The question of our ethical obligations and community with non-human creatures has been with me since childhood. It was the question which drove me out of Lutheran Sunday school at about the age of nine. My Sunday school teacher told me my dead heifer would not go to heaven; that was the end of that.
As a youth growing up in the Pacific Northwest, with questions of ecological and social justice on my mind, casting about as we do for philosophies to learn about, one of the religions I came upon was Buddhism. At the same time, I was studying Taoism and engaged with Native American spirituality in the Northwest.
The clear lyrics of Chinese poetry— the powerful imagery and the leaps of the mind in Japanese haiku—the exuberant devotionalism of Buddhist poetry in India: all these have touched me and are reflected in my work.
But another aspect of my work has been frankly ecological, for which I get more heat from critics than I do about the more “poetic” work. The literary/ critical mind in the United States is shy of providing any value-based position, and particularly shy of taking a critical stance, even if poetic and sardonic. So what I am talking about is not always considered my best poetry.
It has been for me a deep personal choice to try to have other realms speak through my poetry. To call out a flicker, to call out a watershed, if it might be done. I have a little poem called “The Flickers”:
sharp clear call
in the cool pine breeze
Letting the flickers speak that way for us, as they always do—that is an ecological poem. So a large part of my poetic work has been the evocation of natural systems, and of human beings— myself, my friends, and my family— moving through the natural world and being as much a part of it as they can.
I might have been such a poet had I never stumbled onto the dharma, or Buddhist teaching, but I doubt it. In fact, I doubt that I would be any sort of poet at all without the dharma, because the dharma was a great help in keeping me from “irritably grasping after reason.” It has constantly reminded me to accept my ignorance and to live in “not-knowing,” which is where you have to live to be a poet, as distinguished, say, from a journalist.
We are not yet here, we have not yet found our place, so we cannot yet begin our practice.
In recent years, my political and poetic direction has been to turn the question for Americans away from who we are, to where we are. The two questions aren’t separate—they are the same question, just from a different angle.
Zen master Dogen says, “When you find your place, practice begins.” The population on this continent will become grounded, will find their place, by a slight change of mind that says, “I’m here.”
This has not yet happened for the American population. This is a homeless nation; the whole population of North America is homeless. This is not to take away from the reality and the pain of actual homelessness, but with the exception of the Native Americans, who have been displaced in a different way, we are all homeless.
We are not yet here, we have not yet found our place, so we cannot yet begin our practice.
Yet we are almost here. That has been part of my poetic practice, although it still takes the form of nerdy-sounding public level language, talking about “watersheds” or “eco-systems.” If I can find the language that goes past that, I sure will use it. I’m looking for it right now.
I’d like to ask you about that sense of homelessness and how it contributes to our confusion and social collapse.
We’re playing on different senses of the word homeless. There is the traditional Buddhist sense in which it is proposed with a positive meaning—”the homeless brothers and sisters”—and is taken to mean those who have entered into the monastic sangha, or community. Homelessness in that context means leaving the ordinary bonds and obligations of caste, kin and society, and entering into another context of obligations and associations, which is the work with the dharma. So that kind of homelessness means stepping outside of the usual obligations of your society.
Another sense of the term homelessness is the larger metaphor of being “unplaced”—without a place. It’s my sense that Americans are more displaced, more homeless, than they realize. They live in that condition without being conscious of it, and yet it profoundly affects their psychological and social life.
One effect is that nobody lives in one place long enough to take a serious interest in local politics or local community. That’s why we have such a low turnout at elections. If people lived in a place long enough to feel a sense of obligation and commitment to it, like a marriage, then even if they didn’t believe in national scale politics, they would sure as hell know that local scale politics accomplishes something.
That’s at a simple level, but it resonates through the school system and the kind of ecological work that can only be done by local people. That’s essential, because the Sierra Club is not going to come and save your local marsh from a Safeway supermarket parking lot. You’ve got to do it yourself or nobody will.
The larger metaphor is the lack of communication with the non-human community, the profound nature-illiteracy of educated Americans, who think that knowing the names of birds and wild plants is something only high school teachers and boy scouts need to do. Whereas that should be part of every cultured person’s response to their world. It shouldn’t be something just for nature freaks; it should be part of everyone’s literacy. In exercising such literacy in a particular place, we begin to fulfill, right there, some of the implications of the first Buddhist precept, which is to cause less harm, including less harm to non-human entities.
Paradoxically, the United States—as I have proposed it, a homeless and displaced society—is vigorously engaged in displacing everybody else in the world as well.
One could pursue this a little farther and ask what this pervasive sense of homelessness has done—mythically, poetically, and artistically—to our still formative society. My wife and I and a few friends have a project in mind to help Cambodians, Hmongs, and other Southeast Asian immigrants discover the American wilderness. They’re all so hard-bent on learning about the constitution and getting their citizenship; we’re hard-bent on showing them there’s another citizenship that is far more profound. We would say to them, “We want to help you become citizens of North America. Let us take you to the mountain, the desert and go walking together.”
