Thursday, February 28, 2013

Gary Snyder: "The Pain of the Work of Wrecking the World"

     Gary Snyder's prose and poetry indicate a belief in humans being able to coexist with nature, but the latter always remains the most noble of the pair. Although Snyder seeks inspiration from the form and purity of the natural world, he also speaks about the corruptive and destructive power of humans.

     In "The Cannon Wren," the speaker describes a boat trip with vivid detail about the sights and sounds of the environment. The "roar" of the "churning whitewater" and the sound of the birds transforms into the "song of the Canyon Wren." The speakers says:

These songs that are here and gone,
Here and gone
To purify our ears.

     There is a definite statement that humans receive these influences from nature, which can be used to purify themselves, indicating that humans are somehow tainted and less valued.  

     In the poem "Dillingham, Alaska, the Willow Tree Bar," the speaker describes the similar experience of drill workers meeting at a bar after work. The  men are said to be

Drinking it down,
the pain
of the work
of wrecking the world.

     On a literal level, this could indicate that the men have a physically exhausting job, but Snyder's intent runs deeper. The men are apparently drinking to combat the knowledge that their work is destroying the natural environment, but there also seems to be a sense of global chaos as a result of creating imbalance. Rather than portraying these men as ignorant of their actions, Snyder places blame on their complacency. The poem ends without any real sense of resolution, but there is tone of finality. Although the speaker wishes things were different, Snyder doesn't seem to believe that humans can overcome this willingness to wreck nature.

     These competing views of nature and humanity are present throughout Snyder's writing, and when reading many similar selections in a short time frame, this concept was a bit too repetitive. Someone in class discussion described Snyder as being "preachy" which I believe is an accurate description of the tone in many of the prose pieces we read. If Snyder's poetry was a gentle warning about humanity's flaws, the essay "The Place, the Region, and the Commons" was a pronounced critique of almost every societal construction. While the land of "the commons" is esteemed as the picture of perfection, every political and economic action undertaken by humans is portrayed as exploitative and perverse. The heart of Snyder's criticism stems from individuals banding together and creating governing structures, as he says, "sometimes it seems unlikely that a society as a whole can make wise choices" (101). Snyder strongly opposes the "complicated industrial capitalist/socialist mixes" that will eventually destroy the entire natural system that "supports us" (101).

     In my opinion, Snyder uses very broad generalizations to denounce any thought system that differs from his own philosophy. Before the advent of enclosing public lands, Snyder didn't seem to find much fault in the free use of lands, but changed his mind with the increasing influence of politics on land ownership and privatization. Although Snyder seems to hold Native American communities as an ideal, he doesn't extensively evaluate these communities as a political entity with governing abilities. Based on the disdainful way he speaks of western industrial-capitalist societies, this essay read more like a historical document closely following the era of industrialization, when some called for a return to nature and simpler means of economic production. I didn't get a modern feel from this essay, and I don't believe that Snyder's ideal world of the open field system, which would be accompanied by a subsequent shift of politics back to pre-16th century European structures, is entirely practical in the contemporary world.  


  1. Your interpretation of the implications of "Dillingham, Alaska, the Willow Tree Bar" are interesting when you say Snyder did not believe humans could deny a desire to "wreck" nature. I admit that Snyder often reflected on humans as the perpetrators of this injustice on nature but I definitely see him pushing toward people caring about nature instead of destroying it. I believe this because of his countless examples of human beings as wild and part of nature in his essays. I believe he is not pushing toward a primitive view of community organization, but a more modest restructuring in which all of these things are realized.

  2. I think that Snyder offers a pretty level headed criticism of capitalist societies. It is pretty much fact now that the development of the rest of the world along with the increasing need for energy is completely unsustainable. Really, Snyder is trying to offer the ideological or ethical reason for challenging the current way we live.

  3. One aspect of Snyder's writing that I also noticed was that it seemed like it had been done before. I do not disagree with Snyder's lifestyle, but I do not think it is practical to try to impose this on American culture. I like that you pointed out that this movement has been attempted before, and so, it is unlikely to succeed when the country is even further developed.

  4. It's interesting that Snyder valued Native American culture more than modern society because Native Americans had a definitive hierarchy. There was a chief, who made the most decisions, a council, medicine man, soldiers, etc. How are they any different than any other group of people that banded together to survive? They are not and Snyder conveniently ignored this plain fact.

    Good post.