A Quest for Place: Gary Snyder’s Search for a Living Myth

 

First published in Refashioning Myth: Poetic Transformations and Metamorphoses, David McInnis, Eric Parisot & Jessica Wilkinson (eds.), (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2011), pp 139-60. Republished here with the permission of Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

 

Note: It was only after this essay had been published that I realised I’d neglected to include the term ‘bioregionalism’, which is one frequently used by Snyder in recent years. A bioregion is ‘a natural region, exhibiting diversity and stability, defined by its ecological coherence’; bioregionalism is ‘the proposition that human ways of life should be compatible with the requirements of the diversity of biogregional communities of the planet’ [Colin Johnson, The Green Dictionary (London: Macdonald Optima, 1991), p 30]. Snyder believes that people find meaning and purpose by identifying themselves with a particular bioregion. I hope it will be clear to readers of the essay that this is implicit in his ‘quest for place’.

 

A Quest for Place:

Gary Snyder’s Search for a Living Myth

Laurence Coupe

 

As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the upper Palaeolithic: the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe.(1)

Gary Snyder is a Zen Buddhist, an ecological activist and a mythopoeic poet. Here I want to draw attention to the third aspect of his practice, which I think has been neglected by commentators, knowing full well that it cannot be separated from the other two.(2)

Buddhism tells us that the human notion of an individual self is an illusion; the reality, which it is our task to discover, is the inter-relatedness of all beings. It is the very presumption of separation, of distinctness, that blinds us to the subtle, complex whole of ‘Buddha-nature’. Zen Buddhism is informed as much by the ancient Chinese religion, Taoism, as it is by the religion founded in honour of Gautama, the Indian prince who is reputed to have become the Buddha, the awakened one. Taoism teaches that nature is a manifestation of a cosmic force known as the ‘Tao’, or ‘Way’. Zen, following Taoism, lays particular emphasis on the importance of respecting the natural environment around us.

In this light, one can easily see how Snyder’s religion would feed into his ecological activism. The word ‘ecology’ comes from the ancient Greek, oikos, meaning ‘home’ or ‘household’. The title of one of Snyder’s collections of prose writings, Earth House Hold (1969), indicates the necessary inference. Ecology is that discipline which teaches us that the planet we occupy is our home, to be treated with respect. In order to serve it well, we need to know the way it functions as a household – a house which is held together by subtle interconnections.

To change the metaphor, we may say that ecology concerns the web of life; in that case, we might also say that mythology concerns the web of stories, which is inseparable from the web of life. The mythos, the founding narrative, has always been rooted in the oikos, the sense of the earth as our home. In this light, Sean Kane’s suggestion that ‘a myth is a form of dialogue between humanity and nature’, need not appear fanciful. In so far as a myth reveals hidden patterns and makes us aware of an inclusive, interdependent order of being, it makes us ‘at home’ in the world. For Kane, it reveals that the world of human culture is inseparable from the world of ‘earth’s nurture’. In what follows, we will see that Snyder broadly concurs with this view of mythology.(3)

If there were any doubt that Snyder himself takes mythology seriously, we need only consult the dissertation he wrote as a student of anthropology in 1951, He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village. Its starting point being a consideration of a tale told by the Haida tribe of North America, it gave him the opportunity to make a spirited defence of myth as an essential mode of human thought – a defence which, far from retracting in later years, he reprinted in 1999. ‘Mythology’, he declares, ‘is the central patterning force of that verbal organization which survives through generations, containing the cosmology and value-system of the group.’ (4)

In terms of theory, his chief source for the dissertation is an essay by the eminent anthropologist of the early twentieth century, Bronislaw Malinowski, ‘Myth in Primitive Psychology’ (1926). Snyder quotes the following statement with approval: ‘Myth as it exists in a savage community, that is, in its living primitive form, is not merely a story told but a reality lived’ (GSR 76). He elaborates on it as follows:

Myth is a ‘reality lived’ because for every individual it contains, at the moment of telling, the projected content of both his unarticulated and conscious values: simultaneously ordering, organizing, and making comprehensible the world within which the values exist. One might even reformulate the statement to say ‘Reality is a myth lived.’(GSR 84-5)

The primary reality with which Snyder is concerned is nature: ‘The function of mythology may then be summarized: it provides a symbolic representation of projected values and empirical knowledge within a framework of belief which relates individual, group, and physical environment, to the end of integration and survival’ (GSR 85, my emphasis). It is the importance of mythology in situating ourselves ecologically that remains a constant theme throughout Snyder’s writing career. What he seeks is a living myth which will do justice to a living reality and a reality lived.

A challenge to Judaeo-Christian myth

One of Snyder’s most famous poems is an early one, which appeared in his first published volume, Riprap, to be reprinted in his own selection of his work: ‘Milton by Firelight’.(5) This was written as a result of Snyder’s conservation work in one of the national parks that lie in the area traditionally belonging to an American Indian people known as the Piute. The implicit narrative is as follows: Snyder and his fellow workers have set up camp for the night; Snyder either reads or recalls a line from the seventeenth-century poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost, his epic retelling of the myth of ‘the fall’ from the Book of Genesis; this sets Snyder thinking. The Miltonic setting is as follows: Satan, the archangel cast down from heaven into hell because of his rebellious pride, is plotting to take revenge on God. Drawing close to the garden of Eden, he sees Adam and Eve for the first time and, angered by God’s creation of such beautiful creatures, cries out loud: ‘Oh hell, what do mine eyes with grief behold?’ He now plots to tempt and corrupt them by persuading them to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree – the tree of knowledge. Having tasted that fruit, they will know the distinction between good and evil, life and death; in the process they will be expelled from the garden, and their descendants – all humanity – will be born to suffer and die.

