I read this book for the first time as an undergrad, as part of an independent study project. I don't remember why I chose the book, but I do remember really liking Gary Snyder’s writing. It was as though I'd always liked it, even though I'd never read any of it before, since so much of it seemed like something I had thought myself but hadn’t articulated yet, or perhaps hadn’t articulated as well.
Writing critically about the book, as I was supposed to do as a student, proved difficult, though. It wasn't that I liked the book so much--obviously I am capable of analyzing books I really like--it was that he wrote so well that the writing itself disappeared entirely into his content. It's like how when a window does its job you look through it rather than at it. I look through Snyder's words to his ideas and have trouble looking at the words. Yet I can recognize that his words are beautiful; this is, technically prose, but many passages could be read as poetry,just for the sake of a kind of clean beauty of language and a bright economy of idea.
It is likewise difficult to discus the thesis of his essays critically, for not only does he present them in mythic and poetic language, which cannot easily be reduced and rationalized, but the mythic style is itself part of the message. The title makes a pretty good summary, if one is needed. “Practice” evokes something like a Buddhist meditative practice, and “wild” refers not simply to unmanaged nature but to an aspect of life that is, by its nature, unmanageable.
I am impressed by Gary Snyder’s command of cultural detail from at least four families of cultural tradition not his birth culture, plus ecology, natural history and etymology (I know enough about these things myself to recognize his knowledge as genuine) and his ability to synthesize these things to form a coherent philosophy of his own. I am even more impressed by his ability to face and clearly love the wild world without turning away in fear and grief. If I ever speak to him, I will ask him how he does it.
Several points of irony appear here, the most poignant being in a discussion of how to educate children; “so much is changing so fast—except, perhaps, caribou migrations and the berry ripening” (p. 56). Of course, in the past decade the climate of the far north has begun to shift so fast that these certainties, too, are being lost. Even when This book was written, much was being lost, or in danger of being lost. It is a celebration, an elegy, of an aspect of life that is endangered. That is why its mythic rhythms cannot be too far deconstructed--there is a danger of missing the point.
Snyder is as close to being a co-religionist as anybody can be, given that I belong to no particular religion, yet am deeply religious. Mine is something of a stew of science and paganism and Buddhism and, yes, some Christianity, too. Snyder's stew is similar, so his words are oddly familiar, like home.
My favorite line in the whole book is “All of us are apprenticed to the same teacher that the religious institutions originally worked with: reality” (p. 152). Yes, that’s right, that’s what I do.
Snyder, G. (1990). The practice of the wild: Essays by Gary Snyder. San Fransisco: North