Desert Solitaire – Edward Abbey

Desert Solitaire

I do not recall if Abbey studied zen. It appears to me that inherent in his craft is the idea that what he does not say is as important as what he does. Each sentence zigs and zags around, over and under so many norms of American society, and he does so with nary a collision. However, it is his intent to speak his mind and cause the collisions at his place and time: ( “Aside from the modest prevention the book is fairly plain and straight. Certain faults will be obvious to the general reader, of course, and for these I wish to apologize. I quite agree that much of the book will seem course, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced, constructive – even frankly antisocial in its point of view. Serious critics, serious librarians, serious associate professors of English will if they read this work dislike it intensely; at least I hope so. To others I can only say that if the book has virtues they cannot be disentangles from the faults; that there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right.)

“It will be objected that the book deals too much with mere appearances, with the surface of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any. There are many people who say they have, I know, but they’ve been luckier than I.

For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces – in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or a lover, the wild of a girls thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear watering a pool, the face of the wind – what else is there?. What else do we need?”

22151002_28767 Edward-Abbey-TerraSight_A152

Zen Master – Gary Snyder and the Art of Life.

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Zen Master

Gary Snyder and the Art of Life.
The New Yorker
October 20, 2008
By Dana Goodyear

Gary Snyder, the Zen poet, lives on a hundred backcountry acres in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, meditates mornings, and thanks his food before he eats it, clapping his hands together and saying “Itadakimasu,” which is Japanese for “Thank you very much.” He likes a boilermaker at dinnertime (a shot of bourbon and a tall glass of beer) and, on occasion, the bullfrogs from his pond. “I follow the ‘Joy of Cooking,’ ” he says. “You’ve got to skin them and brine them overnight. She recommends rolling them in bread crumbs and frying them.” He finds that vulture feathers make the best pens for calligraphy, and collects them when he hikes. Some nights, he takes a blanket and a thermos of sake and a star map, walks along a gravel riverbed not far from his house to a spot among the mounded diggings left by the gold-mining ventures of the past two centuries, and, by the light of a red torch, works on the constellations.

Snyder, who is seventy-eight, has written nineteen books of poems and essays that are engaged with watersheds, geology, logging, backpacking, ethno-poetics, Native American oral storytelling, communal living, sex, coyotes, bears, Tibetan deities, Chinese landscape painting, Japanese Noh drama, and the intimacies of family life. His reach extends far beyond the usual small audience for poetry; “Turtle Island,” a collection of poems that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, has sold a hundred thousand copies. (“Turtle Island swims / in the ocean-sky swirl-void / biting its tail while the worlds go / on-and-off / winking.”) He is, notably, a poet of the Pacific Rim. He told me, “I think of my territory as that which I have walked in person and know the weather at a given time of year, know a lot of the critters, and know a lot of the people. That would be from around Baja up to Alaska, through the Aleutian Islands, then pick up again in Hokkaido, down Japan and into Taiwan and the south coast of China, and the Pacific, which I know pretty well, having sailed it half a dozen times by a nice slow boat going fourteen knots, day and night.” But if you met him in a bar in Japan or China or Korea, and asked him what he did, he’d probably say, “I do my best as a teacher and I’m kind of a clumsy farmer.” (He taught in the English department at the University of California at Davis from 1986 until 2001, and has a small orchard.) The last book he wants to write, he says, is a “personal dharma memoir,” a chronicle of Buddhism in the late twentieth century. “Like the rock climbers say, having fun doesn’t mean you have to have fun,” he says. “Being a Buddhist doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a good Buddhist.”

A few months ago, looking over the wine list in a fine restaurant in nearby Nevada City, Snyder said, “I’ve got a twenty-five-year-old Cab I’m saving for venison-for when we get a deer again, on the road. In the winter season, I always drive with a giant black garbage bag in the car and a hunting knife or two.” He pulled out a thick-bladed knife and laid it on the table. An appetizer of goat-cheese cakes, dotted with arugula pesto, kalamata tapenade, and roasted red peppers and truffle oil, arrived. Snyder lifted the knife and cut the cakes precisely in two. Later, when he got up from the table for a moment, a young, heavily lipsticked waitress came over and said excitedly, “He’s one of my absolute heroes.”

Snyder is shortish and solid and exudes physical confidence. A boy of the Pacific Northwest-born in San Francisco, brought up outside Seattle-he climbed Mt. St. Helens at fifteen; as a young man, he worked in Indian logging camps and fire-lookout cabins in the wilderness and on a trail crew in the Sierra Nevada, where he wrote the first poems that he wanted to keep. He wears a beard and has a turquoise stud in his left ear-it’s been pierced since 1950-and has gray-green eyes that disappear into the planes of his face, like puddles in a dry season. One of his incisors is capped in gold, which gives him the rascally look of an old mountain man when he smiles. When I repeated the waitress’s remark, he said, “You shouldn’t have told me that.”

Masa Uehara, Snyder’s wife, sits on a rock-pretty, pregnant, her hair covered with a bandanna, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. The green Yuba River swirls around her. Snyder is in the water, naked, hoisting a naked baby boy (their first son, Kai) over his shoulder. The photograph ran as a centerfold in Look in 1969, with a caption that read, “Author Gary Snyder and family, in the Sierras, look forward to a new Neolithic age that will combine the love of nature, sex and life based on mythical truths.”

Snyder was just back from Japan, having spent much of the late fifties and the sixties in Kyoto, undergoing formal training as a Zen monk. He had left the West Coast in the spring of 1956, several months after participating in what to many remains the defining poetic event of the previous half century: the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco, at which Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl” in public, while Jack Kerouac shouted, “Go! Go! Go!” Snyder read “A Berry Feast,” an ode in praise of Coyote, a trickster figure from Native American myth: “Coyote the Nasty, the fat / Puppy that abused himself, the ugly gambler, / Bringer of goodies.” The poem, which traces the destruction of forests to the building of the suburban house-“a box to catch the biped in”-is infused with the Buddhist idea of impermanence. It forecasts a time of “People gone, death no disaster,” and ends with Coyote surveying a depopulated city where resilient nature still thrives-“Dead city in dry summer, / Where berries grow.”

Kenneth Rexroth-the m.c. of the Six Gallery reading and a renowned poet, critic, and translator-was the presiding elder of the city’s poetry scene, gathering young disciples around him for Friday-night instruction. Snyder had studied Native American oral traditions in the anthropology department at Reed College, and when he arrived in Berkeley to pursue graduate work in East Asian studies a friend took him to Rexroth’s house. They hit it off right away. Snyder was translating the poems of the T’ang-dynasty mountain hermit Han Shan-an exquisitely terse and funny suite later published as “Cold Mountain Poems”-and studying sumi painting with the artist Chiura Obata. The conversations at Rexroth’s ranged from discussions of Pound and Williams, both of whom he knew, to “The Tale of Genji” and the perfidies of Trotsky. “Rexroth was a great mentor,” Snyder told me. “He was a polymath, universalist, critical thinker, and he declared himself an anarcho-pacifist.”

Snyder’s politics were similarly radical. He had grown up poor in Stumpland-logged-out country that backed up onto second-growth woods, in what is now a suburb of Seattle. His grandfather was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies); his father, a sometime dairy farmer, was a union organizer on the Grand Coulee Dam project, and hosted meetings for a local league of unemployed workers, which was labelled a Communist front. At eighteen, Snyder joined the far-left Marine Cooks and Stewards union, and shipped out to the Caribbean for a summer.

