bookchin’s central philosophical problems with deep ecology is both its tendency not to make distinctions within human society, to blame ‘humanity’ in general rather than specific human rulers for instance, but also its ahistoricism:

“Deep ecology contains no history of the emergence of society out of nature, a crucial development that brings social theory into organic contact with ecological theory. It presents no explanation of — indeed, it reveals no interest in — the emergence of hierarchy out of society…in short, the highly graded social as well as ideological development that gets to the roots of the ecological problem in the social domination of women by men and of men by other men, ultimately giving rise to the notion of dominating nature in the first place.”[49]

This observation leads Bookchin to accuse deep ecology as viewing nature as being what one sees looking through a ‘picture window.’ He argues that deep ecologists maintain a strong distinction between humans and nature, between the city and “the wild.”

Political theorist Tim Luke engages in a more sympathetic, imminent critique than does Bookchin. Yet he arrives at many of the same conclusions concerning deep ecology’s flaws. Luke writes, “Nature in deep ecology simply becomes a new transcendent identical subject-object to redeem humanity. By projecting selfhood into Nature, humans are to be saved by finding their self-maturation and spiritual growth in it…Nature, then, becomes ecosophical humanity’s alienated self-understanding, partly reflected back to itself and selectively perceived as self-realization, rediscovered in biospheric processes.”[50] But what of Snyder, the appointed poet laureate of deep ecology? Does he share the views of other deep ecologists such as Sessions and Devall?

Nature/The Wild/Wilderness

We look to the future with pleasure we need no fossil fuel get
power within grow strong on less.

from “Tomorrow’s Song,” Turtle Island [51]

In contrast to other proponents of deep ecology, in which nature is a static concept, outside of human culture, Snyder’s views are far more nuanced. When speaking of nature, Snyder proposes three categories: nature, the wild, and wilderness. Bookchin and Snyder would be in agreement in defining nature. Bookchin, drawing from Hegel, sees human culture as a second nature, as nature rendered self-conscious.[52] Thus both humans and the non-human are an expression of nature. Similarly for Snyder, nature is “the physical universe and all its properties.”[53] The second category is the wild, which is the organic process and essence of nature. The wild is the ongoing process of the evolution of nature. Finally wilderness is that aspect of nature which exists outside of the human world. Wilderness “is simply topos — its areas where the process is dominant.”[54]

Human society is an expression of nature; it is natural; “we can say that New York City and Tokyo are ‘natural’ but not ‘wild.’”[55] So there is nothing unnatural about New York City, “or toxic wastes, or atomic energy, and nothing — by definition — that we do or experience in life is ‘unnatural.’”[56] Thus, for Snyder, “civilization is part of nature…our body is a vertebrate mammal being.”[57] In contrast to civilization, wilderness “is a part of the physical world that is largely free of human agency. Wild nature is most endangered by human greed or carelessness. ‘Wild’ is a valuable word. It refers to the process or condition of nature on its own, without human intervention. It is a process, a condition, not a place. ‘The wilds’ is a place where wild process dominates.”[58]

We thus have nature, which includes human culture, and the wilderness, which is outside of human society. And we have the wild, which is a complex process of becoming. For Snyder, “‘ecology’ is a valuable shorthand term for complexity in motion.”[59] Humans can become more wild by getting in touch with non-human nature. By spending time in the wilderness, discovering aspects of themselves outside of human culture, humans can reconnect with their biological selves, better understanding their place in the world.

Snyder’s view of nature is neither romantic nor one-dimensional. Having spent a great deal of time hiking trials, and working as a fire lookout for months at a time deep in the wilderness, Snyder has developed a healthy appreciation for the complexity of the natural world: “Life in the world is not just eating berries in the sunlight. I like to imagine a depth ecology that would go to the dark side of nature, the ball of crunched bones in a scat, the feathers in the snow, the tales of insatiable appetite.” Hence, for Snyder, in addition to being beautiful, fecund, and alive, wild nature is “also nocturnal, anaerobic, cannibalistic, microscopic, digestive, fermentative, cooking away in the warm dark.”[60]

Snyder’s multi-dimensional definition of nature, and his three categories, brings an interesting perspective to discussion of the ecological crisis, in which toxic waste, industrial pollution, and the continuing emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere threaten human life. In this context, Snyder points out that “nature is ultimately in no way endangered; wilderness is.”[61]

