Online Interviews With Gary Snyder Essay, Research Paper
Q: You pointed out that the word ecology, with its root
meaning "household science," is not far from the word economics, with its
meaning of "household management." Is there a close relationship between ecology
A: The word ecology describes the workings of energy
exchange between living and non-living systems. The entire biosphere is largely a solar
energy driven economy in which the photosynthesis of plants makes available almost all of
the food and fuel. Plants are, so to speak, the working class, and as energy is passed up
the food chain, we have a small number of predators at the top fed by a huge number of
mice down below. The image of food-chains is not a model you would want to use as a guide
for human society, but a way of understanding how things in the biosphere work.
Human economies are based on utilizing whatever nature
makes available, and it would be very prudent and healthy for all complex societies to be
informed about ecological and economic systems at the same time. A lot of what happens in
the economic realm runs counter to the health of ecological systems.
Q: Do you see the "green vision" as being in
opposition to capitalism?
A: It’s in opposition to the gross sort of global
capitalism, and to the monocultural scale of 150,000 hens in your shed or thousands and
thousands of acres of nothing but walnut trees. The green vision certainly informs the
more refined and ecologically modeled modern enterprises.
Q: In an address you gave at Reed College in 1991, you
suggested that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, students
would need to ‘forge a new philosophy and practice of power.’ Who are the
conflicting power brokers today?
A: The main contesting players are… I suppose first, the
proponents of the global economy model of global free markets with great trust in
technological progress and assumptions that fossil fuel and other critical resources will
continue to be available to run some sort of industrial model society even as population
continues to grow. This also assumes that there will be food enough to feed everyone even
as populations are still growing. This is what one could call technological utopianism. It
is narrowly self-serving in that a very small number of people will grow enormously rich
while the rest of the world becomes impoverished.
Another scenario is the idea of a sustainable economy in a
carefully husbanded ecological world. With our scientific and technological knowledge, and
a will to hold ourselves in check, this approach would encourage us to practice some
self-restraint in matters of growth, in matters of materialistic consumption, and a
willingness to take a lower cut of profit off everything. We would have sustainable
forestry, might be able to put the brakes on population growth, show some genuine respect
for indigenous cultures, come to enjoy riding a bicycle to work, and just slow it all
down. This could still be a very comfortable, well-educated, highly cultured society.
There is nothing simple-minded about such a model. It requires more from us, and it
happens to serve a larger number of people, even though it doesn’t create huge
profits at the top.
Q: You wrote, "It is my own sort of crankiness to
believe there is hope. I would like to think the technological society, as diverse, smart,
and complicated as it is, can also get ‘nature literate’ and be fully at home
with the wild, both within and without." Do you envision a world in which technology
and other human inventions could live in harmony with nature and the wild?
A: It is definitely one possible future, but I
wouldn’t bet money on it. The biological and earth sciences show us that we are all
very much interconnected, and that we share bodies and minds throughout the organic world,
right down to our genetic makeup. We are kin to the rest of nature. But, to talk about
technology, one would need clear criteria to distinguish between useful and sustainable
technologies, and those which cost the world too much.
‘Nature literate’ here means knowing the wild
(and tame) plant, the annual rainfall, knowing what the maximum lows and the highs are
through the year, knowing what your annual solar input is at your latitude, and being
aware of where your water comes from and where your garbage goes, so to speak. These are
things that everybody should know. It’s partly a matter of just paying attention.
What is the biotic diversity here? These are the neighbors! We should know the neighbors.
Nature literacy starts with information.
Q: You urge folks to dig in, settle in, become inhabitants
rather than visitors or residents of any given place . . .
A: I’m not fanatic about that. This is a society
where many people never think about a place to settle down. Lots of people don’t even
know how to tell you where they’re from. If you ask, they say, ‘Do you mean
where I was born, or where I went to college, or where my parents live now?’ There is
a lot of vagueness about where we are from.