Paradoxically, the United States—as I have proposed it, a homeless and displaced society—is vigorously engaged in displacing everybody else in the world as well. That’s what happens when you fund the “development” of the Third World: you make everybody else on the planet homeless.
Straight Creek—Great Burn for Tom and Martha Birch
Lightly, in the April mountains—Straight Creek, dry grass freed again of snow & the chickadees are pecking last fall’s seeds
fluffing tail in chilly wind,
Avalanche piled up cross the creek and chunked-froze solid— water sluicing under; spills out
rock lip pool, bends over, braided, white, foaming, returns to trembling
Creek boulders show the flow-wear lines in shapes the same as running blood carves in the heart’s main valve,
Early spring dry. Dry snow flurries;
walk on crusty high snow slopes —grand dead burn pine—
chartreuse lichen as adornment (a dye for wool) angled tumbled talus rock of geosyncline warm sea bottom yes, so long ago.
“Once on a time.”
Far light on the Bitteroots;
scrabble down willow slide changing clouds above, shapes on glowing sun-ball
reaching out against eternal azure—
us resting on dry fern and watching
Shining Heaven change his feather garments overhead.
A whoosh of birds swoops up and round tilts back
almost always flying all apart and yet hangs on! together;
never a leader, all of one swift
They arc and loop & then their flight is done, they settle down, end of poem.
What you are saying makes me think about the phrase from The Lotus Sutra that enlightened the Sixth Patriarch of Zen: “Abiding no place.”
Keeping in mind that the medicine was always prescribed according to the disease, we must remember that the language of non-abiding and homelessness was used in traditional Asia in relationship to very deeply settled, very conventional societies. There were Asian societies where people needed to be able to say to themselves, “You can step out of this—you can go away and look back at it, and liberate yourself from it.” Whereas in America the situation is wholly reversed; nobody knows where they came from or has a sense of place.
Instead of “abide nowhere,” you could say, just as easily and just as to the point, “Be at home right now, right here. Right now, be at home.” And start being at home from that instant. Buddhist practice shows us that’s a possibility.
Forty years ago, when the influence of Buddhism started to be felt in America, there was a lot of concern about living by what we called “slender means.” Gradually I’ve seen that fade into the background, but if we’re going to do something about saving the planet, we’ve got to live not only in compassion but also as cleanly and simply as possible.
Not to answer directly, let me say that I think poetry does that every day. In poetry and the other arts, there is an ongoing presentation of an alternative set of values, an ongoing presentation of the vivid experience of living in the moment, of valuing the ordinary that is before us. It is implicitly unmaterialistic; it implicitly argues that we do not lead a quality life by the accumulation of consumer items. We lead a quality life by the quality of our perception and the quality of our consciousness.
Is there still a “here” to be at? If the wilderness is mapped, is this talk of “home” just a pointless nostalgia?
Pristine nature, or wilderness, is not the question. The question is not what was here, or what might be here. The question is, what is here? What is here is a lot more than we know, a lot more than we’re aware of, a lot more than we see.
For instance, what is here at this particular place, Manhattan, is the confluence of a river that reaches deep into the mountains; the old wetlands of the Newark Basin; the southern and northern Atlantic waters; the Eastern Atlantic Flyway, and some very wonderful bedrock which this city is on. The air is full of seed-fluff, of wild plants going eve*y which direction.
Years ago, an architect friend of mine pointed out that downtown skyscrapers are riverbeds stood on end.
The flows of these natural forces have not stopped.
So the natural world is here and it has enormous durability. I would say it’s not nostalgic, it’s ever-present, and it’s always more than we think it is. Years ago, an architect friend of mine pointed out that downtown skyscrapers are riverbeds stood on end. This is a river bed from somewhere in the watershed, just temporarily moved over here. Now that is poetic language; that is what poets do.
I Went into The Maverick Bar
I went into the Maverick Bar
In Farmington, New Mexico.
And drank double shots of bourbon
backed with beer.
My long hair was tucked up under a cap I’d left the earring in the car.
Two cowboys did horseplay by the pool tables,
A waitress asked us
where are you from? a country-and-western band began to play “We don’t smoke Marijuana in Muskokie” And with the next song, a couple began to dance.
They held each other like in High School dances in the fifties;
I recalled when I worked in the woods
and the bars of Madras, Oregon. That short-haired joy and roughness— America—your stupidity.
I could almost love you again.
We left—onto the freeway shoulders— under the tough old stars—
In the shadow of bluffs
I came back to myself.
To the real work, to
“What is to be done.”
Mr. Snyder’s remarks in this article are edited from a discussion sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, held at Poet’s House in New York City on October 28, 1992, to discuss issues raised by the anthology Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism and Contemporary American Poetry (Shambhala Publications, 1991).©1994 by Gary Snyder. Turtle Island poems© 1974 Gary Snyder. Courtesy of New Directions Publishing.