The War Against the Wild

And when humanity is laid out like coal somewhere some earnest geologist will note them in his notebook.

from “The Politicians,” The Back Country[62]

Snyder’s insights concerning wilderness and human society’s destruction of it come at a critical time in human evolution. Since the industrial revolution the capitalist mode of production has been polluting the air, land and water at an alarming rate. The problems of deforestation, water and air pollution and chemicals in the food supply may only be overshadowed by the effects of catastrophic climate change. The increasing presence of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, in the atmosphere threaten to raise global temperatures by as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century if business as usual continues. At this date, rather than reducing emissions, capitalism is in fact increasing them. This will truly be disastrous for humanity, affecting the southern hemisphere more than the northern, but wrecking civilizations across the globe.[63] Snyder speaks to the starkness of the situation: “What we are witnessing in the world today is an unparalleled waterfall of destruction of a diversity of human cultures; plant species; animal species, of the richness of the biosphere and the millions of years of organic evolution that have gone into it.”[64]

Like social ecology, which links the domination of humans by humans with the attempt to dominate nature, Snyder draws a similar parallel: “A society that treats its natural surroundings in a harsh and exploitative way will do the same to ‘other’ people. Nature and human ethics are not unconnected. The growing expansion of ecological consciousness translates into a deeper understanding of interconnectedness in both nature and history, and we have developed a far more sophisticated grasp of cause and effect relationships.”[65]

Bookchin implores the ecological movement to examine the nature of hierarchy in society, and to explore dominant power relations in order to understand the root causes of ecological destruction. He is quick to point out that it is not science or technology per se that is the problem. Snyder concurs, calling these things “straw men,” and asks the question, “Who is being served by them?” He answers, “A small number of owners who have centralized it, production, the banks, and even the government so to speak.” Like Bookchin’s advocacy of a libertarian technology, one that serves human needs in harmony with nature, Snyder asks if it is possible to have a “technology that is bioregionally appropriate and serves the needs of the people at the same time?” Snyder offers the opinion that a libertarian technology “would have developed considerably longer ago if it had not been to the disadvantage of centralized economies to explore solar technologies…A decentralized energy technology could set us free. It’s only the prevailing economic and government policies that block us from exploring that further. There is a people’s technology.”[66] A ‘peoples’ technology’ would serve human needs, rather than corporate profit. For Snyder, the centralization of power is a central problem. The decentralization of energy production would shift power back to the people from the hands of corporations. A ‘people’s technology’ would also work with, rather than against, the processes of the natural world.

In contrast to many advocates of deep ecology who, as Luke points out, mostly want to preserve nature for field trips, with deep ecology “a philosophy for properly outfitted mountain climbers, backpackers, and field biologists,”[67] advocates of environmental justice, those who advance the interests of the poor, would find an ally in Snyder. According to Snyder:

“environmental concerns and politics have spread worldwide. In some countries the focus is almost entirely on human health and welfare issues. It is proper that the range of the movement should run from wildlife to urban health. But there can be no health for humans and cities that bypasses the rest of nature. A properly radical environmental position is in no way anti-human. We grasp the pain of the human condition in its full complexity, and add the awareness of how desperately endangered certain key species and habitats have become.”[68]

Thus the attempt to separate the concerns of the city from those of the wild must be fought. As Snyder points out, “it’s all one front ultimately. It only serves the interests of the industrial capitalist cancer to have people think it’s two fronts, that environment is white people’s concern and jobs poor people’s and black people’s concern…The natural world, as anyone should see, is being ripped off, exploited, and oppressed just as our brothers and sisters in the human realm are being exploited and oppressed.”[69] Thus Snyder joins social concerns with the effort to stop the destruction of the natural world.

