Food for /and Thought

Here is the first sentence of the “Preface” to a reprint of Masanobu Fukuoka’s 1978 book The One Straw Revolution by Wendell Berry

Readers who expect this to be a book only about farming will be surprised to find that it is also a book about diet, about health, about cultural values, about the limits of human knowledge.

As you will understand having spent the good part of a week reading Berry’s essays, the surprise, as Berry notes, is really a product of modern habitual expectations of writers as specialists and books about a singular subject. Berry notes that many of the practical farming strategies are not directly applicable to most North American farms. However, he recommends the book for a different reason:

Like many in this country, and sooner than most, Mr. Fukuoka has understood that we cannot isolate one aspect of life from another. When we change the way we grow our food, we change our food, we change society, we change our values. And so this book is about relationships, to causes and effects, and it is about being responsible for what one knows.

This description of Fukuoka’s thinking animates the essays we are reading in The Unsettling of America. 

fall garlic planting. photo credit Mark C. Long

Here are a few selected passages from The One Straw Revolution that may be useful for you as you continue thinking and writing this week:

“When you think about it, everybody is familiar with the words “natural food.” but it is not clearly understood what natural food actually is. There many who feel that eating food which contains no artificial chemicals or additives is a natural diet, and there are others who think vaguely that a natural diet is eating foods just as they are found in nature.

If you ask whether use of fire and salt in cooking is natural or unnatural, one could answer either way. If the diet of the people of primitive times, eating only plants and animals living in their wild state, is “natural,” then a diet which uses salt and fire cannot be called natural. But if it is argued that the knowldege aquired in ancient times of using fire and salt was humanity’s natural destiny, then food prepared accordingly is perfectly natural.

Is food to which human techniques of preparation have been applied good, or should wild foods just as they are in nature be considered good? Can cultivated crops be said to be natural? Where do you draw the line between natural and unnatural?” (123)

 *

“Another problem is that spiritual and emotional values are entirely forgotten, even though foods are directly connected with human spirit and emotions. If the human being is viewed merely as a physiological object, it is impossible to produce a coherent understanding of diet. When bits and pieces of information are collected and brought together in confusion, the result is an imperfect diet which draws away from nature” (141).

 *

“The prime consideration is for a person to develop the sensitivity to allow the body to choose food by itself. Thinking only about the foods themselves and leaving the spirit aside, is like making visits to the temple, reading the sutras, and leaving Buddha on the outside. Rather than studying philosophical theory to reach an understanding of food, it is better to arrive at a theory from within one’s daily diet” (146).

Thoughts on Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island.

Imagine, our home continent, North America, built on the back of the giant turtle. It is quite a thought. Brings to mind images of a giant beast, laying dormant as an entire host of species live and thrive on its back. Would the turtle still be alive? Most likely not, as our treatment of this planet, especially the North American continent, has done more destruction to the natural world than aid it. But where do we cut our losses and attribute the damage to modern development, essential to all that we do as humans in this day and age? The descriptive and beautifully honest poems of Turtle Island help create another lens in which to view environmentalism, similar to that of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

Snyder’s book Turtle Island simplifies and intensifies the way in which we view our world. It draws more beautiful, articulate and abstract language to a subject with much room for description. One is challenged to think about their own life and the decisions that they may have made. The tone is constantly flowing and changing, showing a variety of themes without the straying of the message and major theme too much. Why do these poems matter? They matter because the message they convey is one of unity, not only on “Turtle Island”, but with the rest of our planet, Earth.

Personally, Environmentalism and its values are better understood when there is compromise present.  Seeking similarities instead of differences in method are key to progress as a whole. I believe Snyder addresses the social problems to show that true progress cannot be made if issues of inequality and prejudice still have power.  The political aspects of the poems are what truly gives these poems their bite, as Snyder’s personal bias shows that he will directly condemn those who violate and destroy nature and the organisms that make it up. The scenes described in the poems are usually of the betrayal of the natural relationship between man and beast, man, abusing his neighbor, using natural resources carelessly, without taking into consideration what might happen as a result of their action. The men who make these decisions are condemned for their actions, as the animals, plants and sometimes people cannot speak up for themselves. The men who act on behalf of the corporations are cast aside as simply uncaring and uninformed pawns in a much larger capitalist plot, their actions one part of a big machine that has been running consistently. 

