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Gary Snyder

One of the major literary figures of the 20th century. His is the ethical voice in the time honored traditions of the American writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and the Japanese Dogen (1200 – 1253), the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism.

American poet, Zen Buddhist, deep ecology philosopher, and environmentalist, Gary Snyder was born on May 8, 1930, In San Francisco, Cal. and grew up near Puget Sound in Washington state. As a young boy he developed a love for nature that has lasted all of his life. He also developed a love for mountain climbing and by age fifteen he had climbed Mount St. Helens. By age seventeen he had climbed most of the major peaks in the northwest United States.

Snyder attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, with his friends, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, both future Beat poets. He graduated from Reed College with a degree in Literature and Anthropology. He did his post graduate work in Linguistics at Indiana University and at the University of California-Davis, where he studied Asian languages. He had a strong interest in Chinese and Japanese culture and poetry. This interest was shared by poet Kenneth Rexroth (1905 – 1982), who introduced Snyder to the Beat poetry crowd. It was Snyder who inspired the Zen Buddhist craze that swept through the Beat movement.

Snyder has worked as a forest ranger, merchant seaman , mountain spotter, and a longshoreman on the San Francisco docks. He also organized mountain climbing expeditions with some of the Beat writers, and one in particular, with writer Jack Kerouac (1922 – 1969), climbing Matterhorn Peak in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, inspired Kerouac to use Snyder as the semi-mystical poet in his book “Dharma Bums” (1958).

Snyder left for Japan where he studied Rinzai Zen Buddhism and researched and translated Zen texts. He traveled through Asia where he had an opportunity to meet with the Dalai Lama.

Returning to the U.S. he participated in left wing activities with Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919 – ) during the 1960s. He was on stage during the original San Francisco Be-In (Jan., 1967) and still continues to be a major voice in fighting for peace, environmental activism and freedom from nuclear weapons.

He established (1969) a farm on the San Juan Ridge in the foothills of the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains. From here Snyder became a cofounder of the deep ecology movement, along with Arne Naess, Bill Devall, George Sessions, Dolores LaChapelle, Alan Drengson, Michael Zimmerman and Robert Aitken.

Deep ecology takes ecology to a whole new level. “Shallow” ecology sees only the utilitarian value in the environment (the most good for the most people) but “deep” ecology gives intrinsic value to all life wherever it is found. It is the spirituality of Gaia and it leads to direct action. It is interesting to note that the majority of the scholars involved in deep ecology, besides Snyder, were Zen Buddhists. Arne Naess, Bill Devall, and George Sessions were Buddhist scholars and Robert Aitken was a Zen master. “Deep Ecology” (1986), written by Bill Devall and George Sessions, was dedicated to Arne Naess and Gary Snyder. Michael Soule, a Zen Buddhist, biologist and ecologist, with help from Aitken and Snyder, organized one of the first deep ecology conferences at the Zen Center in Los Angeles, California (April, 1982).

At San Juan Ridge, Snyder established a lay Zen center and ecology center. Over the years Snyder and his fellow ecologists have established the San Juan Ridge Tax Payers Association and the Ridge Study Group, along with the Yuba Watershed Institute, a bioregional organization devoted to the total Yuba River Community. Snyder firmly believes that one must understand the wilderness only be experiencing it.

In his poetry, Gary Snyder draws on the mystical experience of his everyday life. His works include: “Myths and Texts” (1960), “Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems” (1969), “Earth House Hold” (1969), “Turtle Island” (1974, winner of the Pulitzer prize), “The Old Ways” (1977), and “The Practice of the Wild” (1990).

In addition to his Pulitzer prize, Snyder also received the Bollingen Prize for Poetry (1997), the John Hay Award for Nature Writing (1997) and the Buddhism Transmission Award (1998) by the Japan-based Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai Foundation (Snyder was the first American writer to receive this award).

Since 1985 Gary Snyder has taught Ethno-Poetics, Creative Writing, and Literature of the Wilderness at the University of California – Davis. He is married to Carole Koda Snyder and they have two sons (by his first wife, Masa Uehara) and two young daughters.

Bruce Cook once said of Gary Snyder: If [Allen] Ginsberg is the Beat movement’s Walt Whitman, Gary Snyder is the Henry David Thoreau.

Web Links

  • Snyder is currently on the faculty at The University of California at Davis. Their website has a page listing his published works and some of the awards he has received.
  • Snyder’s poem “The Circumambulation of Mt. Tamalpais” is on the web (with photos).
  • Prof. Tony Hunt has a long, fascinating essay on Snyder’s “Mountains and Rivers Without End” at the Journal of Modern Literature Website.
  • The University of Illinois has an extensive website about Snyder, mostly concerned with his poetry.
  • Ceffeinedestiny has a short interview.
  • Nick Selby has written an interesting essay called, “Poem as Work-Place: Gary Snyder’s Ecological Poetics.”
  • There’s a extensive list of his writings and other information at the Heureka web site.
  • The Beat Museum has a short biography and list of his writings, with links to information about other beat poets.