Snyder dressed in thrift-store clothing and was proud of his working-class sympathies and his wilderness experience. Jack Spicer, another poet in Rexroth’s circle, called him the Boy Scout. The day after meeting Snyder, Ginsberg described him in a letter as a “laconist, but warmhearted, nice looking with a little beard, thin, blond, rides a bicycle in Berkeley in red corduroy & levis & hungup on indians (ex-anthropologist student from some indian hometown) and writes well, his sideline besides zen which is apparently calm scholarly & serious with him.” Kerouac-whose manuscript “On the Road,” about his travels with the feckless Neal Cassady, had just been accepted by Viking when he met Snyder, in 1955-was sufficiently smitten to write a novel based on their friendship.

In “The Dharma Bums,” Japhy Ryder, a sprightly, cocksure poet with a background and a set of interests striking similar to Snyder’s, introduces the narrator, Ray Smith, to Zen Buddhism and mountaineering. The story revolves around an expedition led by Ryder to the peak of Yosemite’s Matterhorn, a trip that Snyder and Kerouac made together in the fall of 1955. Kerouac’s exposure to Snyder’s self-discipline and know-how inspired more than literary productivity: he decided to become a fire lookout himself, and spent a summer on Desolation Peak, in the North Cascades, near where Snyder had worked several years before. Describing Snyder’s deep effect on the Beats, the poet and playwright Michael McClure said, “Just look at Kerouac. He didn’t go back on Route 66, hugging Neal and weeping big sad tears. He climbed a mountain.”

In the novel, Alvah Goldbook (a character based on Allen Ginsberg) says of Ryder, “He’s really the wildest craziest sharpest cat we’ve ever met. And what I love about him is he’s the big hero of the West Coast. . . . Besides all the background he has, in Oriental scholarship, Pound, taking peyote and seeing visions, his mountainclimbing and bhikkuing, wow, Japhy Ryder is a great new hero of American culture.” Ryder was also something of a satyr, and, in a memorable scene, demonstrates with a limber, gray-eyed woman named Princess the Tibetan cross-legged sexual position yabyum. (Princess is obliging, and everyone has a go.) Later, Kerouac wrote to Snyder about signing a release form. “As you see, I’ve got you down pretty accurate but I made some changes in your personal life, girlfriends, etc. . . . to throw off the scent.”

“The Dharma Bums,” which was published in 1958, incited a “Rucksack Revolution” and fed a craze for Zen. It made Snyder famous, but he was not particularly grateful. “Since Dharma Bums came out I feel that you’ve been silent and disappointed about me,” Kerouac wrote to him. “I dont think the book was as bad as you think; when you look at it again in future years, when the world will’ve gotten worster, you’ll look back and appreciate the job I did on ‘you’ and on Dharma Bumism.” Snyder says now that although Kerouac’s description of the climbing trip was essentially accurate, the rest grew out of his friend’s imagination. “The sex scene in ‘The Dharma Bums’ was the result of me describing for Jack Kerouac Tantric sex in Tibetan Buddhism,” he told me. “Jack was fascinated by that. I always say, ‘Give the guy credit!’ He could write a novel. He wasn’t just always a journalist.” That point was a shade too subtle for the rest of the world. In 1960, when Snyder got married in Kyoto to Joanne Kyger, an American poet whom he had met in North Beach, the display type in one newspaper notice read, “Zen Poet Wed / Kerouac Character / SF’s Gary Snyder Married in Japan.” (They broke up a few years later, though they remain friends, and in 1967 he married Uehara, a Japanese graduate student.)

Snyder’s years in Japan were consumed with koan study. For his first, which took him a year and a half to answer, he was instructed to show what his face looked like before his parents met. He took the Buddhist name Chofu and early on fell in with some yamabushi-followers of an ancient folk religion that centers on mountaineering-who took him climbing. Snyder says, “They said, ‘O.K., we’re going to see if you are one of us.’ They told me to climb up a five-hundred-foot vertical rock pitch while chanting the Heart Sutra. Luckily, I knew the Heart Sutra, so that was O.K. Then they said, ‘Now we’re going to initiate you.’ They tied a rope around my ankles and hung me over a cliff and said, ‘We’ll drop you if you don’t tell the truth,’ and they started asking me questions. After that was over, they took me to a mountain temple with a dirt floor-it was small and dark and all smoky with incense-and we blew the conch for hours. I have some very wonderful overalls from them.”

As a student of Zen, Snyder lived an existence that was austere, and sometimes humorless. Once, after he had finished a week of intensive meditation, Kyger wrote in her journal, “Gary came home last Tuesday after the sesshin and said he had passed his koan plus 3 auxilliary ones. He refused to contract verbs-saying I will do it, instead of I’ll do it etc.” When they went to India with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Kyger told me recently, she coveted a “beggar’s necklace” made of dozens of semiprecious stones-red, orange, green, creamy, amber-colored. Snyder let her buy it only after she had memorized the name of each one.

In 1959, Snyder published “Riprap,” a group of short, tough poems composed, he wrote, to the rhythms of physical labor, and informed by his work laying cobblestones on the granite slab of the Sierra as part of a trail crew. The language itself is stony, a monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon workingman’s vocabulary that reverberates when struck: “Lay down these words / Before your mind like rocks. / placed solid, by hands / In choice of place, set / Before the body of the mind / in space and time: / Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall / riprap of things.”

“I felt absolutely at home with the colloquial voice and the honest-to-god, honest-to-earth elemental content-the things of the poems,” Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet, said about his initial encounter with Snyder’s poems. “There is something unleavened about that first book. The elements of the poems are trustworthy, and you feel there’s a real coherence in the sensibility that’s transmitting them to you. And, in the primal, mythic-poetry sense, he’s back on the Hill of Parnassus.”

In the middle of June, Snyder visited New York for a long weekend. With his younger son, Gen, who is thirty-eight, he went twice to the Met. They looked at rare pre-Columbian feather-working, Himalayan art, and samurai gear, and visited an exhibit on Chinese painting and calligraphy. “For one who knows the nature of the East Asian brush and what’s possible, it was somewhat elementary, but very useful for the usual viewer,” he wrote to me later.

On the Saturday of the trip, wearing jeans, a vest, and a long skull-and-bead necklace-a symbol of impermanence that he picked up at a Buddhist supply shop in Kyoto-Snyder reported to the Asia Society, on the Upper East Side, for a symposium devoted to his travels through India with Kyger, Ginsberg, and Orlovsky. “One of the most significant and transformative things for me was discovering the depth of time in the mythologies of India,” Snyder told the audience. “That we live in a universe of millions of universes that has gone through millions and millions of years, kalpa after kalpa, aeon after aeon.” Then he told a story about how he once blew the mind of Francis Crick, over lunch, when he explained to him that the Indian belief in reincarnation demonstrated an understanding of deep space and the history of the universe.

Performance is an essential part of Snyder’s poetry; it was the Six Gallery reading, he says, that first awakened him to the possibility of an oral poetry in America. “It made us realize that poetry was a social experience, more like storytelling,” he says. Reading aloud is crucial to his process; he improvises, makes substitutions, supplies glosses on difficult words. Sometimes he sings a poem, or gestures with his hands, like a conductor before an orchestra. In India, he attended an all-night poetry reading, and several years ago he tried one himself, with dancers, musicians, and costumes. At the Asia Society, he was brief, reading one ten-minute poem: “An Offering for Tara”-the Buddhist goddess of compassion. The poem is one of his more esoteric works, a multivoiced, choral setting, but he didn’t worry about comprehensibility. He says, “When people tell me they don’t understand a poem, I say, ‘Fine, just listen to it. The exposure to it is part of its power. Don’t vex yourself with an intellectual understanding of it.’ We don’t expect to understand graphic art that way.” Snyder read with his heels clicked together in back, a dancer in first position. He leaned into the stresses as if boosted by an updraft, making of each word a surprising curiosity. When he got to a Sanskrit prayer, “Om tare tuttare ture swaha tare tare tare,” he chanted it-resonant, rapid, low. The audience was suffused with happy, baffled pleasure and good vibes.

