Soaking up the smarts of Gary Snyder

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What an April it’s been in Charlottesville: Last week Rebecca Solnit came to town and this week, Gary Snyder shows up! Brown College has a good thing going with its environmental writer series.

Over the couple of events I attended during Snyder’s visit, I’d say I enjoyed hearing him rap about his life and interests at least as much as I enjoyed hearing his work. The man has been everywhere, knows everything, remembers everyone. He climbed his first mountain, Mt. St. Helens, in 1945 at age 15; when he descended, he was blindsided by newspaper accounts of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He vowed, "on the permanence of Mt. St. Helens," to spend his life fighting such destruction; then the mountain itself blew up in 1980.

That’s a hint at the perspective Snyder brings to the table. He didn’t so much directly address environmental issues as pour them into a bubbly stew of Japanese and Chinese language and culture, California history, personal memories of logging and hiking in the Western wilderness, geology, ecology and politics. But he’s deeply concerned with environmentalism and of course is primarily considered a nature-based poet.

Snyder lives in California in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada, in a cabin he built in 1970. I was struck when he talked about the U.S. Forest Service, a major force in the area given the enormous tracts of national forest that surround his community. He said there’s plenty of disagreement about the management of those lands. But he also mentioned a monthly meeting, at 7am in some little cafe, where the stakeholders come together: Forest Service folks, logging company reps, the Sierra Club, county supervisors and (if I understood correctly) Snyder himself. Can you imagine?

I like picturing that regular gathering in relation to my favorite line from Snyder’s reading: "Relax with your tools and your problems." And it reminds me that we, too, live a stone’s throw from national forest lands.

Who else heard Snyder speak? What struck you?

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