There are some real benefits that come to the human
community when people become more place settled and responsible for a place. But we
can’t force that on others. It’s an option you can opt for when the time comes,
especially if you feel chosen by a place, and settle into it. Being a member of a place is
to be in a relationship. It takes time to deepen, and you have to nourish it. There are
some simple advantages that come from staying in one place. You can have long-term
friends, you can learn that it’s okay to be on the school board, you can find out
about getting angry at somebody and not speaking to them for 15 years and then, to
everyone’s surprise that you forgive each other and become friends again!
I’ll tell you one simple case where it would make a
big difference: If fewer people were mobile and more people were settled in the United
States, you would have much much more voter participation. People are interested in voting
on local issues. Even if they think that the national election is hopelessly rigged,
they’ll still go to the polls because they care about local issues, about who gets
elected county supervisor. While they’re there, they’ll also vote for their
choice of president.
Q: You have been writing about bioregions for some time.
Here on the South Shore of Lake Superior, we are aware of our bioregion, yet some of the
dangers to the Big Lake are not regional dangers, but larger issues like airborne
particulates. Why do you encourage regional divisions, and is there a place for smaller,
or larger, fields of reference?
A: I don’t suggest that these bioregional divisions
should be seen as some new sort of administrative jurisdictions, although that might come
about some day as political boundaries are readjusted to fit ecological zones. This is an
ecological and educational exercise. The Environmental Protection Agency, and the public
lands agencies, the water quality agencies, are also thinking in terms of bioregions, not
just states and counties. This is because the natural world moves by its own rules, not by
human decrees. Water quality is monitored locally, but is might be affected by acid rain
that has national or international source points. Bio-regional problems are always linked
to the larger biological world. But paying attention to the immediate region gives us a
quicker way to monitor and understand what’s happening and thus to be able to apprise
our citizens more swiftly.
Q: You wrote "If I were recommending anybody to study
anything in the university over anything else, I would either recommend biology or
anthropology." Do you still feel that is true?
A: I said that some years ago, I’m not sure I would
say that today. I was reading an account in the Detroit
Free Press the other day, and it said that there were
only 95 professional anthropologists in the entire state of Michigan. But
non-professionally, as training in cultural and social thinking, it is very valuable.
Field, conservation, and evolutionary biology (and ecological science) are of utmost
I think small liberal arts colleges are really valuable.
I’m on the faculty of a big research university myself, and it’s good for
graduate students, but not so good for undergraduates. I travel around to colleges in all
size ranges and I think the students at liberal arts colleges are doing better and
thinking more boldly.
I think environmental sciences or environmental studies is
an excellent introductory education, partly because it raises the challenge of
environmental ethics and environmental philosophy, a challenge that is not raised by many
other disciplines. But for most students there is still a need to get some practical
professional or vocational training after you get your basic bachelor’s.
Q: How important do you think writing is?
A: That’s a subtle question. It’s important to
learn to be comfortable with your own language &endash; which is, oddly, not as easy
as it sounds. It means learning to listen to yourself speaking and to pay attention and
hear how other people hear you.
Theoretically we always speak "correctly." The
problem then is learning how to master any particular local or class code for your home
tongue. So a college student has to learn the code for writing papers. That’s an
exercise in the language.
One’s capacity to use one’s language skillfully
and gracefully is very important. This is not the same as being a good writer; this is
just the barebones necessity. If one is a good debater, talker, storyteller, counselor,
and raconteur, that’s great. There is yet another step for a really good writer.
Being a good writer calls for an acquaintance with the literature, historical usages,
styles and voices from the past and other places, and aesthetically being willing to
experiment. You have to look at things that other people aren’t looking at.
That’s what we get from our writers. It’s exciting, but very few people make a
success of it.
Q: But you’re one who has.
A: It’s a lot of perseverance, but also luck. And I
haven’t quit my day job.
from Northern Light (Winter-Spring 2000). Online
Freewheeling the Details:
A Conversation with Gary Snyder & Peter Coyote
This article appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of Poetry Flash.
