Gary Snyder: A Logger’s Spirit, A Woodsman’s Soul

by Leon Lewis Issue: Fall 2016 Special Issue on Forests
I’m a longtime forest and mountain person of
the West Coast.
                 “The Ark of the Sierra,”
                 Tree Rings 10, Spring 1997
A ghost-logger wanders a shadow
In the early evening

                 “Logging, #10”
                 Myths and Texts, 1960

Without underestimating the contributions of other visionary activists, Gary Snyder could be described as a Patron Seer of the Ecosphere. Accustomed in his youth to roaming the fields and forests near his family’s farm outside Seattle in the 1930s, he was doing part-time trail crew and carpentry work at a YMCA camp near Mount Saint Helens from thirteen to fifteen. During the summers while he developed a major in eco-anthropology at Reed College, he worked as a logger, trail builder and firewatcher in the North Cascades, and at twenty-one was employed as a timber-scaler for the Indian-owned lumber company at Warm Springs reservation in eastern Oregon. He had applied to the University of Indiana with the intention of pursuing an advanced degree in Asian languages after completing his studies at Reed, but as he put it, “my employment skills were largely outdoors,” and in the summer of 1952, as a seasonal hire for the Forest Service, he was “in the woods at the foot of Crater Mountain,” ready to ascend to his fire-spotter location. As explained by John Sutter in his account of Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades, “Trails in the North Cascades were built and maintained not for recreationists but for the business of mining, logging and firefighting,” with an emphasis on “cutting” rather than sustaining old-growth forests. The fire-spotter was essential for locating a fire, unseen otherwise, that might threaten to destroy a valuable timber stand.

Snyder kept a notebook which he used to concentrate his attention on what he had done and seen, a record of his initial encounters with the striking mountain landscape.  As he put it in “Piute Creek:”

A clear, attentive mind
Has no meaning but that
Which sees is truly seen.

The entries from his days on the summit of Crater Mountain where he’d requested the “highest, most remote and most difficult-of-access lookout,” began with trail crew work before the upper trail melted sufficiently for him to get to the lookout cabin. This became the basis for his first collection, Riprap, which was published in 1959 in an edition that included the Cold Mountain poems that appeared in the Evergreen Review in 1958. To Jack Kerouac, who met him in San Francisco in 1955, he was the epitome of the woodsman and the inspiration for Japhy Ryder, whom Kerouac saw “loping along in that curious long stride of the mountain climber.” As depicted in The Dharma Bums (1959), Kerouac saw him as a mythic figure at home “in the cold mountain nights of the High Sierras in California and the High Cascades of Washington and Oregon on the long incredible jaunts that sometimes lasted for weeks and weeks.” For Kerouac, the proto-urban man whose first published novel was revealingly titled The Town and The City (1950), Snyder/Ryder was already complete as a man of the wilderness. Snyder himself understood that he was only on the first steps of the path toward his “practice of the wild,” and the poems in Riprap are a transcription of his evolving understanding of a “world of ongoing recurrence-comradeship with the landscape,”-  a mission not entirely in accord with the agenda of the Forest Service.

Snyder was one of the youngest workers when he was assigned to the Crater Mountain  lookout, and he was caught up in  the camaraderie of the trail crews. His dedication to Riprap, a list of 12 men, included Blackie Burns, a thirty-year veteran of the Forest Service and the de facto leader of the fire fighting crew, who said, “I like that boy Snyder on Sourdough. He’s a calm son of a bitch.” Snyder’s unassuming, exuberant involvement with the rugged trail work and the open, expressive conversation of the trail crew at night permitted him to become a part of a gang that:

heated water on an open fire, often called a jungle fire after the hobo
tradition of the thirties, cooked on a small woodstove moved from camp
to camp as a mule’s top load held with a diamond hitch, made rude
furniture for each camp with materials at hand, kept their food without
refrigeration, and had cold running water in the creek nearby. Little had
changed in trail work or trail camps for close to a hundred years.