Snyder sat down in the audience. Ed Sanders, of the Fugs, sang a reedy song to Ginsberg, “He was one of me hee-eeee-roes.” There was talk of “Omic laryngitis” and the Human Be-In, which Snyder opened by blowing on a conch. Ginsberg’s old harmonium was trotted out. Meanwhile, Snyder got to work. He put on a pair of glasses, and took a small notebook from the front pocket of his shirt. He paged through it, periodically jotting something down. Every once in a while, at the end of a number, he’d look up, remove his glasses and rub his eyes, and then resume note-taking.

“I live in the present. That’s why I get things done in the present,” Snyder told me later, explaining his impatience at being called a Beat writer. “I’m not a Beat in a literary sense,” he said. “I’m a historical part of that circle of friends, and I was part of the early sociological and cultural effect of it. My work did not fit with the critics’ and the media’s idea of Beat writing, ever. We were all so different from each other, all these unique cases. That makes it really kind of untidy.” Another time, he said, “Why I distanced myself from the Beats? Allen and I had that out even when we were in our twenties. We had mutual respect, and mutual disagreement. I am very symptomatic of the West Coast, and the West Coast is a slightly different culture from the rest of the country.”

Kitkitdizze, named for a local plant, is Snyder’s place. It is on the San Juan Ridge, in the Yuba River watershed. “My pond runs right past San Francisco,” he says. “It goes into the creek downhill, from there into the South Yuba, then to the Feather, the Sacramento, through the delta to San Francisco Bay, and on out to the Pacific.”

Snyder bought the land in the mid-sixties, with Allen Ginsberg and Richard Baker, then the president of the San Francisco Zen Center. (Snyder bought them out, and Gen now lives in Bedrock Mortar, the twenty-by-twenty cabin that Ginsberg built, inscribing “HARE KRISHNA HARE KRISHNA JAI GURU RAMA OM HUM” on its foundation.) Snyder’s house is low-browed, and roofed in red tiles; the stain is grayish to match the woods around it, and the trim is the orange-red of manzanita bark. (He took a branch to a paint store and had the supplier mix the shade accordingly.) The floor in the kitchen is made from sandstone that Snyder harvested from California’s White Mountains, at nine thousand feet. “The job is very amateurish, not as smooth as it could be,” he said when I visited him there in late June. “It’s the first stone floor I ever laid.” The center of the house, now occupied by a dining-room table stacked with books and periodicals, was once an open fire pit, over which a huge kettle would hang, suspended from a hook that Snyder had carved out of an oak crotch that he found. A gable covers the old smoke hole.

In 1969, Snyder sought ten volunteers to help him build a home that was to be part Japanese farmhouse, part Indian lodge. They came-some from Berkeley, some from Antioch College-in the summer of 1970, and, with Snyder and Uehara, built the house in a few months, using ponderosa pines from within three hundred feet of the site to frame, and local incense cedar for siding. The foundation stones came from the middle fork of the Yuba River. There was no electricity (Kitkitdizze is still off the grid, and nowadays runs on solar and generators), so they felled the trees with a two-man handsaw. Days were hot and nakedness prevailed.

Many of Snyder’s poems come straight from his life. The topless women carpenters inspired “Alabaster,” published in a mid-eighties collection, “Left Out in the Rain”:

 

Tanya’s bosom like a drawn bow
Holly like a load of flowers
Ann’s gracious fruits
Masa brown and slimming down
from milky dark-veined weight
and, slighter than the rest,

But strongly dappled in the
sweltering-shady mind,
Edie’s alabaster breasts.

 

 

Many of the volunteers-Holly and Tanya among them-decided to stay on San Juan Ridge. Some pooled their resources and bought the adjacent property, and this community became Snyder’s testing ground for the ideas he was beginning to explore in print. In “Four Changes,” a widely circulated environmental treatise he published in 1969 and made available for free, he warned of the dangers of overpopulation, pollution, and consumption-particularly of fossil fuels. Some of his ideas seem implausible now-polyandrous marriages as a remedy for overpopulation, walking the Coast Range as a way to get from San Francisco to L.A.-while others are straight out of the post-Gore environmental consciousness: bring your own bags to the grocery store, use natural fertilizer, recycle, carpool. He says, “It is not particularly gratifying to have been right.”

“Gary was in the thick of Bay Area green activism at a time when it was being invented,” Stewart Brand, the publisher of the “Whole Earth Catalogue” and one of many people who published “Four Changes,” told me. According to Snyder’s old friend Jack Shoemaker, of Counterpoint, his publisher since the early eighties, ” ‘Four Changes’ really elevated him to be an environmental leader of the counterculture. It wasn’t a hippie-dippy, feather-wearing poem. It was a manifesto, and the national environmental movement had to take it seriously.” Snyder began to be recognized as a public intellectual, lecturing at universities and appearing at environmental conferences, including the historic United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, in 1972. Shoemaker said, “The environmental movement needed a celebrity-like person, someone charismatic. The others were dull as paste. They needed someone attractive, and Gary understood something about his own attractiveness. He had a sense of his life as style, long before we had that term ‘life style.’ ”

Informed by the Buddhist principle of ahimsa, or non-harming, and also by Native American religious thought, Snyder argues that humans must take the nonhuman elements of the planet into account, not for our sakes but for theirs. Using Kitkitdizze as a prototype, he encourages others to inhabit more fully the places they live-settle down, get to know the neighbors (including, in his conception, the plants and animals), join the school board and the watershed council, and defend the local resources and way of life. Place, he writes, should be defined by natural indicators, like rivers and the flora and fauna they support. “The watershed is the first and last nation whose boundaries, though subtly shifting, are unarguable,” he wrote in an essay in the early nineties. “If public lands come under greater pressure to be opened for exploitation and use in the twenty-first century, it will be the local people, the watershed people, who will prove to be the last and possibly most effective line of defense.” Bill McKibben, writing in The New York Review of Books in 1991, asserted that “Snyder has emerged as perhaps the most eloquent American champion of what is called ‘bioregionalism,’ the idea that political boundaries should reflect the land we live on, and that decisions within those boundaries should respect that land.” He went on, “The long-held aesthetic arguments for a simpler life are suddenly being seen to coincide neatly with the hard-headed calculations of the atmospheric chemists. Snyder is among the first to sense this conjunction.” Snyder’s take on climate change is, however, typically independent. Humans may be in for some difficult times, but nature will take care of itself, he says. Accept impermanence.

In the early days, Snyder and his family hand-pumped their water, and lived by kerosene and firelight. In summer, they cooked outside and ate in an open-sided dining room. Uehara made her first birthday cake, for Kai, in a Dutch oven, over campfire coals. And, readers of “Turtle Island” know, they all bathed together in a sauna, an everyday experience that, in “The Bath,” Snyder transforms into a meditation on the sexual interconnectedness of father, mother, and child. (When the boys were old enough to care, they banned him from reading the poem on the West Coast.)

 

Sweating and panting in the stove-steam hot-stone
cedar-planking wooden bucket water-splashing
kerosene lantern-flicker wind-in-the-pines out
sierra forest ridges night—
Masa comes in, letting fresh cool air
sweep down from the door
a deep sweet breath
And she tips him over gripping neatly, one knee down
her hair falling hiding one whole side of
shoulder, breast, and belly,
Washes deftly Kai’s head-hair
as he gets mad and yells—
The body of my lady, the winding valley spine,
the space between the thighs I reach through,
cup her curving vulva arch and hold it from behind,
a soapy tickle             a hand of grail
The gates of Awe
That open back a turning double-mirror world of
wombs in wombs, in rings,
that start in music,
is this our body?

The sauna still stands. Snyder told me that it can fit five or six comfortably, though it has sometimes held many more. Inside is a shelf of special objects-a piece of white brain coral, a perfectly round stone, and a little brass figurine of a man and a woman in yabyum. “But it’s much too hot in here to do anything like that,” he said. “You’d have a heart attack!”

