REVISITING TURTLE ISLAND

10 11 2007

I recently reread Turtle IslandGary Snyder’s 1975 Pulitzer-prize winning  book of poems and essays. Many of the poems are simple, short (but reflective) nature snap-shots, like this one, entitled, ”Pine Tree Tops”

 

in the blue night

frost haze, the sky glows

with the moon

pine tree tops

bend snow-blue, fade

into sky, frost, starlight,

the creak of boots.

rabbit tracks, deer tracks,

what do we know.

But Snyder also turns his Zen-trained eye to the wider world situation, as in this poem,”The Call of the Wild:”

The heavy old man in his bed at night

Hears the Coyote singing

in the back meadow.

All the years he ranched and mined and logged.

A Catholic,

A native Californian.

and the Coyotes howl in his

Eightieth year.

He will call the Government

Trapper

Who uses iron leg-traps on Coyotes,

Tomorrow.

My sons will lose this

Music they have just started

To love.

***

The ex acid-heads from the cities

Converted to Guru or Swami,

Do penance with shiny

Dopey eyes, and quit eating meat.

In the forests of North America,

The land of Coyote and Eagle,

They dream of India, of

forever blissful sexless highs.

And sleep in oil-heated

Geodesic domes, that

Were stuck like warts

in the woods.

And the Coyote singing

is shut away

for they fear

the call

of the wild.

And they sold their virgin cedar trees,

the tallest trees in miles,

To a logger

Who told them

”Trees are full of bugs.”

 

The Government finally decided

To wage the war all-out. Defeat

is Un-American.

And they took to the air,

Their women beside them

in bouffant hairdos

putting nail polish on the

gunship cannon-buttons.

And they never came down,

for they found,

the ground

is pro-Communist. And dirty.

And the insects side with the Viet Cong.

So they bomb and they bomb

Day after day, across the planet

blinding sparrows

breaking the ear-drums of owls

splintering trunks of cherries

twining and looping

deer intestines

in the shaken, dusty, rocks.

All these Americans up in special cities in the sky

Dumping poisons and explosives

Across Asia first,

And next North America,

A war against earth.

When it’s done there’ll be

no place

A Coyote could hide

envoy

I would like to say

Coyote is forever

Inside you.

But it’s not true.

Snyder wrote these poems in the early seventies, when I was in my early twenties and he was in his early forties. It was a heady time. We in the counterculture were all elated with the optimism of youth; we equated starting our revolution with winning it. Snyder, at what now seems like a tender age, was one of our elders and mentors. With his twelve years in a Zen monastery, his love of wilderness and high country, and his prescient sense of the importance of deeply inhabiting a place, he pointed me and many of my co-conspirators to important practices and doctrines, to the importance of the long haul. One of his most prophetic poems in Turtle Island is the title poem from the section called, ”For the Children:”

The rising hills, the slopes,

of statistics

lie before us.

the steep climb

of everything, going up,

up, as we all

go down.

In the next century

or the one beyond that,

they say,

are valleys, pastures,

we can meet there in peace

if we make it.

To climb these coming crests

one word to you, to

you and your children:

stay together

learn the flowers

go light

I cry every time I read that. It brings together so much, and takes such a long perspective. It’s just the kind of grounding we need as the madness of a world gone wrong rises to a fever pitch all around us. ”We can meet there in peace/if we make it.”

But for me, the most impressive, most prophetic part of Turtle Island is a twelve-page prose section at the back of the book, written in 1969 and entitled ”Four Changes.” Like Martin Luther’s theses nailed to a church door, this slim manifesto is the foundation of a vast spectrum of political, social, and spiritual action that has come into being since. Very little of what Snyder proposes and predicts misses the mark, although he himself calls it “far from perfect and in some parts already outdated” in his 1974 introduction to it. His warning about the danger of ”a plutonium economy” is truer than ever now, as the Bush junta seeks to slip billions of dollars of subsidies for new nuclear power plants into alternate energy legislation.

The four changes he calls for are in the realms of population, pollution, consumption, and transformation, and each is divided into sections addressing large-scale political action, local community action, and ”our own heads,” which addresses the ways in which we as individuals help create obstacles to the better world we can envision in our clearest moments.

”Population” states that, although humanity is only a part of the web of life, we are now an inordinately large part of it—and this was in 1969, when the world population was nearly half of what it is now. Due to the intransigence of many governments and religious institutions, and despite the Chinese government’s strenuous efforts to limit the Chinese birth rate (one of the few qualifiedly good things it has done, in my opinion), there has effectively been no progress on this issue. I think this is in large part because the only option third world people have to insure that they will be cared for in their old age is to have as many children as they can, in hopes that at least one of them will be in a position to help them when the time comes. Governments, by and large, have shown no interest in ameliorating this situation, because it would involve taking money away from those who have it and giving it to those who don’t, and that is, as the Democrats are quick to say, a political impossibility. So, at this point, it’s starting to look like the human population of the planet will be limited by war, starvation, and pandemic, which will do little to slow what many biologists are now calling a planetary extinction event on the order of the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Will we humans ultimately be consumed by the wave of extinction we have unleashed? To the extent that they are capable of considering the question, I think the other species with which we share this rare spot in the universe wouldn’t mind if we did. We have ignored Snyder’s prescription at our own peril. We are going to have to work hard to re-establish ourselves as worthwhile neighbors on this small blue planet.

