Thursday, October 14, 2010

Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, and "The Etiquette of Freedom"

"The archaic religion is to kill god and eat him. Or her."
(Gary Snyder, from "Grace," in The Practice of the Wild)

"I had read somewhere that in the Middle Ages hell was envisioned as a place without birds."
(Jim Harrison, from The Road Home)

Luckily there are still birds along the California coast. Jim Harrison and Gary Snyder join together in a new book of conversations and an accompanying documentary, The Etiquette of Freedom, in which the two discuss ideas of poetry, art, and God (and, occasionally, Google) while trekking the California wilderness. The largely untouched wild makes a beautiful case for leaving well enough alone, but both men realize that man's imprint continues to shape the land and that one's own conscious attitude is a necessary tool of conservation.

Both writers are acutely aware that even in an age when global economies are seen as increasingly contracting, the world's energy consumption continues to explode with an unstoppable demand for new resources. The political aspects inherent in twenty-first century stewardship of the land, however, are not the focus here. These talks are a give-and-take primarily on the individual's role in developing a stewardship of place and a larger sense of belonging through awareness.

A participant of Kerouac's original "rucksack revolution" foretold in On the Road, Snyder remains one of its eloquent spokesmen. The countercultural movement away from the cities and to more rural settings in the 1960s and '70s found the poet's essays essential reading and his poems an expression of tangible beauty that became increasingly difficult to find in the suburban sprawl along the interstate. Harrison's novels and poems of the American midwest are a naturalist approach toward family and place -- particularly in Legends of the Fall -- that echoes Snyder's larger themes. Together the conversational dynamic is pretty sprightly as the two strike sparks from each other.

Zen teaching is a common thread in their conversation, but the east-meets-west combination of Eastern philosophy and Western culture can require some heady, imaginative leaps for the reader. Here's one exchange:

JH: D. H. Lawrence said, "The only aristocracy is that of consciousness."
GS: What do you think he meant?
JH: I think he meant that the person who is most conscious lives most intensely -- if "intensity" is the real pecking order, since life is so limited in length, as we are both aware of recently. That the person who experiences life most vividly --
GS: The most vividly? I'm not sure I agree with how he meant that, but that's a good question --

(Director John J Healey, Snyder, Harrison, and S.F. Film Society executive director Graham Leggat at the May 5, 2010 screening. Photo by Steve Rhodes)

JH: Why would you disagree?
GS: Oh, because it's too spectacular, too romantic.
JH: Well so was he.
GS: Of course. At any rate, you could set that beside an East Asian idea of the aristocracy of consciousness, and a Chinese or Korean idea of that would be much calmer, much cooler. Not like a hard glowing gemlike flame, not like a flaming candle burning out --
JH: That's what Kobun Chino Sensei said; they criticized his friend Deshimaru because he said, "You must pay attention as if you had a fire burning in your hair." And Kobun said, "You must pay attention as if you were drawing a glass of water."
GS: Oh, that's better.

JH: This concept of the divine ordinary --
GS: Exactly. There's two sides of Zen, right there. Deshimaru's statement about hair on fire is something you might say to a koan student. You'd say, "This is in the literature; it's like you had a glowing red ball stuck in your throat. And that's how serious you have to be in order to do koan study. But, in the long run, you don't want to burn your tongue off."
JH: It's like Rene Char says, if you are a poet, all you have to do is be there when the bread comes fresh from the oven.
GS: I like that.

"Are you going to try to improve yourself, or are you going to let the universe improve you?" Snyder quotes Dogen Zenji at one point, nudging us to the realization that we all still have that choice to make.

It's wonderful to read as the two old lions occasionally roar back and forth at each other, trying to top one another as they make universal connection. "The practice is the path," another quote from Dogen Zenji, appears early in the book, and serves as a helpful guide to the two writers' sometimes oblique tangents; we are all learning as we go. The book (and one supposes the documentary too) is a reminder that old ideas may not be dead after all, and that the old mysteries are still alive to be solved in all of us.

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