Bioregionalism and Reinhabitation

September heat. The Watershed Institute meets, planning more work with the B.L.M. And we have visitors from China, Forestry guys, who want to see how us locals are doing with our plan. Editorials in the paper are against us, a botanist is looking at rare plants in the marsh.

from “What to Tell, Still,” danger on peaks [70]

As we have seen, Snyder is a critic of the State. But what would he propose to replace this mode of social organization? For Snyder, and the larger bioregional movement in general, the answer is obvious: the bioregion. A bioregion is an area defined by its natural boundaries, and is “posited on the idea that the human community is only one of the communities on any given part of the planet, and that the other communities — plant life, animal life, mineral life — inside the landscape with its watershed divisions, its soil types, its annual rainfall, its temperature extremes, all of that constitutes a biome, an ecosystem, or, as they like to say, a natural nation.”[71] In getting to know one’s bioregion, one can better understand the natural context within which we live. We can learn where our water comes from, where our waste goes, and how best to live within our surroundings. For Snyder, “the ethics or morality of this is far more subtle than merely being nice to squirrels.”[72] This is a huge undertaking, and is the task that awaits us: “We haven’t discovered North America yet. People live on it without knowing what it is or where they are. They live on it literally like invaders. You know whether or not a person knows where he is by whether or not he knows the plants. By whether or not he knows what the soils and waters do.”[73] In contrast to being stewards of the land, understanding where we really are, in Americans, Snyder sees “a nation of fossil fuel junkies, very sweet people and the best hearts in the world. But nonetheless fossil fuel junkies of tremendous mobility zapping back and forth, who are still caught on the myth of the frontier, the myth of boundless resources and a vision of perpetual materialistic growth.”[74] Reorganizing society along bioregional lines alone is not enough. We would also need to incorporate social ecology’s emphasis on confronting human forms of domination, such as racism, sexism, and hetero-patriarchy, for this to really approximate a libratory alternative to the State. History is littered with examples of cultures which were bioregionally defined, but which maintained internal hierarchies and forms of domination.

Many so called Primitivists such as John Zerzan advocate for a return to hunter-gatherer societies to solve the problems of civilization and reconcile humans’ relationship with nature. Snyder advocates learning from primitive cultures. Quoting the economic anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, he says that “the upper Paleolithic was the original affluent society, and (Sahlins) estimates that they worked an average of 15 hours a week…There is no class of landless paupers in primitive culture. Landless paupers belong to civilization.”[75] In an echo of the myth of the fall from grace, Snyder sites the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who “says that civilization has been in a long decline since the Neolithic,”[76] but he believes that “we cannot again have seamless primitive cultures, or the purity of the archaic, (but) we can have neighborhood and community.”[77] In response to criticisms, and in contrast to other advocates of Primitivism, Snyder says, “It isn’t really a main thrust in my argument or anyone else’s I know that we should go backward.”[78] But how do we move forward?

Ecologizing the Dialectic

Chairman Mao, you should quit smoking. Dont bother those philosophers Build dams, plant trees, dont kill flies by hand. Marx was another westerner. It’s all in the head. You dont need the bomb. stick to farming. Write some poems. Swim the river. those blue overalls are great. Dont shoot me, let’s go drinking. Just Wait.

from “To The Chinese Comrades,” The Back Country[79]

For Snyder, the bringing together of social and ecological concerns is the best way to address the ecological crisis: to understand the roots of the destruction of wilderness in the hierarchies inherent in capitalist, patriarchical culture. For Snyder this means “supporting any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless world.”[80] Marxists, and leftists generally, understand the divisions within human society, but often fail when addressing ecological issues. For Snyder, this is because they “have been unable to bring themselves to think of the natural world as part of the dialectic of exploitation; they have been human-centered — drawing the line at exploitation of the working class.” Snyder believes that his “small contribution to radical dialectic is to extend it to animals, plants: indeed, to the whole of life.”[81] In addition to not understanding the import of ecological issues, and of the necessity of developing an ecological consciousness, Marxists have also fallen short in their appreciation for so called primitive peoples. For Snyder, “Marxists, granted the precision of their critique on most points, often have a hard time thinking clearly about primitive cultures, and the usual tendency is to assume that they should become civilized.”[82] Rather than primitive peoples becoming civilized, Snyder advocates that civilized people learn from the wisdom of the “non-civilized.”

