“‘I think of my territory as that which I have walked in person and know the weather at a given time of year, know a lot of the critters, and know a lot of the people,” the Zen poet Gary Snyder told reporter Dana Goodyear in a recent issue of The New Yorker. His territory is the whole Pacific Rim. As “Japhy Ryder” in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, he introduced the Kerouac to Zen Buddhism, which he had studied rigorously in Japan, and mountaineering. In the book, the pair climb to the peak of Yosemite’s Matterhorn. “He’s the wildest craziest sharpest cat we’ve ever met,” says “Alvah Goldberg,” the Allen Ginsberg character, “a great new hero of American culture.” Besides his deep knowledge of Zen and Asian culture, Snyder knew Indian lore and knew how to do down-to-earth things and knew the land. Published fifty years ago 1958, “The Dharma Bums,” inspired a “Rucksack Revolution.”
In 1959, a year after Kerouac/Ginsberg proclaimed him a new kind of hero, Snyder published Riprap, a book of poems he said were composed to the rhythms of the physical work of laying down stones on a Sierra trail crew–he writes of setting down words, solid and specific, “before the body of the mind.”
The great paradox is that by inhabiting our specific worlds more fully we can come to feel like we belong in the universe. As we get engaged with the world around us, we shake off the sense of lonely isolation, the sense of being the skeletons in our own closets.
At least I feel happiest and most myself when I work hard. Then I stop being just a story, a ghost wafting over my life. Then I stop being a destination (always disappointing, a kind of ghost town) and become a vehicle for exploring the world, an experiencer, a human being. Then (at moments) life can be wild.
Lately, it’s occurred to me that my search has changed over the years. I want to take root in my life rather than yearning for peak experiences. I never thought I’d say this, but I’ve begun to see the value of a life less (extra)ordinary, a life lived at close range, no saving my efforts for special occassions.
How has your search changed over the years? Put another way, how to you do justice to your precious, fleeting life?