Uehara and Snyder divorced in 1990; she is remarried, and lives on a piece of land next door. “Gary was so social-still is,” she told me. “Out of seven days, maybe five of them we had someone for dinner. A natural, organic poetry salon was constantly happening in our living room. Ferlinghetti came, Ginsberg came, McClure, Lew Welch”-a poet Snyder had known since Reed. “They were in and out all the time. Gary would invite the neighbors who were interested in their ideas. I was doing all the cooking, with two little kids in diapers.” Snyder, she said, did the dishes.

In addition to the welcome guests, there was a stream of uninvited and, according to Uehara, ill-mannered hippies, who would arrive expecting to be edified and fed. Joanne Kyger told me, “There were an awful lot of Gary Snyder wannabes. His style of writing was very appealing in the seventies to young men looking for a poetic identity. He was a good example of a greened-out, dropout way to live.” The world of Kitkitdizze also attracted a more sophisticated type of seeker and scenester. “Gary became one of those figures, one of those cultural touchstones,” Shoemaker said. Robert Crumb, the cartoonist, visited with his band, and played a gig at the North San Juan Volunteer Fire Department Hall. The actor and writer Peter Coyote, who was living on a commune in West Marin with some of the Diggers, an anarchist group from Haight-Ashbury, met Snyder through Lew Welch and became a regular. “I began to study Gary,” Coyote told me. “I looked carefully at his house, at the level of thought that went into it. It’s so elegant, and has everything he needs without being expensive.” Following Snyder’s example, Coyote took up the practice of Zen. The only person I heard about who did not relish going to Kitkitdizze was James Laughlin, the founder of New Directions, who published Snyder from the sixties through the eighties. Laughlin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti told me, was “a total Ivy League gentleman,” afraid to sit cross-legged on the floor in his wingtip cordovan shoes, much less take the shoes off, in compliance with the household’s Japanese rules.

In the early eighties, when Snyder built Ring of Bone, a beautiful zendo in the meadow behind his house, Jerry Brown, then the governor of California, came to meditate, and one time brought Snyder a sculpture of Fudo-the ferocious, sword-bearing, lariat-swinging deity. (“He’s a mountain figure,” Snyder says. “A kind of tattered, workingman’s Buddha. He’s always been one of my allies.”)

Brown visited Kitkitdizze occasionally in the seventies and eighties-it was just two hours from Sacramento-and appointed Snyder the first chairman of a new artist-run state arts commission. Brown liked the literary conversation-Snyder’s easy, learned references to Chinese and Japanese poetry-and valued their discussions of Zen and ecology. He even bought a parcel of land near the ridge. “What I really appreciated particularly about Gary was his knowledge of the land-the flora and fauna and what it could be,” Brown told me. “It was a perspective outside the hustle of political and business life. I like what he does. It’s very concrete. He knows how to sharpen an axe, and all those things you don’t learn in the city, or in school.” Snyder’s relationship with Brown represents the most classically Chinese moment in his career, and one that is extremely rare in America: the poet as a servant of the state. He got a few poems out of it, including one, collected in “Axe Handles” (1983), that describes how, after he and the Governor “spoke of farming, / of oil, and what would happen to the cars,” he took out a bow and arrow, and they started shooting at straw bales near the barn.

One day, visiting Snyder at Kitkitdizze, I met a young man who was working in the garden, Matthew O’Malley, from Sandwich, Massachusetts. He had moved to the ridge two years before, drawn to the community that has grown up around Snyder. “There’s a kind of lore about the reinhabitory culture there,” he told me a few weeks later, off the ridge. “I wanted to see if I could become part of it.” In college, at Villanova, he and his friends had a kind of philosophers’ circle where they read Snyder’s poems-“No one’s teaching that stuff in the Northeast!”-sat in meditation, drank red wine, wrote, pondered the idea of blue-collar poetry, and went backpacking together. When he graduated, he went to work on a trail crew. “Gary’s kind of an exemplar,” he said. “It’s not just the poems. A lot of it is how he’s lived his life.”

O’Malley has reddish-brown hair and a beard, wears little glasses, and keeps a notebook and a pencil tucked into the front pocket of a button-down shirt. His manner is serious; he is an elderly twenty-six. He said he was studying at Ring of Bone and living in a school bus on China Flats, just below Uehara’s house. He had got solar panels but hadn’t hooked them up. “I have kerosene and candles,” he said-enough light to read and write poems by. “It works. So many people up there were on kerosene for years.”

Driving, Snyder dictates poems into a little tape recorder, along with their punctuation-double indent, space, comma, point. To him, the written texts of poems are musical scores; on the page their forms are fluid, loose, irregular. Blocks of indented lines indicate a shift in voice, and often a slight conceptual change, as when, Snyder says, “You’re telling two closely related stories.” White space in the middle of the line is for a caesura more substantial than a comma or a semicolon; white space between stanzas allows time to elapse. “His reasons are never visual, but arranging the line as he does is a way of announcing, ‘This is less regimented, more dance-like,’ ” Robert Hass, who won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry, said. “Letting the poem breathe is another way of putting it.”

Snyder’s rhythms are accentual; like Pound, he hears stresses rather than stresses and syllables, as metrical poets do. To describe his mode as lyric does not quite capture it. Even Snyder’s most intimate poems can have an impersonal quality: the “I,” sometimes suppressed, is unobtrusive-a vehicle for exploring the world, not a world in itself. Snyder sees his poems as “mytho-poetic, magical-lyrical-oral, in a line from Blake.” Seamus Heaney said, “Snyder is a poet of mind. The bare-handed encounter with the actual does not preclude a clearheaded vision of what’s called for.” The poems do feel instructional; the poet Brenda Hillman thinks of Snyder’s body of work as a “Georgics.” Reading him, you encounter a massive, assimilating intelligence, with a startling command of natural and human history. He possesses a scholar’s exactitude, and occasionally a scholar’s pedantry and attraction to the arcane fact-providing the Japanese translation of “boar meat” or positing the Finno-Ugric origins of the word “hemp.” “It’s a professorial thing to do,” he says. “I realize that it’s not going to be of use to a great number of people. However, it’s part of the history of language, and it enriches how we understand language.”

The poet Thom Gunn, in an admiring review of Snyder for the BBC’s The Listener, remarked that the poems were “deceptively simple.” Even an apparently obvious, diaristic poem like “Burning the Small Dead,” from “The Back Country”-a volume, published in 1968, that prompted the Partisan Review to call Snyder’s work “monotonous, flat and superficial”-is rich in information. The entire poem reads:

 

Burning the small dead
branches
broke from beneath
thick spreading
whitebark pine.

a hundred summers
snowmelt             rock            and air

hiss in a twisted bough.

sierra granite;
Mt. Ritter-
black rock twice as old.

Deneb, Altair

windy fire

 

 

The poem is an evocation of the expanse of geological time, and an exploration of the forces that shape the landscape. Its observations, so lightly offered, are accurate. Hass said, “Whitebark pine is a little scrubby pine that only appears at the tree line. If you know mountains, you know you’re probably at ten thousand feet. He’s picked off the dead branches and is making a fire, and he thinks about its life span. Then, thinking about things that burn, he says ‘sierra granite’-granite is twice-burned rock, forged out of fire. Looking south from the gray granite of Yosemite, you see a chocolate-colored rock-‘Mt. Ritter / black rock twice as old’-and it is twice as old. In summertime, you locate yourself by the summer triangle, two points of which are the stars Deneb and Altair. He goes from looking at the little fire he’s made to thinking about fire that forged the granite, to the stars, and says what Buddhists say: everything is burning.” I’d add that Vega, the third point in the summer triangle, is a star that, in Yosemite, appears to be directly overhead, making the “windy fire” its imaginative as well as its syntactic stand-in.

