Snyder, Thoreau, and Cold Mountain

It was a great treat to see and hear Gary Snyder on Tuesday night at MIT, where he received the Henry David Thoreau Prize (for “literary excellence in nature writing”) from PEN New England.  I’ve written a short piece on Snyder for this Sunday’s Boston Globe Books section, so I won’t say too much right now (I’ll post the link and a few more thoughts on Sunday).

UPDATE, 4/15/12: My appreciation of Snyder appears in the Globe Books section today (if you’re not a subscriber, you can also find it here, but the version behind the pay-wall is far more attractive and easier to read). I like the way my piece is paired with Christina Thompson’s review (for non-subscribers here) of Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind, by paleontologist Richard Fortey. It ties in nicely with the point I make about Snyder: my mini-essay begins with a note about climate change and the bristlecone pines, the earth’s oldest living trees, growing along the rim of the North American Great Basin, and a poem of Snyder’s, “The Mountain Spirit,” in which he spends a night among the bristlecones. I then write:

“Snyder has long been celebrated as a poet and essayist of place — Cascade peaks, Kyoto temples, Beat San Francisco, the South Yuba River watershed in the Sierra foothills where he’s lived since 1970 — and the idea of truly inhabiting one’s surrounding landscape is vital to his environmental ethic. But these days I think of Snyder, even more, as a preeminent poet of impermanence and time: from cosmic kalpas and geologic eons down to the evanescent ripple of the present moment.”

I go on to say that this interest in impermanence has never led him to passivity or fatalism in the face of suffering. I hope you’ll read the rest of the piece and let me know what you think.

But I do want to share some comments of Snyder’s, from his introduction to his reading at MIT, in which he drew an implied (or more than implied) connection between Thoreau and the 8th-century Chinese Buddhist hermit-poet Han Shan (“Cold Mountain”), whose poems Snyder (famously) translated in the 1950s while a grad student at Berkeley. It’s a connection I’ve thought about at times myself (and I’m sure I’m not the only one).

Snyder can be very funny in person. He admitted at the outset that he has sometimes struggled with Thoreau over the years. For instance, “Why the heck didn’t he get himself a girlfriend?!” When the laughter in the room subsided, Snyder continued (this is from my own recording):

GARY SNYDER: Recently, just reading, for the first time, Emerson’s essay on Thoreau, part of the eulogy he read at Thoreau’s funeral, [I learned] how actually eccentric Thoreau was — and then I felt really at home with him [laughter]. I just love this: Henry did not like the sound of gravel under his footsteps, and so he made a point of walking on the grass at the edge of the road whenever possible so that he wouldn’t make those noises.  He had a lot of interesting qualities. [laughter]

And he died at 45. Now, when I read that, I also felt weird because most of my life I’ve thought of him as an elder. Suddenly I realized, if I live much longer I’ll be twice as old as he was when he died. [Snyder turns 82 next month.]

So these things keep moving in strange ways….

I lived in Japan for twelve years. I spent a good bit of time studying classical literary Chinese. … One of the funny things is, in China, Korea, and Japan, I am sometimes described as “the American Thoreau.” [big laughter]

But then I’m also sometimes described as “the American Han Shan.” [Han Shan] was an 8th-century (A.D.) semi-legendary Buddhist hermit-monk, whose translations I did, a few translations, while I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley in 1952….

So, what I want to say a few words about, first, is that Thoreau is known most famously — and shallowly — in the United States, still, as a recluse.  Sort of as a hermit. What people think of first when they think of Thoreau is, “Oh, yeah, he lived by himself in a little house on the edge of Walden Pond.” And that was the label, and that was the shaping image of him, and still remains so, to a considerable degree, with the public.

And that is, of course, exactly what the East Asians picked up. The Japanese translation, the old Japanese translation … of Thoreau’s volume … translates as “Life in the Forest.” …

And there’s a whole Chinese history of recluse and hermit literature, in which they are either disappointed or disaffected Confucian scholars who are giving up the possibility of employment in the bureaucracy and a good life, because they are too pure for it — or it is the story of an extremely pure and possibly eccentric Buddhist monk who does not want to be part of community life anymore either.

And it is very easy in East Asia to be considered a hermit or a recluse. So, as I found out in recent years, I am counted in China and Japan as a recluse. [laughter]… A Japanese Buddhist priest who came to visit me said, “This is very irresponsible of you to live in this remote place” — northern California, twenty miles from town. [laughter] And on the edge of public land, BLM, Bureau of Land Management land … and no fences and very few roads, with more or less natural Ponderosa pine forest, although it has been logged twice, and burned over three or four times, probably, in the last two hundred years. He said, “This is irresponsible, you have to be engaged with human beings.” And I said, “I would like to tell you about the hearings I have gone to with the Forest Service [laughter], and the number of meetings I’ve had with the planning department of the county, myself and also with other people in my community, talking about road-building, talking about hydrology, talking about forestry plans in the future. And also how to manage and think about wildlife, because the bears are coming back, and the cougars are coming back, and the deer herd is on the edge of being too great.” And so forth. He couldn’t hear what I was saying. So, yeah, in a word, what I would say is simply this: living in the back country is really political. It’s not just grooving in nature. [laughter]

So, when I was a graduate student at Berkeley … I came back from a summer working on trail crew in the high country of the Sierra Nevada, in the Yosemite country, I came back with lots of good images of what it was like to be up in the high country, and … [my teacher], after I came back from the high country working on trail crew, he said, “What do you want to study in your seminar?” I said I’d like to study some unknown Buddhist monk. He said, “I’ve got just the one for you.” And that was this man, Han Shan (presumably a man), which means “Cold Mountain,” and that’s all that’s known of his name. And I said, “Well, how do I get the poems?” And he said, “Oh, go check it out in the East Asian library, get one of the editions there.” And I got it out of the library, it was an East Asian edition from the 18th century, printed in Japan, traditional binding. So that’s what I worked with.  And I did these translations.

I’ll just read two or three of them. Bear Thoreau in mind, in the back of your mind, when I read this.

He read four of his translations from “Cold Mountain Poems,” which were originally published in Evergreen Review in 1958 and appear in the volume Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, reissued in 2009 in a 50th anniversary edition.  (The four he read, if you’re a Cold Mountain enthusiast, begin with the lines: “The path to Han Shan’s place is laughable”; “I settled at Cold Mountain long ago”; “In my first thirty years of life”;  and “Once at Cold Mountain, troubles cease”). The last of them he also read in Chinese.  I should say, I’d somehow never heard Snyder read before — I’ve only known his work on the page — and his readings, in a kind of lilting baritone, were far more musical than I’d expected. (Hopefully, PEN New England will post audio of the event, as they have for previous events, in which case I’ll add a link here.)

After reading the translations, Snyder returned to Thoreau, and had this to say:

SNYDER: Henry David … should never be slighted for having only lived two years at Walden Pond, and should be appreciated for the extraordinary curiosity and interest that he brought over the years, right up till he died, in observing natural history on the ground, everywhere, walking around taking notes. His journals are just remarkable. And that’s what I still think of and admire about this guy — who I only wish had lived longer, so he could have come out to the West Coast. [laughter]

Snyder went on to add that he had never read Thoreau until he was 23 (mainly because he’d been captivated by John Muir at an early age), during the second summer he spent as a lookout in the north Cascades, in 1953.  Turning to read the first poem in Riprap (his first book of poems), “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” Snyder noted, “I was reading Thoreau exactly at this time.”

-Wen Stephenson

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