Snyder says that in addition to giving him information- gathering skills, Reed also provided a place to sound out some of the unorthodox ideas that would later become lifelong pursuits.
"Reed was kind of like a kendo dojo,'" he notes, "where you practice sword fighting without using real swords. It gave me the tools to hold my ground in any territory that I wanted, if I felt it necessary to do so."
Snyder arrived at Reed with many strong values already intact--deep naturalist convictions, a socialist bent influenced by his parents and Wobbly-organizing grandfather, and a reverence for honest, hard work. Other values were fostered and supported in the social life he engaged in with friends and housemates at 1414 SE Lambert Street, arguably the first coed, postwar "Reed House," and Snyder's first experience with communal living. Household discussions and extracurricular readings shared among housemates played a large part in rounding out Snyder's formal education. "We were thinking things that weren't even in the university curriculum," he says. "Not even in the university sphere."
Some of that thinking undoubtedly led Snyder to "go off the path" after graduation. As he told an audience recently in San Francisco, on the path laid out before you "others have already been that way and picked all the berries. In order to get your own berries, you need to go off the path and make your own trail."
Having graduated from Reed during the career-minded conformity of the 1950s, going off the path for Snyder meant stepping out of mainstream American culture to study how it operated and what could be done to transform it. Influenced by the model he found in Thoreau, Snyder recognized while he was an anthropology-literature major the power of making his own life symbolic--of creating a new self-myth in which he could synthesize his interests in Native American animism, Zen Buddhism, and poetry to possibly help shift societal consciousness.
"I was beginning to get the point that storytellers, mythtellers, singers, and dancers have a deep role in the culture," he recalls. "In the relationship of art to culture, of art to the main society. And of course I could pick that up from seeing what Eliot, Yeats, Pound, and Williams had done--they were cultural transformers."
Snyder's senior thesis, an analysis of a Haida Indian swan-maiden myth, laid the groundwork for much that would follow in his own mythmaking. Reputed to be the most photocopied thesis at Reed until it was published in book form in 1979, Snyder's thesis introduces his lifelong passions for Native American lore, myth, cross- cultural studies, and oral literature, all informed by the works of Jung, Joseph Campbell, and contemporary mythic literature. Most telling perhaps are Snyder's digressions from analyzing the Haida myth to theorizing about the nature of poetry and role of the poet in forming a new social mythology. In seeking to take hold of his life, Snyder paid heed to Campbell's warning that if you do not know the deeper mythic resonances that make up your life, those mythic resonances will rise up and take you over, live youagainst your will.
For Snyder, the search for self-authenticity prompted him to return to his working-class roots.
"It started," he says, "with working up in the logging camps on the Warm Springs Reservation, working two seasons on lookouts, having jobs with ordinary people, and hanging out in the bohemias and underworlds of San Francisco. Realizing how many places there are in the world that all of your college smarts won't help.
A young Gary Snyder on he porch of shoden-ji Rinzai temple.