Absorbed in the moment-by-moment activity of his trail mates, Snyder did not initially question the methods or aims of the Forest Service. The first poems in Riprap are acute observations of a new location, highlighted by vivid images like “Pitch glows on the fir-cones” from the first poem, “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout.” As Snyder oriented himself, his reflections were like those concluding that poem, “Looking down for miles/Through high still air.” Living above the timberline, the edges of the forest thinning, Snyder noticed the way “clumps of pines/float out of the fog,” an image of endurance in a place where “tough trees crammed/in stone fractures” signify the pattern of persistence which was an aspect of a planetary process ranging over epochs.

The following summer, Snyder was assigned to a lookout on Sourdough Mountain, and in preparation chose the books which were, in a sense, his intellectual companions in the social solitude he relished – Thoreau’s Walden, Faulkner’s Sartoris, plays by Brecht and Artaud, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, D. T. Suzuki’s Manual of Zen Buddhism, and a Japanese grammar in anticipation of his trip to Japan. At the conclusion of the summer (the first snow fell on August 30), Snyder wrote a poem which he placed on the side of the fire-finder device with a nail:

I the poet Gary Snyder
Stayed six weeks in fifty-three
On the ride and on this rock
& saw what every lookout sees.

The poems he wrote during that time were the source for Myths and Texts (1960), with its separate but coordinated sections, “Logging,” “Hunting,” and “Burning.” In his preface to the reissue by New Directions in 1978, Snyder recalled “I once wrote (for Donald Allen):

it grew between 1952 and 1956. Its several rhythms are based on long
days of quiet in lookout cabins; setting chokers for the Warm Springs
Lumber co. (looping cables on logs and hooking them to D8 Caterpillars –
dragging and rumbling through the brush)

He intended to continue a summer of observing and writing in 1954, but he received a letter in February that said, “Because of instructions from Washington, D. C., we are unable to offer you employment in any capacity.” When he asked for a reason, the Supervisor wrote “We are unaware of any reasons for these instructions, but we must comply.”  Snyder’s name had been added to a blacklist including numerous supposedly “UnAmerican” individuals compiled by the government during the McCarthy era of suspicion and betrayal.

Snyder had been very active politically during his years at Reed, but, characteristically, he belonged to no political organizations, and he described himself as “nastily disloyal about ALL governments, that Russian dungheap or the foul British stew, or whatever peculiar mess of ideological pottage (in advanced decay) you can dream up….So maybe I’m a Confucian Anarchist: I believe in a non-state governed by Rites & Music.” The reason Snyder had been under surveillance was his membership in the National Union of Cooks and Stewards, which he joined in 1948 when he spent the summer on a Grace Line passenger-freighter to the Caribbean as a dishwasher in the passenger’s mess. The Marine Cooks and Stewards was racially integrated and boldly nondiscriminatory, to the extent that it was gender balanced and sexually inclusive. The local shop in Manhattan had a sign: “No Race-Baiting! No Red-Baiting! No Queer-Baiting!” When Snyder attempted to renew his merchant seaman’s papers in San Francisco in 1952, he was rejected as a “poor security risk.” His father Harold, a federal employee for the Veteran’s Administration, had been questioned and told, “Your son, Gareth Snyder, reportedly has been closely associated with members or supporters of the Communist Party.”  Blackie Burns was questioned by the FBI, and told Philip Whalen that “He don’t believe you are a communist & wouldn’t care if you was on account of you did your job so good.” Snyder visited the Portland office of the FBI where he wrote to Whalen “I have spent several entertaining hours hassling with the FBI.” He summed up his situation with a poem:

Got fired that day by the USA
(the District Ranger up at Packwood
thought the Wobblies had been dead for
            forty years
but the FBI smelled treason
                  -         my red beard)

Snyder’s grandfather had been a member of the IWW; Snyder was aware of his family’s involvement  with the “One Big Union,” and he was proud of his family’s participation in and devotion to the Union’s traditions.

