Gary Snyder, covered in ants – and how the quotidian and the cosmic are inseparable


ant“When I arrived at his home in the Sierra Nevada foothills in May of 1998, Gary Snyder was covered with ants. He was on the roof of a shed, straddling solar panels and pulling out insulation that a colony of carpenter ants had claimed as its own,” recalled Eric Todd Smith. “A few minutes later, he was showing me around his tool shed and the old barn that houses his office, occasionally slapping at stray ants crawling in his hair. We talked about how to use the old crosscut saw and logging cables hanging from the walls, about local birds and trees, and eventually wound our way into poetry, Buddhist philosophy, and natural resource management. Such simultaneous immersion in concrete tasks and abstract ideas is normal for Snyder, who has lived with his family at Kitkitdizze, the house he built himself, since the early 1970s. His long poem, Mountain and Rivers Without End, testifies to his conviction that the quotidian and the cosmic are inseparable.”

With this passage, Smith introduces his unpublished interview with the Pultitzer prize-winning poet Gary Snyder – but he’s also introducing the man himself. It’s only one chapter in A Sense of the Whole: Reading Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End, edited by Mark Gonnerman. Some of you locals will remember Mark as the amiable and informed host of the Aurora Forum public conversations at Stanford. There’s lots to recall Stanford in this new volume, published by Counterpoint in Berkeley.

gonnermanSnyder’s book-length poem was published in spring 1996. In December of that year, Snyder read from the poem at the legendary independent bookstore Kepler’s, just down the street from Stanford (we wrote about its history here). Gonnerman was in the audience, and perhaps that was something of an inspiration for the year-long research workshop Gonnerman organized at the Stanford Humanities Center in 1997. Scholars, writers, faculty, students, and community members met regularly to discuss Snyder’s 39-poem cycle, Mountains and Rivers Without End.  

The new volume includes the October 8, 1997, conversation at Stanford’s East House between Snyder, Gonnerman, and Counterpoint publisher, Jack Shoemaker. The following night, October 9, Snyder read a large portion of the poem to a full house at Kresge Auditorium on the Stanford campus. It also has a short Stanford discussion between Gonnerman, Carl Bielefeldt, and Charles Junkerman.

It includes essays by other participants at the year-long Stanford Mountains and Rivers celebration, such as David Abram, Wendell Berry, Carl Bielefeldt, Tim Dean, Jim Dodge, Robert Hass, Stephanie Kaza, Julia Martin, Michael McClure, Nano Sakaki, and Katsunori Yamazato.

The poem is “a complex, engaging, and, I presume, enduring work of art,” writes Gonnerman, but a work of art that’s hard to classify: “Is it an ‘American epic poem’ (M&R dust jacket)? A multimedia poem cycle? A contribution to American mythology? A collection of poems depicting major ecosystem types? Is it a spiritual autobiography – a pilgrim’s progress – aimed at effecting some kind of religious conversion?” Clearly, all of the above for Gonnerman, who intended the book as a guide to the poem, as well as an homage.

But he had another purpose, too: “One of the most pressing problems in American education and society at large is a breakdown of community owing to specialization, a trend that has infected even undergraduate life,” Gonnerman writes. He says “the book aims to inspire others to organize learning communities around poetic and allied arts. Our Mountains & Rivers Workshop began in an effort to turn the contemporary research multiversity into a university once again, if only for a moment.”

(Postscript: I have never met Gary Snyder, even while living nearby in the Sierra foothills for years. But we briefly exchanged emails two years ago, after Mark had mentioned that René Girard once spent an evening eating horsemeat with the foothills poet.  That was so far-fetched I had to check it out. I finally reached him via a mutual friend. Sorry, he said, although he’d cooked and eaten horsemeat before, he’d never done so with the renowned immortel of the Académie Française. Now if you should hear that rumor, you can squash it, too. Like an ant.)


Antless at Columbia, 2007 (Creative Commons)


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