Sitting at the Feet of Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry

If I could adopt a grandfather, I’d have a hard time choosing between Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry, who shared the stage in Santa Rosa last week to celebrate publication of a book of their letters to one another, written over the last four decades. It’s called Distant Neighbors and was recently published by Counterpoint Press (go support your local bookstore!).

Both are expert storytellers and incisive humorists. But where Snyder’s way (that night at least) was direct and winged—like a Cooper’s hawk exploding from the brush to surprise a songbird—Berry’s anecdotes cascaded gently like a brook, flowing in his Kentucky drawl from this pool to that and gathering themselves slowly in between.

His conclusions, however, were no less sharp than Snyder’s. Both have the depth of wisdom that comes from decades of experience and lives well lived. Each can jump with agility between diverse subjects: art, ecology, agriculture, history, government bureaucracy and so on. In other words, they are wise elders, well worth listening to.

Snyder (left) and Berry in front of the Grimblefinger bookstore in Nevada City, CA. This is the cover photo from Distant Neighbors, taken by Hank Meals.

“We have to learn as quickly as we can how to keep from harming the land,” said Berry at one point in the evening. In my mind, it really is as simple as that. So many of our systems in the West, and increasingly in other parts of the world, are undermining the foundation they’re built upon. We are caught up in a self-defeating way of life, and our task is to change that with haste.

In the meantime, we have to get comfortable with the paradox of being enmeshed in a destructive system that we’re also trying to change. I sometimes drive to nature connection programs that strive to help people learn to live in balanced, reciprocal relationship with the Earth. That is a difficult reality to reconcile. It’s the challenge of being caught between my investment in the modern, destructive economic system and my deep desire to honor the planet and all it provides by living in simple ways that do not harm it.

In The Real Work, a collection of interviews with Gary Snyder, Snyder speaks to this challenge:

“First of all, you must realize that these are abnormal times and there’s no way that any of us can keep ourselves pure. We just have to keep as clear a head as possible and steer ourselves away from the worst of it. But everybody’s involved in it. You can try in your personal lifestyle to do what is right… But we feel bad because we find ourselves doing things which are implicitly valid but are hooked up somehow to the economic growth system which is out of control. At least if you are aware of it, it helps.”

What is right and how do we choose it? A question with many answers, none of them “right.” My personal view is that we have to rekindle our relationship to wildness. “You can’t keep the wild out of your fields or the forest from your pastures,” said Berry during the Santa Rosa event. The wildness left in the world is never far, even in the middle of the busiest metropolis. It is overhead as the peregrine falcon nesting in the eaves of skyscrapers or underfoot as the dandelion bursting through the sidewalk crack. Most importantly, it is inside us, regardless of whether we’ve spent a day in the woods or behind a desk. It is seeking our communion.

Perhaps in rekindling this relationship, we will come to know how to gracefully live in the interstices of domesticity and wildness. Perhaps we will find a resilient, balanced way to live on this planet that gets passed down for many generations to come.

“To resolve the dichotomy of the civilized and the wild,” Snyder writes in The Practice of the Wild, a collection of essays, “we must first resolve to be whole.” Wildness is most fully expressed in the remnants of wilderness we are fortunate enough to have—but we can find it in the cities, too, if we have the eyes to see it. These pockets of wildness, according to Snyder, are where things are taking care of themselves. Again, from The Practice of the Wild, “To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came out of that wholeness, and to consider the possibility of reactivating membership in the Assembly of All Beings is in no way regressive.”

This is our collective future, in my view—a reunion with wildness, with our wholeness. Waste has no place in whatever shape it takes. “Wild animals are going about their domestic lives, but they don’t waste anything. They don’t build two-story nests!” said Berry in Santa Rosa. One thing we absolutely cannot afford to waste is our creativity. To spark it, we need look no farther than the wild place closest to where we live. Wild nature’s creativity is unparalleled, and she won’t sue us for intellectual property violations if we borrow from her.

Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder are helping lead us into this renewed relationship to wildness—I hope more people begin listening to their wisdom and the wisdom of their many allies, people who are looking creatively at the future and envisioning how we can remain a part of it.

Thankfully, I don’t have to choose between these two venerable elders. As Snyder wrote in The Practice of the Wild, “In Western Civilization, our elders are books.” I turn to their respective writings time and again for wisdom, inspiration and challenging ideas. I find new things each time, even when scouring essays or poems I’ve read before. And still, I long for the flesh and blood elder, for the cadence of the voice and the eye-twinkling humor of a good story. I’m not interested in standing on these men’s shoulders. I want to sit at their feet.