Snyder says that when he first went to college, he felt a contradiction being a member of a society that was destroying “its own ground.” This led him to a lengthy political analysis, and “the discovery of Marxist thought.” While recognizing that capitalism is a large part of the problem of the destruction of non-human nature, believing as he does that “pollution is somebody’s profit,”[83] Snyder thinks there is more to it than that: “For a long time I thought it was only capitalism that went wrong. Then I got into American Indian studies and at school majored predominantly in anthropology and got close to some American Indian elders. I began to perceive that maybe it was all of Western culture that was off the track and not just capitalism — that there were certain self-destructive tendencies in our cultural tradition.” This led him to study the traditions of Native Americans, to Japan to study Buddhism, and ultimately to go ‘back to the land,’ reinhabiting the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.[84] It also led him to a lifetime of critiquing contemporary society, advocating the development of an ecological consciousness, and to try and change society. Since human activity can in fact change social relations, we have a responsibility to act. Even the most seemingly innocent activity can make a difference: “Without knowing it, little old ladies in tennis shoes who work to save whooping cranes are enemies of the state.”[85]

In contrast to Western critics of Buddhism and Asian philosophies in general, including Bookchin, who say that these worldviews lead to a passive acceptance of the way things are and a kind of quietism, Snyder posits that “to act responsibly in the world doesn’t mean that you always stand back and let things happen: you play an active part, which means making choices, running risks, and karmically dirtying you hands to some extent. That’s what the Bodhisattva ideal is all about.”[86]

Part of getting his ‘hands dirty’ has involved being on the California Arts Council, shaping policy for the arts in California, and doing local ecological organizing, including the unglamorous work of arguing in city council meetings: “I’ve spent years arguing the dialectic, but it’s another thing to go to supervisors’ meetings and deal with the establishment, to be right in the middle of whatever is happening right here, rather than waiting for a theoretical alternative government to come along.”[87]

All this is in sharp contrast to Luke’s criticism of deep ecology as being “in the last analysis (a form of) ‘utopian ecologism.’ As a utopia, it presents alluring moral visions of what might be; at the same time, it fails to outline practicable means for realizing these ecologically moral visions.”[88] While this may be true for the deep ecology of Sessions and Devall, who advocate an incoherent ensemble of consciousness change, reformism, and “direct action” to reconcile our relation to the rest of nature, Snyder is quite explicit about the need to replace capitalism as an economic system, the State as a form of social organization, and to reintegrate humans into their natural environment. He advocates developing a new sense of human community, extending the notion of community to the non-human, and reinhabiting the land along bioregional lines. As Snyder states:

“Whatever sense of ethical responsibility and concern that human beings can muster must be translated from a human-centered consciousness to a natural-systems-wide sense of value. First, simply because such a bighearted sense of the world seems right, but also to help avert the potential destruction of even the very processes that sustain most life on earth…Such an extension of human intellect and sympathy into the nonhuman realms is a charming and mind-bending undertaking. It is also an essential step if we are to have a future worth living. It was hinted at in our ancient past, and could, if accomplished, be the culminating human moral and aesthetic achievement.”[89]

The danger, as Luke points out, is that “to evoke such religious outlooks in post-industrial America, on one level, may promote maturity and forsaking consumerist illusions.” But on another level, it can provide “an ineffectual opiate for the masses as their current material standard of living disappears in deep ecological reforms.”[90] To counter this danger, we need a revolutionary movement with a social consciousness, a clear understanding of what we are up against, and the will to radically restructure and transform society from the ground up. Snyder advocates utilizing “civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty, and even gentle violence if it comes to a matter of restraining some impetuous redneck,”[91] to bring about a new society. As Snyder’s life and philosophy point out, drawing as it does from Zen, bioregionalism, and social anarchism, nothing short of this will solve the deep ecological crisis we find ourselves in. Exemplifying the best of both social ecology, with its commitment to ending social domination to halt humanity’s destruction of wild nature, and deep ecology, drawing as it does from Asian philosophies such as Buddhism and Daoism, Native American traditions, and the examples of primary peoples, Snyder is positioned perfectly to help us achieve the seemingly impossible task of harmonizing our relationship with the rest of nature before it is too late.

Paul Messersmith-Glavin is a member of the Institute for Anarchist Studies and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, its journal collective. He is a long-time organizer, a former member of the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation, the Parasol Climate Collective, the Hella 503 Collective, and a Wobbly. He wrote the forward to Imperiled Life: Organizing Against Climate Catastrophe (IAS/AK Press, 2012), by Javier Castro.