Although in recent years Snyder’s prose has been discovered by the emerging discipline of eco-literature-Lawrence Buell, a professor at Harvard, is one prominent critic in the field who teaches him-Snyder says that there has been, about his poetry, “a lot of silence from some quarters” of the literary establishment. “There are people who just don’t want to deal with it,” he says. “More in the East than in the West. A certain percentage of my poetry requires for a scholar to become more acquainted with Native American and East Asian thinking. It is considered somewhat marginal to mainstream America. Fair enough. The poetics itself is a little marginal, too, in that I have consciously been more aware of the oral tradition than other poets.” Another problem is that he is sometimes categorized as a nature poet-“the kiss of death, actually.” He says, “Being called a nature poet is like being called a woman poet, as if it were a lower grade of writing, and one based in romanticism. I am a poet who has preferred not to distinguish in poetry between nature and humanity. Just like I would argue as a bioregionalist that all of these beings are part of my community, and I would like to be able to say hello to each of them.” But Snyder does not stand completely outside the mainstream poetry world: he is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and this year won the Ruth Lilly prize from the Poetry Foundation, one of several prestigious awards he has received.

Snyder’s most complex and difficult work is “Mountains and Rivers Without End,” a poem cycle that absorbed him from 1956 until 1996, and whose title is taken from a category of Chinese landscape painting. “I’ve done a lot of short lyric poems and those are widely read, but my real challenge and what really interests me is the long narrative poem,” he told me. “The burden of information and story it can carry is huge. These poems can be about a whole tribe or clan or world.” The poem-which was published in 1997 and moves through terrains as varied as the Northwestern highway 99, New York City, and Kathmandu, invoking Buddhas, telling old folk stories, explaining geo-history, tracing rivers, meeting talking animals-is structured, to some extent, like a Noh play. “It follows jo-ha-kyu,” Snyder said. “Jo means ‘serene introduction.’ Ha means ‘extended and detailed narrative information.’ Kyu means ‘an ending which is surprisingly sudden.’ It’s much more interesting than the Aristotelian model of a beginning, middle, and end. The Japanese say, ‘Listen to the birdsong, it has a jo, a ha, and a kyu.’ To them it’s completely natural.”

“Mountains and Rivers” is Snyder’s most sustained effort at representing a bioregional world view. In an accompanying “making of” essay, he writes that the poem began to take shape when he arrived in Japan for the first time. “In Kyoto I lived in the Rinzai Zen temple compound of Shokoku-ji. I immediately entered the local hilly forests, found the trails and shrines, and paid my respects to the local kami. In my small spare time I read geology and geomorphology. I came to see the yogic implications of ‘mountains’ and ‘rivers’ as the play between the tough spirit of willed self-discipline and the generous and loving spirit of concern for all beings.” He continues, “I could imagine this dyad as paralleled in the dynamics of mountain uplift, subduction, erosion, and the planetary water cycle.” The poem’s journey ends in the Black Rock desert of northwestern Nevada, a place beyond the project’s terms: “no waters, no mountains, no / bush no grass and / because no grass / no shade but your shadow. / No flatness because no not-flatness. / No loss, no gain. So- / nothing in the way! / -the ground is the sky / the sky is the ground, / no place between.” The final image is of a sumi paintbrush, lifting off the page.

The first weekend in August, Snyder was in the High Sierra of Yosemite, giving readings at Parsons Lodge, a one-room structure of granite porphyry and lodgepole beams designed by the Arts and Crafts architects Bernard Maybeck and Mark White for the Sierra Club, in 1915. The lodge was half a mile from the road, across a bright meadow studded with glacial erratics and tall lodgepole pines and pale-green sagebrush, through which the Tuolumne River ran. Snyder, in a crisp white shirt and hiking boots, and wearing a red backpack, set out across the meadow in the evening, as the light was growing cold and golden and the lodgepoles were beginning to cast long shadows. He knew the terrain well. Tuolumne Meadows, as the area is known, was the point from which his trail crew set out, in 1955, and he has been back, camping and hiking and climbing-researching-many times. “This is another sort of home, this country is,” he said.

More than three hundred people crowded in the large arched doorway of the lodge and leaned through the open French windows-the young and scruffy, the rangers in their uniforms, the old-timers in Tevas with braided hair. Two Park Service poets-Guy McClellan, just graduated from Lewis and Clark, and Nick Ross-Rhudy, still at Reed-sat on a ledge under a window, elbows on knees. They were both aficionados of “Riprap.” Ross-Rhudy-tall and gangly with soft blue eyes and a conch pierce in his ear-was on a trail crew for the summer. “Something I really appreciate is that the language is our everyday language,” he said later. “He talks about things like the singlejack and pack strings-as a poet, those words just sound good. Doing trail-crew work, you love those words and what they represent.”

Snyder opened by reading “Off the Trail,” an easygoing love poem celebrating spontaneity, independence, and companionability. He dedicated it to his late wife, Carole Koda, a Japanese-American woman he married in the early nineties and who died two years ago. After the poem, he offered a short lesson on its moral, drawn from anthropology. “Throughout human history and prehistory, the trail was only to get you somewhere,” he said. “What was important was what was off the trail. Food, roots, berries, dye plants, glue plants, poisonous plants, recreational-drug plants, squirrel nests, bird nests, everything you might think you’d need. What’s way off the trail are the places you go to be alone and have a vision and your own spiritual trip, maybe with some of those recreational plants”-knowing snickers from the kids-“and then you come back.” For the rest of the night, he read from “Mountains and Rivers.” In response to a comment from the audience about the Heart Sutra, he recited it. Afterward, he retraced his steps across the meadow in the dark, stopping every few minutes to look up: Scorpio, with Antares, the fire star, burning orange; the polestar, which in ancient China was a symbol of the emperor; Vega, in the center of the sky.

Dogfish Woman – A Bay in the Pacific

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I live on an island that is part of the Inland Sea stretching from Alaska to southern Washington. This is a region dominated by the Pacific Ocean, islands, forests and mountains. Its human cultural history is relatively shallow, since until the arrival of the Anglos, history was oral and what art was produced by natives reflects their natural ecology – animals, plants and fish. The Haida Nation, north of here,  was well-known amongst the Salish and Tlingit for their warrior skills and their skillful use cedar canoes.
The Pacific Ocean is one block from my home and the bay upon which I live was known as Dogfish Bay. A dogfish is a bottom dwelling shark of modest size and while it once was the most prolific shark in the world it now is nearly endangered. It is known to arch its back and secret poison when in a defensive mode. 
The two images directly below are artwork representing the dogfish woman by Bill Reid. The next two articles enlarge upon the dogfish woman’s place in the Haida mythology.- rlw

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Dogfish Woman: A Haida Ocean Story

Transformation

Transformation is at the heart of Haida art and supernatural power. Supernatural beings and ancestors possessing special powers are often depicted with the attributes of two or more beings, indicating their ability to transcend ordinary limitations.

Dogfish Woman is another powerful figure in the pantheon of beings of the sea. The dogfish is a small variety of shark that inhabits the waters of Haida Gwaii. Dogfish Woman is a crest belonging to many of the Haida clans, and is related to a story of a woman ancestor who could transform herself into a dogfish. It is in this form that she enters into a whole other realm of experience, the undersea world.

The gills on her cheeks and her domed forehead identify her as a dogfish. The labret in her lower lip, made from inlaid abalone shell, distinguishes her as a high-ranking woman. Pectoral fins extend down from her elbows and a frog emerges from between her head and upswept tail. Sea lion whiskers and red flicker feathers are visible extending up from the headband. White ermine skins hang down the sides and back.

