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Buddhadharma : Spri 2007
buddhadharma| 69 |spring 2007 Mountains and Rivers Without End (1996), but present throughout his work. And with the advent of deep ecology, a movement in which Snyder has played a major role, his onceradical vision has become conven tional wisdom. Snyder notes as much in “Ecology, Literature, and the New World Disorder,” where he observes that despite the afflictions of “religious fundamental ism, developed world hubris, steppedup environmental damage, and ... expanding problems of health and poverty,” a great many people now realize that the fate of humanity and that of the natural world are inextricably connected. Snyder finds special encouragement in an emerging literature of nature, exemplified by such writers as Jed Rasula, Stephanie Mills, and John McPhee, who take as axiomatic the interdependence of the human and natural worlds. And in a moment of “Mahayanistic intuition,” he contends that nonhuman nature is well disposed toward human beings and “only wishes modern people were more recipro cal, not so bloody.” The animals are drawn to us, he divines, and “they think we have cute ears.” Whatever the animals may think of our ears, an awareness of interdependence is, for Snyder, intimately related to ethical choice. The one engenders the other. In “The Ark of the Sierra,” he employs a metaphor from the JudeoChristian tradi tion to illustrate his point: The air and waters, the rivers, the deer and owls, the genetic health of all life is in our trust. We are here discussing Biodiver sity – a word that sends shivers of alarm through some hearts – but it only means variety of life, and it means “Right to Life for Nonhuman Others,” a moral sentiment I religiously support. If God hadn’t wanted all these critters to be around, including rattlesnakes and cougars, he wouldn’t have put them on the Ark. More characteristically, in “The Path to Matsuyama,” Snyder invokes the Buddhist precept of ahimsa, or nonviolence toward the natural world, to make the same impassioned argument. That precept, he suggests, resides quietly in the haiku tradi tion, offering a corrective to the industrial exploitation of natural resources. Yet in embracing ahimsa, Snyder exer cises an appropriate caution, knowing that a naive or simplistic interpretation of that precept may do more harm than good. In “Writers and the War Against Nature,” he notes, “Ahimsa taken too lit erally leaves out the life of the world and makes the rabbit virtuous but the hawk evil.” And in “Lifetimes with Fire,” as he turns to a subject close to his heart, he recalls his youthful, selfrighteous belief that as a fire lookout and a firefighter he was doing something good. In actuality, he now maintains, his ethical position was at best ambiguous, at worst indefensible, since he and most of the “wildfirefight ing establishment” were in the grip of an ideology that viewed fire as an enemy, on a par with Godless Communism. Fifty years later, attitudes and methods have radically changed: We’d like to see the forests be a mix of mature and allage trees cleared out or underburned enough to be able to take the flames when they do come, and big and diverse enough to quickly recover from all but the very worst fires. In this enlightened vision, the Sierra Nevada range, where Snyder and his family have lived since 1971, is viewed as one large ecosystem, which policies of firesuppression have hindered more than helped. Properly understood and intelli gently managed, fire can be an ally, tool, and friend. Quite naturally, Snyder’s contempla tion of forest fires and human efforts to control them also prompts more general reflections on impermanence and human responses to that reality. “Everything is impermanent anyway,” he remarks in “Fire, Floods, and Following the Dao,” having earlier noted that in California everyone must be prepared for some form of natural disaster. In “Coyote Makes Things Hard,” he observes that in a Maidu tale about two sacred characters named Earthmaker and Coyote Old Man, the former hopes for a painless universe and the latter argues for impermanence, or things as they actually are. And in “Writers and the War Against Nature,” Snyder endorses Coyote’s argu ment, turning awareness of impermanence into a moral imperative: The quest for permanence has always led us astray – whether in building stone castles, Great Walls, pyramids and tombs for pha raohs, great navies, giant cathedrals to ease us toward heaven, or cold warscale weap ons systems guaranteeing mutually assured destruction. We must live with change, like a bird on the wing, and in doing so – let all the other beings live on too. Not permanence, but living in harmony with the Way. In keeping with this imperative, Snyder depicts himself (in “Lifetimes with Fire”) discarding “dumb thoughts and failed ideas” by tossing them into a fire. “How many times,” he asks, “have I thrown you / back on the fire.” Here, as often in this book, Snyder’s simple eloquence is affecting. At the same time, one can admire the poet’s phrasing and commend his sentiments without accepting all of his arguments, which are often repetitious and sometimes overstated. Has the quest for permanence always led us astray? One thinks of the heroic recon struction of the Uffizi Museum after the flood of 1966 – or, closer to home, the current effort to create a permanent mon ument on the site of the World Trade Cen ter. Similarly, when Snyder approvingly reports that the “experts” recommend taking down the levees as the “best way to prevent great floods,” he seems wistfully remote from the economic realities of the Gulf States and the suffering inflicted by Katrina. And when, in “Migration/ Immi gration,” he suggests that the boundaries between Canada, Mexico, and the United States be declared “null and void,” the poet Snyder, normally one of the most grounded of the planet’s inhabitants, appears to have inhaled an excess of mountain air or taken an overdose of Mahayana theory. Such oddities notwithstanding, Back on the Fire is a valuable collection, at once timely, toughminded, and inspiring. Although his book contains poignant ele gies for Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen and a dignified memorial page for Snyder’s wife, Carole Lynn Koda (1947–2006), Snyder’s eyes are trained most often on the present or the future, his gaze extend ing as far as the “sixtieth millennium.” Snyder’s speculations will be of par ticular interest to artists, writers, and poets, who, he notes, have often been “explorers of the wild mind.” But the general reader will also find things of value, ranging from the latest perspec tives on biodiversity to practical instruc tions for felling trees. And for students of the dharma, who may wish to integrate Buddhist precepts and practice with envi ronmental concern, these openminded, openhearted essays have much to offer. With cogency and grace, they show us the Way. ©DiannaSmith