In the mid-fifties Snyder moved to Kyoto, Japan, where he studied at a Zen monastery over a 12-year period, returning occasionally to San Francisco for brief stays. When he returned to America for good in 1968, it was at the height of hippie culture in America and the early ecology movement. Snyder recalls that he first stumbled onto ecology while learning biology at Reed, studying energy interactions and exchanges. Snyder quickly became a knowledgeable and respected ecological philosopher and leader, especially after the publication of his books Earth House Hold, Backcountry, and Regarding Wave in the late sixties.
With his return to America, Snyder evoked the archetype of Joseph Campbell's creative hero, who returns home after a period of separation, initiation, and mysterious adventures to help transform his native culture. What Snyder's experiences helped him communicate was that a sense of place is the critical basis for a healthy community. Returning with a wife and young son, Snyder set out once again to make his own life symbolic by putting his ideas into action. This time the idea was engaging in what he has called the "real work," that of becoming native to North America.
"One of the several radical things to do today," Snyder points out, "is to settle down in one place and take on a radical role there for both the human and non-human community."
This new myth of responsible stewardship would draw Snyder into various areas of environmental activism and enlarge his self-myth to encompass his locale as well as his life. What followed was homesteading on San Juan Ridge with his family and a community of ecologically minded Buddhist practitioners. Rooted down in this place, he became an outspoken advocate of watershed politics and an evangelist of bioregionalism. Both were major transformational efforts, and yet, according to Snyder, meetings with local school boards, land commissions, and the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the public land surrounding Kitkitdizze, have made him more of a political activist than anything else he's done.
Key to Snyder's brand of ecological stewardship is something he calls "wild mind." His is not the out-of-control, chaotic meaning of "wild," but the positive meaning of being elegantly self-organized and self-regulating, as one finds in nature, or, as he would say, in one's mind. Looking back on the unorthodox path he's taken in life, it's evident that putting trust in his own wild mind has been a guiding force behind Snyder's poetry, ecology, and countercultural politics. It's also what has made him a prominent symbol of Reed's iconoclastic reputation, a reputation commonly distinguished by its unique blend of intellectualism, leftist politics, and bohemian lifestyle. Though for Snyder, such perceptions of Reed are limited. "One thing that Reed is good at," he says, "is producing a few strong, successful, powerful people that might help run the world."
Snyder's path, consistently adventurous and creative, has never been that predictable or materialistic. While he has earned an enviable measure of fame and influence, Snyder is happiest working his vision of ecological stewardship, watershed politics, and a rooted sense of place into the consciousness of the larger society. "That's all I've ever done in my whole life," Snyder says, grinning. "Just try to figure out how to negotiate a way to get the forces to stay in order so I can follow my bliss."
John Sheehy '82 is a writer and publishing consultant living in the Bay Area. This is his first article for Reed.
Photos by Bill O'Leary. (c)1996, The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.