Gary Snyder: Poet and Naturalist

A Plowboy Interview with poet and bioregional proponent Gary Snyder.

| September/October 1984

Gary Snyder is no stranger to longtime readers of THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS. In fact, his ecological broadside "Four Changes" actually opened MOTHER N0. 1! In later years, a quote from Gary's work graced our "Let the Men & Women of Wisdom Speak" in our 10th anniversary issue (No. 60), and one of his poems helped kick off our Fieldbook feature in No. 86.  

Born in San Francisco on May 8, 1930, Snyder first came to national attention, ironically enough, as the model for the hero of another writer's book — the character Faphy Ryder in Jack Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums (1958). His own major publications were soon to follow, though, beginning with Riprap (1959), reaching a peak of sorts with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Turtle Island (which took its name from a Native American term for North America and was published in 1974), and culminating, for the present, anyway, with Axe Handles, which was released by North Point Press early this year.   

Through much of his work, Gary has functioned as a strong voice for the planet and-perhaps even more significant for the creatures of this Earth that lack the means of representing themselves in the chambers of human politics. And in recent years his expression of such concerns has often been in the form of comments relating to a somewhat confusing — on the surface, at least — concept called bioregionalism.  

To find out more about this movement (if, indeed, movement is even an appropriate term), MOTHER staffers Bruce Woods and Dave Schoonmaker met with Gary at the headquarters of his Berkeley publisher. In the following interview — excerpted from their discussions — you'll learn that bioregionalism can be as complex as the laying of a groundwork for a new "Green politics" for the United States, a movement that aims to rethink all of our arbitrary political boundaries, or as simple as the urgent message that it's time for all of us to discover where we are and to take responsibility for the soil, water, plants, birds and beasts that share our locale. It's a sure bet that all aspects and interpretations of the bioregional concept won't appeal to every reader of this magazine, but it's just as likely that some aspect of what Gary Snyder has to say will touch each and every one of us.  

Gary, you were among the first contemporary North American poets to address the problems of caring for the earth and the living creatures that share the planet with us. Can you tell me how your background, place of origin and education may have pushed you in that direction?  

I suppose that my concern is due, at least in part, to growing up in the Pacific Northwest, north of Seattle, in a rural environment. I was surrounded by the second-growth forests — maybe third-growth forests — on the hills back of my father's little stump farm/dairy farm, and the distant, but not too distant, views of the Cascade Mountains, Mount Rainier and Mount Baker, and the whole range of peaks to the east ... as well as the white, snowy ranges of the Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound to the west. That was the world I grew up in, and I found it exciting and beautiful and wanted to explore it.

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