It's hard to say for what Gary Snyder is most renowned. The 84-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning poet — often associated with both the writers of the Beat Generation (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen) and the San Francisco Renaissance (Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer) — is also an essayist, lecturer, educator, Zen Buddhist and environmental activist.
All of which will come into play when he speaks tonight at Colorado College, during this 25th anniversary year of his book The Practice of the Wild.
The collection of nine essays has been billed as "one of the most influential books about the environment of the last 50 years," but Snyder says far-reaching influence was never his intent.
"I didn't undertake writing it to have that kind of an effect on the environmental writing community, the environmental literature community," he says. "I simply was following the particular interests that had developed around my own work."
From the 1950s on, Snyder had been traveling all over the United States, and some in Europe and Asia, giving poetry readings and talks "about the environment and environmental politics and environmental possibilities." As a result, he had developed several key interests — first and foremost, language analysis, reflected in the very first chapter, "The Compact."
"I zeroed in on the vocabulary," he explains, "and the particular words 'wild' and 'nature' as used in the language of people talking and writing about those things. And I pushed it that we would know better what those words mean and what it is that we are talking about when we venture into those territories."
Take "wild." As he explains in the book, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it:
Of animals — not tame, undomesticated, unruly
Of land — uninhabited, uncultivated.
And so on.
"Wild," he writes, "is largely defined in our dictionaries by what — from a human standpoint — it is not."
He suggests a different perspective.
Of animals — free agents, each with its own endowments, living within natural systems.
Of land — a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact and in full interaction and the landforms are entirely the result of nonhuman forces. Pristine.
Twenty-five years later, environmental educators still use the text, and, of course, Snyder still contemplates the words. He says he recently viewed the film Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, who hikes 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone.
"Much of the Pacific Crest Trail, I know," says Snyder, who has lived in California now for 45 years. "And I know the story of the woman who wrote the books that the movie is based on, and so, like, I was looking at it with a funny, critical eye. How do they handle the term 'wild'? And it's really quite nice. It's actually a very intelligent movie. ...
"It changes the perspective in a pretty good way [for] a lot of people who otherwise would not even have a clue as to what you're doing there. I like to remind people, and remind myself, too, it's only a hundred years ago that our grandparents and great-grandparents had to walk everywhere, and a lot of people that came out from the Midwest to California and Oregon and Washington, walked. There were lots of people who walked then. It wasn't all expensive covered wagons."
Another topic Snyder pursues in The Practice of the Wild is the nature of public land, which he says has not been investigated enough.
"People have heard about public land, but they pretty much take it for granted," he says today. "And, you know, the majority of them still don't know the difference between a national park and a national forest. That's really true. Go around asking people and see what they say. ... People make the mistake of thinking that public land belongs to the federal government. And so they regularly say 'federal land, federal ownership.'"
Of course, he adds, the government itself often forgets that it is land that belongs to the people, that the government is only a steward. "It is not, as such, real estate that belongs to the federal government. ... It's people's land."
The truth, he says, is that Americans are newcomers here, and they remain newcomers "because they don't know where the hell they are." For that reason, he argues that part of the "practice of the wild," is getting to know the land right around you — from what nature is doing in its own right to how we harmonize ourselves with it.
Try to get away from the highway map, he suggests. Look at a map that shows where the creeks and mountains are. Be aware of what the endangered species are, as against those who are flourishing nicely. Be aware of how the vegetation is impacted and what the issues are. And, don't set yourself too fiercely against any or all economic use, but scale economic use to what's appropriate to the type of ecosystem you are in, and where the land ownership goes.
And perhaps easiest: Get outside and engage.
"It's etiquette to know the names of at least some of the plants that grow in your area and some of the birds that come through. And to be able to say hello to them when they come by. [It's] a neighborly awareness toward the natural world.
"That's just one part of the exercise of making ourselves good Americans. I try to tell people who are right-wingers ... here's another side of patriotism. You know you should love your country ... [but] your country isn't just your human public, it's all these other things."