We might note that this story manages to demonize simultaneously the serpent and the woman who allows herself to be tempted by it.(6) Moreover, since the temptation leads to expulsion from the garden into the wilderness, both serpent and woman are associated with uncultivated nature, which is regarded as inferior to cultivated nature. Whereas many religions other than the Judaeo-Christian deify the natural world in the form of a goddess, and regard the snake as a fertility symbol, here they are associated with corruption.

Snyder’s poem contrasts his feelings about what Milton is doing when he writes his version of the Biblical myth with his own admiration of one of the men with whom he is building trails, who is entirely attuned to ‘The vein and cleavage / In the very guts of rock’. Paradise Lost does not emerge very well from the contrast: ‘What use, Milton, a silly story / Of our lost general parents, eaters of fruit?’ It might be claimed that Snyder reduces the narrative to absurdity; but he presumably would defend his wording because he knows what sinister and destructive uses the myth has been put within western civilization. Putting it into the context of ecological time, he refutes it with the following acerbic words:

In ten thousand years the Sierras
Will be dry and dead, home of the scorpion.
Ice-scratched slabs and bent trees.
No paradise, no fall,
Only the weathering land
The wheeling sky,
Man, with his Satan
Scouring the chaos of the mind.
Oh Hell! (NN 7)

Note that ‘hell’ has acquired a capital H in the course of Snyder’s reflection. Now, of course, we are thinking of the ‘Hell’ on earth which ‘Man, with his Satan’ projects from his inner turmoil.

We will need to return to this question of the influence of Judaeo-Christian myth on the treatment of nature in the West. But here let us pause to consider that uncompromising phrase, ‘No paradise, no fall’. The first three chapters of Genesis offer us three kinds of mythology. In chapter one, we have the bringing into being of the world out of nothing, by means of God’s word: that is, ‘creation’ myth. In chapter two, we have the establishment of the garden of Eden: that is, ‘paradise’ myth. In chapter three we have the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden because of their defiance of God’s edict that they shall not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge: that is, ‘fall’ myth. Snyder seems to concede that, though all cultures must have a story of how the world came to exist, it is optional for them to have the other two kinds of story. However, according to the historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, all mythologies represent the attempt by humanity to recover the ‘sacred time’ of the beginning, when gods were present and all was well with the world, and find release from ‘profane time’, the experience of life as an unsatisfactory sequence of meaningless events. If he is right, then all mythologies have both a paradise myth and a fall myth, and they necessarily accompany each other. Without the sense of having fallen, we would not have that nostalgia for paradise, that yearning to regain periodically the beatific dimension of existence, that continuing impulse towards ‘eternal return’. It is this very awareness that something has gone wrong, that humanity has been expelled from the primordial garden (whether it be called Eden, Arcadia, or the Golden Age), that tells us that the fall myth necessarily shadows the paradise myth.(7)

In an essay published a decade later, ‘Passage to More Than India’ (1969), Snyder offers a much more affirmative treatment of the idea of the primordial garden. The occasion was the ‘Gathering of the Tribes’, also known as the ‘Human Be-In’, staged in San Francisco in January 1967. It was a definitive event in the formation of the ‘hippie’, or ‘flower power’, movement of the West Coast: a movement inspired by ‘Beat’ writers such as Snyder himself. Indeed, he was pleased to participate, as was his fellow Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg. Snyder asserts, in the context of opposition to such events, that they represent a legitimate alternative with a rich heritage:

My own opinion is that we are now witnessing a surfacing (in a specifically ‘American’ incarnation) of the Great Subculture which goes back as far as perhaps the late Paleolithic [sic]. This subculture of illuminati has been a powerful undercurrent in all higher civilizations. In China it manifested as Taoism … and the Zen Buddhists up till early Sung. (GSR 45)

Here we are on familiar ground, as far as Snyder’s work is concerned; and this is one of his more quotable affirmations of an alternative spiritual tradition. But it is the subsequent allusion to Christianity that might claim our attention. For suddenly, at the start of a section of the essay entitled ‘The Heretics’, he quotes the lines attributed to John Ball, the English priest who took a major part in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Interestingly, he does not provide the attribution, presumably because he thinks that anyone interested in challenging the status quo should know it: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, / Who was then a gentleman?’ He reflects:

The memories of a golden age – the Garden of Eden – the [Chinese] Age of the Yellow Ancestor – were genuine expressions of civilization and its discontents. … Projected into future time in Christian culture, this dream of the Millennium became the soil of many heresies. It is a dream handed down right to our own time – of ecological balance, classless society, social and economic freedom. It is actually one of the possible futures open to us. (GSR 48-9)

Thus Snyder acknowledges the validity of the Biblical paradise myth, but also endorses the way it has inspired radical politics, specifically the struggle for justice and for harmony with the earth.

However, Snyder is equally aware that, ecologically speaking, the impact of Biblical myth as a whole has been disastrous. The vision put into practice has been, not one of restoration but rather one of conquest – not only of the perceived enemies of God but also of the earth itself. The wilderness, the non-human realm, has been regarded as alien and hostile, and so has had to be subdued to human will. It is in this context that we need to consider Snyder’s second published volume of poems, Myths & Texts (1960). (Though published after Riprap, it was in fact completed before; the two volumes are very close in spirit.) The key section in our context is the first, which is called ‘Logging’. The significance of that title will be apparent from the epigraph to the second poem in the sequence: ‘But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves’ (Exodus 34:13) (MT 3). This reminds us of two things. The first is that the historical project of the Hebrews, who came to believe that they were God’s chosen people, included the suppression of rival religions. The second is that any worship of personifications of nature was particularly offensive to them, as their god Yahweh, later known as Jehovah, was thought to be transcendent, and so not to be identified with any aspect of the world which he had himself created – ‘good’ as that creation is declared to be in the first chapter of Genesis.

