“Pissing watching a waterfall.” This is the first poem I heard Gary Snyder recite, way back in 1971 at a treading he gave at Antioch College. Since that little gem showing our proper relationship to the natural world (different sizes, same idea), I’ve read just about everything this fine man has written. His particular blend of Zen practice, deep ecology, anthropology, poetry, the American counter-culture and more is not quite the same gumbo that life has served to me (though many shared ingredients). But it is the blending I admire, his model of connecting apparently disparate fields into a unified vision of how we two-legged creatures might live together lightly and joyfully on this earth. My list includes music and education, but the end hope is the same and his words and ideas have inspired me my entire adult life.
And so I went to hear him yet again, along with our San Francisco poet-laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti, at Club Fugazi in North Beach. The evening begin with a rare filmed interview with Gary Snyder from 1965, followed by his reading some of his more recent published work. He was his usual friendly, warm and expansive self, with a voice rich in overtones, both authorative and inviting. Mr. Ferlinghetti followed with his more declarative and dramatic style, as befitted his feisty poems brimming over with political indignation and outrage, but leavened with a healthy dose of humor and appreciation for beautiful women passing by. They each made one more appearance with recent unpublished work, some written just a few days ago. At 81 and 92 years old respectively, they are both fully active, still creating, still sharing their genius with the public, each in their own inimitable styles crafted, refined and deepened over their long lifetimes.
In short, they both modeled for us youngsters (ha ha!) what a true Elder in this American culture might look like. At once wise and graced with hopeful innocence, feisty and gentle, outraged and accepting, deadly serious and lightly humorous. They both have been chewed up in the push and pulls of life, known their share of sorrow and suffering, sat helplessly by like the rest of us as greed and power ascended to the center of public discourse, felt their life’s work trampled by ignorance, crafty Machievellian intelligence and just plain stupidity. And yet they persevere with such grace and wisdom.
I walked out of Club Fugazi refreshed and re-invigorated. Crossing the cable car tracks to get to my car, I heard the cables humming underground, perpetually in motion. The cable car hooks on and can defy gravity as it climbs up hills. Likewise, it can go down the steep hills without crashing at the bottom. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, the sense that we need the motion of the underground counter-culture that can climb against current of mainstream thought and also ride it downhill without getting swept away. All of us feisty folks can’t easily change the world, but we, like Mr. Snyder and Mr. Ferlinghetti, can help minimize the damage, reveal the beauty that awaits us if we but pay attention, “stay together, learn the flowers and go light” (from a Snyder poem).
In an interview, Mr. Snyder was once asked how it felt to always go against the grain and replied, “I’m in line with the larger flow.” We old hippies need to remember that. Some of which surfaced in the 60’s was a re-surfacing of values and ways of being that have always been with us. In fact, so much of our contemporary culture is the anomaly and what Snyder calls “The Old Ways” the norm.
Well, why keep quoting him? Read him yourself. And Ferlinghetti too. Two feisty wise elders who make me proud to be an American. Thank you, sirs.