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An excerpt of this piece appears in our July 2009 "For 30 Years
the Best of Buddhism in America: Commentary" retrospective. Here, we present
the piece in its entirety.
To see all of the complete "Best of" commentaries, click here.
Writers and the War Against Nature
Buddhism, art, and environmentalism—all honor the beauty and magic of the natural world. In a powerful autobiographical essay, the poet, sage, and Zen practitioner Gary Snyder traces his lifelong commitment to the environment and calls on all creative people to rise in its defense.
I grew up in the maritime Pacific Northwest, on a farm north of Seattle where we kept a hen flock, had a small orchard, and tended dairy cows. My uncles were loggers, merchant seamen, or fishermen.
After college, where I studied anthropology, literature, and East Asian culture, I had no choice but to go back to working in the woods and at sea. In the late fifties I worked in the engine room on an American-flag oil tanker that hired me out of the port of Yokohama. I was a member of the National Maritime Union and had my seaman’s papers, and it wasn’t hard to pick up a job in almost any port of the world.
That ship kept me at sea for a continuous nine months. Two things touched me deeply on that job: one was the stars, night after night, at every latitude, including way below the equator. With my little star book and red-beam flashlight I mastered the constellations of the southern hemisphere. The other was getting to know the birds of the ocean. I loved watching the albatross—a few of those huge, graceful birds would always be cruising along behind our ship, trailing the wake for bits of food. I learned that a Wandering Albatross (of the southern hemisphere) might fly a million miles in one lifetime, and that it takes a pair of them almost a year to raise one chick. Night and day, they always followed us, and if they ever slept it seems it was on the wing.
Last year a study was released describing the sudden decline of albatross numbers worldwide. It even prompted an editorial in the New York Times. This sharp decline is attributed to much death by drowning. The long-line fishing boats lay out lines with bait and hooks that go miles back, dragging just below the surface. An albatross will go for the bait, get hooked, and be pulled down to drown. As many as 100,000 a year are estimated to perish in this way, enough to threaten the survival of the species if it keeps up. What have the albatross, “Distinguished strangers who have come down to us from another world,” ever done to us? The editorial concludes, “The long-line fishing fleet is over-harvesting the air as well as the sea.”
Out on the South Pacific in 1958, watching the soaring albatrosses from the stern of a ship, I could never have guessed that their lives would be threatened by industrial societies, turning them into “collateral damage” of the affluent appetite for ahi and maguro tuna species (my own taste, too). Yet this is just a tiny, almost insignificant example of the long reach of the globalized economy and the consumer society into the wild earth’s remote places. A recent book on global logging and deforestation is titled Strangely Like War. What is happening now to nature worldwide, plant life and wildlife, ocean, grassland, forest, savannah, desert—all spaces and habitat—the non-human realm of watersheds and ecosystems with all their members, can be likened to a war against nature.
Although human beings have interacted with nature, both cultivated and wild, for millennia, and sometimes destructively so, it was never quite like “war.” It has now become disconcertingly so, and the active defense of nature has been joined by a few artists and writers who have entered the fight on “the wild side,” along with subsistence peoples, indigenous spiritual leaders, many courageous scientists, and conservationists and environmentalists worldwide.
There is a tame, and also a wild, side to the human mind. The tame side, like a farmer’s field, has been disciplined and cultivated to produce a desired yield. It is useful but limited. The wild side is larger, deeper, more complex, and though it cannot be fully known, it can be explored. The explorers of the wild mind are often writers and artists. The “poetic imagination” of which William Blake so eloquently spoke is the territory of wild mind. It has landscapes and creatures within it that will surprise us; it can refresh us and scare us; it reflects the larger truth of our ancient selves, both animal and spiritual.
The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once said something like “Art survives within modern civilization rather like little islands of wilderness saved to show us where we came from.” Someone once said that what makes writing good is the wildness in it. The wildness gives heart, courage, love, spirit, danger, compassion, skill, fierceness, and sweetness—all at once—to language. From ancient times, storytellers, poets, and dramatists have presented the world in all its fullness: plants, animals, men and women, changing shape, speaking multiple languages, intermarrying, traveling to the sky and under the earth. The great myths and folktales of human magic and nature’s power were our school for ten thousand years. Whether they know it or not, even modern writers draw strength from the wild side.
How can artists and writers manage to join in the defense of the planet and wild nature? Writers and artists by their very work “bear witness.” They don’t wield financial, governmental, or military power. However, at the outset they were given, as in fairy tales, two “magic gifts.” One is “The Mirror of Truth.” Whatever they hold this mirror up to is shown in its actual form, and the truth must come out. May we use that mirror well!
The second is a “Heart of Compassion,” which is to say the ability to feel and know the pains and delights of other people, and to weave that feeling into their art. For some this compassion can extend to all creatures and to the world itself. In a way, nature even borrows the voices of some writers and artists. Anciently, this was a shamanistic role where the singer, dancer, or storyteller embodied a force, appearing as a bear dancer or a crane dancer, and became one with a spirit or creature. Today, such a role is played by the writer who finds herself a spokesperson for non-human entities communicating to the human realm through dance or song. This could be called “speaking on behalf of nature” in the old way.
Song, story, and dance are fundamental to all later “civilized” literature. In archaic times these were unified in dramatic performance, back when drama and religious ceremony were still one. They are reunited today in the highest and greatest of performance arts: the grand scale of European opera, the height of ballet, the spare and disciplined elegance of Japanese Nô theater, the almost timeless dance-and-story of Indonesian Gamelan, the wit and hardiness of Bertold Brecht’s plays, or the fierce and stunningly beautiful intensity of Korean P’ansori performance. Performance is of key importance because this phenomenal world and all life is of itself “not a book, but a performance.”