© 1998, CHIN. All Rights Reserved. (The Canadian Heritage Information Network)

The Jade Canoe

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“Consistent with Haida tradition, the significance of the passengers is highly symbolic. The variety and interdependence of the canoe’s occupants represents the natural environment on which the ancient Haida relied for their very survival: the passengers are diverse, and not always in harmony, yet they must depend on one another to live. The fact that the cunning trickster, Raven, holds the steering oar is likely symbolic of nature’s unpredictability.”

from Wiki dictionairy

The Spirit of Haida Gwaii

by Bill Reid

Here we are at last, a long way from Haida Gwaii, not too sure where we are or where we’re going, still squabbling and vying for position in the boat, but somehow managing to appear to be heading in some direction; at least the paddles are together, and the man in the middle seems to have some vision of what is to come.

As for the rest, they are superficially more or less what they always were, symbols of another time when the Haidas, all ten thousand of them, knew they were the greatest of all nations.

The Bear, as he sits in the bow of the boat, broad back deflecting any unfamiliar, novel or interesting sensation, eyes firmly and forever fixed on the past, tries to believe that things are still as they were. The Bear Mother, being human, is looking over his shoulder into the future, concerned more with her children than with her legend. After all, they wandered in from another myth, the one about Good Bear and Bad Bear and how they changed, so she has to keep a sharp eye on them.

Next, doughtily paddling away, hardworking if not very imaginative, the compulsory Canadian content, big teeth and scaly tail, perfectly designed for cutting down trees and damming rivers.

And here she is, still the ranking woman of noble birth, yielding no place to the pretty Bear Mother. In spite of her great cheeks like monstrous scars, her headdress reflecting the pointed shape of the dogfish head, and her grotesque labret – in spite of all these, the most desirable and fascinating woman from myth-time. More magical than the Mouse Woman, as mysterious as the deep ocean waters which support the sleek, sinuous fish from whom she derives her power, Dogfish Woman stands aloof from the rest, the enormous concentration of her thoughts smouldering smoke dreams behind her inward-looking eyes.

Tucked away in the stern of the boat, still ruled by the same obsession to stay concealed in the night shadows and lightless caves and other pockets of darkness, in which she spends her immortality, the Mouse Woman lost her place among the other characters of her own myth, an important part of the Bear Mother story, and barely squeezed in at the opposite end of the boat, under the tail of the Raven. No human, beast or monster has yet seen her in the flesh, so she may or may not look like this.

Not so the Raven. There is no doubt what he looks like in this myth-image: exactly the same as he does in his multiple existences as the familiar carrion bird of the northern latitude of the earth. Of course he is the steersman. So, although the boat appears to be heading in a purposeful direction, it can arrive anywhere the Raven’s whim dictates.

A culture will be remembered for its warriors, artists, heroes and heroines of all callings, but in order to survive it needs survivors. And here is our professional survivor, the Ancient Reluctant Conscript, present if seldom noticed in all the turbulent histories of men on earth. When our latter-day kings and captains have joined their forebears, he will still be carrying on, stoically obeying orders and performing the tasks allotted to him. But only up to a point. It is also he who finally says, “Enough!” And after the rulers have disappeared into the morass of their own excesses, it is he who builds on the rubble and once more gets the whole thing going.

The Wolf of the Haidas was a completely imaginary creature, perhaps existing over there on the mainland, but never seen on Haida Gwaii. Nevertheless, he was an important figure in the crest hierarchy. Troublesome, volatile, ferociously playful, he can usually be found with his sharp fangs embedded in someone’s anatomy. Here he is vigorously chewing on the Eagle’s wing while that proud, imperial, somewhat pompous bird retaliates by attacking the Bear’s paws.

That accounts for everybody except the Frog who sits partially in and partially out of the boat and above the gunwales: the ever-present intermediary between two of the worlds of the Haidas, the land the sea.

So there is certainly no lack of activity in our little boat, but is there any purpose? Is the tall figure who may or may not be the Spirit of Haida Gwaii leading us, for we are all in the same boat, to a sheltered beach beyond the rim of the world as he seems to be, or is he lost in a dream of his own dreamings? The boat moves on, forever anchored in the same place.

Preston Singletary – Tlingit Artist

ARTIST’S STATEMENT

When I began working with glass in 1982, I had no idea that I’d be so connected to the material in the way that I am. It was only when I began to experiment with using designs from my Tlingit cultural heritage that my work began to take on a new purpose and direction.

Over time, my skill with the material of glass and traditional form line design has strengthened and evolved, allowing me to explore more fully my own relationship to both my culture and chosen medium. This evolution, and subsequent commercial success, has positioned me as an influence on contemporary indigenous art

Through teaching and collaborating in glass with other Native American, Maori, Hawaiian, and Australian Aboriginal artists, I’ve come to see that glass brings another dimension to indigenous art. The artistic perspective of indigenous people reflects a unique and vital visual language which has connections to the ancient codes and symbols of the land, and this interaction has informed and inspired my own work.

My work with glass transforms the notion that Native artists are only best when traditional materials are used. It has helped advocate on the behalf of all indigenous people—affirming that we are still here—that that we are declaring who we are through our art in connection to
our culture.

My work continues to evolve and connect my personal cultural perspective to current modern art movements, and I have received much attention for striving to keep the work fresh and relevant. I have been honored that my success has inspired other artists from underrepresented indigenous cultures to use glass and other non-traditional materials in their work, and hope that I can continue to encourage more innovation in this area as my career progresses.

Background

Preston was born in San Francisco, California, in 1963. In 1984, he began his studies at the prestigious Pilchuck Glass school in Stanwood, Washington. Today, he remains connected to the school as both a sessional instructor and a board member, while pursing his own very successful career as an artist. Pilchuck has always fostered a milieu open to new ideas that has drawn many of the most promising students, as well as established working glass-artists, to the Pacific Northwest Coast.

Preston had more than a decade of experience working on the teams for various master glass-artists before he began to make works that combined his own Tlingit heritage and traditional objects with blown glass. He has occupied a unique position as an aboriginal artist who trained solely in glass. He has traveled extensively to study international glass techniques, including visits to Sweden and Finland. He is considered the bridge-artist between glass-blowing and Northwest Coast art, which are the two dominant art forms of the Pacific Northwest. He has worked with many other aboriginal artists now interested in the glass medium and who have recognized the potential of the glass medium as a possible new direction.

The Pilchuck Glass School has been most supportive in fostering outreach programs to include aboriginal artists wishing to learn about this exciting media—and has offered many Artist in Residency Programs to broaden the scope of the students.

Today, his work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and is included in such collections as the Seattle Art Museum, the new National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution, and the Museum of History and Art in Anchorage. His solo-exhibition Preston Singletary: Echoes, Fire, and Shadows was unveiled at the Tacoma Museum of Glass in 2009 and is currently touring to major institutions across North America. This collection is documented in a book by the same name and is published in the United States by the Tacoma Museum of Glass and in Canada by Douglas & McIntyre Publishers.

Preston has already collaborated with a number of artists including Tammy Garcia, Lewis Gardiner, Marcus Amerman, Dante Marioni, and now this new collection with Joe David.

©2011 Spirit Wrestler Gallery

Haida Animal People – Pacific

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“The Haida believed both animals and people had souls, which were essentially the same. The bodies of different animals were merely their “canoes” and all were capable of assuming other forms at will; “or better, they possessed a human form, and assumed their other forms when consorting with men.” The killer whales were believed to be the most powerful of all living beings, inhabiting villages under the sea. There were, in this fashion, sea-otter people, salmon people, grizzly people, geese people, etc.”