7th Green

While I don’t believe the damage of pesticide use, logging and mono-crop farming was always foreseen, much better measures could have been taken to ensure the safety and stability of these practices at their given time. The malicious intent of destroying our natural world is certainly present in society today, but the knowledge of today’s scientific community acts as a conscience. Some of those made those mistakes in the past did it out of ignorance, a lack of knowledge of the true toxicity of these practices to Earth. The battle between logic and morals is apparent in the environmental field. When does one stop thinking about themselves in such a centralized way? I think it’s also important to note that future generations have been brought up with an understanding of environmentalism that was not available to previous generations.

The years of research and developments in the field allow students like myself to have an informed and unbiased opinion. This was not always the social norm, as before the nineteen-fifties and sixties, conforming was much more the norm for young people. Do as you’re told, and do it well, this view has left the most American people, who have grown to be independent in a variety of ways. Environmentalist views fall in line with this. Gary Snyder was a poet of the Beat Movement, was a free thinker and a voice for many of the young people reading into the environmentalist movement of that time. Reading his work now gives context to a growing movement that is running out of time to make real change occur. 

Ecological Crisis & It’s Receptacles

Examining the relationship between ecological crisis & character:

“I cannot think of any American whom I know or have heard of, who is not contributing in some way to destruction.” (Berry, 20)

Citing this simple quote might seem a bit lackluster to some, however I believe this possibly-obvious notion of collective guilt to be a fairly large linchpin in the predicament of attempting to find as many possible practical solutions as possible where the danger of the natural world is concerned. This understanding of both one’s singularity with regards to our earth’s ecological crises in conjunction with the plurality of the whole (when all can accomplish both the aforementioned singular grasp as well as the latter perspective) is imperative to create the kind of large-scale changes in everything from the small details of a household’s everyday living habits to more zoomed-out operations such as how large businesses and corporations deal with their undoubted amount of seemingly-useless waste products. When confronting ecological crises, one’s character is called into question inherently, however this individualistic means of perception simply won’t solve any problems. The only way to affect large scale change is to understand that through maintaining oneself as an environmentally responsible individual, as well as encouraging it among others.

The relationship between ecological crisis & agriculture:

“The genius of American farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it into neatly into two problems” (Berry, 67)

Here, Berry is speaking of the practices of farmers-gone-by when spreading large amounts of chemical manure across their lands; the solution being the creation of the manure (in thought) itself, and the problem then being the manure’s effect upon other portions of the property it was spread upon, such as the water supply, as well as the inherent dependence upon ‘large quantities of commercial fertilizer’ as a result of requiring it’s spread to begin with. This illustrates the relationship between ecological crises and agriculture through a temporal comparison between past practices and current problem-solving mechanisms, cleverly pointing out the complete and utter counter-productivity of others who’ve either simply missed the problem or weren’t aware of it enough to affect change regarding it.

The relationship between ecological crisis & culture:

“One of the fundamental interests of human culture is to impose this responsibility, to subject fertility to moral will.” (Berry, 140)

Through understanding fertility both within ourselves and among nature, with specific attention to nature’s state of being during ecological crises, one can come to a much deeper and more nuanced comprehension of the idea among both contexts. Berry’s analysis of culture as containing fertility and also inherently having to impose a will upon it gets directly at the crux of this issue; humanity’s seeming obsession with it’s own agency. While this idea in and of itself isn’t exactly detrimental to the environment or fertility among nature as well as humans, it does tend to be the engine through which humanity as a whole has landed itself upon many a slippery slope in the past. And so, it should be judged with careful consideration when assessing this relationship. Furthermore, the fact that this imposed will is that of a moral construct does at least appear to lessen one’s worries on the surface, with regards to the fate of the natural world. However when one then begins to consider the idea that this morality is merely a construct of humanity, and not exactly that of nature, its relevance is again called into question. When the vast majority of our instruments as a species exist so as to help orient ourselves with the natural world, we very rarely stop to question the reverse; what if the natural world wasn’t meant to or doesn’t care for our orientation with itself at all? What should we do then? Berry’s understanding of this innate contradiction between the human mind’s sentience and subsequent indecisiveness as well as nature’s intrinsic processes which appear to never falter in the slightest, at least when kept within their own system, serves to clarify this relationship thoroughly.

