Acclaimed poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder visited Macalester last week, and, on Wednesday, Oct. 17, delivered the annual Engel-Morgan-Jardetzky Distinguished Lecture on Science, Culture and Ethics.
Snyder has published 20 books of poetry and prose in total and, in 1975, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his book Turtle Island. Snyder’s work centers around his environmentalism, often reflecting on nature and human relationships with the natural world.
He also lectured and answered questions at the college’s Environmental Club meeting on Thursday and meditated in the Weyerhaeuser Memorial Chapel with a group of students, faculty and staff.
A Zen Buddhist, Snyder opened his lecture on Wednesday night by touching on the intersection between religion and environmentalism.
“There is still a powerful ideology or philosophy there – in Judaism, Islam, and many branches of Christianity – that insists that the ultimate destination of human beings is another kind of space, generally known as heaven, whereas the organic world of plants, insects, and animals, is something that we don’t even think about,” Snyder said.
Many Buddhists, however,see the connection between the environment and their spirituality differently.
“We are of one essence in some way, both the human and the wild or animal world,” Snyder said. “Our fates are bound together. That happens to be the view that is officially held by most people in the sciences now, although they don’t really examine what it means.”
According to Snyder, these ideological differences shape politics and government policies as well.
“We have people dealing with public lands who would prefer a human priority and a human-centered use of public lands [and] would be willing to sacrifice a lot of animals or plants for some possible human benefit,” he said.
Buddhism and the emphasis it places on the impermanence of the individual have shaped both Snyder’s worldview and his poetry.
“Do not get excited, because things are going to die,” Snyder said. “[That] doesn’t necessarily mean being closed off to feeling, closed off to sensibility, but it gives you another dimension. Learning those lessons has been part of my education as a poet over the last 40 years.”
Snyder began his the poetry reading portion of the event with several poems from two of his books, Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems and The Earth’s Wild Places.
He introduced each poem with an anecdote on his inspiration for it. He recounted his work on a trail crew when he was young, which inspired “Hay for the Horses” and “Fire in the Hole.” The time he spent living in Japan, meanwhile, compelled him to write “Shark Meat.”
Snyder then read some of his newer poems, many of which were inspired by a trip to Botswana and the natural landscape he found there.
The event ended with Snyder answering questions from the audience on politics, spirituality and environmental issues.
One attendee asked Snyder how Buddhist environmental values might guide modern politics towards protecting the natural world. Snyder suggested that this wasn’t a question to be addressed spiritually.
“I think it is necessary to address it socially,” he said, “in the communities in which we work, regardless of what the opinions are.”
He explained that similar spiritual beliefs don’t necessarily correlate with similar political beliefs.
“In Japan, I had to deal with some right-wing warriors of Japanese tradition that also consider themselves Buddhist,” Snyder said. “But I’m not going to tell them they’re wrong. I’m going to get drunk with them and see what they really think.”
Throughout the session, Snyder expressed both his passion for poetry and his belief that it can only do so much when it comes to fostering real change.
“What is the role of poetry in combating climate change, or more broadly, environmental protection?” one audience member asked.
“It has no role,” Snyder replied to laughter. “I mean, there’ll probably be some poets who write in favor of climate change. Who knows? You don’t ask poetry to do a job for you.”