Several of the poems in Gary Snyder’s The Back Country (1967) were written in an oil tanker, one of his methods of transpacific travel as he was writing poems melding Far Eastern philosophies to his native Pacific Northwest realities in the late 1950s.
Born in Tisdale, Saskatchewan, and currently an inhabitant of the Okanagan “wild” in Kelowna BC, and self-identified in the company of poet George Stanley as a staunch “aboutist,” Sharon Thesen is indeed a literary rara avis whose score of witty, entertaining and insightful poetry books are balanced by solid editorial and academic contributions, including two editions of The New Long Poem Anthology, a Governor-General’s Award-winning edition of Phyllis Webb’s poetry (The Vision Tree), and with co-editor Ralph Maud, two books of correspondences between the poet Charles Olson and book designer Frances Boldereff — the most recent being After Completion: The Later Letters of Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff.
“I did it, first of all.” That was Gary Snyder's response to our distinguished visiting writer, Shawna Yang Ryan, when she asked him where he got the idea for the poem he’d just read. The poem was “Changing Diapers." As she said, diaper poems are not what one expects from Snyder. Or perhaps this one is, given the sharp contrast between the father changing his son's diapers and the violent, nay imperial, context of the background, a poster of Geronimo holding a Sharp's repeating rifle. The poem goes like this:
How intelligent he looks! on his back both feet caught in my one hand his glance set sideways, on a giant poster of Geronimo with a Sharp's repeating rifle by his knee.
I open, wipe, he doesn't even notice nor do I. Baby legs and knees toes like little peas little wrinkles, good-to-eat, eyes bright, shiny ears chest swelling drawing air,
No trouble, friend, you and me and Geronimo are men.
I’m back, with apologies for the long absence. The bad news is that I had to take a month break from these Commentaries due to a minor but temporarily disabling health issue, that pretty much knocked me out of commission, for anything but the day job. The good news is that I’m healed, my “tenure”here has been extended, and I'll be posting these Commentaries through November.
Last fall, on my trip across the country (mostly by rail) to visit the park spaces designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, I worked in a visit to one of the poets most readily associated with American space (though not urban space), Gary Snyder, at his residence high above the Yuba River, Kitkitdizze. I have yet to document that conversation (we spoke, amongst other things, of Gary’s experience bivouacking in Central Park in the late ’forties, while awaiting his seaman’s papers), which will happen, when I get around to it, on the Olmsted blog. After I left Gary, I stopped just on the other side of the Yuba River, to check out something called the Independence Trail. It turns out that the trail — occupying the site of old, abandoned hydraulic miner’s ditch — was built in answer to a request to, “Please find me a level wilderness trail where I can reach out and touch the wildflowers from my wheel chair.” It is a mostly level trail, shaded by oak and pine, that contours the slope of the undeniably wild Yuba River valley, with views to the river below. At the time, I did not know that this trail, the “First Wheelchair Accessible Wilderness Trail in America,” had been created by one John Olmsted, a distant relative of Frederick Law. J. Olmsted worked to save hundreds of acres in what is now the South Yuba River State Park, as well as what is now Jug Handle State Nature Reserve on the Pacific Coast in Mendocino County, Goat Mountain in the Coastal Range, and the Yuba Powerhouse Ranch. He wanted to create a “Cross California Ecological Trail.” Walking his Independence Trail helped me realize, yet again, how limited my conception of wilderness can be.
I had the good fortune to spend three days in the field, last week, with a wildlife biologist and her field crew, in their study area in the Southern Canadian Rockies, observing and helping the team “pull transects,” inventory tree growth, and track for wolf and other predator sign. They were compiling data for evidence of “trophic cascades,” in the ecosystems at the mountain-prairie interface. Trophic cascades are the energy that ripples out from the presence of a top predator, or a “keystone species,” in an ecosystem—not necessarily through direct predation so much as through an “ecology of fear,” which keeps herbivores vigilant and on the move, balancing browsing with scanning for predators. Removal of the predator can result in a collapse of the number and complexity of the energy cascades; presence of a predator amplifies and expands the energy ripples. Through such “cascade” effects, we ultimately might establish links between, say, wolf presence and songbird diversity. (For some ecosystems, a “mesopredator” like the coyote fulfills the function of the wolf.) Or so the theory goes.
Theoretical or not, I like to call it the wolf-songbird complex.
Another borrowed book whose call I ignored for too long is María Meléndez’s How Long She’ll Last in This World (U of Arizona, 2006). And how helpless I became, in its pages. I cannot resist poetry that speaks to me of “the morning sparkle of cows’/ dewy slobber all over the pasture,” or of dropping “a Troxler down a vertically sunk/ PVC pipe, [measuring] soil moisture as shifts/ in the tool’s resonant frequency.” On one level, this is poetry for the pack, inspirational to field science, informative to poets. (Meléndez writes out of her work as a wildlife biology field assistant.) The phenomena referenced quicken to shared contact, to the cast of a certain landscape, a “co-pathy/ with this particular coastal prairie herd,/ because we’ve been under the same saffron spell/ of a hill of bush lupine in bloom.” Meléndez’s poetry speaks the “co-pathy” of landscapes west of the Divide, Carolinas too.
In my last post, I referred to an at-homeness the “eco” implies (after the Green root oikos), and to alienated/naturalized binaries, that the errant poetics of Will Alexander might help us rethink. Indeed, the “household” trope is a timeworn frame for ecopoetics, promoted in my own rationale for the journal of the same name:
“ ‘Eco’ here signals—no more, no less—the house we share with several million other species, our planet Earth. ‘Poetics’ is used as poesis or making, not necessarily to emphasize the critical over the creative act (nor vice versa). Thus: ecopoetics, a house making.”
When I asked poet Robert Hass where he thought “ecopoetics” got started, he cited Gary Snyder’s Earth House Hold and Wendell Berry’s The Long-Legged House (both published in 1969) as the first notable titles in this area. I don’t know who coined the phrase “household Earth,” but I’m sure Stewart Brand, and his Whole Earth Catalog, had something to do with it—and/or Buckminster Fuller, and/or Gary Snyder, and/or that famous photograph of the Earth from space (1968/ ’72), with astronaut Edgar Mitchell’s comment: “It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth . . . home.”
Published in 1960 by Totem Press, Gary Snyder’s Myths & Texts (completed in 1956) gives the first indication that his career would be devoted to the long poem as well as the short poem. Anthologized as the author of lyrics like “Nooksack Valley,” “The Bath,” and “True Night,” Snyder also worked away for forty years on the 152-page long Mountains and Rivers Without End (Counterpoint, 1996).