There is no substitute for presence. – Gary Snyder, April 24, 2013
Sometimes you have to silence your "this is not sensible" voice in order to find the forage you most need.
Wednesday, despite being scheduled to give an evening poetry reading in downtown Grand Rapids, I drove from Saugatuck to Ann Arbor to hear Gary Snyder deliver the Hopwood Lecture. Huge wet snowflakes and a ferocious north wind pushed hard against me as I made my way across the University of Michigan's campus on foot to the grand Rackham Auditorium. A block ahead of me I saw my friend Keith Taylor walking into the same weather, his white hair unmistakable among the groups of students heading the same way. Twenty minutes later I'd be listening to him introduce Snyder, the great poet, environmentalist, and thinker, who, through his written words, has been one of my most important teachers.
"Kind of chilly," Snyder said of the unseasonably cold weather. "Classy," he said of the venue. I've never heard Snyder read or speak without acknowledging the place he and his audience have gathered.
He began writing poems at fifteen, Snyder told us, when he wanted to describe the world above the clouds. He meant literally; he'd just summited Mt. St. Helens. Snyder's work and life make an eloquent argument for the other-than-virtual. Good art, he told us, deals with the "actuality of the phenomenological world." He also said that art is not church, but that it's not evil, and that language will survive technology because it is wild (a subject he addresses at length in his indispensible collection of essays, The Practice of the Wild). In Taylor's introduction, he quoted Practice: "Out walking, one notices where there is food. And there are firsthand true stories of 'Your ass is somebody else's meal'—a blunt way of saying interdependence, interconnection, 'ecology,' on the level where it counts, also a teaching of mindfulness and preparedness." Many of my environmental studies students, having been primed by reading Thoreau's "Walking," immediately see Snyder's work as, among other things, an argument for literally walking.
In addition to summiting many mountains, Snyder has lived a life immersed in poetry, both Eastern and Western, indigenous cultures, Buddhism, and the land. His writing is laced with firsthand accounts of this immersion as it has played out in real time, on location (the Pacific Northwest, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Japan, Australia, Alaska . . .). He found the scroll that's central to his book-length poem, Mountains and Rivers Without End, in the Cleveland Art Museum, again, literally. In 2013, I'm intrigued by the contrast between information-gathering before and after the internet. Depending upon how you look at, there are more and more reasons to believe (falsely, I think) that it's all at your fingertips so why go anywhere?
So what is "wild," exactly, per Snyder? Here's what he said on Wednesday, "A wild horse is a horse that's living its own life in its own place." I'll be mulling that over for a while. First thoughts: freedom. And what are "own life" and "own place"?
"There is no substitute for presence." I found myself looking around the large, elegant, dimly lit hall, and wondering, hopefully, how many of the young writers who had gathered together there felt as assuredly as I did that we were in the presence of a generous elder who had traveled quite a long way to dodge our snowflakes and connect with us.
Snyder's lecture was entitled, "Remaining Unprepared." By way of partial explanation, he elaborated on "unlearning" and "not insisting on results": challenging and refreshing ideas to contemplate on a twenty-first-century American college campus. We'll be able to read it in the fall issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review. We can walk out under the sky in our places anytime. Let's go now.