Enter the mind of American poet and scholar Gary Snyder and watch as time pulls back, perspectives shift and an epoch passes in a single blink. His newest book of prose, “The Great Clod,” is a series of essays on Asia’s ecological history, combining culture and politics in a way that is, unsurprisingly, poetic and graceful.
“The Great Clod” may be slim but its scope is immense. Beginning with the author’s reflections on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, the book winds its way to China — and back through time.
The journey from idea to publication was also far-reaching. Asked to write a “small article” back in 1969 about the environmental issues concerning Hokkaido and its indigenous people, the Ainu, Snyder began an odyssey to unearth Japan’s ecological history.
As he explains in the first essay, “Summer in Hokkaido”: “I was witnessing the accelerating modern Japanese economy, and the incredible transformation of the life of the people and the landscape that this brought. I had just begun to absorb the deep sense of place and reverence for the forces of nature this fine old civilization had maintained, to see it then turn and begin to devour itself.”
To understand this change, Snyder turned his attention to China.
“To talk about the history of Japan in relationship to the environment required looking back over the whole history of China and the environment,” he says, speaking from his rural home in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. “And that turned out to be a much more demanding task than I had ever imagined.”
Although he steadily worked on the “small article” for years, part of his drive to finish it stemmed from Snyder’s life choices. After dharma bumming it with the literary Beats in the ’50s he spent nearly 10 years traveling throughout Japan and Asia. Snyder, a Buddhist practitioner raised in rural Washington, finally settled down in the wilds of California in 1971. Living off the grid, years passed by as life and other writing projects took priority. Snyder also realized that without access to university libraries for pertinent research, the project could not be properly completed.
Time moved on, technology rewrote the boundaries of research, and, as Snyder details: “I looked over my material again and thought, ‘The information is still valid, still helpful. It has not been superseded, and I could make this into a useful small book for China and the world so that all of us would have a better idea of what China has gone through, historically.’
“Part of that was bringing out the point that a highly organized civilization — no matter what kind of religion or philosophy it espouses — is going to be hard on nature. That’s the story of this book.”
Snyder won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for “Turtle Island,” and he is the author of many other volumes of poetry and prose. The release of “The Great Clod” is a prelude to his original goal: writing an ecological history of Japan. Expect that book, “in a couple of years,” he says.
The eight essays in “The Great Clod” quietly remind that human will struggle to make ecologically sound choices at the expense of technological progress. One chapter, “Ink and Charcoal,” details China’s destruction of forests to support its highly evolved arts of calligraphy and poetics. Yet, reading “The Great Clod,” one can’t help but believe that the hard choices for a nation or culture are surely the same choices each individual must face.
“How did I become such an animist, someone once asked me, and I said, I think I was radicalized by the ghosts of the original trees still hanging out by their stumps and telling me what had gone on,” says Snyder. “At any rate, I was dubious about the direction the American dream seemed to be heading, building further new houses everywhere, and so I was open to other views, such as the idea that nonhuman beings were worthy of moral regard.”
These alternative views of progress appear throughout “The Great Clod.”
“I don’t write to point fingers or criticize anyone in particular, but just to raise awareness of the way we have been living on earth for a long time,” Snyder says. “Of course, East Asia — China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan — have done a wonderful job considering everything else. I really admire East Asian culture enormously. If I am critical of it, it is a criticism that comes from appreciation and the hope that Japan, with its problems, will be able to do a little better than contemporary China right now.”
Snyder dedicates the book to Burton Watson, an esteemed Japanese and Chinese translator, and cites Watson’s translation of “The Histories of Ssu-ma Ch’ien” — written by one of China’s first historians — as an important influence on him. The title of “The Great Clod” comes from another Chinese intellectual, philosopher Chuang-tzu, and Snyder includes the following quote as the book’s epigraph: “The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death. So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death.”
Don’t expect pure scholarly discourse here, however. Snyder’s essays meander along several unbeaten paths and provide still moments deserving of contemplation. The blank pages in between chapters visually aid prolonged moments of reflection.
“Chuang-tzu said the whole planet of Earth is just one big chunk of dirt, so let’s enjoy life,” says Snyder.
When asked about the overall progress of environmentalism, he laughs.
“I don’t have any particular hope, what can you hope for? You can’t hope for things to get much better, but you can hope that they won’t get too much worse. We do see some sign that portions of the public have begun to imagine themselves as being part of the natural world and not so separate from it, joining a common cause to keep the natural world healthy and intact, rather than just exploiting it.”
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