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Don Rogers: Our living koan

Who on earth is Gary Snyder?

Never heard of the guy before moving here. Hadn’t made time for Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, any of them. I’d lumped the Beats with the gonzos and punks going back to Hemingway’s Paris crowd of mostly posers and hard partiers.

But in certain circles, I keep hearing about Snyder. A longtime local lawyer and his wife mention he’s coming over for dinner soon and is probably the reason one of their daughters chose Reed for college. A colleague in the newsroom says he’s great. Regular, you know? No airs. Been around since the late ’60s.



Local literati speak of him reverentially, his writing part of the canon one must understand to live properly here.

But then others who have been in this community forever have managed to have no clue about him. His name’s a blank.




Maybe he’s a living koan, then. That would be fitting.

So I got to stalking. A writer friend sent me a New Yorker profile. I googled up quite a trove online. I read Kerouac’s “On the Road” and even liked it. Didn’t seem to have a real point, but I loved the rhythm of the writing, the touchstones to my own young life, the characters and all that.

I learned Snyder was the main muse for “Dharma Bums,” a sort of “on the trail” sequel. I liked this one even better for the focus on where I’ve always felt more at home, California’s coastal mountains and the Sierra Nevada.

I found Snyder’s books on the third floor of City Lights in San Francisco and references to him at the de Young.

I was tickled to discover an old video of him blowing a conch shell to start the Human Be-In. Here was the Beat link to the Summer of Love and the hippies, like the Pony Express a fingersnap in real time and yet with us forever.

But his influence runs deeper. He had a large part in rekindling American interest in Buddhism. In this he connects directly to Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, whose writings were likewise leavened, if more subtly.

And, at least to me, deeper yet: He was one of the early moderns raising ecological awareness in the vein of Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold. If he’s lesser known, he shouldn’t be. I’m in the middle of his “The Practice of the Wild.” In a word: Wow.

He was the first chairman of the California Arts Council, appointed in the ’70s by his friend Gov. Jerry Brown, who used to bring his girlfriend Linda Ronstadt to Snyder’s place on the ridge.

He’s in rarefied air with a Pulitzer Prize, though who would know since it’s for poetry, something we might revere without going through all the trouble of reading. I know I’m prone to nodding politely, wondering what all the fuss is about over some words scattered supposedly just so, leaves on a lawn. The wind could have done that, I think.

Hmmm, maybe best for once to defer understanding to the sages.

But his poems I forced myself to read have the feel of working man, with punchlines from the profound. Lots of Anglo-Saxon words, like “gut,” and the lines run straightforward and crisp. Deceptively simple is what the critics say.

I saw that Snyder in his youth earned his way with his hands: growing up on a farm, crewing on freighters, logging, building trails and the like, developing enough callus to be forgiven two summers of pantywaist perching in a fire lookout.

Some of his poems — how to put this? — are more earthy, unequivocally sexual, impossible to misunderstand. And profound in the sense our essential wildness in love can’t help but be.

That’s a little something I picked up from “The Etiquette of Freedom,” a text companion to a documentary in 2010 featuring Snyder and the late author Jim Harrison. Snyder says he remembers David Brower, the Sierra Club steward, declaring that humans remain a wild species because “nobody is controlling who mates with whom.” It’s “impulse-driven” vs. rational.

Maybe a small point, but this is exactly what writers do: crystallize, articulate, give us these “aha” moments.

Epiphany changes whole lives in an instant, and can do the same for a civilization. This guy has sprinkled these little gifts across a whole cultural landscape.

Who on earth is Gary Snyder? For all his fame and historical import, why, he’s Nevada County’s best kept secret.

Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at drogers@theunion.com or 477-4299.

Snyder and Seattle University Professor Jason Wirth have a book reading and signing at 2 p.m. Saturday for “Mountains, Rivers, and the Great Earth: Reading Gary Snyder and Dogen in an Age of Ecological Crisis” at the Open Book on Maltman Drive in Grass Valley.


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