‘Logging 14’ recounts the Hebrew assault on rival myths, and on the sacred sites where the accompanying rituals were performed: ‘The groves are down / cut down / … Cybele’s tree this, sacred in groves … / Cut down by the prophets of Israel.’ More importantly for our discussion, it suggests that it is the Judaeo-Christian worldview which lies behind the manipulation, pollution and destruction of the natural environment which Snyder associates with Western modernity. As the poem continues, the assault escalates, and the trees are ‘Cut down to make room for the suburbs /… Trees down / Creeks choked, trout killed, roads.’ But the original culprit does not escape Snyder’s notice, and he envisages him relishing the sacrifice of natural resources made in his name:

Sawmill temples of Jehovah.
Squat black burners 100 feet high
Sending the smoke of our burnt
Live sap and leaf
To his eager nose. (MT 15)

The irony is that Jehovah’s devotees believe themselves to be removing all traces of myth, in destroying the sacred groves of rival cultures, while they themselves are guided by a faith that is mythic through and through. They want to suppress the fertility myth, rooted in the cycles of nature, while subscribing to what we might call the ‘deliverance’ myth, the attempt to translate mythology into history, with themselves as the privileged protagonists. We are still living with this legacy, Snyder implies, in so far as we persist in manipulating, exploiting and polluting nature.(8)

In the interests of balance, it should be stated that the myth of deliverance has not always been disastrous. Far from it. Exemplified by the Biblical story of Exodus, in which Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, it has inspired a great many liberationist causes, such as Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement in the middle of the last century. Nor should we forget the millenarian visionaries whom Snyder refers to in affirming ‘the Great Subculture’: those radical Christians who, acutely aware of a paradise lost, fought to regain it through struggle – though at the end of history rather than the beginning. However, his intuition that there is a glaring contradiction lurking in the Biblical project is sound enough: a myth-based religion has fostered a negative, reductive stance toward all other myths. Moreover, for Snyder, it is no coincidence that the religion which has sanctioned the war on nature has also sanctioned the denial of the power of myth. For the very assumption that one’s own faith transcends mythology allows believers arrogantly to assume that it is only other, false religions which take a mythical form, just as it is only other, false religions which celebrate nature as sacred in its own right.

‘Logging 1’ helps us realise what is at stake. Snyder here invokes the goddess- worship of antiquity. He mentions by name Venus (the Roman equivalent of Aphrodite, the fertility goddess) and Io (mother of Dionysus, a god associated both with fertility and ecstasy). Not only that, but he simultaneously invokes Native American mythology:

The year spins
Pleiades sing to their rest
at San Francisco
dream
dream
Green comes out of the ground
Birds squabble
Young girls run mad with the pine bough,
Io (MT 3)

The Pleiades is a constellation which several tribes of the southwest of North America attribute to mythic origins: one such myth involves young girls performing a dance, then being pursued by bears, and finally being rescued by the spirit of the sky – taken up and transformed into stars. Snyder juxtaposes this myth with an invocation of an ancient Greek deity, suggesting an imaginative affinity without simply equating them. The diversity of mythology is honoured, along with the diversity of ecology.

We might pause here to contrast ancient diversity with the single-minded worldviews of modernity, which so often can be traced back to the Biblical paradigm. One such is Marxism, which sees history as the coming to maturity of humanity, as it moves through different ‘modes of production’, from the Eden of ‘primitive’ communism through the wilderness of capitalism, and so via the victory of the proletariat to the promised land of that classless and fully industrialised society which is advanced communism. Snyder might approve the need for class struggle and social revolution, but he is painfully aware of the fallacy of Karl Marx’s model. He sees it as one that has to be resisted in so far as it simply repeats the Biblical myth of deliverance, with the subjugation of nature as a necessary condition of humanity’s realisation of its own potential. Add to that the naïve faith in industrialization, and it is scarcely better than the system it claims to challenge, namely capitalism. (9)

With such connections in mind, we may note that frequently Snyder has used his own kind of shorthand to indicate the worldview that he wishes to dissociate himself from. Typical is his dismissal in Earth House Hold of ‘the Judaeo-Capitalist-Christian-Marxist West’ (GSR 43). More pensively and expansively, he elsewhere explains:

I don’t like Western culture because I think it has much in it that is inherently wrong and that is at the root of the environ¬mental crisis that is not recent; it is very ancient; it has been building up for a millennium. There are many things in West¬ern culture that are admirable. But a culture that alienates itself from the very ground of its own being — from the wilder¬ness outside (that is to say, wild nature, the wild, self-contained, self-informing ecosystems) and from that other wilderness, the wilderness within — is doomed to a very destructive behavior, ultimately perhaps self-destructive behavior.

True, Snyder adds the rider that the Western model has been either imitated or paralleled in the East, notably China and India. But there can be little doubt of his antipathy to his own civilization, for which anthropocentrism is the norm and a high-handed treatment of non-human nature is habitual. Nor can there be any doubt that he has dedicated himself to the formation of a radical alternative, and is confident of its success. As late as 1995 he declares:

We are still laying the groundwork for a ‘culture of nature’. The critique of the Judeo-Christian-Cartesian view of nature (by which complex of views all developed nations excuse themselves for their drastically destructive treatment of landscape) is well under way.(11)

 

The recovery of Native American myth

It was, of course, Christians not Jews who settled their ‘new found land’ with the intention of putting the Biblical narrative into practice, thus justifying their assault on what they deemed to be a demonic wilderness and what they deemed to be its equally demonic inhabitants, namely the Native Americans. Though Snyder repeatedly characterises Western culture as ‘Judaeo-Christian’, it is Christianity for which he reserves his main ire. For he feels acutely the damage that that faith has done to the North American continent, and to its native culture: damage made possible by an aggressively literal interpretation of Biblical myth.