Reading Wendell Berry

“The good of the whole of Creation, the world and all its creatures together, is never a consideration because it is never thought of; our culture now simply lacks the means for thinking it” (22).

–Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

“Commercial conquest,” “exploitative economy,” the “exploitative mind,” the “mentality of exploitation,” “the industrial conquistador”—these descriptive terms in Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America tell a story about the economic and political system of which we are a part. But as Berry writes in the “Afterword to the Third Edition” of Unsettling, a number of people have disagreed with the argument of the book, though it has “never been answered, let alone disproved” (229). For as Berry tells the story, the rapacious trajectory of agribusiness, and the economic and political incentives that perpetuate what many have more recently called an unsustainable food system, has become more and more evident.

Berry’s interest is less in an ideology that has determined destructive agricultural practices (though he ably and polemically describes the origins and current manifestations of the ideology) and more in the foreshortened horizon of human culture. What is important about the book, for our purposes in this class, is that Berry’s writing questions the commonplaces that make possible our thinking about environmental questions—as well as, after Carson, scientific and moral questions. Writing (and thinking) that simply points to the faults and contradictions of a system (call it what you will, capitalist, exploitative, free-market or global economy) is useful; but readers can benefit from Berry far beyond this systemic critique. In fact I might want to argue that too many of these oppositional critiques reproduce the commonplace ways we think about these complicated issues. Some are bad, some are good. They (it) are doing this or that. We are obligated to something else. Industrial/organic (bad), the past (good), the present (bad).

The most productive environmental writing takes up what I might call, using one of Berry’s phrases, “the practical intricacies of collaboration.” We are attempting, with Berry, to understand that a nostalgic appeal to the past only becomes the agenda of these kinds of arguments (and the agenda of critiquing these kinds of arguments as naive) because we interpret them in this way. Think back to Gary Snyder’s engagement with so-called primitive cultures. He studied anthropology (his undergraduate thesis on Haida myth at Reed College was later published) and he is a comparative scholar of ancient languages and culture. And consider that Berry sees in past agricultural practices a vibrant set of practices and values that is no longer considered with seriousness.

As you think and write about The Unsettling of America I would urge us to not reduce arguments and demonstrations to what we are able to think about them. Rather think about the atrophy of democratic dialogue in his comment about the failure to engage in reasoning about moral questions. “Public discourse of all kinds now,” he comments, “tends to pattern itself either upon the arts of advertisement and propaganda (that is, the arts of persuasion without argument, which leads to reasonless and even unconscious acquiescence) or upon the allegedly objective or value-free demonstrations of science” (230). Note well how he then talks about how our language, in particular the conceptual metaphors in which our language is rooted, determine how it is we are able to think.

The Unsettling of America is a book devoted to sustaining an argument about human culture. Berry is saying that we are at once inheritors of a culture as well as stewards of that culture, and that the current state of the world is ultimately our responsibility. What do the current practices of agriculture, in this case, say about us? Berry is not interested in the thinking that reinforces the opposition between saints and sinners (we are all both, he points out) or righteously pointing to the shortcomings or faults of someone else or some system or another. Of course he talks about these things, but again in a descriptive mode, as the design of these series of essays is to promote a meditation on the ways that we might move beyond thinking that begins “with a set of predetermining ideas” toward thinking that begins with “particular places, people, needs and desires” (233). Recall that he elaborates on this idea in chapter two, where he points to the problems of institutional solutions that narrow and simplify as they propose particular actions or objectives.