Biehl, Janet and Murray Bookchin, “Theses on Social Ecology and Deep Ecology,” Left Green Perspectives, No. 33 (October 1995).
Bookchin, Murray, Our Synthetic Environment, New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
Bookchin, Murray, “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought,” Post-Scarcity Anarchism. Berkeley: Ramparts Press, 1971.
Bookchin, Murray, “Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement,” Green Perspectives: Newsletter of the Green Program Project, Nos. 4–5 (Summer, 1987).
Bookchin, Murray and Dave Foreman, Defending the Earth: A Dialogue Between Murray Bookchin and Dave Foreman. Boston: South End Press, 1999.
Bookchin, Murray, The Philosophy of Social Ecology, New York: Black Rose Books, 1990.
Devall, Bill and George Sessions, Deep Ecology: Living As If Nature Mattered. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Book, 1985.
Ebenkamp, Paul, ed., The Etiquette of Freedom: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, and The Practice of the Wild. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010.
Fox, Warwick, “Deep Ecology: A New Philosophy of Our Time?” The Ecologist, V. 14, 5–6, (1984).
Huntington, Jr., C.W., The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Madhyamika. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.
IPCC , “Contributions of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,”, Geneva, Switzerland, (2007).
Kerouac, Jack, The Dharma Bums. New York City: The Viking Press, 1958.
Luke, Tim, “The Dreams of Deep Ecology,” Telos, No. 76 (Summer 1988).
McQuinn, Jason, “Why I am not a Primitivist,”
Naess, Arne, “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movements.” Inquiry, 16 (1973).
Sethness, Javier, “Atmospheric Dialectics: A Critical Theory of Climate Change,” Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Vol. 12., No. 2 (Fall, 2010).
Sipchen, Bob, “Ecology’s Family Feud: Murray Bookchin Turns up the Volume on a Noisy Debate,” Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1989.
Gary Snyder, The Back Country (New York City: New Directions, 1968.
Gary Snyder, Earth House Hold, (New York: New Directions Books, 1969.
Gary Snyder, Turtle Island (New York City: New Directions Books, 1974.
Gary Snyder, The Old Ways (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1977.
Gary Snyder, The Real Work: Interviews and Talks 1964–1979 (New York City: New Directions Books, 1980.
Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (San Fransisco: North Point Press, 1990.
Gary Snyder, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds (Washigton, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1995.
Gary Snyder, Mountains and Rivers Without End (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1996.
Gary Snyder, danger on peaks (Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker Hoard, 2004.
Gary Snyder, Back on the Fire (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2007.


