The noted poet and essayist returns with a deceptively small book enfolding a lifetime’s worth of study.
Snyder (This Present Moment, 2015, etc.) was an environmentalist before that word was widely applied, “radicalized,” he memorably writes, “by the ghosts of the original trees still hanging out by their stumps and telling me what had gone on” in the overlogged forests of the Puget Sound. He has also been a student of Asian religions for seven decades. Both interests inform this slender volume, which reads as a kind of personalized digest of scholarship and history blended with memoir and travelogue—a book, in short, not quite like any other but trademark Snyder, its learning lightly worn but profoundly stated. The author begins on a rueful note that will be repeated elsewhere: that he had imagined, in his exuberant youth, that by going to China and Japan he would be immersing himself in civilizations that treated the land better than the materialist West did. Not so, he writes with wisdom gained: “large, civilized societies inevitably have a harsh effect on the natural environment, regardless of philosophical or religious values.” His reading of East Asian history is a kind of understated study of the Fall of Man, tinged with anarchist morals; in the place of “a free, untaxed, self-sustaining people” rises a bureaucratized, state-governed society amenable to such things as slavery and despoliation. Religious traditions such as Taoism rise in critique, offering other objects of striving than the material: says one Buddhist exhortation, “the Perfect Way is without difficulty: strive hard!” Classical poetry, calligraphy, the best source of temple incense—all figure in the text, which has something of the feel of a valediction.
Elegant and thoughtful, with much to read between the lines in commentary on a long life’s work. Students and admirers of Snyder will be enchanted and intrigued.