The indicators of “our” moral standing in the world have been a thread that links Carson, through Snyder and into Berry: affluence, comfort, mobility, leisure, entertainment. Berry is blunt about how these cultural values are not only selfish but part of a wider “moral ignorance” with which we appear to be perfectly content. The “we” here is each of us and all of us who have the privilege and political freedom to pursue choices not available to others. This is an environmentalist position that is commonplace for sure. But again, Berry knows that this knowledge is known. He has a particularly memorable way of saying these things and, in its limited sense, the book is valuable for that eloquence alone.

The book is about love, work, family, memory, tradition, workmanship—primary indicators of a human culture that is dynamic and whole and not subsumed under a broader ideological agenda. This is a book about the radical simplification of the mind and the character of democratic citizens that should (the book is full of imperatives) be pursuing a radical democratic alternative to the dependency and helplessness that have increasingly determined how we think and how we act in the world. The book is about us and the choices we make available to ourselves (or not) as we try our best to learn how to live.

If we are willing to entertain the possibility, as Berry puts it, that “our ‘success’ is a catastrophic demonstration of our failure,” then what might we do with this contradiction? And how might The Unsettling of America offer us a space to explore the questions that might follow? The reasoning Berry is engaged in is also an invitation. For example, how can we mount an argument that at once acknowledges the benefits of specializing in a particular endeavor or field of study at the same time that we critique the consequences of a culture of specialization? How might we talk about the personal and cultural resources of mobility at the same time that we recognize “the movement of the center of consciousness away from home”? (53).

On “By Frazier Creek Falls”

As someone who often feels a call to drop all social media and to ditch my phone so that I may go out and explore the world around me and to experience life to the fullest the poem of By Frazier Creek Falls stood out to me the most as one that I can truly connect with. It reminds me so much of my experience of nature and my longing to go camping and exploring once again like I did when I was younger and had less cares about the world. I often wonder if the reason why going into nature is so alluring to me currently is to explore like I once did or as a means to escape the adult world that I have grown up into. Escaping from the stress of school, and work life, escaping from all the negative news that seems to have overtaken the media, escaping from the debates on what is patriotic or who said what to who on Twitter. In nature none of those things matter, it’s just you and the world around you to see and experience. This is not to say that I would ever do something along the lines of what Christopher McCandless did and then later written about by Krakauer in Into the Wild, I would most likely have a “dumb phone” in case of emergencies. Now onto the Poem itself, it begins with two lines:

“Standing up on lifted, folded rock

Looking out and down”

This section is talking about surveying the land around oneself from the top of a mountain, or in this case the top of the falls.

“The creek falls to a far valley.

Hills beyond that

Facing, half forested, dry

–clear sky

Strong wind in the

Stiff glittering needle clusters

Of the pine—their brown

Round trunk bodies

Straight, still;

Rustling trembling limbs and twigs”

In this stanza of the poem, Snyder uses new lines as a way to break up the sentence and to provide more of an almost basic human language aspect to the poem. One could easily read the poem in this form like a caveman and it would sound like it fits. This could have been purposeful of Gary Snyder as a return to the basics of nature type writing. He uses – to emphasize spacing of the reading when one reads this poem out loud. The way in which Snyder structures many of his poems reminds me of stage notes of a director towards their actor (you the reader), though for his poetry its built-in to the lines rather than written in the margins or in the space between the lies. In this section Gary Snyder also uses beautiful imagery that as one reads they can begin to piece it together in their mind on how this valley may look. One will notice that there are no animals in this section, there are no cars, or any signs of human life beyond that of the author, the poem is simply Snyder and the world around him below his feet and in his sight.

“Listen”

Along the lines of the term “stop and smell the roses” this is often something one forgets about when in the woods or in nature. Nature has its own white noise, the sound of rustling leaves, of birds chirping and bugs attempting to find a mate. One may even call the noise of nature a symphony, a group of noise that one would not think belong together but create a beautiful sound when they do. When one compares this to the sound of the city, which is synthetic and loud and segmented, I would be surprised if anyone would decide to choose the sound of the city over the sound of nature.

