“The Etiquette of Freedom” by Gary Snyder

wildThis is the first essay in Gary Snyder’s collection, The Practice of the Wild. I’m going to post my thoughts on these essays one by one, as they fit into my reading schedule.

“The Etiquette of Freedom” begins by establishing the vocabulary for a discussion of “practicing” the wild. I think it’s useful for Snyder to explain this use of “practice”: he means it in the way we practice a religion (Zen Buddhism) or we practice yoga. Thus by “practicing” the wild, he tell us (in this book’s new preface), he means “a deliberate sustained and conscious effort to be more finely tuned to ourselves and to the way the actual existing world is.” As my yoga instructor likes to emphasize, this is not about achievement – that’s why we say that we practice. It’s a journey, not a destination.

The central work of this essay is for Snyder to define nature, wild, wildness and wilderness. While it was an interesting exercise, and I learned some history and some Buddhist principles and some biology (I had to look up ‘serows’)… I definitely look forward to some more concrete, applicable, how-to-live advice; or at least some more direct criticisms of our world. Every reader is seeking something different in every reading experiences, of course. In my reading at this time, I’d like something a little closer to our earth than this academic exercise.

However, I am always open to philosophies cleverly expressed: “if the lad or lass is among us who knows where the secret heart of this Growth-Monster is hidden, let them please tell us where to shoot the arrow that will slow it down.” Possibly I’m also partial to criticisms of growth in particular. I also like what Abbey wrote, that “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Our societal confusion of growth with progress is a pet peeve of mine.

It also occurred to me that this more theoretical and linguistic approach might appeal to my mother the linguist. For example, “language is like some kind of infinitely inter-fertile family of species spreading or mysteriously declining over time, shamelessly and endlessly hybridizing, changing its own rules as it goes.” This is a favorite feature of language, I think, for her and me both.

I found myself seeking a definition of “etiquette” that fits here; he doesn’t mean good manners, does he? I need to find a decent dictionary; mostly the online ones give me just the standard definition, but I’m sure he’s using a more obscure secondary one. Funny, that an essay concerned with definitions would leave this one unanswered. I will use Merriam-Webster’s, “the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life”, and extrapolate: I think Snyder means that he is seeking the conduct prescribed for practicing a free and wild life, or life in a free and wild world. Not in terms of table manners, then, but in terms of how to live.

What do you think, Pops?

6 Responses

  1. I presume you knew you didn’t have to ask; I am immediately called to comment in this case.

    Many weeks ago, upon first reading, I struggled before submitting to Snyder here: to follow his voice, his intent, his circuitous path. I suffered the same bias as you: dragging my unwanted expectations into a personal narrative he is simply choosing to share with us, if we care to share. Then later I read it again, with great appreciation. Your comments drive me, gratefully, to consider yet a third time.

    With all the focus on words, it is important that Snyder is essentially a philosopher – and I love that.

    Yet, that said, it is easy to get distracted & impatient with his parsing of word definitions & meanings; I did, especially early on in the essay. But I do share a fascination with language: its fluidity, its effect on us and how people manipulate for purposes both conscious and not; constructive, and not. And I believe he makes great purpose with his word-play here.

    Let’s consider first the title, and “Etiquette” for example, as you did. (Next time try http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us)

    Etiquette: a “customary code of polite behavior in society.” Then consider “society” to be the entire natural world of living organisms, of which humans are only a part; and “customary” to be the whole web of traditional values reflected by early indigenous peoples.

    Now we come closer, perhaps, to his meaning, and “polite” is not so out of place given his values. Indeed, he says:
    “Rudeness in thought or deed towards others, toward nature, reduces the chances of conviviality and interspecies communication, which are essential for physical and spiritual survival.”
    Then he goes on with the anecdote of an Athapaskan mother admonishing her daughter: “Don’t point at the mountain! It’s rude!”

    Another word comes to mind as part of this mix: Respect. But I digress.

    What then of “freedom”, the object of his code? I don’t think he even mentions the word until near the end.

    Yes, in this essay he is basically considering “how to live.” But that is indeed a journey where we continuously practice, as you say. And it is only in this way, true to his Buddhist values, we may find humility as co-inhabiters of this planet with all other creatures. And then we may hope to find a liberating freedom that lifts the weight of shame and allows our modern selves to enjoy our place in the natural world: “The lessons we learn from the wild become the etiquette of freedom.” I’m not sure I agree, but I enjoy his thoughts.

    Further to the word theme, I enjoyed considering ethics vs integrity, audacious vs hubris, consciousness vs sentience. But enough with individual words.

    As we travel his path in this essay, he covers so much rich territory that I can only begin to approach here. The philosophy alone is tantalizing. Perhaps I will simply titillate with some of my favorite quotes, demonstrating how nicely he can also put words together:

    “When an ecosystem is fully functioning, all the members are present at the assembly” – and by all members he means all creatures (grieving for those extinct) including us, if we are lucky.

    “Creatures who have traveled with us through the ages are now apparently doomed” by the “slow-motion explosion of expanding world economies.”

    He accepts the reality of our culture at its best & worst: “the elegance, the refinement, the beauty, and the intriguing complexity” of civilization; yet the words “wild and free” … “have become consumer baubles.”

    “An ethical life is one that is mindful, mannerly and has style.”

    We are not as wise as we think; human perception of the world is handicapped by a narrow, self-centered hubris:
    “Why should the peculiarities of human consciousness be the narrow standard by which other creatures are judged?”

    The natural world can be a harsh place: “The etiquette of the wild world requires not only generosity but a good-humored toughness that cheerfully tolerates discomfort” for “the world is as sharp as a knife – a Northwest Coast saying.”
    By the way; don’t search this title online – you could spend all day reading commentaries about it. We haven’t touched the surface, whether this essay or this wise sage’s life-legacy.

    Okay, now I think I’m ready to read the second essay.

    • I’m glad you’re more impressed as you reread & reconsider. I’m just now ready for essay #2, too. I like your habit of just listing the quotations!! It’s a good way to show what’s best about an essay without even having to use your own words… I don’t know what else to say. You know that I share your reactions, and your understanding that humans aren’t the only team in this ballgame – a moral that very few seem to share, and that I think is at the heart of Snyder’s ethic. We’re not the only ones who matter.

  2. […] the second essay in Gary Snyder’s collection, The Practice of the Wild. The first was “The Etiquette of Freedom.” I am proceeding, very, verrrry […]

  3. […] Gary Snyder points out that we find unlimited growth in neither nature nor culture, but only in the cancer cell, which multiplies until it destroys its host. The miracle of reproduction serves death instead of life. Growth inevitably evokes its opposite. The body produces anti-bodies, which destroy the invasion of grandiosity. There is no more basic ecological rule. Natural growth only occurs within a broader cycle that also includes decay. […]

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