So strongly does Snyder feel about what has taken place that he rejects the name used for the continent over the past two centuries, ‘the United States of America’, and opts instead for the much earlier one, that of the indigenous population: ‘Turtle Island’. The name comes from creation myths of various tribes, but the most common version tells us that the continent rests on the back of a giant turtle, which in the beginning volunteered his support in order that the creation of land, animals, plants and humans could take place. For Snyder, the forgetting of this myth and this name has been so disastrous that in the introduction to the second edition of Myths & Texts he refers to ‘Occupied Turtle Island’. He thereby makes the point that the white settlement and despoliation of the continent is an aberration which must in time be corrected.

Thus it will come as no surprise that one of Snyder’s most celebrated volumes of poetry, published in 1974, is simply entitled Turtle Island. In an introductory note, Snyder explains:

Turtle Island – the old/new name for the continent, based on many creation myths of the people who have been living here for millennia, and reapplied by some of them to ‘North America’ in recent years. … A name: that we may see ourselves more accurately on this continent of watersheds and life-communities-plant zones, physiographic provinces, culture areas; following natural boundaries. The ‘U.S.A.’ and its states and counties are ar¬bitrary and inaccurate impositions on what is really here. (TI, xi)

The purpose of the volume is not only to lament the imposition of Christian civilization, with its myth of deliverance, on the rich mythology of place that is to be found amongst the continent’s indigenous population. It is also to address present needs by recalling lost sources of meaning: ‘Hark again to those roots, to see our ancient solidarity, and then to the work of being together on Turtle Island’ (TI, xi).

Snyder believes that ignorance of the prehistory and early history of the land is not permissible. Again and again in this volume, we are reminded, as in the title of one particularly striking poem, of ‘What Happened Here Before’. Long ago, ‘human people’ – the Native Americans – came with their ‘feasts and dances for the boys and girls / songs and stories in the smoky dark’ (TI 79). So far so good. However, only yesterday, it seems, disaster struck: ‘Then came the white man: tossed up trees and boulders … / going after that old gravel and the gold.’ In his wake came ‘pistol-shooting, churches, county jail’. (TI 79)
‘Tomorrow’s Song’ is more explicit still in its judgement, declaring the end of the modern myth of progress, the secular form of the myth of deliverance. This has now reached its catastrophic conclusion with the crimes committed against nature on ‘Occupied Turtle Island’ in the past fifty years or so:

The USA slowly lost its mandate
in the middle and later twentieth century
it never gave the mountains and rivers,
trees and animals,
a vote.
all the people turned away from it
myths die; even continents are impermanent (TI 77)

 

But ‘Tomorrow’s Song’ is also more explicit in its resolution for the future. ‘Turtle Island’ is, we are told, returning even as Snyder writes. He believes that he is not alone in his urge to restore the mythological and ecological wisdom of old:

At work and in our place:
in the service
of the wilderness
of life
of death
of the Mother’s breasts! (TI 77)

That last reference to ‘the Mother’ tells us that Snyder implicitly identifies Native American culture with goddess-worship. He would seem to be on firm ground, if the Mohawk prayer which he adapts for his own ‘Prayer for the Great Family’ is representative. This begins: ‘Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day – / and to her soil: rich, rare, and sweet … ‘ (TI 24). It then proceeds to give thanks, verse by verse, to ‘Plants’, ‘Air’, ‘Wild Beings’, ‘Water’, ‘Sun’ and ‘Great Sky’: all forces in their own right, but all intimately related to ‘Mother Earth’.

Again, her presence is felt in what is perhaps the most famous poem in Turtle Island, which focuses on the continuing assault upon the terrain: ‘Landseekers, lookers, they say / To the land, / Spread your legs’(TI 18). The image of the rape of Mother Earth is uncompromisingly shocking. Equally forthright is Snyder’s condemnation of ‘the rot at the heart / In the sick fat veins of Amerika’. The countercultural spelling of the name – with a ‘k’, suggesting connotations with German totalitarianism earlier in the century – tells us that he rejects entirely the values of ‘Occupied Turtle Island’. Those values are dramatically revealed in the mechanical, violent mistreatment of the terrain:

A bulldozer grinding and slobbering
Sideslipping and belching on top of
The skinned-up bodies of still-live bushes
In the pay of a man
From town. (TI 18)

Not only does the earth mother need defending, but also the rights of the people who know how to revere her:

Behind is a forest that goes to the Arctic
And a desert that still belongs to the Piute
And here we must draw

Our line. (TI 18)

The ecology and the mythology of the Piute are in tune with the rhythms of the land. The ‘landseekers’, like their settler ancestors, can see it only as an object of exploitation; their myth of progress is deeply anti-ecological. They cannot be allowed to go on assaulting and insulting the land.