Gary Snyder, poet, environmental activist, Zen Buddhist, and UC Davis professor, recently
celebrated the publication of The Gary Snyder Reader, (617 pages, Counterpoint,
$35.00 cloth), the major selected volume of his essays, travel journals, letters, poems,
and translations. The collection gathers poems from his first book, Riprap, to the
Pulitzer Prize-winning Turtle Island (1975), through No Nature (finalist for
the National Book Award, 1992) and the epic poem cycle Mountains and Rivers Without End
(1996). That year, Gary Snyder, author of sixteen books, and longtime resident of the
South Yuba River watershed in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in Northern California,
was honored with the Bollingen Poetry Prize and the Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement
Award/Los Angeles Times. (The Bay Area Book Reviewers Awards had presented him with its
equivalent years ago.) This year, his old friend Peter Coyote, actor, conservationist,
activist, and Zen practitioner, also celebrated the paperback publication of his personal
memoir of the sixties, Sleeping Where I Fall (367 pages, Counterpoint, $14.00
paper). Peter Coyote has performed in more than fifty films, including E.T., Jagged
Edge, Bitter Moon, Outrageous Fortune, and Patch Adams, and has narrated scores
of documentaries. His political street theater work with the San Francisco Mime Troupe was
honored with a special OBIE; he won a Pushcart Prize in non-fiction (for a piece
originally published in ZYZZYVA) in 1994. Peter Coyote’s counterculture journey
with the Mime Troupe, the Diggers, and the Free Family taught him the value of strategy
and political/communal effort, from the radical commune he became chairman of the
California Arts Council, from street theater he became a film star. The two, author/poet
and author/actor, met in an unusual onstage conversation presented by A Clean Well-Lighted
Place for Books, the San Francisco independent bookstore, at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater,
June 2, 1999. The following is a transcript of what took place.
PETER COYOTE: So by way of introducing Gary Snyder–not to plug my own
book–I thought I would read the story, it’s very short, about how I first met Gary, which
was thirty some odd years ago, when his friend and my roommate Lew Welch–another one of
the Beat poets who had filled my head with Snyder lore for at least the better part of a
year–actually arranged an introduction. And, just to give you the setting, this was a
dirt poor hippie commune, thirty to thirty-five souls, all eating road kill, and
long-haired and bedraggled and occasionally sober. And into this setting, Gary came.
"It’s embarrassing to remember my first impression as I watched Gary’s pristine
Volkswagen camper pick its careful way over the rutted road to our ranch house. "How
could Gary Snyder be driving a new camper?" I thought. "So
bourgeois!" It came to a stop under the willow tree at the edge of the yard, Lew
hopped out with his customary manic enthusiasm, and I ambled over, lord of the manor.
Salutations were exchanged, and Gary threw open the side door and invited me inside.
Before I had climbed on board, he had already opened some peanut butter and a box of
"He was wearing an old straw hat that shaded his eyes, and I remember him cocking his
head to one side to look at me. His look was so clearly appraising, so without social
camouflage as to be startling. The visit was uneventful. We ate crackers and talked. Gary
was not overweening, and he made interesting conversation&emdash;in the parlance of
the time, he was "together." His body was muscular and lithe. His eyes crinkled
pleasantly when he smiled. His voice was cultivated, and his speech was very precise and
peppered with geological terms like schist, upthrusts, and substrate.
"I was a little crestfallen by this initial encounter. He had not congratulated me
for carrying the banner of Beat liberation struggles onto new battlefields, nor
acknowledged me as a peer, nor questioned me in any way about my revolutionary lifestyle
and politics. All he had done was look me over as if asking himself, "What’s this guy
about?" He did not find it necessary to locate me philosophically or politically. In
fact, he did not seem to find it necessary to define himself in relationship to me at all!