“This living flowing land

Is all there is forever

We are it

It sings through us—

We could live on this Earth

Without Clothes or tools”

Snyder is trying to explain to the reader that the world around us is a part of us, much like he is part of the environment of the Falls. He state that the land “is all there is forever” he is saying that this is the only earth we have and that we need to take care of it because it is as much a part of us are we are a part of it, we do not get a second chance or a do over, there is no undo button, once the mess has been made it will be difficult to clean up. His final two lines of “We could live on this Earth, Without Clothes or tools” probably meant something totally different to how one may interoperate it today. Today it means that we could live without all the tools of convince that we live with today, we could live without constantly poisoning our environment with greenhouse gases and other chemicals we don’t properly take care of. We could live “naked” without the creature comforts that we rely on today.

The last section of the poem is something that I agree with but with a few caveats, the first of which is we should still rely on the many great innovations of science since they not only prolong our life but also make life more enjoyable to live, for example I have allergies that include pollen, if I didn’t have medicine to take care of these allergies I would not be able to explore nature without the possibility of going into anaphylactic shock. Though I do believe we could do with less polluting and less reliance on the small devices within our pocket, they seem to dictate our lives to us and can be as addictive as any other substance. Over all this poem rang true to my inner thoughts and left me wanting to go on a walk of the trails in Keene.

A Look at the Language of Gary Snyder’s “Turtle Island”

The language used by Gary Snyder in “Turtle Island” paints a vivid picture of mankind’s relationship with the natural world, as well as critiques the not so good things about modern day society. I feel Snyder’s message is to ultimately respect all life and not leave too big of a “footprint” on this Earth, for the wrong steps could lead us down a dangerous and irreversible road. With that being said, I also believe his language details the importance of our environment and that the natural world is really the force in control no matter how much humans think we can control everything. I have picked a few poems that I believe best convey this message.

First is my favorite poem out of this book, “Mother Earth: Her Whales”.

In this piece, Gary Snyder starts off with a wonderful description of creatures in the rainforest using specific imagery. He states:

“An owl winks in the shadows

A lizard lifts on tiptoe, breathing hard

Young male sparrow stretches up his neck,

Big head, watching-“

This type of language brings life to the animals of the rainforest and establishes them as alive and conscious beings, observing. Then, the poem shifts into calling out Brazil by stating

“Thirty thousand kinds of unknown plants.

The living actual people of the jungle

Sold and tortured-

And a robot in a suit who peddles a delusion called “Brazil” can speak for them?”

The language used in this stanza shows that the social construct of a country owning the land that was there long before the established human takeover is absurd. These people really don’t have the right to get to decide what happens as far as the natural world in that area goes; humans just gave themselves power by force and everyone else doesn’t really care as long as they are not impacted directly. But Snyder then goes on to speak about the humans that are indigenous there and have been for countless generations. Now because of profit, people in suits that call the shots for the imaginary borders of a government that operates as “Brazil”, get to ruin the lives of people, animals, and all life forms alike. The language of this poem then goes on being descriptive and speaking of whales, describing them like graceful giants. Snyder speaks of the whales as

“Hanging over subtly darkening deeps

Flowing like breathing planets

in the sparkling whorls of

living light-“

And finally, the last part of this poem il be discussing is this stanza

“And Japan quibbles for words on what kinds they can kill?

A once-great Buddhist nation

Dribbles methyl mercury

Like gonorrhea

In the sea.”

This is where the poem again takes a dark turn and the language is used to describe the juxtaposition of how a Buddhist nation who peaches peace, then goes along and allows all of aquatic life, such as whales, to be harmed with mercury. Like gonorrhea in the sea, spreading the disease of methyl mercury.

 

Like “Mother Earth: Her Whales”, the poem “It Pleases” uses language to describe a social commentary on the relationship between lawmakers and the natural world. The poem starts off with a scene over Washington D.C. with a large bird on top of dome of the capitol building. I found this language of being a metaphor. The bird seems to represent the natural world at whole; being on top of the capitol where the laws are made. This simply means that no matter how much humans or politicians try to keep everything in order and be the most powerful entity on Earth, Mother Nature will always be the supreme entity and no law or person can really do anything if say a natural disaster happens. Snyder states:

“The center of power is nothing!

