In 2010, it was reported that bristlecone pines, trees as old as civilizations, appeared to be threatened, in part, by climate change. The trees, some dated at almost 5,000 years, grow at high elevation on the rim of the Great Basin in California, Nevada, and Utah, and the combined effects of “blister rust” fungus and the pine bark beetle, helped along by warmer temperatures, rendered the bristlecone’s future uncertain.
Those trees came to mind Tuesday night at MIT as I watched Gary Snyder, the great American poet, essayist, environmentalist, Zen Buddhist, and old traveling buddy of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, receive PEN New England’s Henry David Thoreau Prize for nature writing (as if Snyder, or Thoreau, can be contained by any genre). Spry, wry, and jovial at 81, his white-bearded face is still elfin, if craggy and a bit gnarled like a mountain or an ancient tree.
The trees came to mind, too, because of a Snyder poem. In “The Mountain Spirit,” at the climax of his decades-in-the-making volume “Mountains and Rivers Without End” (1996), Snyder’s narrator tells of a solo trip to “the angled granite face/ of the east Sierra front,” to sleep out among the bristlecones. There, in “the grove at timberline/ where the oldest living beings/ thrive on rock and air,” he meets the Mountain Spirit, a kind of mythical old white-haired muse-mother, and they dance among the pines. As meteors streak the night sky, Snyder envisions the inconceivable forces that formed the mountains out of the vast sea that once covered the Great Basin, and repeats the final lines of the epic volume’s opening poem: “Walking on walking,/ Under foot earth turns/ Streams and mountains never stay the same.’’
Snyder has long been celebrated as a poet and essayist of place — Cascade peaks, Kyoto temples, Beat San Francisco, the South Yuba River watershed in the Sierra foothills where he’s lived since 1970 — and the idea of truly inhabiting one’s surrounding landscape is vital to his environmental ethic. But these days I think of Snyder, even more, as a preeminent poet of impermanence and time: from cosmic kalpas and geologic eons down to the evanescent ripple of the present moment.
Snyder was attracted early to East Asian poetry and to Buddhism, with years of formal Zen training in Japan, so perhaps his interest in transience is no surprise. Among the poems Snyder read at MIT were his highly regarded translations, made as a grad student at Berkeley in the mid-1950s, of the quasi-mythical T’ang Dynasty hermit Han Shan (“Cold Mountain”), hero of Zen and perhaps its greatest poet. Snyder’s lilting baritone offered lines like these: “I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,/
Already it seems like years and years..../Happy with a stone under head/ Let heaven and earth go about their changes.’’
Snyder mentioned, bemused, that in China he’s been called “the American Han Shan.” And there is a transcendent calm in the face of impermanence at the center of Snyder’s poetry. But Snyder (like Thoreau) is no hermit, and he never settles into passivity, or fatalism. His Zen is nothing if not engaged, politically and morally.
In “After Bamiyan,” a prose/verse poem from his most recent collection, 2004’s “Danger on Peaks,” Snyder records his correspondence in April 2001 with a reader who noted that Buddhism teaches the impermanence of all things. Snyder responds:
“Ah yes... impermanence. But this is never a reason to let compassion and focus slide, or to pass off the sufferings of others because they are merely impermanent beings.”
He then quotes a well-known haiku: “This dewdrop world/ is but a drewdrop world/ and yet — ”
Snyder adds, “That ‘and yet’ is our perennial practice.”
I feel like keeping those words close at hand now, as heaven and earth go about their changes — at a pace and with a push from humans never dreamt among those age-old pines.
Wen Stephenson, a former editor of the Globe’s Ideas section, writes and edits The Roost at ThoreauFarm.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @wenstephenson.