True, in another poem from Turtle Island, ‘Mother Earth: Her Whales’, Snyder castigates the contemporary East for betraying its own roots (‘And Japan quibbles for words on what kinds of whales it can kill? / A once-great Buddhist nation …’). But he no sooner does so than he returns to his central theme:

North America, Turtle Island, taken by invaders
who wage war around the world.
May ants, may abalone, otters, wolves and elk
Rise! And pull away their giving
from the robot nations. (TI 47-8)

 

There is no volume of poetry by Snyder that is more vehement in its condemnation of the civilization into which he was born than Turtle Island. But tempering this negative energy is the quiet confidence that is expressed in the prose addendum, ‘Plain Talk’. For instance:

Since it doesn’t seem practical or even desirable to think that direct bloody force will achieve much, it would be best to consider this a continuing ‘revolution of consciousness’ which will be won not by guns but by seizing the key images, myths, archetypes, eschatologies, and ecstasies so that life won’t seem worth living unless one’s on the transforming energy’s side. (TI 100)

‘Eschatologies’ point us to the end of time: they have their uses, since we need to be warned about where we are heading. But on the whole, a more important kind of narrative for Snyder is creation myth, such as the one which informs the Native Americans’ reverence for their land.

In ‘The Rediscovery of Turtle Island’, an essay published two decades after this volume appeared, he recounts a variation on the ‘Turtle Island’ story, told by the Nisenan people, in which creation comes about when a character called Coyote asks his friend Earthmaker to ‘find us a world’. Earthmaker does so by sending Turtle down into the depths of the sea to bring up sufficient mud for him to create land. Coyote still is not satisfied, so Earthmaker creates plants, animals, and the whole landscape that the tribes see around them. Snyder tells us: ‘My children grew up with this as their first creation story. When they later heard the Bible story, they said, “That’s a lot like Coyote and Earthmaker.” But the Nisenan story gave them their own immediate landscape, complete with details, and the characters were animals from their own world’ (PS 248-9). Perhaps we might infer that, given that we all need a creation myth, and if we have a choice of two, it is better to have the one that has had the more benign influence; in that case, Genesis would have to be rejected. Snyder does not explicitly say so, but his stance seems to be that we should make sure we understand the way mythology works so that we can resist the dangerously literal interpretation of a given myth, such as we see in the case of the Biblical narrative.

Snyder’s recounting of that variation on the Turtle Island myth is also important because it spells out the importance of a mythological character which Snyder frequently celebrates, namely Coyote the Trickster. Here we can get our bearings by looking briefly at an essay first published just three years after the Turtle Island volume, ‘The Incredible Survival of Coyote’ (1977). It reminds us of how widely known this character once was, and what a shape-shifter he has always been:

There are lots of stories about Coyote, or Coyote Man as he’s called to distinguish him from coyote the animal. Old Man Coyote lived in myth time, the dreamtime – and lots of things happened then. Over on the other side of the Cascades, the trickster is called Raven. In the Great Lakes region, sometimes he’s called Hare, but out here it’s Coyote Man. … (PS 149)

It also explains that, given his capacity both to cause trouble but also to carry out culturally important acts, he is rightly called ‘the Trickster’.

Though the West has lost touch with this traditionally crucial role, it ought to realise that even its own revered deity owes something to it:

The Trickster is probably the most archaic and widely diffused figure in world folklore. No wonder his name is often “Old Man”. He is the Old One, the Ancient Buddha. …. In their quiet, conservative corner of the globe, the Great Basin Indians and the nations of California were, a century ago, still living and transmitting an international body of lore – the same lore that is the foundation of the ‘high’ literatures of India, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and western Europe. And just as planetary humankind becomes ‘ecosystem’-oriented again, so the most sophisticated and agonized contemporary theologies come close to confessing that God must be a trickster.

But God is not exactly a trickster. Coyote the animal, human being the animal, bear the animal are (the Ainu would say) just hayakpe – ‘armor’ or masks, or food to be served, shapes and functions assumed in the service of Great Nature. We slip those masks a bit to the side and see there Coyote Man the trickster; Bear, the king of the mountains; Deer Mother, queen of compassion. In turn, these Type Beings, mind-created, earth-created, are also illusions. The Shining One peaks out from behind a boulder and is gone – is always there. … (PS 161-2)

Given that Jehovah created Adam and Eve and placed them in paradise, fully aware that they would succumb to the temptation of the serpent and consequently have to be cast out of the garden, Snyder’s intuition makes sense. But then again, so does his proviso that the Trickster is evasive, and cannot be confined to any one manifestation. Certainly, he succeeds in destabilising the claims of those who invoke Jehovah as their absolute authority, in support of their sense of ‘manifest destiny’. Only ‘Great Nature’ should command our unconditional respect.

However, Snyder has another, equally more important intuition, which the rest of the essay outlines. He believes that not only has ‘the rich lore of Old Man Coyote’ survived, despite the suppression of Native American culture, but that he is becoming more widely known than ever, as those people who are disillusioned with the USA seek ecological and mythological meaning. The dominant orthodoxy is characterised as follows:

For years the literature of the West was concerned with exploitation and expansion. This is what we mean when we talk about the ‘epic’ or ‘heroic’ period – a time of rapid expansion, of first-phase exploitation. This literature is not a literature of place. It is a history and a literature of feats of strength and of white, English-speaking-American human events. It’s only about this place by accident. (PS 154)

A radical alternative is urgently needed, and the signs are now evident:

But something has happened to our sense of the West since World War II. I can see a bit of how it happened in me. Western lore has been changing from a story of exploitation and expansion by white people into a quest for place. Those early westerners did not know where they were – except for mountain men, who became almost Indians. …. So current writers and many young people look back to Native American lore. There is something to be learned from the Native American people about where we all are. It can’t be learned from anyone else. (PS 156)

 

Gaia, the Tao and Indra’s net

The ‘quest for place’, for a part of the earth on which one may feel at home, is for Snyder synonymous with the search for a living myth: after all, oikos and mythos go together. The cure for the ills of the West is to find out who we really are by understanding where we really are: ‘People are challenged to become “reinhabitory” – that is, to become people who are learning to live and think “as if” they were totally engaged with their place for the long future.’ In the USA, he hopefully notes, a significant minority of like-minded individuals are ‘in the process of becoming something deeper than “American (or Mexican or Canadian) citizens” – they are becoming natives of Turtle Island’ (PS 246-7). In other words, they are recovering a lost mythology and a new ecology simultaneously.

