Back on the Fire: Essays
By Gary Snyder
Reviewed by Ben Howard
Not long ago, the poet and essayist Gary Snyder was asked whether his poems were determined by inspiration or by a more deliberate method of composition. “Not exactly either,” he replied. “Every day I just vow to be open.”
If one may judge by his newest book, the poet has kept his vow. Openness to experience—and to the world’s manifold cultures—is everywhere apparent in the present volume, which gathers Snyder’s recent essays, memoirs, forewords, and elegies, some of them expansive and others as brief as two pages. In these bold, engrossing pieces, which interweave verse and prose, scholarly discourse and informal reminiscence, Snyder addresses subjects as diverse as sustainable forestry, Paleolithic cave paintings, the “Japanese psyche,” the battle of the Alamo, Noh drama, the poultry industry, the haiku of Masaoka Shiki, and the etymologies of the words “nature”and “environment.” What unifies these wide-ranging explorations is, as Snyder’s title suggests, the subject of fire, viewed here as a “partner in the ecosystem” and considered in both its literal and metaphoric contexts. But a more profound connection may be seen in Snyder’s insistent iteration of fundamental Buddhist themes, most prominently those of interdependence, nonviolence, and the impermanence of all conditioned things. Examined in relation to Snyder’s changing subjects, these persistent themes give unity and momentum to an otherwise miscellaneous collection.
Snyder’s awareness of the interdependence, or mutuality, of all phenomena may be traced to an experience that occurred early in his adult life. While still in his twenties, as he was laying the slabs of rock known as riprap on a mountain trail, he had what he would later call his “first glimpse of the whole universe as interconnected, interpenetrating, mutually reflecting, and mutually embracing.”
Over the next five decades, Snyder’s revelatory glimpse would become a compelling poetic vision, projected most ambitiously in his magisterial poetic sequence, Mountains and Rivers Without End (1996), but present throughout his work. And with the advent of deep ecology, a movement in which Snyder has played a major role, his once-radical vision has become conventional wisdom. Snyder notes as much in “Ecology, Literature, and the New World Disorder,” where he observes that despite the afflictions of “religious fundamentalism, developed world hubris, stepped-up environmental damage, and…expanding problems of health and poverty,” a great many people now realize that the fate of humanity and that of the natural world are inextricably connected. Snyder finds special encouragement in an emerging literature of nature, exemplified by such writers as Jed Rasula, Stephanie Mills, and John McPhee, who take as axiomatic the interdependence of the human and natural worlds. And in a moment of “Mahayanistic intuition,” he contends that nonhuman nature is well disposed toward human beings and “only wishes modern people were more reciprocal, not so bloody.” The animals are drawn to us, he divines, and “they think we have cute ears.”
Whatever the animals may think of our ears, an awareness of interdependence is, for Snyder, intimately related to ethical choice. The one engenders the other. In “The Ark of the Sierra,” he employs a metaphor from the Judeo-Christian tradition to illustrate his point:
The air and waters, the rivers, the deer and owls, the genetic health of all life is in our trust. We are here discussing Biodiversity—a word that sends shivers of alarm through some hearts—but it only means variety of life, and it means “Right to Life for Nonhuman Others,” a moral sentiment I religiously support. If God hadn’t wanted all these critters to be around, including rattlesnakes and cougars, he wouldn’t have put them on the Ark.
More characteristically, in “The Path to Matsuyama,” Snyder invokes the Buddhist precept of ahimsa, or nonviolence toward the natural world, to make the same impassioned argument. That precept, he suggests, resides quietly in the haiku tradition, offering a corrective to the industrial exploitation of natural resources.
