Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Who You Are, Where You Are: Amy Wright on Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder, The Great Clod: Notes and Memoirs on Nature and History in East AsiaBerkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2016
Over dinner once, Will Hearst asked his friend Gary Snyder what attracted him to China as a young man. The question was innocent enough to prompt an answer that surprised Snyder who replied, “I got interested at an early age in East Asia. But for the wrong reasons.” The inevitable follow-up, “Wrong in what way?” went unasked except by Snyder himself who tucked his curiosity into the back of his mind where it seeded an essay, as defined by Paul Graham as something you write to try to figure out. [1]
     His book-length answer will interest longtime fans of this Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, but what gives it appeal beyond Snyder scholarship is how he traces the question of what makes any of us the way we are through Japan’s and China’s complex relationships to nature, which is to say the paradox inherent in the process of civilization.
     Dedicated to Burton Watson, the PEN-Prize-winning translator and scholar of Japanese and Chinese literature, this book is a conversation as well as a work of Montaignean self-education. A landscape in itself, Snyder sweeps at times with a broad brush across this long cultural history, drawing as it does on a variety of influences, including “the great strengths of Neolithic-type culture: village self-government networks, an adequate and equal material base, a round of festivals and ceremonies, and a deep grounding in the organic processes and cycles of the natural sphere.” [2] Other times, he paints the “plum rain” and winter storms in Japan, characterized by their unusual share of lightning superbolts, with a brush as fine as those made with mouse-whiskers. [3]
     In the process, Snyder comes to recognize and to make readers aware too that from around the Ming dynasty (1368 on), landscape paintings that were designed to propagate a love of wilderness were increasingly created by people who had “never much walked the hills, for clients who would never get a chance to see such places.” [4] In this way The Great Clod feels timely, though Snyder calls on a decade spent in Japan in the 1960s and a trip to Hokkaido in the summer of 1972. But then so is his 1990 essay collection, The Practice of the Wild, still relevant to current climate conversations, even as the wild has been subjugated out of existence. What environmental discussions may in fact need now in order to evolve is Snyder’s willingness to be wrong, paired with his close examination of the complex reasons why.
     Still, Snyder is far from prescribing a path forward. After all he ranks Daoism, a philosophy that honors the way that cannot be named, as “one of the world’s top two or three” worldviews. [5] What he offers instead is a long timeline of Far Eastern progress and its ramifications on a planetary scale. His conclusion though, ending as it does with a line of poetry, refuses to draw a hard line about what to make of these “Notes.” Again recalling the gesture of Montaigne’s Essais, he leaves readers to do the same puzzling over cause and effect he has done himself.
     Take the word “civilization,” which he points out in Chinese is wên-ming, meaning “understanding writing.” The author of twenty-two books might know something about that. Snyder is not merely playing with semantics either, since the “tool of the poet and painter, the inkstick (even more essential to the Chinese administration), was responsible for much deforestation.” [6] One of humanity’s highest accomplishments—the ability to communicate with each other and to express ideas—depended on emitting carbon.
     He follows this stream of ink forward. Those pines burned to produce soot were mixed with glue and fragrance then ground with a brush-softening stroke in what amounted to “a meditation on the qualities of rock, water, trees, air, and shrubs.” [7] To understand writing, he demonstrates here, is to understand civilization. The act and this ancient method are ennobling but want less environmentally taxing means. A scientist-humanist in the eleventh century made one such effort that Snyder relays. As an alternative to burning pines, Shen Kua experimented with using naturally occurring petroleum as ink. I can imagine that black lacquer filling reams of books instead of engines, eons-sequestered carbon remaining stable instead of going up in smoke.
     The Great Clod, though, is not a tale of what might have been. Snyder’s rue for what is has been tempered with far too much acceptance for regret. Had his reasons not been wrong for pursuing the East Asia of his imagination he would never have learned more and come to better understand a nation he made home for over a decade. His failure to write the article that commissioned his travel to Hokkaido in 1971 at last became his inspiration to do it the justice of depicting the island in its historical context. The need to correct himself led him to research the habitat of this region 45,000 years ago and to trace forward the meeting ground of the Arctic bear and the shorter-haired black bear that fostered the Gilyak, a paleo-Asiatic people. The result is a mind map of East Asia, following the trajectories of the Hsia dynasty to the Shang, Han, T’ang, and more.
  At times the history lesson can grow tedious, as when one learns, for instance:
“A decade after the fall of the Northern Sung capital K’ai-feng to the Juchen (Chin), the town of Lin-an, at the rivermouth was declared the new capital. The émigré emperor, his court, and crowds of refuges of the northern ruling class settled in. The name was changed to Hang-chou.” [8] Snyder repays one’s perseverance, though, with a poet’s penchant for often overlooked details, as when he describes the blue-glazed brick of the Thunder Point Buddhist temple pagoda or a girl’s song about “gathering fennel on top of Sunny Point” from the Shih Ching, “Classic of Songs.”
     The real strength of these notes though is what has long made Snyder the writer he is—the allegiance to “one ecosystem/ in diversity/ under the sun” he pledges in Turtle Island. Forty-one years later, he augments that celebration of difference with a studied reflection. With the saving grace of humility he demonstrates the danger of romanticizing any culture or region, for one might stop at the surface layers of dissimilarity and miss the deep underlying common ground. Or, one might leap to commonality without appreciating centuries of accrued variegation, striking as canyon walls and subtle as leaf shades. From such apologias turn the great clods of earth and matter that we cultivate and reap, depend on, and are. Naturally, resolutions and solutions are born of them.



[1] Klaus, Carl H. and Ned Stuckey-French. Essayists on the Essay. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press (2012), 174.
[2] Snyder, Gary. The Great Clod.  Berkeley: Counterpoint Press (2016), 30
[3] Ibid. 11, 123.
[4] Ibid. 130.
[5] Ibid. 34.
[6] Ibid. 65.
[7] Ibid. 124
[8] Ibid. 85


Amy Wright is the author of the prose chapbook, Wherever the land is, published in 2016. She is also the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press, Coordinator of Creative Writing at Austin Peay State University, and author of two forthcoming poetry collections. Her writing appears in Brevity, Kenyon Review, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and Tupelo Quarterly, among others. More information at 

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