[1] Jann Garitty, Assistant to Gary Snyder, e-mail message to author, October 29th, 2010.
[2] Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (New York City: The Viking Press, 1958).
[3] Gary Snyder, Turtle Island (New York City: New Directions Books, 1974), 75.
[4] Gary Snyder, The Old Ways (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1977), 15.
[5] Snyder, The Old Ways, 16.
[6] Snyder, The Real Work: Interviews and Talks 1964–1979 (New York City: New Directions Books, 1980), 101.
[7] Snyder, Turtle Island, 87.
[8] Snyder, Turtle Island
[9] Snyder, The Real Work, 171.
[10] Snyder, The Real Work, 70.
[11] Snyder, The Real Work, 72.
[12] Snyder, The Real Work, 65 (emphasis in original). The concept of ‘original true mind’ (honshin in Japanese) is central to Zen.
[13] Snyder, The Real Work, 64 and 65 (emphasis in original).
[14] Snyder is obviously well read, and works in the medium of intellectual expression. His point here is that we should not take ourselves too seriously, and it is important to take a step back from reading and writing to better understand ourselves.
[15] Snyder, The Real Work, 67.
[16] Gary Snyder, Back on the Fire (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2007), 44.
[17] Snyder, The Old Ways, 15.
[18] Snyder, The Old Ways, 21.
[19] Gary Snyder, Mountains and Rivers Without End (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1996), 10.
[20] Snyder, The Real Work, 94 and 95.
[21] Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology: Living As If Nature Mattered (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Book, 1985), 100.
[22] Devall and Sessions, 83.
[23] C.W. Huntington, Jr. The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Madhyamika (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989), 87.
[24] Snyder, The Real Work, 176.
[25] Snyder, The Real Work, 15.
[26] Snyder, The Real Work, 16.
[27] Snyder, The Real Work, 153.
[28] Snyder, The Real Work, 177.
[29] Gary Snyder, Earth House Hold, (New York: New Directions Books, 1969), 92.
[30] Huntington Jr., p. 91
[31] Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (San Fransisco: North Point Press, 1990), 20.
[32] Snyder, Turtle Island, 86.
[33] Arne Naess, “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movements.” Inquiry, 16 (1973).
[34] Devall and Sessions, 65.
[35] Jason McQuinn, “Why I am not a Primitivist,”
[36] Devall and Sessions, 18. While pointing to this list of sometimes contradictory authors as a source of inspiration, Devall and Sessions do not really integrate their thoughts into a coherent philosophy.
[37] Devall and Sessions, 238.
[38] Ibid.
[39] Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, 181.
[40] Devall and Sessions, 66, quoting Warwick Fox, “Deep Ecology: A New Philosophy of Our Time?” The Ecologist, V. 14, 5–6, 1984. Devall and Sessions both deny an ontological division between the human and the non-human and, at the same time, posit nature as distinct from the human realm, as being ‘out there.’
[41] Snyder, Mountains and Rivers without End, 150.
[42] Janet Biehl and Murray Bookchin, “Theses on Social Ecology and Deep Ecology,” Left Green Perspectives, No. 33 (October 1995), 1.
[43] Murray Bookchin, “Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement,” Green Perspectives: Newsletter of the Green Program Project, Nos. 4–5 (Summer, 1987).
[44] Murray Bookchin, Our Synthetic Environment, (New York: Harper and Row, 1962 and “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought,” Post-Scarcity Anarchism, (Berkeley: Ramparts Press, 1971).
[45] Bookchin, “Social Ecology Versus Deep Ecology,” 3.
[46] Bookchin, “Social Ecology Versus Deep Ecology,” 5.
[47] Bob Sipchen, “Ecology’s Family Feud: Murray Bookchin Turns up the Volume on a Noisy Debate,” Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1989, p. 1.
[48] Murray Bookchin and Dave Foreman, Defending the Earth: A Dialogue Between Murray Bookchin and Dave Foreman, (Boston: South End Press, 1999), 123 -124. The author writing under the pseudonym Miss Ann Thropy is reported to be Chistropher Manes.
[49] Bookchin and Foreman, 9.
[50] Tim Luke, “The Dreams of Deep Ecology,” Telos, No. 76 (Summer 1988), 81.
[51] Snyder, Turtle Island, 77.
[52] Murray Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology, (New York: Black Rose Books, 1990).
[53] Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, 9
[54] Paul Ebenkamp, ed., The Etiquette of Freedom: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, and The Practice of the Wild, (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010), 73.
[55] Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, 11.
[56] Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, 8.
[57] Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, 181 — 182.
[58] Snyder, Back on the Fire, 25, 26.
[59] Snyder, Back on the Fire, 31.
[60] Ebenkamp, 77.
[61] Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, 181.
[62] Gary Snyder, The Back Country (New York City: New Directions, 1968), 145.
[63] “Contributions of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 2007. and Javier Sethness, “Atmospheric Dialectics: A Critical Theory of Climate Change,” Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Vol. 12., No. 2 (Fall, 2010).
[64] Snyder, The Old Ways, 17.
[65] Snyder, Back on the Fire, 23.
[66] Snyder, The Real Work, 147.
[67] Luke, 86.
[68] Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, 181.
[69] Snyder, The Real Work, 144,145.
[70] Gary Snyder, danger on peaks (Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker Hoard, 2004), 41.
[71] Ebenkamp, 42.
[72] Snyder, The Old Ways, 63.
[73] Snyder, The Real Work, 69.
[74] Snyder, The Real Work, 9.
[75] Snyder, The Old Ways, 34.
[76] Snyder, The Old Ways, 61.
[77] Snyder, The Real Work, 161.
[78] Snyder, The Real Work, 111.
[79] Snyder, The Back Country, 114.
[80] Snyder, Earth House Hold, 92.
[81] Snyder, The Real Work, 130.
[82] Snyder, The Old Ways, 25.
[83] Snyder, A Place in Space 36.
[84] Snyder, The Real Work, 94.
[85] Snyder, The Real Work, 160.
[86] Snyder, The Real Work, 107.
[87] Snyder, The Real Work, 117.
[88] Luke, 90.
[89] Gary Snyder, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds (Washigton, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1995), 210.
[90] Luke, 79.
[91] Snyder, Earth House Hold, 92.
This essay originally appeared in The Philosophy of the Beats, Sharin Elkholy (Editor), on the University Press of Kentucky (2012).