I had shared some peanut butter and crackers and a pleasant time with him, and that was
that. After he had driven off, little remained in my memory except that initial
penetrating visual query. It made me squirm mentally and I did not know why."
Well, thirty years later I no longer squirm, but I’ve become increasingly fond of that
penetrating gaze, and I’ve never been disappointed by the intelligence that’s behind it
and supports it, and as well as being a close friend and a great comrade, Gary has been a
spiritual companion. Somebody, an older student, kind of on the path of practice, who has
guided me and nurtured me and been helpful beyond comparison, beyond measure. And so it’s
my great honor to be asked to introduce him tonight and ask you to join me in welcoming
GARY SNYDER: I don’t know if Peter remembers this, but the first time we
met was shortly after I got back from Japan in 1969 after a long residence there and some
big crazy party at a house perched on the side of the slope over Muir Beach. Peter Berg
and Lew and Joanne Kyger. Peter was this beautiful human being. He had hair down to his
waist and more earrings than you can count and lovely tight fringed leather pants. I
thought, now there is quite a guy! Turned out to be true. So, yeah, we’ve been learning
about each other through the years.
Earlier this evening we were talking about how in our cultural, political and literary
life here in Northern California, friendships have been so important to our community of
like souls &emdash; and have carried us all through the decades. This book, The
Gary Snyder Reader, is dedicated to one of my earliest friends and mentors, a fellow
student at Reed college in the early fifties, Philip Zenshin Whalen, retired abbot of the
Hartford Street Zen Center, who was one of the first people to seriously scold me for my
intellectual shortcomings when we were both undergraduates at Reed. Except he was older,
and he had been in the Air Force, one of those World War II GI Bill guys. So, the book’s
dedicated to Philip Whalen, with a quotation from Confucius.
PC: Thank you, Gary. Anyone who listens to any of these poems is struck
immediately by a sense of detail. I wanted to tell one little personal story on you which
relates to this sense of detail and then ask you a question about it. One time Gary took
me into his study, and in the center of his study was a large library card file actually
from a library, you know, the kind before there were computers, with lots and lots and
lots of little drawers with little cards in them. And each of these drawers was fully
annotated alphabetically with Gary’s readings for the last thirty years, cross-indexed to
his journals. And I was simultaneously overwhelmed with that effort and also relieved that
all of those details didn’t come out of his memory because I was losing mine. So, one of
the things that I wanted to ask you about–I remember when the Diggers first came up to
San Juan Ridge, and we had this meeting. The Diggers were my leftist anarchist family in
San Francisco, and we were going on a caravan to spread the word about living in place.
And the first place we stopped was Gary’s community, and they were a little suspicious
about us as gypsies, not particularly as individuals–although they would have been wise
to be suspicious about us as individuals. But I remember being struck by the community’s
commitment to live in place and defend this place, and it strikes me that there’s a kind
of commonality about detail, about becoming intimate with place through the detail of what
lives there and grows there, detail in poetry and, for want of a better word, the suchness
of detail and Buddhist practice. And those are all three kinds of themes that you and I
have talked about a lot, and I would like you to just freewheel about detail and how the
appreciation for precision and specificity relates to place, poetry and practice.
GS: That’s a big order, Peter.
PC: We have time.
GS: I don’t know. Well, I’m very suspicious of detail…
PC: That finishes me off for this evening, thank you very much.
GS: But I’m suspicious of it because I’m so drawn to it. I hope at its
best that by covering detail in work and community and political life, one is freed up to
take risks, to venture into the formless. There’s a delicate balance there, and I have to
watch myself very carefully not to fall into the temptation to be a geek, which always
lurks over your shoulder…Coyote, Coyote, old man, do you suppose Coyote old man
carries a little calendar under his armpit as he trots along or something to keep up with
what his plans are? Maybe he does; but attention in the moment, attention to what’s going
on; hearing and seeing and listening is of utmost value; it is so beautiful. Whether or
not you have to remember it or write it down is another question. However, if it’s there,
it comes back to you when you need it, maybe.