Snyder believes that finding and nurturing one’s roots means realising that what we call ‘civilization’ represents ‘a very small part of human experience’. If we think of prehistory, of antiquity and even early modernity, we may say that ‘oral literature has been the major literary experience of humanity’ (PS 129). This assertion is from his essay ‘The Politics of Ethnopoetics’ (1977), the general argument of which is that preservation of species and preservation of cultures are part of the same struggle. The need to maintain a diversity of plants and animals is not a separate issue from the need to maintain a diversity of customs, rituals and stories. In both cases, what is demanded of us is respect for the complex, subtle interrelatedness of the whole.

It is but a short step from here to equate the ‘whole’ with the ‘holy’; it is already implicit in the earliest myths. Snyder himself does not make that exact equation, but in the prose addendum to Turtle Island he says something very similar:

You would not think a poet would get involved in these things. But the voice that speaks to me as a poet, what Westerners have called the Muse, is the voice of nature herself, whom the ancient poets called the great goddess, the Magna Mater. I regard that voice as a very real entity. At the root of the problem where our civilization goes wrong is the mistaken belief that nature is something less than authentic, that nature is not as alive as man is, or as intelligent, that in a sense it is dead, and that animals are of so low an order of intelligence and feeling, we need not take their feelings into account.

A line is drawn between primitive peoples and civilized peoples. I think there is a wisdom in the worldview of primitive peoples that we have to refer ourselves to, and learn from. If we are on the verge of postcivilization, then our next step must take account of the primitive worldview which has traditionally and intelligently tried to open and keep open lines of communication with the forces of nature. You cannot communicate with the forces of nature in the laboratory. (TI 106-7)

 

The year after this, Snyder provided a short introduction to the second edition of Myths & Texts. Quoting his own, earlier autobiographical statement – ‘As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth’ – he here justifies his concern with ‘roots’, both natural and cultural:

Why this going back into the roots and the past, instead of leaping off into the future, I’m sometimes asked. But it’s not in time at all that we study our world and ourselves. There’s no close or far. We have, simply, the chance to fill out the whole picture now, for the first time in human experience. It is beginning to be possible to look in one wide gaze at all that human beings have been and done on the whole planet, as one small part of the web of Gaia the earth-life-Goddess. Then turn that over and over in the depths of deepest symbol-holding store-house-consciousness mind, to maybe let another flower of clarity rise from the compost of information. Such flowers set us truly free and only come every few millennia. I’m glad Myths & Texts is a warm part of the compost in this end¬-of-the-century spectacle. I hope it helps toward growing that flower that will be totally in the present.’ (MT viii)

There are two things we need note in this statement. First, there is the insistence that mythic thinking is distinct from historical thinking. Indeed, it should liberate us from the burden of history: it should, in Eliade’s terms, release us from ‘profane time’ and restore us to ‘sacred time’ – that time which is not really time as we know it, but rather the eternal moment. This is an implicit rebuke to the Judaeo-Christian model, which presents history as a grand narrative, culminating in the establishment of Jerusalem, the heavenly city on earth, in which humanity – or that sector of humanity favoured by God – will find fulfilment.(12) The second thing to note, which follows from this, is that the mythology which Snyder endorses is one which followers of the Biblical myth would call ‘pagan’. It is one rooted in nature, and dedicated to the maintenance of the ‘web’ of being, personified by ‘Gaia the earth-life-Goddess’ of ancient Greece.

We cannot mention Snyder’s ecological reverence for Gaia without referring briefly to the simultaneous rediscovery of the goddess by the British scientist James Lovelock. His ‘Gaia theory’ argues that the earth is a self-regulating organism. As such, it merits respect from humanity, which is only one small part of the complex whole. No small part of Lovelock’s genius is his intuition that it is only by thinking mythically about the planet that we will ever learn to live in harmony with it. Like Snyder, he understands the importance of focussing on a female deity, not a male:

In times that are ancient by human measure, as far back as the earliest artefacts can be found, it seems that the Earth was worshipped as a goddess and believed to be alive. The myth of the great Mother [sic] is part of most early religions. The Mother is a compassionate, feminine figure; spring of all life, of fecundity, of gentleness. She is also the stern and unforgiving bringer of death. … At some time not more than a few thousand years ago the concept of a remote master God, an overseer of Gaia, took root.(13)

Like Snyder, Lovelock sees the Judaeo-Christian sky father, Jehovah, as part of the problem, not the solution. It would, of course, be wrong to push the parallels between the poet and the scientist any further than that. For one thing, Snyder’s reverence for Gaia is inseparable from his ecological activism, while Lovelock’s encourages a rather more pessimistic perspective on the chances of human survival on a planet which is over-heating due to human activity.(14) However, it does show that Snyder’s mythopoeic project is very much orientated to the most urgent problems of our era.

