Meditative Thought About Telling Tales

Meditative Thought About Telling Tales

                                         “We are always in both worlds, because they aren’t really two.”

Gary Snyder, Practice of the Wild

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Throughout the collection of essays in his book, The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder questions his role as a member of a society which refuses to embrace its own relationship to the rest of the planet.  Through meditative writing he explores religion, stories, cultures, literary works, his own experience and the experiences of others, to try and find the significance and meaning in the division between humans and “wild”.

Last year I was introduced to the writing of Gary Snyder.  At first, it confused me.  Before reading any of his essays, I delved into the poetry in his book of collected works, Turtle Island.  His poem, The Bath, was my introduction to the voice of Gary Snyder.  Honestly, it was a little shocking.  Because of how strong and strange of a reaction I had to reading it, I decided to write an essay on that very poem.  I was so utterly confused about how I felt about the poem that I remember reading it aloud to one of my friends.  She was not a fan.  I reached the end of the second stanza, a line which reads, “the space between the thighs I reach through, cup her curving vulva arch and hold it from behind, soapy tickle”(Snyder 13), and she told me to stop.  I believe her exact response was something like, “that is some freaky shit”.  Throughout this poem, Snyder describes bathing his son, “through and around the globes and curves of his body” (Snyder 12).  When I first read this poem, all the vivid description of the body of the child and his mother definitely took me off guard and left me feeling uncomfortable.  The more I thought about his words and the distinct choice to include a vivid description of bodies, the more I realized that it was my own, personal bias that was creating this block between me and the poem.  As I read it again and again, each time trying to distance myself from my gut reaction, the more I began to like the poem.  I could hear Snyder talking and I came closer to understanding what he was saying.  The key part of this poem is the line, “this is our body”(Snyder 12).  Throughout most of his writing, poems or prose, he is concerned with the divide between human beings and ‘nature’–our own nature, the idea of the ‘wild’ that we are so removed from.  In his writing, Snyder meditates on huge, philosophical questions.  In his collection of essays, The Practice of the Wild, he contemplates the relationship between humans and our home.  He connects himself to the subject of his writing, just as he connects humanity to nature.  In this book, Snyder uses personal stories and ideas to relate to the much larger issue: what is wild?

Gary Snyder has questions.  In this collection of essays he is looking not only for answers, but for ways of thinking about answers.  When I began rereading this book, I once again was dragged into Snyder’s complex, meditative thought process.  He has a way of writing that sneaks up on you.  He is a storyteller, and through his stories, he gets you to think with him.  In one of his essays, entitled, The Woman Who Married a Bear, he tells a story.  This story is based on a telling by Maria Jones to Catherine McClellan who wrote it as, The Girl Who Married the Bear: A Masterpiece of Indian Oral Tradition.  As Snyder tells this story, it seems to be as simple as its title.  However, Snyder’s process is far from simple.  As the story ends, he begins another section called, On The Woman Who Married a Bear, in which he describes the significance of the substance of this story.  He opens with a list of berries, “Salmonberries, Crowberries, Nagoonberries…”(Snyder 173).  Then he moves on, to talk about the time of year that berries ripen; he describes their place in the ecosystem–their job to feed.  He talks about bears and the process by which they collect berries to eat.  “Picking berries takes patience.  The bears draw over the shoots and delicately rake through the clusters with their claws.  People make wooden rakes that look like bear-claws and gather them into a basket…”(Snyder 173).  Snyder is not just going on about bears and berries.  He is drawing a parallel between bears and human beings.

(I love this passage.  As a native to New Hampshire, I have been blueberry picking all my life.  We live close to a place called Mount Blue Job.  My father took us there every year in the mid/late summer, during prime blueberry season.  It is only about a sixteen minute hike, but once you reach the top, the forest opens up to hilltop after hilltop covered in blueberries.  My dad has a blueberry rake and a three-gallon basket with straps on the back for collecting.  Once, we were at the top of the mountain, far from where he was dutifully picking berries for jamming, and we heard a scream.  It was my dad, and the noise echoed over all the hills, so it was hard to hear where he was.  Ages twelve, ten, and six, my brothers and I ran back for him.  We came out to a seen I will never forget.  Next to my father was the biggest, blackest, shaggiest looking dog we had every seen.  And, apparently, it had not been phased by his yell.  It was hunched over a berry patch, raking them off with its teeth.  I had never seen a dog eat blueberries, nor had my father.  The dog was friendly enough, but from the corner of the eye, he was a bear.)

Snyder goes on to write about human connection to the “wild” through this story’s connection to bears.  He writes of the young woman, “He was human to her.  And so she entered the in-between world, not exactly human, not exactly animal, where the rain might look like fire, and the fire might look like rain…We are always in both worlds, because they aren’t really two”(Snyder 177).  Snyder blurs lines.  He created ambiguity where we don’t want it.  As humans we do a very good job of sorting things into categories–“humans” and “animals”, “civilized” and “primitive”, “tame” and “wild”.  Gary Snyder argues that these lines in the sand, that we so love to draw, are nothing more than human invention.  He tells this story of a woman who crossed that line, into the wild.  She symbolizes a reminder to people, a link to the wilderness.  He writes, “They must return to the wilderness, having accomplished their task–to teach humans the precise manners in regard to bears”(Snyder 180).    At the end of the story, the woman kills her human family in order to stay in the forest with her bear cubs.  She decides to reject the human world, because it had to be one or the other.  Snyder says that from her story, she was revered as a goddess.

In a final few paragraphs, he tells the reader about today.  “But that period is over now.  The bears are being killed, the humans are everywhere, and the green world is being unraveled and shredded and burned by the spreading of a gray world that seems to have no end.  If it weren’t for a few old people from the time before, we wouldn’t even know this tale”(Snyder 181).  His use of this story helps bridge a connection between human beings and the world that, today, we reject to easily.  However, the story itself has a message, beyond its content, it is an ancient story.  It comes from another time, when indigenous peoples held knowledge that is slowly being forgotten by the ever-modernizing world.  Snyder uses this story’s message, and its past to work through this idea of separation between us and the rest.

His idea? The wild is just as much a part of us, as we are of it.  We create borders and barriers between ourselves and the natural world in order to feel less connected.  If we are less connected, it is much easier to destroy the ‘wild’.

His presence? Snyder has a unique voice.  I’m not sure if I even have the correct language to talk about ‘presence’ yet.  However, there is definitely something going on in his writing.  From his poetry to his prose, he sounds like himself–if that’s not too vague a statement–not only in the way he conveys information, but, when he is working through a thought on the page, he creates the feeling that, as the reader, you are thinking with him.  This kind of meditative writing, invites the reader to evolve along with the essay.  The essay itself seems to be the perfect form for Snyder.  It allowed him to think out loud about incredibly complex questions.

His evidence? Snyder draws on religion.  He uses a lot of Buddhist philosophy in his writing.  He uses his own experience–those he has met, his own memories of nature, etc.  He also uses the work of others: from John Muir, to Thoreau, to his own writing.

 

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