PC: Well, I wasn’t actually talking or thinking so much of the writing.
What I was thinking of was how the flip side of the formless is boundless detail,
boundless, each grain of sand different, each flower petal; no one will ever have this
GS: Ohhh, leave that to God!
PC: Yeah, so, one of the things of value about place is the detail of the
gene pool, the detail of what grows here, and it seems to me that’s something that has
informed a lot of your work. And I’m not talking about the geek aspect; I’m actually
talking about the reverential aspect.
GS: Well, I appreciate that distinction. You know, it’s been a lifelong
struggle to keep the right balance between taking notes on my reading and trying to learn
a few more birds and a few more flowers and losing track–as one may sometimes–of the
fact that learning the name of a bird doesn’t tell you a whole lot about the actual
critter. You have to, as Basho says, go to the pine tree to learn of the pine, go to the
bamboo to learn of the bamboo. And that means, go to that being, go to that presence and
be with it experientially, feel it, be one with it, let it enter into you. You don’t need
a taxonomy to do that. Yet, having the taxonomy at hand adds another dimension that is
very valuable, especially when you’re at a forest service hearing and you’re called on to
testify. So it’s some balance there.
PC: Well, let me ask it another way. Which is, what’s the difference
between traveling and staying at home? I mean, you were in the Arabian Sea and the
Bosporus in Constantinople, and here you are when we visit–I mean, for twenty years it
seemed every time I visited Gary at Kitkitdizze, which is the name of his house, we would
clear brush, and we would talk, and we would hack and talk and pile up brush as a fire
break. And over the years you could actually see the changes that you made, and so we were
not cutting everything down in our path; we were cutting down specific bushes, specific
undergrowth, and so, as I was listening to you read in all this travel and all this detail
of things that you were seeing–is it the same thing as walking on the ridge, or is it
GS: Taking what’s at hand and taking it on…when I was working in the
engine room of the Sappa Creek, I had some maintenance jobs that, if I didn’t keep track
of them, I could ruin this giant engine. And so I took it to heart as my responsibility. I
even wrote a poem of compassion and sympathy for this tanker that I knew was going to be
busted up as scrap in about five more years. So when you’re up in the Sierra Nevada, you
better clear the underbrush, or it’s all going to burn down. In part, that’s just taking
on what’s in your life, what’s given to you in your surroundings, I guess.
PC: Well, I’m trying to tease out of you, clumsily, an articulation about
how you’re thinking about living in place. What living in place and getting intimate with
place really means. And somewhere in my mind that I can’t articulate too clearly is a
connection having to do with the details of a place, the way a place presents itself
through the details, not the taxonomy, of its different species and the interactions of
those species. And I see a connection between that language and the language of poetry.
Maybe that’s my own mind.
GS: Well, let me tell a little story on me and on my life. Thirty years
living in this one spot, most of the time there, developing a forest, managing a little
forest, some big trees, wild, and developing a water system, a solar electric power
system, a small garden, and moving about, keeping an eye on things, cutting down the pine
trees that had been killed by western bark beetles before the bark beetles could spread,
cutting that up for firewood, loading it in the truck, getting it out of the meadow so it
wouldn’t spread to the other trees, studying the cheat grass and other invader species of
grass in some of the meadows that were expanding too rapidly, wondering about them, etc.,
etc. Thirty years. Back and forth by one old live oak tree that happened to be standing
right alongside this trail, and one day I’m going by that live oak tree, and for no
particular reason at all that I can figure, I saw it. I totally saw it. It came to me; it
opened itself to me. And I stood there, and I thought, "I have never seen this tree
before; I have never been in the presence of this tree like I am now." It was a fully
living presence. It was deeply moving. And I also saw the tree in a way I had never seen
it before, that is to say, in beautiful detail of the bark, the leaves, the serrations on
the leaves, the scattered dead leaves on the ground, the shapes of the limbs, the shapes
of the twigs. So I met the tree. And thought in reflection on that, that that’s a
wonderful experience. In a way, that’s what we live for. But at the same time, doing all
the chores, taking care of the place, changing the oil in the generator are absolutely
necessary and just as beautiful, too. And they prepare the way for that moment when you
get to meet the tree, meet the oak tree, that the two go side by side. And, indeed, that
is the model of a Zen training center where there are all kinds of little details that you
do well from day to day, and then maybe there’s more that’s going to happen too, but you
don’t insist on it. You do what you do as boring as it is or as repetitious as it is, in
the same good spirit ‘well’, everyday; so that’s called practice. Poetry is the same.
