Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Distant Neighbors: Wendell Berry & Gary Snyder

              My friend Dan calls from the middle of the country. He has a longish layover in (Minneapolis? Milwaukee? It began with an M) on his way to Europe. He’s been reading Charles Wright’s poetry and he has a question. Or is it an answer? We have been doing this for decades, learning from the knowledge each of us has of the realms we share.

        Every other Wednesday for 40 years Naomi & I meet for dinner and critique our poetry. We dive into the deep of each poem and wrestle with grammar on the surface. We have had similar themes throughout the years, and now, once again, our work has centered - on the Earth. Each of us has written about the other’s work, and we’ve read together. « Each other »  becomes  an I-and-Thou, a We, united by devotion to our work and love for each other.

        Patricia and I share a great love of animals, the wild, the carefully cultivated and we have shared those concerns as they appear in our lives and our work. We are  environmentalists, in our own ways and our own words, and we have also read together. 

       Which brings us to Distant Neighbors, Selected Letters of Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry, which focuses on just such a sharing  - along with the ideas and insights of two men who will not let their often profound differences damage the love and respect they have for one another. That love and respect was very obvious in their recent reading together.
First reading together, 1977
    Wendell Berry is a Christian who refuses the authority of the church, a farmer who admires the tradition of English literature, mentioning Milton and Pope and Blake as his forebears - a man who takes his bible into the forest.  Gary Snyder is a Buddhist who admires the Old Ways, hunters and gatherers, and the poetry of China and Japan. For him the authority of Zen comes through a teacher. The way these two men address, resolve and  accept their difference is a teaching in itself. 

         Snyder asked his Sunday school teacher 
         " Does my dead heifer go to heaven?
         No, said the teacher.
         Well, I’m not going where my heifer can’t go!" 
         (Reading, June 27)

         Berry speaks always of continuity. « Continuity between 
         the wonders of  the bible and life in the forest. The spiritual    
         and the material are not bifurcated - they are one fabric.
         (Reading, June 27)

        Snyder - " My bible is the archaic universal world body of 
        folklore and folk mythology."  (Distant Neighbors, P. 73)

          With Snyder in the foothills of the Sierras, and Berry in Port Royal, Kentucky and both men engaged in very public lives as poets and environmentalists, plus family obligations and Berry’s farm work, there are few opportunities to get together. But they take the time to write these letters because their love of the land and their commitment to writing creates a duality.  They ask each other questions that others might not respond to:
         Berry - What kind of economy would cherish trees? 
                                                         (Distant Neighbors, P. 134)

       In their concern for the environment, and the actions that each took -  the books and articles written, the panels they sat on, the conferences they attended, the protests they made, Snyder and Berry are our fore brothers.
Berry and wife Tanya
      And they were prescient, raising issues as though they foresaw the crisis in both government and the environment that we are now living through.  In one of the letters Berry writes: "I accept the tragedy that one must take sides." (Distant Neighbors, p. 89)

                Berry - "Snowden is patriotic. People who make deals 
                know secrets. if a voter enters the booth uninformed - 
                what happens to  democracy?" (Reading, June 27)

              Snyder, 1980 - "….[there were] conversations with 
              assorted folks after my talk on China, …..where 
              they tried to play down the seriousness of species 
              extinction." (Distant Neighbors, p. 69)

         They sent letters. By mail. Even after email appeared. Are other writers still writing letters to each other? We email, skype, facebook, tweet, send photos that display what we wish to have known about ourselves and upload the antics of our babies and pets.  Shall we have the collected tweets of future artists? The collected FB comments?

     Are you familiar with their poetry?
One of my favorite poems - one that I reread over and over - is Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things, first published in 1968. The poem is written in language a nineteenth century reader would recognize, but the universality and depth of feeling and experience remains as fresh as dawn:

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. 
                                 (Poemhunter, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171140)

     When did I start reading Gary Snyder?  Was the first book Earth House Hold?  I loved the  juxtaposition of Asian literature with the names of plants and animals and the titles of mountains and rivers, the Old Ways of making and being, his sons. The purely experiential, experimental, the sensory and the eternal. 

       Sustained Yield
                     For the treeplanters

Spain, Italy, Albania, Turkey, Greece,
once had hills of
oak and pine

This summer-dry winter-wet
manzanita, valley oak, redwood,
         sugar pine, our folk
sun, air, water,
          our toil,

Topsoil, leafmold, sifted dirt,

Hold the whip of a tree
steady and roots right
somebody tamp the
           earth, as it’s slipped in,

Keep trees growing in this
             Shasta nation alta California
             Turtle Island
                                      (Left Out in the Rain, p.134)       
This sharing. Of words, of images, of music. How it endows us as humans.






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