Gary Synder – He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village, 1979, Grey Fox Press

Gary Synder – A Curse

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Volcano Woman – Wayne Young – Northwest Coast (Nisga’a / Haida)

acrylic on paper
30″ x 23″
2005

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He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village

The Dimensions of a Haida Myth

Gary Synder

The Curse From the Foreward:

“A curse on monocultural industrial civilization and its almost deified economic and political systems that compete, exploit, an then give vast wealth and power to a tiny few while draining and scattering the cultural and natural wealth of our planet, I say”

1951

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Description of the Painting

Artist Statement: Volcano Woman’s Tears 
The story of the Volcano Woman and her Frog-son, a myth of the Haida, describes how an entire village was destroyed by a volcano. Once, five young hunters, among them a Prince, went to a nearby stream to fish for trout. After they had caught some and roasted them for dinner, a large frog appeared and jumped onto the trout. The Prince at once caught the frog, threw it into the fire and killed it. But the frog was the son of the Volcano Woman. Soon the Prince and his companions heard the wailing of the Volcano Woman, My son! Give me back my son!, and the frightened hunters set off for their village. The woman cursed them as they ran, saying, Each of you shall die, one by one! And so it happened, the hunters dropping dead one by one, until only the Prince remained. As he reached the village and told of the disaster, he also died. The rumblings of the volcano increased as the wailing of the woman grew louder, and the fire and lava flows destroyed the entire village. Only a few people survived.
-Wayne Young

John Muir’s Description of The Pacific Northwest in 1901

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“The vast Pacific Coast reserves in Washington and Oregon–the Cascade, Washington, Mount Rainier, Olympic, Bull Run, and Ashland, named in order of size–include more than 12,500,000 acres of magnificent forests of beautiful and gigantic trees. They extend over the wild, unexplored Olympic Mountains and both flanks of the Cascade Range, the wet and the dry. On the east side of the Cascades the woods are sunny and open, and contain principally yellow pine, of moderate size, but of great value as a cover for the irrigating streams that flow into the dry interior, where agriculture on a grand scale is being carried on. Along the moist, balmy, foggy, west flank of the mountains, facing the sea, the woods reach their highest development, and, excepting the California redwoods, are the heaviest on the continent. They are made up mostly of the Douglas spruce (Pseudotsuga taxifolia), with the giant arbor vit, or cedar, and several species of fir and hemlock in varying abundance, forming a forest kingdom unlike any other, in which limb meets limb, touching and overlapping in bright, lively, triumphant exuberance, two hundred and fifty, three hundred, and even four hundred feet above the shady, mossy ground. Over all the other species the Douglas spruce reigns supreme. It is not only a large tree, the tallest in America next to the redwood, but a very beautiful one, with bright green drooping foliage, handsome pendent cones, and a shaft exquisitely straight and round and regular. Forming extensive forests by itself in many places, it lifts its spiry tops into the sky close together with as even a growth as a well-tilled field of grain. No ground has been better tilled for wheat than these Cascade Mountains for trees: They were ploughed by mighty glaciers, and harrowed and mellowed and outspread by the broad streams that flowed from the ice-ploughs as they were withdrawn at the close of the glacial period.

In proportion to its weight when dry, Douglas spruce timber is perhaps stronger than that of any other large conifer in the country, and being tough, durable, and elastic, it is admirably suited for ship-building, piles, and heavy timbers in general; but its hardness and liability to warp when it is cut into boards render it unfit for fine work. In the lumber markets of California it is called “Oregon pine.” When lumbering is going on in the best Douglas woods, especially about Puget Sound, many of the long, slender boles are saved for spars; and so superior is their quality that they are called for in almost every shipyard in the world, and it is interesting to follow their fortunes. Felled and peeled and dragged to tide-water, they are raised again as yards and masts for ships, given iron roots and canvas foliage, decorated with flags, and sent to sea, where in glad motion they go cheerily over the ocean prairie in every latitude and longitude, singing and bowing responsive to the same winds that waved them when they were in the woods. After standing in one place for centuries they thus go round the world like tourists, meeting many a friend from the old home forest; some traveling like themselves, some standing head downward in muddy harbors, holding up the platforms of wharves, and others doing all kinds of hard timber work, showy or hidden.

This wonderful tree also grows far northward in British Columbia, and southward along the coast and middle regions of Oregon and California; flourishing with the redwood wherever it can find an opening, and with the sugar pine, yellow pine, and libocedrus in the Sierra. It extends into the San Gabriel, San Bernardino, and San Jacinto Mountains of southern California. It also grows well on the Wasatch Mountains, where it is called “red pine,” and on many parts of the Rocky Mountains and short interior ranges of the Great Basin. But though thus widely distributed, only in Oregon, Washington, and some parts of British Columbia does it reach perfect development.

To one who looks from some high standpoint over its vast breadth, the forest on the west side of the Cascades seems all one dim, dark, monotonous field, broken only by the white volcanic cones along the summit of the range. Back in the untrodden wilderness a deep furred carpet of brown and yellow mosses covers the ground like a garment, pressing about the feet of the trees, and rising in rich bosses softly and kindly over every rock and mouldering trunk, leaving no spot uncared for; and dotting small prairies, and fringing the meadows and the banks of streams not seem in general views, we find, besides the great conifers, a considerable number of hard-wood trees,–oak, ash, maple, alder, wild apple, cherry, arbutus, Nuttall’s flowering dogwood, and in some places chestnuts. In a few favored spots the broad-leaved maple grows to a height of a hundred feet in forests by itself, sending out large limbs in magnificent interlacing arches covered with mosses and ferns, thus forming lofty sky-gardens, and rendering the underwoods delightfully cool. No finer forest ceiling is to be found than these maple arches, while the floor, ornamented with tall ferns and rubus vines, and cast into hillocks by the bulging, moss-covered roots of the trees, matches it well.

Passing from beneath the heavy shadows of the woods, almost anywhere one steps into lovely gardens of lilies, orchids, heathworts, and wild roses. Along the lower slopes, especially in Oregon, where the woods are less dense, there are miles of rhododendron, making glorious masses of purple in the spring, while all about the streams and the lakes and the beaver meadows there is a rich tangle of hazel, plum, cherry, crab-apple, cornel, gaultheria, and rubus, with myriads of flowers and abundance of other more delicate bloomers, such as erythronium,brodia, fritillaria, calochortus, Clintonia, and the lovely hider of the north, Calypso. Beside all these bloomers there are wonderful ferneries about the many misty waterfalls, some of the fronds ten feet high, others the most delicate of their tribe, the maidenhair fringing the rocks within reach of the lightest dust of the spray, while the shading trees on the cliffs above them, leaning over, look like eager listeners anxious to catch every tone of the restless waters. In the autumn berries of every color and flavor abound, enough for birds, bears, and everybody, particularly about the stream-sides and meadows where sunshine reaches the ground: huckleberries, red, blue, and black, some growing close to the ground others on bushes ten feet high; gaultheria berries, called “sal-al” by the Indians; salmon berries, an inch in diameter, growing in dense prickly tangles, the flowers, like wild roses, still more beautiful than the fruit; raspberries, gooseberries, currants, blackberries, and strawberries. The underbrush and meadow fringes are in great part made up of these berry bushes and vines; but in the depths of the woods there is not much underbrush of any kind,–only a thin growth of rubus, huckleberry, and vine-maple.

Notwithstanding the outcry against the reservations last winter in Washington, that uncounted farms, towns, and villages were included in them, and that all business was threatened or blocked, nearly all the mountains in which the reserves lie are still covered with virgin forests. Though lumbering has long been carried on with tremendous energy along their boundaries, and home-seekers have explored the woods for openings available for farms, however small, one may wander in the heart of the reserves for weeks without meeting a human being, Indian or white man, or any conspicuous trace of one. Indians used to ascend the main streams on their way to the mountains for wild goats, whose wool furnished them clothing. But with food in abundance on the coast there was little to draw them into the woods, and the monuments they have left there are scarcely more conspicuous than those of birds and squirrels; far less so than those of the beavers, which have dammed streams and made clearings that will endure for centuries. Nor is there much in these woods to attract cattle-keepers. Some of the first settlers made farms on the small bits of prairie and in the comparatively open Cowlitz and Chehalis valleys of Washington; but before the gold period most of the immigrants from the Eastern States settled in the fertile and open Willamette Valley of Oregon. Even now, when the search for tillable land is so keen, excepting the bottom-lands of the rivers around Puget Sound, there are few cleared spots in all western Washington. On every meadow or opening of any sort some one will be found keeping cattle, raising hops, or cultivating patches of grain, but these spots are few and far between. All the larger spaces were taken long ago; therefore most of the newcomers build their cabins where the beavers built theirs. They keep a few cows, laboriously widen their little meadow openings by hacking, girdling, and burning the rim of the close-pressing forest, and scratch and plant among the huge blackened logs and stamps, girdling and killing themselves in killing the trees.