PC: That’s the answer I wanted.
GS: I’m sorry I’m so slow.
PC: I’m starting to feel selfish and greedy, and I think I want to
include the rest of the audience in this. Do you think you could turn up the house lights
so we could see people out there? and I would invite people to ask Gary questions or
myself, and I will try to moderate and ask you to speak loudly, and I will repeat it in
the microphone just in case people don’t hear. So please feel free. A show of hands. Yes?
[muffled audience question]
PC: The question is a question to Gary–how come you don’t deal with the
problems of overpopulation?
GS: Well, you know, because poetry is not a program. I have talked about
overpopulation in some of my essays, particularly a little manifesto called Four Changes.
But that’s basically a prose job.
[muffled audience comment]
PC: Can you hear that in the back, that story? He’s recounting the story
about how Gary and he went to visit a poet in New Mexico, and the poet was apologizing
that the upstairs toilet was leaking…and that…the question was about…a
young man kind of mythologizing Gary and was startled when Gary launched into this fellow
and said, "You know, this is a critical life tool. How can you let the toilet
leak?" That was kind of a little Zen epiphany.
GS: You said it so well, Peter
PC: I just repeated what he said.
GS: Well, I guess I did that. I gave him a little dharma lecture on
[muffled audience question]
PC: The question to Gary was how do you deal with a sense of place; does
a sense of place have to be related to an environment around it which is still alive?
GS: You know, you can’t be anywhere on this planet in which the
environment around you isn’t alive. Maybe in the cities, in the urban centers it’s not
quite as evident, but there are mites in these seats and spiders under your chair,
not to mention billions of germs flying around–these are all sentient, organic, living
beings. We can enjoy that. As Dogen says, "Tiles, bricks, broken walls teach the
dharma to us." Do not make a foolish distinction between sentient and non-sentient,
Dogen would say. So we have an environment whether we like it or not, wherever we are. And
it’s a relationship, place is a relationship like a marriage. Either you enter into that
relationship, and it’s very rewarding, or you deny that relationship, and you live in
[muffled audience question]
GS: I will have to say, as I said to Latif in Santo Domingo Pueblo, you
seem to be in a very negative space…which hostile environment is this? We are
companions to the whole universe; this isn’t a hostile environment.
[muffled audience comeback]
GS: Oh, there’s mosquitoes, that’s true.
AUDIENCE: Would you talk about the sense of place and possession, or
ownership, of place?
GS: Well, it’s a different topic. Ownership is not a question. Again,
let’s think of it as relationship. A relationship does not require ownership, of a place
or of a person. None of us own the wind; none of us own the yellow-rumped warblers; none
of us own the sea. But we can have a relationship to them, also.
PC: The question was would you compare, or compare and contrast, the
epiphanies that come as a writer or an artist with those that come from some kind of
spiritual practice and pursuit.
GS: That’s a hard question to answer because, first of all, not all
spiritual practices and pursuits are the same. And there are several different tracks of
practice and experience that cultivate and encourage somewhat different experiences.
