I first encountered Gary Snyder’s writing in the summer of 2001. I was living on the slopes of Mt. Rainier, waitressing and hiking and wondering about love, writing in my journal and scrambling across meadows and drinking beers around campfires. I’d just graduated from the Evergreen State College and I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go next. I had a milk crate full of used books I’d picked up at Orca Books on my way out of Olympia, and in one of them (Ann Charters’ Portable Beat Reader) I encountered Snyder.
I was enamored of the Beats, of their spontaneous prose and their resistance to convention and their love of travel, jazz, and Buddhism, but I was bothered by the currents of privilege and chauvinism that ran through so much of the Beat canon. Snyder was a revelation to me. From what I could tell he came from a West Coast working class family with Wobbly roots, he knew the rural, he gloried in folklore, he embraced discipline, he seemed to have a far more respectful attitude toward women in his life then so many of his contemporaries. And, most thrilling of all, he wrote about the places I loved. He was a poet of the North Cascades, of Old Highway 99, of the Upper Skagit, of the Pacific Rim.
On a trip off-mountain I picked up his Collected Works in a bookshop in Eugene and spent the rest of the summer pouring over his essays, translations, poems and letters. Looking back over those pages today, 14 years later, I can see in my emphatic underlinings and euphoric margin-notes something of a map, a map of a philosophy and a poetic style and a way of living that made sense to me, a map I would carry with me into all of my subsequent wanderings.
Mid August at Sourdough Lookout
Down Valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities,
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.
His poems delighted me with their crispness, their vivid detail, their reverence for the ordinary, the wild, the human. His essays informed my emerging philosophy about environmental politics and the significance of human stories of place.
I followed the map I’d etched out across his Collected Works to the North Cascades Institute, where I volunteered for the adult education program, helping with administrative tasks for weekend programs on nature poetry, ecology, watercoloring, raptor identification, and a host of other themes. I followed the map further still, to Utah, where I set out to twine together folklore, history, and environmental studies into a body of research and writing that ten years later, became my first book.
In 2004, at the outset of my graduate studies in Utah, I wrote Snyder letter of thanks, and had a friend deliver it to him at a reading in Bellingham. She made me a recording of his reading, and I played it in my apartment, cooking dinner in the Utah evening, nose full of the smell of sauteed onions. Several months later, I discovered a message from him in my inbox.
Looking around my piled up papers in the library/barn I came again on your note from the Cache Valley, Utah State—I used to know it well—when Tom Lyon taught there and edited Western American Literature. I love the story of what you’ve been doing. Bless you, and be well and be wild in your work.
Today he is 85. I think I’ll mail him a copy of my book for a birthday present.