Most of the farm lands of Washington and Oregon, excepting the valleys of the Willamette and Rogue rivers, lie on the east side of the mountains. The forests on the eastern slopes of the Cascades fail altogether ere the foot of the range is reached, stayed by drought as suddenly as on the west side they are stopped by the sea; showing strikingly how dependent are these forest giants on the generous rains and fogs so often complained of in the coast climate. The lower portions of the reserves are solemnly soaked and poulticed in rain and fog during the winter months, and there is a sad dearth of sunshine, but with a little knowledge of woodcraft any one may enjoy an excursion into these woods even in the rainy season. The big, gray days are exhilarating, and the colors of leaf and branch and mossy bole are then at their best. The mighty trees getting their food are seen to be wide-awake, every needle thrilling in the welcome nourishing storms, chanting and bowing low in glorious harmony, while every raindrop and snowflake is seen as a beneficent messenger from the sky. The snow that falls on the lower woods is mostly soft, coming through the trees in downy tufts, loading their branches, and bending them down against the trunks until they look like arrows, while a strange muffled silence prevails, making everything impressively solemn. But these lowland snowstorms and their effects quickly vanish. The snow melts in a day or two, sometimes in a few hours, the bent branches spring up again, and all the forest work is left to the fog and the rain. At the same time, dry snow is falling on the upper forests and mountain tops. Day after day, often for weeks, the big clouds give their flowers without ceasing, as if knowing how important is the work they have to do. The glinting, swirling swarms thicken the blast, and the trees and rocks are covered to a depth of ten to twenty feet. Then the mountaineer, snug in a grove with bread and fire, has nothing to do but gaze and listen and enjoy. Ever and anon the deep, low roar of the storm is broken by the booming of avalanches, as the snow slips from the overladen heights and crushes down the long white slopes to fill the fountain hollows. All the smaller streams are crushed and buried, and the young groves of spruce and fir near the edge of the timber-line are gently bowed to the ground and put to sleep, not again to see the light of day or stir branch or leaf until the spring.

These grand reservations should draw thousands of admiring visitors at least in summer, yet they are neglected as if of no account, and spoilers are allowed to ruin them as fast as they like. [The outlook over forest affairs is now encouraging. Popular interest, more practical than sentimental in whatever touches the welfare of the country’s forests, is growing rapidly, and a hopeful beginning has been made by the Government in real protection for the reservations as well as for the parks. From July 1, 1900, there have been 9 superintendents, 39 supervisors, and from 330 to 445 rangers of reservations.] A few peeled spars cut here were set up in London, Philadelphia, and Chicago, where they excited wondering attention; but the countless hosts of living trees rejoicing at home on the mountains are scarce considered at all. Most travelers here are content with what they can see from car windows or the verandas of hotels, and in going from place to place cling to their precious trains and stages like wrecked sailors to rafts. When an excursion into the woods is proposed, all sorts of dangers are imagined,–snakes, bears, Indians. Yet it is far safer to wander in God’s woods than to travel on black highways or to stay at home. The snake danger is so slight it is hardly worth mentioning. Bears are a peaceable people, and mind their own business, instead of going about like the devil seeking whom they may devour. Poor fellows, they have been poisoned, trapped, and shot at until they have lost confidence in brother man, and it is not now easy to make their acquaintance. As to Indians, most of them are dead or civilized into useless innocence. No American wilderness that I know of is so dangerous as a city home “with all the modern improvements.” One should go to the woods for safety, if for nothing else. Lewis and Clark, in their famous trip across the continent in 1804-1805, did not lose a single man by Indians or animals, though all the West was then wild. Captain Clark was bitten on the hand as he lay asleep. That was one bite among more than a hundred men while traveling nine thousand sand miles. Loggers are far more likely to be met than Indians or bears in the reserves or about their boundaries, brown weather-tanned men with faces furrowed like bark, tired-looking, moving slowly, swaying like the trees they chop. A little of everything in the woods is fastened to their clothing, rosiny and smeared with balsam, and rubbed into it, so that their scanty outer garments grow thicker with use and never wear out. Many a forest giant have these old woodmen felled, but, round-shouldered and stooping, they too are leaning over and tottering to their fall. Others, however, stand ready to take their places, stout young fellows, erect as saplings; and always the foes of trees outnumber their friends. Far up the white peaks one can hardly fail to meet the wild goat, or American chamois,–an admirable mountaineer, familiar with woods and glaciers as well as rocks,–and in leafy thickets deer will be found; while gliding about unseen there are many sleek furred animals enjoying their beautiful lives, and birds also, notwithstanding few are noticed in hasty walks. The ousel sweetens the glens and gorges where the streams flow fastest, and every grove has its singers, however silent it seems,–thrushes, linnets, warblers; humming-birds glint about the fringing bloom of the meadows and peaks, and the lakes are stirred into lively pictures by water-fowl.

The Mount Rainier Forest Reserve should be made a national park and guarded while yet its bloom is on; [This was done shortly after the above was written. “One of the most important measures taken during the past year in connection with forest reservations was the action of Congress in withdrawing from the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve a portion of the region immediately surrounding Mount Rainier and setting it apart as a national park.” (Report of Commissioner of General Land Office, for the year ended June, 1899.) But the park as it now stands is far too small.] for if in the making of the West Nature had what we call parks in mind,–places for rest, inspiration, and prayers,–this Rainier region must surely be one of them. In the centre of it there is a lonely mountain capped with ice; from the ice-cap glaciers radiate in every direction, and young rivers from the glaciers; while its flanks, sweeping down in beautiful curves, are clad with forests and gardens, and filled with birds and animals. Specimens of the best of Nature’s treasures have been lovingly gathered here and arranged in simple symmetrical beauty within regular bounds.

Of all the fire-mountains which, like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest in form, has the most interesting forest cover, and, with perhaps the exception of Shasta, is the highest and most flowery. Its massive white dome rises out of its forests, like a world by itself, to a height of fourteen thousand to fifteen thousand feet. The forests reach to a height of a little over six thousand feet, and above the forests there is a zone of the loveliest flowers, fifty miles in circuit and nearly two miles wide, so closely planted and luxuriant that it seems as if Nature, glad to make an open space between woods so dense and ice so deep, were economizing the precious ground, and trying to see how many of her darlings she can get together in one mountain wreath,–daisies, anemones, geraniums, columbines, erythroniums, larkspurs, etc., among which we wade knee-deep and waist-deep, the bright corollas in myriads touching petal to petal. Picturesque detached groups of the spiry Abies lasiocarpa stand like islands along the lower margin of the garden zone, while on the upper margin there are extensive beds of bryanthus, Cassiope, Kalmia, and other heathworts, and higher still saxifrages and drabas, more and more lowly, reach up to the edge of the ice. Altogether this is the richest subalpine garden I ever found, a perfect floral elysium. The icy dome needs none of man’s care, but unless the reserve is guarded the flower bloom will soon be killed, and nothing of the forests will be left but black stump monuments.”

from: http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/our_national_parks/chapter_1.aspx

John Muir 1901