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“The Place, the Region, and the Commons” by Gary Snyder

This is 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 slowly.

wildI found this essay much more accessible than the first, which you may recall I found a little bit dryly academic and theoretical and less useful for reclaiming or repurposing our real world. This one jumps right in with a discussion of what a place means to us, and what it used to mean to us. In human history, there was a time when we were defined by our physical, geographical surroundings; culture was inextricable from the place in which it was set, with mythical explanations for a nearby mountain or a nearby stream, and close cultural understandings of native plants and their uses, etc. This really got me thinking about how disconnected we are now from our place – which of course is Snyder’s point. For instance, pardon my getting personal here, but I have wondered about my own cultural identity in terms of place…

I was born in Texas and have lived here all my life: just shy of 32 years at present. My mother is a native Texan, too, and lived here over 60 years before she left. My father’s parents moved around a lot when he was growing up, so in a way he’s from nowhere; but the family roots have always been in New England (Vermont, mostly), and he clearly identifies with that past, despite having lived in Texas for the majority of his years, too. I’m from the South (maybe not the “Deep South”; under many folks’ definitions, Texas doesn’t generally qualify, or only East Texas does), but I’m also from the fourth-largest city in the country, so I’m no country girl. And I’ve been brought up by radical leftists, so I am politically very much a minority in my home region. As a city girl, I’m also guilty of the removal from my local plants & trees that Snyder cites. I have sometimes had the odd feeling that my father is surprised to find that he’s raised a Southern girl – but he raised his daughter in Texas for all her life, so whence this surprise? I think he thinks of himself as somehow not a Southerner despite all his years here. He was born in the region; spend a few years of elementary, high school, and college years here; he raised his daughter here. Is he not “from” the South because he doesn’t think of himself that way?

Sorry to have gotten sidetracked. What I’m trying to point out is that we no longer have our fingers in the dirt where we were born or live, figuratively or literally; but we used to. And that’s what Snyder is getting at. No wonder we’re confused or distressed; we don’t know who we are any more.

He talks about bioregions, about the naturalness of conceiving borders based on ecosystems, or the area in which a certain plant grows or a certain animal roams. Why draw county lines so that one county stretches over a high mountain pass that allows no travel for part of the year? Better to use that high ridgeline as a boundary line. Etc.

I stood with my climbing partner (Allen Ginsberg) on the summit of Glacier Peak looking all ways round, ridge after ridge and peak after peak, as far as we could see. To the west across Puget Sound were the farther peaks of the Olympic Mountains. He said: “You mean there’s a senator for all this?”

And then he talks about the concept of the “commons,” which ruled for much of human history worldwide. The commons were that land that was usable by all for shared grazing, gathering firewood, building materials, and general foraging; it served as a buffer zone between the absolute wild and the village, therefore allowing the wild to exist in itself, and contributing to the health and well-being of both wild and village. I love the line, “the parts less visited are ‘where the bears are.'” It reminded me of that old-time phrase seen on maps where the known world ends: “here be dragons,” which is charmingly fantastical and filled with possibilities. (There is also a good book by that title.) The commons are about the wild; but they’re also about human society, culture, our relationships with each other – as much as they are about our relationships with the rest of the world, the parts that aren’t human. He writes, “The commons is a level of organization of human society that includes the nonhuman.”

This segues nicely into a discussion of a human compact or contract not only with one another (what we call “society” – the agreement that we won’t kill each other [except in times of war… don’t get me started]), but with the nonhuman world. The idea that we owe something to that nonhuman world, that flowers and trees and newts and grizzly bears and even dirt are entities that we should, must, respect is an idea that I find self-evident; but clearly that isn’t the majority opinion, or we wouldn’t be where we are today. Derrick Jensen knows what I mean.

Of course then Snyder is compelled to tell us about the death of the commons, the enclosing of those common spaces around the world and how and when it took place, and its economical and ecological toll. In search of ever-increasing profits and the famous “growth” we worship, we fenced in the commons, made them private land (or exploitable “public” land), stripped them of resources and exported those resources for money. Now we have less wild, fewer resources, and the rural homeless were sent to the cities to work for wages. Again, I find these arguments easy to agree with – I’m nodding throughout – but not everyone will react that way. Finally, he debunks the “so-called tragedy of the commons,” the idea that if it’s free to all, some will abuse it. He points out that commons are properly not ungoverned, but are governed by the community, and that this model worked for a great many years.

