April 2004

Gena Anderson


The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder

Like most Americans, and most people my age, I have a pretty short attention span. Many of the books I read reflect this problem -— I tend to read too many thrillers and mysteries and other fast paced writing that is neat and linear. When I picked up Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, I found myself adjusting the part of my brain that tends to race ahead and become impatient. His book, which is a series of nine essays on different aspects of humankind and nature, is so thoughtful and deliberate that I tried to savor each paragraph instead of skimming through it. I would recommend reading the essays one at a time, and not all at once as if they were chapters in a book. There is so much information in each essay that it will overwhelm you to read the book in one sitting. I intend to read it again, taking my time with each essay.

The tone of the book is not one of wild accusation and frenetic defense of nature as perfect that bombards us from other media. You are not going to get a militant diatribe on the desecration of nature by man, but a look at the complexities of humans and their relationship to nature -- how nature’s primary definition of “outdoors” sets humans apart from it because we live most of our lives inside, and see the outdoors as separate from our everyday lives. Instead, Snyder writes that we should focus on a second definition of nature, “the physical universe and all it’s properties," which includes humans. When Snyder is writing about the wild, his identification with it seems so intimate, like he is talking about a part of himself and not the “other” that wilderness is for so many of us.

The essays is the book do overlap slightly -— the idea of the commons, the public land that people share and that is being encroached on more and more by the government, is a theme as well as the idea of the sacred. Snyder explores the sacred and the everyday connections a people have with their region (an area connected by the physical characteristics and climate of the land) and is not content to focus on this country. He discusses ceremonies and stories of Japan, China, India, and many other regions, showing the connections that land and people have over both time and place. I especially liked the idea he brings up in his essay “The Place, the Region and the Commons," that a place is both space and time, it exists over time and is ever changing even while it is in the same geographic location. I also enjoyed his essay on Buddhism, “On the Path, off the Trail," which discusses both the need for a people to have a set path in life and the fact that you must go off that path at times to learn who you really are.

Snyder’s writing encourages every reader to look at what places they consider to be sacred. I was thinking throughout his book of growing up among the trees and lakes of northern Minnesota, and how that landscape still makes my heart beat faster every time my family drives up there. The mixture of the scientific and poetic that Snyder manages to write in is both languid and captivating. He can make political statements about changing the legislature of logging, and relay a Native American myth about a woman who marries a bear all in the same tone, and it doesn’t seem so strange to believe that one can live on this earth and be part of nature while still utilizing it’s resources.

The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder
Shoemaker & Hoard Publishing
ISBN 1593760167
198 Pages