“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.”

Teaser Tuesdays: The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

wildFrom essay #3, “Tawny Grammar.”

I always liked libraries: they were warm and stayed open late.

(Here in Houston we might point out instead that libraries are cool.)

Oh, if only this were still the case. City and county budget cuts mean that libraries are decidedly not open late any more, at least not where I come from. Do you have a local public library that stays open late? Speak up!

Keep up with my reading of this essay collection:

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

“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.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.


From essay #2, “The Place, the Region, and the Commons,” I wanted to share a Thoreau reference.

Thoreau says in “Walking” that an area twenty miles in diameter will be enough to occupy a lifetime of close exploration on foot – you will never exhaust its details.

And it rather makes sense. We travel far and wide, but if we only made our world smaller and noticed it more, we’d be satisfied with less space. This is an observation also made by Harold Fry in another book I’m reading; he’s a fictional character, but I think that’s okay.

“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?

book beginnings on Friday: Turtle Island by Gary Snyder

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

turtle island

I’m a little out of order, as I’ve reviewed this book already. But for further musing and perspective, I want to share with you a piece of the “Introductory Note” that explains its title.

Turtle Island–the old/new name for the continent, based on many creation myths of the people who have been living here for millenia, and reapplied by some of them to “North America” in recent years. Also, an idea found world-wide, of the earth, or cosmos even, sustained by a great turtle or serpent-of-eternity.

…Anglos, Black people, Chicanos, and others beached up on these shores all share such views at the deepest levels of their old cultural traditions–African, Asian, or European. Hark again to those roots, to see our ancient solidarity, and then to the work of being together on Turtle Island.

I collected turtles in high school. Stuffed, carved, as pendants and pillows. It’s the animal I chose as my own somehow. They still resonate; I don’t have all those turtles any more, but I’ve kept a small group of small ones, which turn out to be (by coincidence? I doubt it; but not on purpose) to be crafted from natural materials: stone, wood, shell. I feel at home here.

Turtle Island by Gary Snyder

turtle island

You all may recall that I am NOT a poetry person. I may be a tad too literal; I loved Shel Silverstein but never graduated from there. Clearly it didn’t help that I attempted Gertrude Stein later in life; her poetry is analogous in my mind to modern abstract art. Either I am a hopeless moronic philistine, or these people are making fun of us to our faces with some of this stuff.

So how did I end up here? I didn’t do my homework. I had heard enough good about Gary Snyder from people I respect for long enough that I finally jumped on a title somebody referenced: Turtle Island. I requested it from my local library. (I LOVE this service.) I went to pick it up when they told me to; and sure enough, on the cover, “Pulitzer Prize for Poetry 1975.” Well, heck, I’ll give it a whirl. (Pops and I are planning a readalong of a Snyder essay collection, Practice of the Wild, coming up, so I’ll get the prose, too.)

Snyder’s poems are short – rarely over one page (in a small format book), and often shorter. They tend towards the natural world and our relationship with it, and these of course were the subjects I was looking for. He’s really pretty accessible – for a poet. I don’t follow the stream-of-consciousness sort of thing very well, but I tried to just let his words float over me when I lost the thread. To mix a metaphor.

I liked several quite well. “Control Burn” (not “controlled”) has a clear message, and one I can get behind; and it read fairly straightforwardly. [Actually, as I look again, it would make for a very coherent sentence if you just took out all the line breaks and added a little punctuation. Look at that. I like poetry when it most resembles prose. sigh] I liked “The Call of the Wild” for its message as well; I appreciated a list of “Facts” (including “General Motors is bigger than Holland.”) but again that’s cheating: it is not a poem. Is it? Hm. If a list of facts can be a poem, maybe I’m a little better off than I thought. “The Wild Mushroom” is a more traditional poem with a recognizable meter, and it rhymes! (I am a philistymes.) It could also serve you as an abridged guide to which wild mushrooms are edible, which poisonous and which might “bring you close to God”; utility in poetry is always welcome, yes please.

“Mother Earth: Her Whales” is a lovely ode to all the earth’s inhabitants and indictment of what we’re doing here. And I love the tale of an ancient turquoise ring from Jemez discovered under the ruins of an apartment complex in Kyoto: “The Jemez Pueblo Ring.” I also like when he writes about his family, mostly his young sons; his tenderness shows clearly through.

But naturally, for me, things really get good when he switches to “Plain Talk” (the final one of the book’s four main sections), which is also known as “prose.” Here Snyder identifies problems with our world – we’re talking about the big problems, like population, pollution, and consumption – and recommends big fixes – with actions organized by social/political, community, and “our own heads.” He is concerned with the relationship of humans to the rest of the world: water, earth, dirt, plants, animals, mountains, air. His prose arguments are beautiful, well thought out, well informed (although brief), and resonate with me perfectly. I suspect that they assume certain things (bison on the plains are a good thing. our kids should play in the dirt) that not everyone agrees with; but I’m on his frequency. The people who think the big car, the big house in the big city, kids who wear designer sneakers, and the fancy career are important goals may not follow along here.

Snyder’s philosophies strike me as abundantly obviously correct, but also (sadly) far too simple and hopeful to work in our complex and stubbornly wrong world. He has all the problems described correctly, except that everything is far worse now than it was when this book was published in 1974. In that respect, it’s not good news, but Snyder shows great foresight in predicting the ways in which we’re doing even more poorly now; and further, I think it’s remarkable how relevant and right he still is in 2014. If you read this book today with no knowledge of its publication date, I think you’d find it intelligent, only understated or optimistic.

This prose conclusion to Turtle Island is absolutely the perfect conclusion to the poetry that precedes it. I confess that if I had to rate the poetry sections, I would probably end up giving this book a bemused 5 feathers or some such, with the qualification that I’m pretty sure there’s more here that I missed. But with this conclusion in “plain talk” to tie it all up for me, Turtle Island becomes a philosophical achievement along the lines of Thoreau, Abbey, Jensen, Dillard, and the like. In fact, I was often reminded of Abbey (as when Snyder refers to growth as a cancer); Jensen (as when he refers to a need for total change and starting over), some thoughts I’ve come up with (“on my own,” in theory, but clearly informed by my reading & discussions), and also with Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters.

This conclusion to the book bodes extraordinarily well for my shared reading with Pops of Snyder’s essay collection. Stay tuned.

Rating: 9 Ponderosa pines.
%d bloggers like this: