“Tawny Grammar” by Gary Snyder

And with this post Gary Snyder gets his own tag.


wildEssays from The Practice of the Wild:

  1. The Etiquette of Freedom
  2. The Place, the Region, and the Commons
  3. Tawny Grammar

I am struck, again, at how we encounter the same phrases over and over in this world and in our reading… just days ago I read Land of Love and Drowning, in which certain scenes are set to the song, “Rum and Coca Cola” – generally credited to the Andrews Sisters but originally by Lord Invader. Here it is in the opening pages of Snyder’s essay “Tawny Grammar,” in which he makes the point that music and dance belong to time and place. One time-and-place’s song or dance may be popular in other times and places, but will never belong to them the way – for example – Snyder has formed a memory of dancing with a girl for the first time to this song in 1943. His next point is that, as we established in “The Place, the Region, and the Commons” that we no longer belong to place, “we are not quite sure what our home music is.”

He then takes his reader on a trip to a remote Alaskan village, where he muses with local teacher friends on the question of what it is reasonable, realistic, helpful to teach the children there.

So these children should prepare to be mining engineers? The company will bring its own experts with it. Heavy equipment operator? Maybe. Computers? Computers are in all the schools of the Far North, along with video cameras. There may be more computer literacy in the schools of northwest Alaska than in those of Los Angeles. Even so, there is no guarantee that any school anywhere in the whole world can give a child an education which will be of practical use in twenty yeras. So much is changing so fast – except, perhaps, caribou migrations and the berry ripening.

Good gosh, he wrote this in what year? Still true… my profession, librarianship, has been talking for decades about CHANGE and how we will adapt (the need to be more than people who stamp due dates in books), but this problem is not unique to us. The world is indeed changing so fast; and while I love the idea that caribou migrations and berry ripening may be our constants, and that’s partly true, it’s also true that mass extinctions and climate change have begun to prove him wrong.

He writes about the Inupiaq values posted in the village classroom, and the contradictions we teach our kids: in this case, tribal values vs. external Western societal ones, “one for getting what’s yours, another for being decent.” I am strongly reminded of another few lines – I can’t for the life of me remember who wrote them; was it Doug Peacock? – something to the effect that war is traumatic for our youth because we teach them from the beginning that killing is wrong, right up to the moment we send them out to kill, and then expect them to come home and readjust.

More discussion of our interrelatedness, the importance of social constructs, perspectives, and recognizing the nonhuman world too:

American society… operates under the delusion that we are each a kind of “solitary knower” – that we exist as rootless intelligences without layers of localized contexts. Just a “self” and the “world.” In this there is no real recognition that grandparents, place, grammar, pets, friends, lovers, children, tools, the poems and songs we remember, are what we think with.

He goes on to tell us what he means by grammar, and the importance of language in our interactions with the world, and muse on what language really means. Under the subheading “Nature’s Writing”:

The stratigraphy of rocks, layers of pollen in a swamp, the outward expanding circles in the trunk of a tree, can be seen as texts. The calligraphy of rivers winding back and forth over the land leaving layer upon layer of traces of previous riverbeds is texts.

While this makes for a lovely metaphor, I think he means it – and I understand it – far more literally. “A text is information stored through time.”

I was tempted to play with his Whorfian challenge:

“Is there any experience whatsoever that is not mediated by language?” I banged my heavy beer mug sharply on the table and half a dozen people jumped and looked at us. We had to give up and laugh at this point, since it always seems to come back to an ordinary mystery.

Isn’t that an example of just such a one? Or in other words, if a tree falls in the forest, etc. If we have an experience – a shared but wordless experience – have we experienced it, or shared it, any the less for not discussing it in language?

As much as I enjoyed this essay, which was intelligent, thoughtful, musing, informed, and seasoned by references to the classics and mythologies from around the world (I love this), I found myself wondering if there was a point coming down the line. Of course, there rather was, but it was typically cerebral and conceptual in nature, so I needed Snyder to help me wrap it up. He does so in his conversation with a linguist friend, about whether language is biology, and whether it follows evolutionary lines (sort of, in its own way, but not in the way biology does); and finally by quoting Thoreau and Dōgen. The end point, as I take it, is this: language should not be a weapon, considered as belonging to humans alone and used to differentiate ourselves from the world, but should be considered one of the many ways in which we live in and with rather than above.

I close by asking a question. Do we agree with Snyder in the following suspicion?

Nonhuman nature, I cannot help feeling, is well inclined toward humanity and only wishes modern people were more reciprocal, not so bloody.


Up next, essay 4: “Good, Wild, Sacred.”

5 Responses

  1. well done! you are getting good at teasing out his meanings (often difficult!) and helping me along; looking forward to the next essays, which I think just get better & better…

    I thought the opening dance scene was one of the more sensuous yet chaste descriptions of youthful passion that I have read; he is a tantalizing writer.

  2. Your reviews of these essays make me eager to read them for myself – and to wait until you complete your review cycle because I’m enjoying them so much!

  3. proving it’s resilience… I re-read Tawny Grammar today by chance (the first few para’s drawing me in as I tried to remember if I had read it!) Besides our earlier comments, a few more:

    I really enjoyed his ruminations on the parallels between indigenous cultural philosophy, Eastern traditions & the Western “masters” (many authors could learn from this) and how they all represent the interplay between humans and other animals, all living in the same world.

    In a new-favorite passage, he eloquently describes (p.66) these thought-traditions converging as if glaciers, slowly, relentlessly in three fingers: Western in one, “revivified Gaia” another and “no-nonsense” Buddhism, each carrying streaks testifying to their place of origin.

    And, the essay’s title words derive from Thoreau, translated from the Spanish, Gramatica parda; as he quotes HDT it refers to “wild & dusky knowledge” from “this vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature.” And Snyder: it is “The grammar not only of language, but of culture and civilization itself.” I think I totally missed the point the first time.

    Yes, I enjoyed it more on second reading! Now, I up the ante by finally moving on to the next essay – TOMORROW.

    • I guess I should revisit, too! I think that’s how I read ‘grammar’ the first time, but nothing is ever the same on a second reading. I’ll have to play catch-up now.

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