Devotional bliss, absorption in the One, is the focus of some traditions. The experience
of the artist is hands-on; it is dealing with the material world regardless of which
particular material you are dealing with, and so it is loving and close to matter; it
cannot and would not deny matter. But there are schools of spirituality who would choose
to leave that world behind, and so it’s hard to say. However, in the Zen Buddhist
tradition for one there is an unqualified delight in the arts. But also the monks in Song
Dynasty China or in Tokugawa Japan practicing painting or poetry laughed at themselves and
each other and said the worst kind of Zen person gets involved in poesy…
PC: Present company excluded?
GS: However, you know, let’s take one of the best thinkers in this
territory, Basho–the great haiku poet who says, "Go to the pine tree to learn of the
pine tree." And then in one little saying he sums it all up. Either for the artist or
the would be spiritual practicer he says, "Don’t try to follow in the footsteps of
the old masters; go to the source that they went to." There you are; go to the
AUDIENCE: What we can do to educate the young about poetry?
GS: The kind of poetry that I write gets a little hard for kids to read
below sixth grade.
AUDIENCE: What about teenagers?
GS: Well, teenagers, yeah, I do that in high school sometimes. In fact,
just last week I was with the local grade school up in the Sierra Nevada hanging out with
the kids and working on some environmental projects, sure. Although, you know, what we
really need is a place-based, environmentally oriented curriculum built into the
California school system, especially in K&endash;8, so that local environmental
education would not be a hit or miss proposition relying on one or two dedicated school
teachers who love nature and do a whole lot extra for the kids. A curriculum that taught
nature and biology and environment on the basis of exploring whichever place you’re in and
taking the kids out on field trips and into hands-on projects would be the very best sort.
AUDIENCE: How do you think that writing poetry to express your life and life
experiences has effected your life and life experiences?
GS: Like, what’s the feedback loop? so to speak. I think poetry has
sharpened my seeing and gratitude. Writing poetry is its own reward. It is so delightful
to hit on the right language, the right music for a specific occasion or insight or image
or moment. In an odd way, the universe is absolutely brand new every day, and there are
unexpected things coming up that have never happened before. So you keep alert and are
enlightened by that, and doing your art is–it’s a kind of a prayer; it’s a meditation and
a constant teacher. You know, I could get really stoked about talking about this.
AUDIENCE: Relating to Gary’s ideas of place, what are your thoughts on
travelers and gypsies and nomads?
GS: I’m glad you asked that question because it gives me an opportunity
to clarify a little further some of the issues and questions that are around this idea of
place that Peter and I have been working over for so many years, each in our own way.
Place is a novel idea in American society. It’s so novel that it is unsettling to people.
Because it’s unsettling they don’t realize that it’s flexible, metaphoric and playful and
that it doesn’t automatically require that you sign up to live somewhere and not ever go
anywhere again. It’s not some new variety of political correctness; it’s nothing that you
have to do at all because you’re already in a place. What it’s asking us to do is simply
to take this particular relationship that’s always in our lives a little more seriously,
to pay a little more attention to it, and that will be true wherever you are. It is also a
way to think about the neighbors. The neighbors include the nonhuman as well as the human.
Not just your human neighbors but these other critters and plants that are companions in
your life and are part of the fabric of your place. Now, as for nomads, people often raise
this question–what about nomads? Well, nomads always lived within a territory. They had a
place; their place might have been the southwestern corner of the Kalahari Desert. But it
was the southwestern corner; it wasn’t the northeastern corner. Nomads move in a known
annual circuit where they are circulating between certain water holes, plant species,
seasonal cycles and so forth. There are no nomads that just promiscuously go off across
the landscape forever.
PC: Only actors.
GS: And there are gypsies whose second language is French; there are
gypsies whose second language is Romanian. That should tell you something about gypsies.
PC: Gary, I’m reminded of this game we played once around the campfire:
try to describe the place where you lived without referring to manmade or man-named
GS: Yeah, great exercise.
PC: Try to describe where you live in terms of drainages, coasts, creeks,
AUDIENCE: This is for both Gary and Peter, could you talk about hope and
optimism and how it changes over the years?
