Gary Snyder - basic materials for the counterculture

brief excerpt from David Burner's Making Peace with the Sixties (Princeton University Press, 1996)

In Snyder's writings or the sixties, nature, sex, the unconscious--basic materials for much of the counterculture--take, the place of the exacting personal encounters with the outer and inner world that he had once sought in Zen discipline. Ecology and the tribal community, the need for humankind to relearn intimate connection with a particular place and soil, are the essential themes of his essays in The Old Ways, collected in 1972. Of the knowledge that a people acquires of its locality, Snyder writes, "a spirit of what it was to be there evolved, that spoke of a direct sense of relation to the 'land'-which really means, the totality, of the local bio-region system, from cirrus clouds to leaf-mold." A knowledge of place contributes to knowledge of self, for the self is composite. "Part of you is out there waiting to come into you, and another part of you is behind you, and the 'just this' of the ever-present moment holds all the transitory little selves in its mirror." Such is the wisdom of peoples who have learned to keep within their ecological limits. In dark contrast stand the imperial peoples, who have discovered that by invading another ecological system they can drain energy from it. From wisdom comes a perception of the soundness of the whole universe. Snyder tells of the concept in India of the universe-as-energy as a voice, a song stirring within the still and silent Brahma: mantra chanting is a chanting of the fundamental syllables of that voice, a return to the first energy of the universe.

Snyder represented a cultural movement that distrusted modern technology, practiced simple crafts, and thought to return to fundamental impulses of the body and compositions of nature. Its partisans exalted the folk traditions of peoples such as the Vietnamese and American Indians whose primary communities seemed to be under siege by Western imperialism with its technological and scientific apparatus.

People of the United States have never quite come to terms with their continental land as an Irishman knows his plot or a Guatemalan Indian her village. The friendship of Kerouac and Snyder brought together ways quite divergent and yet complementary in their apprehension of the land. In The Dharma Bums Kerouac melded the motor and the continent, as Carl Sandburg had anchored his boundlessly energetic Chicago in the boundless prairie. Kerouac embraced the land hurriedly as he sped from place to place. He could perceive detail and nuance: "The trail had a kind of immortal look to it, in the early afternoon now, the way the side of the grassy hill seemed to be clouded with ancient gold dust and the bugs flipped over rocks and the wind sighed in shimmering dances over the hot rocks." But ultimately that trail, that hill, that dust, will be lost in the immensity of a continent that offers an infinity of rocks and hills and color tones, glimpsed in passing. Snyder, nomad though he has been, has demanded fixity, and close knowledge of a particular place whether won by the Zen discipline of the individual perceiver or carefully received and tended from generation to generation. Kerouac's characters foreshadow the restlessness of the cultural rebels of the sixties, a restlessness that they, like him, expressed and gratified with the very considerable and unabashed aid of modern technology. Snyder foreshadowed and then articulated their conviction that nature and her relation with the human community had been maimed.


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Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:28:41 EDT