Nothing here.

Old white stone domes,

Strangely quiet people,

Earth-sky-bird patterns

Idly interlacing

The world does what it pleases.”

 

These were really the standout lines that stood out to me as far as what the language was trying to insinuate: The world does what it pleases. Snyder shows how this entire stuff human’s do is strange and almost mundane to the bird. Lawmakers can make these laws but they are nothing in comparison to the laws of nature: Humans are really just another animal that is social and entitled, the power of Mother Nature and what she can do is a whole different magnitude. Like Snyder states, people just claim land and make it their own, then correlate this with power, such as money. The laws we make, we give meaning to, and we tend to stay away from destruction in order to avoid jail time. But Mother Nature is like a psychopath in an anarchist society: she will do what she pleases.

In conclusion, the language Snyder uses to captivate his audience is astounding. His poetic device ensues a tone of humbleness and the oneness of all beings. We must question everything around us in order to be critically thinking difference makers. That is what the meaning behind the language of Gary Snyder’s “Turtle Island” is all about. Whether or not we like it, the natural world is far more in tune with us than we are to it, and we have to play by its rules. We are merely guests on planet Earth for a short time; while the natural essence of Mother Nature remains, she is more powerful than us.

Wendell Berry on Imagination

This week we turn from the poems of Gary Snyder to the prose of Wendell Berry at the same time that we continue to experience and study the use of language by two friends, and accomplished writers, during the 1970s.

In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, “It All Turns on Affection,” Berry explains the interrelated constants at work when we use language. “The faculties of the mind—reason, memory, feeling, intuition, imagination, and the rest—are not distinct from one another,” Berry insists. He goes on to provide a working definition of the imagination as an active and constitutive faculty of the human mind:

The term “imagination” in what I take to be its truest sense refers to a mental faculty that some people have used and thought about with the utmost seriousness. The sense of the verb “to imagine” contains the full richness of the verb “to see.” To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with “the mind’s eye.” It is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force. To take it seriously we must give up at once any notion that imagination is disconnected from reality or truth or knowledge. It has nothing to do either with clever imitation of appearances or with “dreaming up.” It does not depend upon one’s attitude or point of view, but grasps securely the qualities of things seen or envisioned.

I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.

It is by imagination that knowledge is “carried to the heart” (to borrow again from Allen Tate).5 The faculties of the mind—reason, memory, feeling, intuition, imagination, and the rest—are not distinct from one another. Though some may be favored over others and some ignored, none functions alone. But the human mind, even in its wholeness, even in instances of greatest genius, is irremediably limited. Its several faculties, when we try to use them separately or specialize them, are even more limited.

Berry’s 2012 Jefferson Lecture is worth your attention. Check it out.

Consider This: Language as Wild

Reading your writing about how Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island uses language to clarify our relationship to the earth? I was reminded of Snyder’s explanation of language as “wild” in an interview with Eliot Weinberger. Snyder’s explanation, and analogy, may be useful for your thinking and writing:

Interviewer You’ve written that language is wild, and it’s interesting that, in your essays and in some of the poems, you track down words as though you’re hunting or gathering. But do you believe that language is more a part of nature than a part of culture?

Gary Snyder Well, to put it quite simply, I think language is, to a great extent, biological. And this is not a radical point of view. In fact, it is in many ways an angle of thought that has come back into serious consideration in the world of scientific linguistics right now. So, if it’s biological, if it’s part of our biological nature to be able to learn language, to master complex syntax effortlessly by the age of four, then it’s part of nature, just as our digestion is part of nature, our limbs are part of nature. So, yes, in that sense it is. Now, of course, language takes an enormous amount of cultural shaping, too, at some point. But the structures of it have the quality of wild systems. Wild systems are highly complex, cannot be intellectually mastered—that is to say they’re too complex to master simply in intellectual or mathematical terms—and they are self-managing and self-organizing. Language is a self-organizing phenomenon. Descriptive linguistics come after the fact, an effort to describe what has already happened. So if you define the wild as self-managing, self-organizing, and self-propagating, all natural human languages are wild systems. The imagination, we can say, for similar reasons, is wild. But I would also make the argument that there is a prelinguistic level of thought. Not always, but a lot of the time. And for some people more than other people. I think there are people who think more linguistically, and some who think more visually, or perhaps kinesthetically, in some cases.