Yet in embracing ahimsa, Snyder exercises an appropriate caution, knowing that a naive or simplistic interpretation of that precept may do more harm than good. In “Writers and the War Against Nature,” he notes, “Ahimsa taken too literally leaves out the life of the world and makes the rabbit virtuous but the hawk evil.” And in “Lifetimes with Fire,” as he turns to a subject close to his heart, he recalls his youthful, self-righteous belief that as a fire lookout and a firefighter he was doing something good. In actuality, he now maintains, his ethical position was at best ambiguous, at worst indefensible, since he and most of the “wildfire-fighting establishment” were in the grip of an ideology that viewed fire as an enemy, on a par with Godless Communism. Fifty years later, attitudes and methods have radically changed:
We’d like to see the forests be a mix of mature and all-age trees cleared out or under-burned enough to be able to take the flames when they do come, and big and diverse enough to quickly recover from all but the very worst fires.
In this enlightened vision, the Sierra Nevada range, where Snyder and his family have lived since 1971, is viewed as one large ecosystem, which policies of fire-suppression have hindered more than helped. Properly understood and intelligently managed, fire can be an ally, tool, and friend.
Quite naturally, Snyder’s contemplation of forest fires and human efforts to control them also prompts more general reflections on impermanence and human responses to that reality. “Everything is impermanent anyway,” he remarks in “Fire, Floods, and Following the Dao,” having earlier noted that in California everyone must be prepared for some form of natural disaster. In “Coyote Makes Things Hard,” he observes that in a Maidu tale about two sacred characters named Earthmaker and Coyote Old Man, the former hopes for a painless universe and the latter argues for impermanence, or things as they actually are. And in “Writers and the War Against Nature,” Snyder endorses Coyote’s argument, turning awareness of impermanence into a moral imperative:
The quest for permanence has always led us astray—whether in building stone castles, Great Walls, pyramids and tombs for pharaohs, great navies, giant cathedrals to ease us toward heaven, or cold war-scale weapons systems guaranteeing mutually assured destruction. We must live with change, like a bird on the wing, and in doing so—let all the other beings live on too. Not permanence, but living in harmony with the Way.
In keeping with this imperative, Snyder depicts himself (in “Lifetimes with Fire”) discarding “dumb thoughts and failed ideas” by tossing them into a fire. “How many times,” he asks, “have I thrown you / back on the fire.”
Here, as often in this book, Snyder’s simple eloquence is affecting. At the same time, one can admire the poet’s phrasing and commend his sentiments without accepting all of his arguments, which are often repetitious and sometimes overstated. Has the quest for permanence always led us astray? One thinks of the heroic reconstruction of the Uffizi Museum after the flood of 1966—or, closer to home, the current effort to create a permanent monument on the site of the World Trade Center. Similarly, when Snyder approvingly reports that the “experts” recommend taking down the levees as the “best way to prevent great floods,” he seems wistfully remote from the economic realities of the Gulf States and the suffering inflicted by Katrina. And when, in “Migration/ Immigration,” he suggests that the boundaries between Canada, Mexico, and the United States be declared “null and void,” the poet Snyder, normally one of the most grounded of the planet’s inhabitants, appears to have inhaled an excess of mountain air or taken an overdose of Mahayana theory.
Such oddities notwithstanding, Back on the Fire is a valuable collection, at once timely, tough-minded, and inspiring. Although his book contains poignant elegies for Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen and a dignified memorial page for Snyder’s wife, Carole Lynn Koda (1947–2006), Snyder’s eyes are trained most often on the present or the future, his gaze extending as far as the “sixtieth millennium.” Snyder’s speculations will be of particular interest to artists, writers, and poets, who, he notes, have often been “explorers of the wild mind.” But the general reader will also find things of value, ranging from the latest perspectives on biodiversity to practical instructions for felling trees. And for students of the dharma, who may wish to integrate Buddhist precepts and practice with environmental concern, these open-minded, openhearted essays have much to offer. With cogency and grace, they show us the Way.
BEN HOWARD is a professor emeritus of English at Alfred University in Alfred, New York, and is the author of several books of poetry. He is a longtime student of Zen and Vipassana.