How, though, does Snyder’s preoccupation with the goddess – one he shares with Lovelock – link up with Snyder’s poetic practice? We get a hint of this in his essay, ‘Goddess of Mountain and Rivers’ (1980), written as the foreword to a study by Edward Schafer of Chinese literature. He begins:

Western civilization has learned much in recent years of its archaic matrifocal roots. Part of that has been the recovery of a deeper sense of what ‘muse’ means, and a new understanding of the male-female play in our own hearts. Robert Graves’s poetic essay, The White Goddess, has been pivotal in disclosing the continuity of a muse-magic tradition. The poet-muse relationship is usually seen from the male side only, for we live in cultures, both East and West, that have been dominated by men for several thousand years. Of all males through those patriarchal years, the poets and artists were most apt to go beyond the one-sided masculine ethos and draw power from that other place, which the Chinese would call the yin side of things. It is likely that men become creative when they touch the woman in themselves, and women become creative when they touch the woman in the man in themselves.

We work here with the faint facts of a Neolithic past and the actual facts of a planetwide interconnected web of living beings. The totality of this biosphere is called by some Gaia, after the ancient Greek earth goddess. It should be no surprise that one singer will be inspired by the heavy breast of a slender girl and another by the wind whipping through a col plastering the cliffs with gleaming rain. (PS 85-6)

Convinced that it is poets who have retained respect for the goddess, despite the general triumph of patriarchy, Snyder suggests that ancient Chinese poets in particular had a great advantage, namely their understanding of the Tao. It was this that prevented them from being tempted into patriarchal posturing:

From earliest times, the ‘yin’ – shady side, moist, fertile, and receptive – was identified as ‘female.’ The ‘yang’ – sunny side, fertilizing, warming, dry – as ‘male.’ And it is written, the yin and yang together make the Tao. The fifth-century BC Tao Te Ching is full of the echo of a great goddess: spirit of the valley, mother of the ten thousand things, marvelous emptiness before being and nonbeing. The dance of yin-yang energies in nature (mist on the mountain peaks, rainbows and rain squalls, rocky cliffs and swirling streams, tumbling flight of flocks of birds) becomes the image vocabulary of Chinese erotic poetry. (PS 87)

 

Taoism was, as we know, a huge influence on Zen Buddhism. In his commitment to that discipline, Snyder endorses the idea of interrelatedness. Nothing exists in isolation; everything exists in relationship to everything else. We misread both humanity and the natural world when we see entities (whether human beings or trees) in isolation from the sacred whole. Indeed, to see reality only from the perspective of the ego is to be in a state of illusion. A mythic image which Snyder frequently invokes is that of ‘Indra’s net’, which originated within Indian Buddhism, but which became very influential in China, where Zen (or ‘Ch’an’ as it was then known) developed. It is here summarised by Tu Shun, an early Chinese master:

Now the celestial jewel net of Kanishka, or Indra, Emperor of gods, is called the net of Indra. This imperial net is made of jewels: because the jewels are clear, they reflect each other’s images, appearing in each other’s reflections upon reflections, ad infinitum, all appearing at once in one jewel and in each one it is so-ultimately there is no going or coming…. If you sit in one jewel, then you are sitting in all jewels in every direction, multiplied over and over. Why? Because in one jewel there are all the jewels. If there is one jewel in all jewels, then you are sitting in all jewels too. And the reverse applies to the totality if you follow the same reasoning. Since in one jewel you go into all the jewels without leaving this one jewel, so in all jewels you enter one jewel without leaving this one jewel.(15)

 

One of Snyder’s allusions to this image comes in the midst of an essay from Earth House Hold called ‘Poetry and the Primitive: Notes on Poetry as Ecological Survival Technique’ (1969). Here he argues that if poetry were to regain its archaic roots, it would thereby articulate the Buddhist principle:

It is clear that the empirically observable interconnectedness of nature is but a corner of the vast “jewelled net” that moves from without to within. The spiral (think of nebulae) and spiral conch (vulva/womb) is a symbol of the Great Goddess. (GSR 61)

It is clear also that Snyder applies the principle not only to all of nature, and not only to the relationship between humanity and the earth, but also to the way cultures and religions come together at certain crucial points. In ‘The Rediscovery of Turtle Island’ he hails the contemporary discovery that American Indian myth chimes with other archaic and ancient wisdoms in its respect for nature and for other species:

A key question is that of our ethical obligations to the nonhuman world. The very notion rattles the foundations of occidental thought. Native American religious beliefs, although not identical coast to coast, are overwhelmingly in support of a full and sensitive acknowledgment of the subjecthood – the intrinsic value – of nature. This in no way backs off from an unflinching awareness of the painful side of wild nature, of acknowledging how everything is being eaten alive. The twentieth-century syncretism of the ‘Turtle Island view’ gathers ideas from Buddhism and Taoism and from the lively details of worldwide animism and paganism. There is no imposition of ideas of progress or order on the natural world – Buddhism teaches imperma¬nence, suffering, compassion, and wisdom. Buddhist teach¬ings go on to say that the true source of compassion and eth¬ical behavior is paradoxically none other than one’s own realization of the insubstantial and ephemeral nature of everything. Much of animism and paganism celebrates the actual, with its inevitable pain and death, and affirms the beauty of the process. Add contemporary ecosystem theory and environmental history to this, and you get a sense of what’s at work. (PS 246)

 

Zen myth

We now have a fair idea of how Snyder sees everything fitting together, naturally and culturally, ecologically and mythologically. However, one last question remains to be answered with regard to his own use of myth. It concerns his role as a mythopoeic poet who is also a practitioner of Zen. In artistic matters, Zen favours minimalism. The typical poetic form is the haiku, as in this famous example from Basho (1644-94):

Old pond,
leap-splash –
a frog.(16)

Mythopoeic poetry, by contrast, tends to be expansive and narrative in form. How does Snyder reconcile the two tendencies?