PC: Well, my sense of optimism has had the shit kicked out of it. But
it’s still kicking. I call it radical optimism because it exists without regard to the
facts. Being culturally Jewish, I have a propensity to go right off the deep end of doom
and gloom. I do have a passport and a hundred dollars cash under my bed. But, I actually
believe that from this formless void that began to intrigue me thirty years ago any form
can be produced and that this particular world imagining is not the last stop on the train
line. And if there can be dark ages, there can be golden ages. And much as I–you probably
don’t know that I do run the world everyday listening to National Public Radio; I tell
them what to do, but they don’t listen. But if there can be a dark age, there can be a
golden age. And so, in spite of the facts, I try to retain a sense of optimism, if only so
that I just don’t depress the hell out of my sweetheart and my children. That’s how I deal
GS: Very much the same. I think that, yeah, we’ve had some shit kicked
out of utopian visions that we thought were about to become manifest. But on the other
hand, the actually existing world isn’t bad. It goes through some hard times, to be sure,
but we do it in good spirit I hope. Another way of looking at it is, like in environmental
terms, ecological terms, the truth is that nature doesn’t need us to save it. Mother earth
is extraordinary resilient, and she has millions of years to solve whatever problems we
happen to create temporarily. So we do these environmental things not to save the earth
but for the sake of our own characters and for the art and craft of this small human
exercise, that’s all it is.
PC: And no matter how we screw up, every spring these flowers come back
to greet us.
AUDIENCE: What can we do about urban sprawl, [and plans such as a] parking
lot under Golden Gate Park; how can we protect a "potentially utopian" place?
GS: You’ve got several choices; one choice is make them put the parking
lots outside of San Francisco. That’s what it comes to. If you get the forest service to
stop logging on one parcel, they’ll go and sell another parcel some place else. So the
same number of trees get logged every year regardless. We all have to put our heads
together on how to slow down this runaway train of economic growth and population growth,
and we might start with the global economy and with population as two key spots to start
working on. It’s good news to hear in the media that finally the mainstream American
public is beginning to get fed up with urban sprawl. There are answers to suburban sprawl
in some degree. One of them is the Portland, Oregon answer, which is a kind of zoning that
requires land owners to build within the available lots inside the city before spreading
into the suburban areas around the city and to concentrate the denseness within the city
limits. That has gone a long way to save farmlands in the margins, in the outlying areas,
and to make the city more like a city. Our cities need to be more like cities; our country
needs to be more like the countryside. To make our cities more like cities, I’m sorry to
say, you may have to build some huge underground parking lots or build some five-story
parking lots. Or, ride bicycles everywhere and have more public transportation; that’s
what we really need. That’s my practical answer.
PC: One thing I’d like to just say, looking backwards thirty years. When
Gary talks about doing this kind of work, and getting together, and people stand up and
they say, "How do we save this place?" I think if I were to critique myself for
the way that I behaved in the sixties, the level at which I would hold myself the most at
fault was having clear and fixed ideas of what had to be, what had to change, and what had
to happen and not listening as carefully to other people who were different from me. And
one of the things that I always want to urge people to consider is that you can’t pour a
quart into a pint pitcher. You can’t really make the world less than it is, and it’s made
up of lots of different kinds of people. And sometimes a small development, or a small
mini-mall, or something like that which may offend your particular sensibilities may [turn
out to] be something which is going to guarantee local employment. And it’s really
necessary to sit and think and listen and come up with some kind of system that’s going to
permit all the different kinds of people in a place, and all the contrary images of a
place, to create a design that is harmonious and works. And if we just try to make it the
way we see it, if we try to make the city like the wilderness, it’s not going to work, and
we’re actually going to work backwards. That’s my little two cents. I would like to thank
everybody very much for coming and for asking such provocative questions.
from Poetry Flash 283 (November-December 1999). Online Source