A survival of commons practice in Swedish law allows anyone to enter private farmland to pick berries or mushrooms, to cross on foot, and to camp out of sight of the house.

Can you just imagine!! I can’t, not living in Texas, where we shoot people for setting foot on our property.

I love the bioregional perspective, and I certainly agree that “we need to make a world-scale ‘Natural Contract’ with the oceans, the air, the birds in the sky.” I think he speaks to the beautiful idea of the commons – community-based, in a community that is larger than humankind – articulately and passionately and sensibly. I wish more people would read his work.

6 Responses

  1. The ‘commons’ approach applies in Norway, too; per relatives living there, any site that is not cultivated is available for use, which makes planning camping trips much simpler.

  2. Wonderful! good review; so this morning I read the essay, to catch up.

    I agree it’s very accessible, and of course appreciated reading your personal interpretation of these essential thoughts. Themes of Place & Commons & Connection are central to a thorough rethinking of our culture & future; I am glad you were ready to absorb that.

    I also noted with pride your reflections on your own place; although you are indeed grounded in a place, it is not really the place of our choosing. I truly wish that you had your fingers in the dirt somewhere else; perhaps that will come with time; perhaps we can start over if the first place is unsustainable.

    By coincidence, I just read another essay by Naomi Klein (another person “from nowhere” like me), which ends like this:

    “After listening to the great farmer-poet Wendell Berry deliver a lecture on how we each have a duty to love our “homeplace” more than any other, I asked him if he had any advice for rootless people like me and my friends, who live in our computers and always seem to be shopping from home. ‘Stop somewhere,’ he replied. ‘And begin the thousand-year-long process of knowing that place.’ That’s good advice on lots of levels. Because in order to win this fight of our lives, we all need a place to stand.”

    I know you registered & appreciated the various Pacific NW references; that’s another thing to like about Snyder. I love the way he equates the habitat of Douglas Fir with salmon; so true. And nice words too: “The presence of this tree signifies a rainfall and a temperature range and will indicate… how steep the pitch of your roof, what raincoats you’d need.”

    I also made a mental note to check out Glacier Peak.

    I am not sure Snyder was “debunking” the tragedy of the commons (reference is to a 1968 article in Science magazine by Garrett Hardin, scholarly & densely long at 7 pages with annotations.) I think it’s another case of Snyder parsing word meanings and grasping a different moment in time than Hardin did. Snyder clearly connects the Commons with a later period when societies had started “managing” the Commons. I recall Hardin addressing the Commons in an earlier context, when lands were available to all in the absence of any communal authority to establish the rules. I wish I had the time to pursue it further; there is no question that Commons mythology is central to Anglo-influenced civilization.

    Another fine piece from Gary Snyder. Isn’t it remarkable how timeless his thinking has proven?

    Pops…from a new place.

    • Hey, great! At least these essays are short enough to just sit down and read one when you feel compelled.

      Don’t spend too much energy regretting my home. There are good things about Houston and I am who I am. Think of a permutation on “I don’t regret the things I’ve done but those I did not do” – more to see & different places to live, but I don’t regret where I’m from. That said, maybe I can go be from somewhere else.

      I definitely knew the name Noami Klein, but when I look her up I can’t think what I know or have read by her; maybe just other references… simply good advice from Berry but harder to put into practice, like so many things we know we “should” do right now but are hard because they involve change from what we know.

      The good people are sticking together in the PNW!

      And, okay, I’ll bow to your understanding of the “debunking” bit, you have the background in that area. This is from memory only, but my impression of Snyder’s position about society “managing” the commons was that it was not necessarily formalized, but simply the idea that people in any sort of informal social contract have at least some motivation to act with the greater good in mind. Not that there were necessarily rules.

      He is absolutely timeless; the best writers on this subject are, and that’s one of the most heartbreaking things about them: that we could have seen this coming.

  3. […] The Place, the Region, and the Commons […]

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