After Work

The shack and a few trees
float in the blowing fog

I pull out your blouse,
warm my cold hands
on your breasts.
you laugh and shudder
peeling garlic by the
hot iron stove.
bring in the axe, the rake,
the wood

we’ll lean on the wall
against each other
stew simmering on the fire
as it grows dark
drinking wine.

Gary Snider


Axe Handles

One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
the pattern is not far off.”
And I say this to Kai
“Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with—”
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s We Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay on Literature”; in the
Preface: “In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.”
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.

Gary Snider



For the Children

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

Gary Snyder


Finding the Space in the Heart

I first saw it in the sixties,

driving a Volkswagen camper

with a fierce gay poet and a

lovely but dangerous girl with a husky voice,

we came down from Canada

on the dry east side of the ranges. Grand Coulee, Blue

Mountains, lava flow caves,

the Alvord desert—pronghorn ranges—

and the glittering obsidian-paved

dirt track toward Vya,

seldom-seen roads late September and

thick frost at dawn; then

follow a canyon and suddenly open to

         silvery flats that curved over the edge

         O, ah! The

         awareness of emptiness

         {{brings forth a heart of compassion!

We followed the rim of the playa

to a bar where the roads end

and over a pass into Pyramid Lake

from the Smoke Creek side,

by the ranches of wizards

who follow the tipi path.

The next day we reached San Francisco

in a time when it seemed

the world might head a new way.

And again, in the seventies, back from

Montana, I recklessly pulled off the highway

took a dirt track onto the flats,

got stuck—scared the kids—slept the night,

and the next day sucked free and went on.

Fifteen years passed. In the eighties

With my lover I went where the roads end.

Walked the hills for a day,

looked out where it all drops away,

discovered a path

of carved stone inscriptions tucked into the sagebrush

         “Stomp out greed”

         “The best things in life are not things”

words placed by an old desert sage.

Faint shorelines seen high on these slopes,

long gone Lake Lahontan,

cutthroat trout spirit in silt—

Columbian Mammoth bones

four hundred feet up on the wave-etched

         beach ledge; curly-horned

                   desert sheep outlines pecked into the rock,

and turned the truck onto the playa

heading for know-not,

bone-gray dust boiling and billowing,

mile after mile, trackless and featureless,

let the car coast to a halt

on the crazed cracked

flat hard face where

winter snow spirals, and

summer sun bakes like a kiln.

Off nowhere, to be or not be,

         all equal, far reaches, no bounds.

         Sound swallowed away

         no waters, no mountains, no

         bush no grass and

                   because no grass

         no shade but your shadow.

         No flatness because no not-flatness.

         No loss, no gain. So—

         nothing in the way!

        —the ground is the sky

         the sky is the ground,

         no place between, just

         wind-whip breeze,

         tent-mouth leeward,

         time being here.

         We meet heart to heart,

         leg hard-twined to leg,

                   with a kiss that goes to the bone.

         Dawn sun comes straight in the eye. The tooth

         of a far peak called King Lear.

Now in the nineties desert night

        —my lover’s my wife—

old friends, old trucks, drawn around;

great arcs of kids on bikes out there in darkness

         no lights—just planet Venus glinting

by the calyx crescent moon,

and tasting grasshoppers roasted in a pan.

         They all somehow swarm down here—

         sons and daughters in the circle

         eating grasshoppers grimacing,

singing s?tras for the insects in the wilderness,

—the wideness, the

foolish loving spaces

full of heart.

         Walking on walking,

                   under foot   earth turns

         Streams and mountains never stay the same.

                             The space goes on.

                             But the wet black brush

                             tip drawn to a point,

                                      lifts away.

                                                           Marin-an 1956—Kitkitdizze 1996

Gary Snider




Lay down these words

Before your mind like rocks.

             placed solid, by hands

In choice of place, set

Before the body of the mind

             in space and time:

Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall

             riprap of things:

Cobble of milky way,

             straying planets,

These poems, people,

             lost ponies with

Dragging saddles—

             and rocky sure-foot trails.

The worlds like an endless


Game of Go.

             ants and pebbles

In the thin loam, each rock a word

             a creek-washed stone

Granite: ingrained

             with torment of fire and weight

Crystal and sediment linked hot

             all change, in thoughts,

As well as things.

Gary Snyder

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