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Words from the Ridge: Gary Snyder releases new book

The fact that Gary Snyder, who lectures and gives readings at conferences and universities around the world, has enjoyed living on the scenic San Juan Ridge since 1970 should come as no surprise to area residents.

Snyder is the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose writings for five decades have been about respecting the natural world. Growing up on a farm in the backwoods of northern Washington, Snyder learned early to appreciate earth and sky, rock and water, nature and humanity.

“Living on the San Juan Ridge certainly affects my subject matter to some extent,” Snyder said. “It gives you the opportunity to deal hands-on and work with nature, instead of just looking at nature. It’s always been a part of my life; the San Juan Ridge has kept me going.”



Some of Snyder’s experiences in Nevada County can be found in “Danger on Peaks,” a collection of poems written by Snyder during the past eight years and released last week.

The new anthology includes poems on Eastern literature and culture, the environment, and humanity’s place in the cosmos. Snyder will have a reading Nov. 3 at Odyssey Books in Grass Valley during a West Coast tour in support of “Danger on Peaks.”




The collection begins with a section about Mount St. Helens, introduced by Snyder’s first climb there as a 15-year-old on Aug. 13, 1945.

“The very next day, I found out the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and that nothing would grow for 70 years. That appalled me,” Snyder wrote in the book.

At that moment, Snyder said, he immediately vowed “by the purity and beauty and permanence of Mt. St. Helens (to) fight against this cruel destructive power and those who would seek to use it, for all my life.”

The collection’s first section ends with a poem about Snyder’s return to the mountain 55 years later, this time to witness the majesty of a volcano’s eruption.

Other poems in the collection deal with the High Sierra and the ice age; candid, pragmatic poems about the Californian culture; international themes and the current world situation.

In the last section, Snyder ties in the destruction by the Taliban of the carved-in-stone Buddhas in Bamiyan Valley three years ago with 9/11 and the terrorism acts.

When asked what the connection is – the obvious answer being that both acts were perpetrated by Muslim extremists – Snyder said, “I won’t give that all away. There’s a couple of other points. Part of the collection’s project is to examine impermanence, destruction and the inevitability of death.”

The collection of poetry fell into place almost accidentally, he said.

“I was working on a book of essays a couple of years ago, doing clean-up work when I looked at all these poems I had been writing and I began seeing connections and relationships,” he said. “Before I knew it, the poems were turned into this collection. The collection thrust itself on me; you have to trust that when it happens.”

With the poetry collection completed, Snyder can now finish editing and adding a few more writings for the book of essays which is on philosophical, aesthetic, political and environmental subjects.

Now 75, Snyder could slow down a bit and his fans likely would understand. But don’t expect him to take much of a breather.

“I’d love to be able to get tired,” he said, “but the way these creeps are running this country, you can’t take a break.”

He remains just as much on the go abroad as here.

Snyder will read at a festival and at other venues in Italy the next three weeks; his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Turtle Island” was just translated into Italian. He will also visit organic farmers in the Po River Valley and learn about “The Iceman.”

“I want to see the Iceman museum at the foot of the Italian Alps. The Iceman is the person they found in a melting glacier in 1996 whose clothing, tools and body were preserved,” Snyder said. “He died 5,000 years ago passing the pass between Austria and Italy. It’s just a remarkable find. His body is in a refrigerator in this museum.”

What Snyder learns from his museum visit will most likely end up on paper.

“I’m fascinated by the intelligence and usefulness of everything the Iceman had. This will become something; I don’t know what,” Snyder said. “His hat was made of bear skin, he had a woven grass rain cape, wild goat leggings, he had a leather belt pouch with three sharp tools, stone dagger, he was carrying a bow and arrows. He had tattoos and he was 35 years old. He was somebody’s ancestor.”

No Shadow

Standing on a gravel hill by the lower Yuba

can see down west a giant airforce cargo plane from Beale

hang-gliding down to land

strangely slow over the tumbled dredged out goldfields

– practice run

shadow of a cargo jet – soon gone

no-shadow of an osprey

still here

– by Gary Snyder, from “Danger on Peaks”

Selected bibliography

– “The Gary Snyder Reader” (Counterpoint Press, 1999)

– “Mountains and Rivers Without End” (1996)

– “A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds” (1995)

– “No Nature: New and Selected Poems” (1992)

– “The Practice of the Wild” (1990)

– “Left Out in the Rain, New Poems 1947-1985” (1986)

– “Axe Handles” (1983)

– “He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth” (1979)

– “Turtle Island” (1974)

– “Regarding Wave” (1970)

– “Earth House Hold” (1969)

– “The Back Country” (1968)

– “Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems (1965)

– “Myths & Texts” (1960)

– “Riprap” (1959)


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