You can read the complete interview by Eliot Weinberger, Gary Snyder, The Art of Poetry No. 74 The Paris Review 141 (Winter 1996). An audio excerpt of the conversation between Weinberger and Snyder is part of a collaboration between 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center and The Paris Review was recorded live on October 26, 1992.

The Coyote Within

I would like to say

Coyote is forever

Inside you.

But it’s not true. – Snyder 23

In his poem, the Call of the Wild, Gary Snyder claims a coyote is no longer inside us. I once heard a Cherokee story about two wolves living within us. They’re both fighting each other. One is angry, evil, greedy, and resentful. The other is peaceful, loving, joyous, and hopeful. When asked which wolf wins the fight, the Cherokee grandfather answers simply, “the one you feed.”

A wolf may differ from a  coyote, but the meaning still stands – there is a wild being within us, and it’s up to us to keep it alive. As humans, we tend to forget that we are also animals, but Gary Snyder reminds us of our relationship with nature in his poetry book, Turtle Island.

One of the methods he uses to do this is using descriptive language of animals to remind us of the impacts we have on animals. In the Call of the Wild, he uses terms like “blinding sparrows,” “breaking ear-drums of owls,” “splintering trunks of cherries” and “twining and looping deer intestines in the shaken, dusty, rocks” to show us pictures that we don’t usually see (Snyder 22). When we think of war bombs, we usually think about humans getting hurt, but it’s important to remember that plants and animals are being harmed too. Snyder’s graphic language paints a violent picture in our heads on purpose, because that’s the reality. Furthermore, Snyder uses vicious words like “blinding,” “breaking,” and “splintering” because they have a strong effect that takes each verb to the extreme. In this case, extreme is actual reality.

Another way Snyder reminds us of our relationship with nature is by giving actual examples of what we’re doing and how that impacts the world around us. At the end of Turtle Island, he mentions, “We are fouling our air and water, and living in noise and filth that no ‘animal’ would tolerate, while advertising and politicians try and tell us we’ve never had it so good” (Snyder 94). The way he say this is very creative. We are all naturally animals, and yet we’re destroying our home. Animals wouldn’t want to live in this filth, so why do we?

Part of the reason could be because media is telling us it’s okay. Other people are telling us it’s okay. In Call of the Wild, Snyder explains how people were selling their good trees just because someone told them to. He says, “And they sold their virgin cedar trees/the tallest trees in miles/To a logger/Who told them/’Trees are full of bugs’” (Snyder 22). What Snyder is saying here is that people are gullible and they believe what people will tell them about the environment. As of right now, people are saying that there’s nothing wrong with the environment and that it’s not a big deal. Snyder is saying that actually it is a big deal, but we’ve all been brainwashed to think it isn’t. Towards the end of the book, he mentions his thoughts on our minds as humans and how it’s so hard to be aware of our natural world because we think we own it.

Our own heads: It is hard to even begin to gauge how much a complication of possessions, the notions of ‘my and mine,’ stand between us and a true, clear, liberated way of seeing the world. To live lightly on the earth, to be aware and alive, to be free of egotism, to be in contact with plants and animals, starts with simple concrete acts. – Snyder 99

Snyder says we need to live on this world lightly because it’s not ours to destroy. We don’t own everything. At this point, it’s us against the earth. Furthermore he explains the consequences if we do keep heading in the direction we are, explaining it as a war against Earth. Snyder says, “A war against earth/When it’s done there’ll be/no place/A Coyote could hide” (Snyder 23). In other words, Snyder could be saying that our world is destroying our natural world to a point where coyotes are no longer safe. If they were safe, they wouldn’t have to hide. There’s a theme with the coyote in this poem because coyotes are important animals to many native people. It’s sad to think that there could one day be a world where coyotes need to hide and are unable to.