He broaches this issue, albeit indirectly, in his essay ‘Entering the Fiftieth Millennium’ (1998). Pondering the mystery of Palaeolithic cave art, which depicts animals, such as horses and bison, but not humans, he surmises that the anonymous artists must have had a sophisticated sense of all that lay outside of themselves – a sense that would presumably have been evident in their song and poetry also:

If our ancient rock artists skipped out on painting humans, it just may be that they knew more than enough about themselves and could turn their attention wholeheartedly to the nonhuman other. The range of their art embraces both abstract and unreadable signs and graphs and a richly portrayed world of what today we call ‘faunal diversity’. They gave us a picture of their animal environment with as much pride and art as if they were giving us their very selves.

Maybe in some way they speak from a spirit that is in line with [the Japanese Zen master] Dogen’s comment, ‘We study the self to forget the self. When you forget the self, you can become one with all the other phenomena.’

We have no way of knowing what the religious practices, the rituals, or the verbal arts of 35,000 years ago might have been. It is most likely that the languages of that time were in no way inferior in complexity, sophistication, or richness to the languages spoken today. … It’s not far-fetched to think that if the paintings were so good, the poems and songs must have been of equal quality.

One can imagine myths and tales of people, places, and animals. In poetry or song, I fancy wild horse chants, “salutes” (as are sung in some parts of Africa) to each creature, little lyrics that intensify some element in a narrative, a kind of deep song – cante jondo – to go together with deep history; or on the other side, quick ‘bison haiku’. (GSR 393-4)

If we look back over the poems which we have discussed here, they all work like that. The mythological and ecological context is evoked with imaginative economy and linguistic precision. Each equivalent of a ‘bison haiku’ is a gesture to an implicit totality which does not need to be spelt out. The mythos, like the oikos, is present – present because all is interconnected at this very moment of utterance. That is why Snyder, in his Axe Handles, a volume of poetry published in 1983, includes a section which he calls ‘Little Songs for Gaia’ – and not, for instance, ‘Gaia: The Full Story’. All you need is a little song, and Gaia is with us – or, more importantly, we are with Gaia:

As the crickets’ soft autumn hum
is to us,
so are we to the trees

as are they

to the rocks and the hills. (NN 287)

The words may be left to stand alone; and as they stand, they tell us that the ‘quest for place’ is, for now, complete.

 

Further reading

Laurence Coupe, Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat spirit and popular song (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007)

Laurence Coupe, Myth , 2nd edition (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009)

 

Notes

(1)Gary Snyder, ‘Introduction’, Myths & Texts, 2nd edition (New York: New Directions, 1978), p viii. Further references to this volume will be included in the body of the essay, in abbreviated form: MT. [Note: Snyder is here adapting his own autobiographical statement, included in Paris Leary and Robert Kelly (eds), A Controversy of Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry (New York: Doubleday, 1965), p 551.]

(2)The two main works which I have found most helpful are: Patrick D. Murphy, A Place for Wayfaring: The Poetry and Prose of Gary Snyder (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2000); Patrick D. Murphy (ed.) Critical Essays on Gary Snyder (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990). In the latter volume, the most relevant essays to my discussion are: Sherman Paul, ‘From Lookout to Ashram: The Way of Gary Snyder’ (pp 58-80); Michael Castro, ‘Gary Snyder: The Lessons of Turtle Island’ (pp 131-43); Julia Martin, ‘The Pattern Which Connects: Metaphor in Gary Snyder’s Late Poetry’ (pp 188-210). See also David Landis Barnhill, ‘Great Earth Sangha: Gary Snyder’s View of Nature as Community’, in Tucker, Mary Evelyn and Duncan Ryuken Williams (eds), Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard UP, 1997), pp 187-217.

(3)See Sean Kane, Wisdom of the Mythtellers (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1998), pp 9-26, 131-48.

(4)Gary Snyder, He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village, in The Gary Snyder Reader (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1999), p 84. Further references to the reader will be included in the body of the essay, in abbreviated form: GSR.

(5)Gary Snyder, ‘Milton by Firelight’, No Nature: New and Selected Poems (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), pp 7-8. Further references to the reader will be included in the body of the essay, in abbreviated form: NN.

(6)The serpent is identified explicitly with Satan in Paradise Lost, though not in Genesis itself. However, the demonization is clear in both cases.

(7)See Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (San Diego: Harcourt Inc, 1987).

(8)For a longer discussion of the myth of deliverance, see Coupe, Myth, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2009), pp 66-7, 86-7, 165-80.

(9)For a longer discussion of Marxism as a myth, see Coupe, Myth, pp 61-5.

(10)Gary Snyder, ‘The Wilderness’, Turtle Island (New York: New Directions, 1974), p 106. Further references to this volume will be included in the body of the essay, in abbreviated form: TI.

(11)‘The Rediscovery of Turtle Island’, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1995), p 240. Further references to the reader will be included in the body of the essay, in abbreviated form: PS.

(12)It leaves aside the question which Eliade poses: whether the Judaeo-Christian decision to place sacred time at the end of history rather than the beginning means that it is the exception that proves the rule of ‘eternal return’, which applies to nearly all other religions; or whether it is a different way of expressing the same need to translate profane time into sacred. See Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return: or, Cosmos and History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954), pp 102-12.

(13)James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia: The Biography of Our Living Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p 208.

(14)See James Lovelock, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning (London: Penguin, 2010).

(15)Tu Shun, ‘Cessation and Contemplation of the Five Teachings of the Huayen’, in Thomas Cleary (ed.), Entry into the Inconceivable (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983), p 66.

(16)Basho, ‘Old pond…’, in Lucien Strick and Takashi Ikemoto (eds), The Penguin Book of Zen Poetry (London: Allen Lane, 1977), p 91.