When someone comes up with a fresh and startling way of looking at our world, you can bet that it is drawn from a combination of sources, fields, and disciplines. Gary Snyder has done just this with The Practice of the Wild, joining his backgrounds in mythology, history, religion, literature, anthropology, language, and natural history. The result is a series of interlocking essays that present new approaches and methods for recovering our shared world.
Snyder approaches “nature” from oblique angles, sometimes leaping across a boulder field, sometimes running switchbacks up a trail, and sometimes traveling down the mountain rather than up. The project of the entire book is clear, however: “Is it possible that a society as a whole might stay on better terms with nature, and not simply by being foragers?” In essays like “The Place, The Region, and the Commons” and “Good, Wild, Sacred” he gives possibilities for that interaction. Some angles are practical, showing how to manage resources like forests in a healthier way for both the environment and our long-term economy. Some are spiritual, showing us how easily we can follow the examples of certain peoples throughout the world. One example Snyder presents is saying a form of “grace” for work, home, and family, a seemingly simple idea. He shows how this connects us with the landscape in very real ways. The focus is always on the future, on what forms and structures our growing societies and communities could take.
His essay “Tawny Gramma” is extraordinary, connecting language, ecology, and history to give us a new perspective on the human endeavor. “The immediate time frame of human experience is the climates and ecologies of the Holocene — the ‘present moment,’ the ten or eleven thousand years since the latest ice age. Within the traditional literatures there are probably a few complete tales that are that old, as well as a huge quantity of later literature composed of elements borrowed from the oldest tradition…Ideas and images of wastelands, tempests, wildernesses, and mountains are born not of abstraction but of experience: cisalpine, hyperboreal, circumpolar, transpacific, or beyond the pale. This is the world people lived in up until the late nineteenth century.” His rhetoric is completely convincing, never descending to demagoguery or speechifying.
Besides all this, Snyder can write. His beautiful prose shines and twinkles as he opens our minds. “The berries’ sheen, aroma, little spike of flavor, sweetness, all handed down from long ago. Who is it for? The berries call the birds and bears to eat. It’s a gift, but there’s also a return, for now the seed will be moved away. The little seeds buried in the sweet globules will go traveling in birds’ craws, in raccoon bowels, across the rocks, over the river, through the air, to be left on other forest soils to sprout anew.” Snyder’s work is quite astounding on every level, a mix of science, spirituality, and story that somehow encompasses all of human endeavor, while never losing the details of twig, root, and leaf.
I would love to write a book as far-seeing and convincing as The Practice of the Wild. But perhaps my time would be better spent putting some of Gary Snyder’s ideas into action. Maybe if a few hundred thousand humans put their skills and values together, others will listen and do the same. Then, maybe, just maybe, the human race will not be the footnote of history it could so easily become.