Much of Snyder’s section on pollution deals with DDT, use of which has largely been eliminated, although plenty of other chemicals have taken its place in the rush to foul our only nest. What Snyder says in the subheading ”our own heads” is worth repeating, because it looks at the attitude behind widespread pesticide use, not one specific chemical: ”there is something in Western culture that wants to totally wipe out creepy-crawlies, and feels repugnance for toadstools and snakes. This is fear of one’s own deepest natural inner-self wilderness areas, and the answer is: relax. Relax around bugs, snakes, and your own hairy dreams….” Truly, there can be no revolution in the world without a revolution in our own minds and hearts.

In the consumption section, he keys in on our overdependence on oil and overuse of water, decades before peak oil and drying continents became large-scale causes of concern. ”(M)ankind has become a locust-like blight on the planet,” he says, ”that will leave a bare cupboard for its own children—all the while in a kind of Addict’s Dream of affluence, comfort, eternal progress—using the great achievements of science to produce software and swill.” (Wow—I hadn’t even heard of ”software” in 1969!)

To combat this, he proposes, at the macro-level, that economics needs to be seen as a minor branch of ecology, that the criminal waste of war must be shown for what it is and ended. At the community level, he calls for sharing and creating, whether it’s skills or garden produce or clothing, for breaking the habit of unnecessary possessions, which leads to the internal work: ”To live lightly on the earth, to be aware and alive, to be free of egotism, to be in contact with plants and animals, starts with simple concrete acts. The inner principle is the insight that we are inter-dependent energy fields of great wisdom and compassion—expressed in each person as a superb mind, a handsome and complex body, and the almost magical capacity of language. To these potentials and capacities, ‘owning things’ can add nothing of authenticity. ‘Clad in the sky, with the earth for a pillow.”’

The fourth change is ”transformation,” regarding which Snyder says, ”We have it within our deepest powers not only to change our ‘selves’ but to change our culture. If man is to remain on earth he must transform the five-millenia-long urbanizing civilization tradition into a new ecologically-sensitive harmony-oriented wild-minded scientific-spiritual culture….What we envision is….a basic cultural outlook and social organization that inhibits power and property seeking while encouraging exploration and challenge in things like music, meditation, mathematics, mountaineering, magic, and all other authentic ways of being-in-the-world. Women totally free and equal. A new kind of family—responsible, but more festive and relaxed—is implicit.”

In the midst of this soaring vision, he inserted a 1974 footnote: ”More concretely, no transformation without our feet on the ground. Stewardship means, for most of us, find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there—the tiresome but tangible work of school boards, county supervisors, local foresters—local politics. Even while holding in mind the largest scale of potential change. Get a sense of workable territory, learn about it, and start acting point by point. On all levels from national to local the need to move toward steady state economy—equilibrium, dynamic balance, inner-growth stressed—must be taught. Maturity/diversity/climax/creativity.”

There it is, Green Party politics in a nutshell. It’s not just about light bulbs, folks!! It’s amazing to reread a book I loved in my youth and realize that I have been living its directives ever since, along with many others, albeit, alas, not quite enough eco-lovers to actually change the direction of the country, yet. Hey, we have been saying this stuff for forty years now, constantly getting blown off and derided by the corporatists, while they dig all of us, including themselves, deeper into a mass grave. Can you hear me now?

Snyder finishes by addressing the possibility that the human experiment will come to naught with some classic Zen: ”Our own heads is where it starts. Knowing that we are the first human beings in history to have so much of man’s culture and previous experience available to our study, and being free enough of the weight of traditional cultures to seek out a larger identity; the first members of a civilized society since the Neolithic to wish to look clearly into the eyes of the wild and see our own self-hood, our family, there. We have these advantages to set off the obvious disadvantages of being as screwed up as we are—which gives us a fair chance to penetrate some of the riddles of ourselves and the universe, and to go beyond the idea of ‘man’s survival’ or ‘survival of the biosphere’ and to draw our strength from the realization that at the heart of things is some kind of serene and ecstatic process which is beyond qualities and beyond birth and death. ‘No need to survive!’ ‘In the fires that destroy the universe at the end of the kalpa, what survives?’–‘The iron tree blooms in the void!’

”Knowing that nothing need be done, is where we begin to move from.”

It’s all here in these twelve pages, fractally unfoldable into whole worlds of endeavor, garnished with the reminder that ”nothing needs to be done.” So, from that place of detachment, friends, let us draw inspiration from our elegant elder Gary Snyder and do all that we can, in a spirit of love, joy, and compassion. It’s the Green way.

music: Indigo Girls, “Wood Song

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11 11 2013
Care for the earth | A Prosperous Way Down

[…] ”More concretely, no transformation without our feet on the ground. Stewardship means, for most of us, find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there—the tiresome but tangible work of school boards, county supervisors, local foresters—local politics. Even while holding in mind the largest scale of potential change. Get a sense of workable territory, learn about it, and start acting point by point. On all levels from national to local the need to move toward steady state economy—equilibrium, dynamic balance, inner-growth stressed—must be taught. Maturity/diversity/climax/creativity” (Snyder, 1974). […]

17 11 2013
Care for the earth - ethics and values as codes for living - Permaculture Principles

[…] ”More concretely, no transformation without our feet on the ground. Stewardship means, for most of us, find your place on the planet, dig in, and take responsibility from there—the tiresome but tangible work of school boards, county supervisors, local foresters—local politics. Even while holding in mind the largest scale of potential change. Get a sense of workable territory, learn about it, and start acting point by point. On all levels from national to local the need to move toward steady state economy—equilibrium, dynamic balance, inner-growth stressed—must be taught. Maturity/diversity/climax/creativity” (Snyder, 1974). […]

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