It’s especially sad because Snyder makes the point that we are coyotes too. Coyotes are wild, they’re inside us, and we’re wild too.  He describes how beautiful the sound of the coyote is when it’s howling at the beginning of the poem. This later transfers into how sad it will be that kids won’t hear those sounds one day. Then it talks about how the entire world would be destroyed and the coyotes wouldn’t have a home. That transitions into the idea of a coyote being within us and that we don’t care. The story of the coyote’s decline reminds us of what our actions are doing to the coyotes.

A coyote is a metaphor for the wild within us. We were all born natural and started in a natural world, but as we get older, technology and pollution become more prominent. Nature gets easier to ignore. Coyotes are beautiful things and so are we, but we push away any natural beauty we have left. Snyder shows us this with his examples and reasonings. Our morals and insides are calling out for a better world. We know that something is wrong, yet we do nothing about it.

Snyder is calling us out. He’s reminding us that we are nature by comparing us to this beautiful animal and saying that we are it. In By Frazier Creek Falls, he even states, “We are it/it sings through us-” (Snyder 41). We are nature, we are wild, and we should be doing something to protect our planet. Even more, he mentions how it “sings” through us. The coyote in us is howling for us to save the world, but we just ignore it.

And the Coyote singing

is shut away

for they fear

the call

of the wild. -Snyder 22

Gary Snyder and Environmentalism

In his award winning poetry collection Turtle Island, Gary Snyder advocates for environmental preservation and explores the relationship between man and nature. In his poems, Snyder never refers to nature in a critical fashion; he rather portrays nature’s magnificence and communicates the beauty of the wildness of nature that is to be admired and respected.

In the poem entitled “Without” within the “Manzanita” section, Snyder’s appreciation for nature’s wildness is particularly noticeable. He writes of the “silence of nature within. the power within. the power without” (Snyder, 6). Snyder’s recognition, yet his refusal to specifically name an example of nature’s power such as natural disasters that are not able to be controlled by mankind, he alludes to an almost metaphysical aspect of nature. This metaphysical unpredictability in Snyder’s poetry is similar to the works of the loosely grouped Metaphysical poets who wrote during the seventeenth century in England. In John Donne’s poem, “Metempsychosis”, Donne also explores the condition of exploitation as an aspect of nature that man shares with wildlife. Donne writes:

“He hunts not fish, but as an officer,

Stays in his court, as his own net, and there

All suitors of all sorts themselves enthral;

So on his back lies this whale wantoning,

And in his gulf-like throat, sucks everything

That passeth near.”

In Turtle Island, Snyder also pays homage to his interest in Native American culture and its relation to the natural world. To Gary Snyder and many of the Transcendentalist writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau the Native American culture provided an alternate way of life-separate from the traditional capitalist-centered Western culture that has a negative effect on aspects of nature that Snyder appreciates: wildness and environmental awareness.

In his poem, “Control Burn”, Snyder refers to how the Indians purified their natural environment rather than destroying it. He writes, “What the Indians here used to do, was, to burn out the brush every year. in the woods, up the gorges, keeping the oak and the pine stands tall and clear…” (Snyder, 19). In this poem, Snyder focuses on maintaining the cleanness of nature rather than sullying it with pesticides and manmade chemicals. Snyder uses “Fire” as a metaphor for purifying nature: “Fire is an old story. I would like, with a sense of helpful order, with respect for laws of nature, to help my land with a burn. a hot clean burn” (Snyder, 19). In this poem, Snyder emphasizes the necessity of evaluating the impact man’s presence has on nature. While the Native Americans appreciated the preservation of nature and strived to live in harmony with the environment, modern civilization lacks the knowledge and awareness regarding nature that Snyder holds the Native Americans in high regard for. Consequently, Snyder clearly considers himself to be akin with the primitiveness of Native American culture rather than the modern expectations for environmental awareness.