The only work available for Snyder in the wild was as a choker-setter for the Warm Spring Lumber Company, the most dangerous of logging tasks.  The way Snyder saw it, “I (and all other choker-setters) am/are daily subject to falling pecker-poles, snapped jill-pokes, toppling snags, rolling logs, giant caterpillars which the driver cannot see over the hood (to know and avoid you), tripping cables, swinging butt hooks, the idiocy of the man running the show, and other horrors too numerous to mention.”  However, Snyder was undeterred.  As Suiter observes,“The chokersetter work put him in touch with perhaps more agile and harder parts of himself.” It also led towards a much more skeptical sense of what the Forest Service stood for at that time, and resulted in a considerably more critical take on the entire practice of logging.

The creation of National Parks in the Grand Tetons and Bryce Canyon in the 1920s, the Glacier Park Recreation Area in 1931 and the North Cascades Primitive Area in 1934 marked the beginning of a dispute between the Park and the Forest Service about control of public lands. The post-WW II housing boom “set off an unprecedented demand for lumber just at the point when the timber industry’s private holdings had become depleted to the point of near exhaustion.”  The Forest Service reduced the size of Glacier Park, and reclassified it as a “limited area” instead of a wilderness to, in effect, give the Forest Service total control of the land available for logging.  

Snyder’s shift in perspective was immediately apparent in Logging, “#8.  The poem begins with a familiar paean to the exhilarating ethos of the environment:

        Each dawn is clear.
        Cold air bites the throat.
        Thick frost on the pine bough
        Leaps from the tree

(but then, identifying the intrusion of the logging crew)

          snapped by the diesel

(and even as the image of light and air continues)

          Drifts and glitters in the
             horizontal sun.

(the proximate cause of the damage is unmistakable).

The narrative pauses for a moment, then resumes in a vivid description of the altered landscape:

In the frozen grass
      smoking boulders
      ground by steel tracks

introduces the invasion of an alien force, a mechanized attack on a placid place that is, in effect, a war against the natural world, the arrival of the machine like a tank smashing across a battlefield.

The D8 tears through piss-fir,
Scrapes the seed-pine
                chipmunks flee,
A black ant carries an egg
Aimlessly from the battered ground.
Yellow jackets swarm and circle
Above the crushed dead log, their home.

This is a report from a combat zone by an embedded reporter who is also a soldier in the invasion. The images of a homeland destroyed are vivid, the damage to the homes of the beings of that world a direct parallel to descriptions of destruction from battlefields the world over. The next line, “Pitch oozes from barked trees,” is an analog for the blood of victims and the desolation of the location.

The last stanza is set as an aftermath, removed from the action. In a contemplative mode, Snyder notes:

A few stumps, drying piles of brush:
Under the thin duff, a toe-scrape down
Black lava of a late flow.
Leaves stripped from thornapple
Taurus by nightfall.

There is a sense of resiliency, of the natural world’s capacity for restoration. The constellation Taurus is an indication of an eternal cosmos beyond earthly deprivation, but the selection of the constellation also echoes the image of a destructive force unleashed and unconscious of its massive power.

The poems that follow are reflective, a taking stock, as in “#13” where Snyder fondly rehearses his pleasure in the work of a fire spotter. Beginning with the mathematical calculation crucial for directing the crews:

T 36N  R 16 E  S 25
Is burning. Far to the west.
A north creek side,
        Flame to the crowns
Sweeping a hillside bare -

Snyder, sure of his assessment, can appreciate the infinitely varied sky-scape:

Cumulus, blowing north
      High cirrus
Drifting east,
Filling the west

the coordinates more tangible than numerical indicators, and with his work done,

The crews have departed,
And I am not concerned.

This is only a temporary departure from an assessment of the full effects of logging. The poem that follows, “#14,” is one of the most powerful proclamations of the damage wrought by humans. Just as Allen Ginsberg used the Biblical monster Moloch in Part 3 of Howl - which Snyder heard when Ginsberg read it for the first time at the legendary Six Gallery reading in San Francisco in 1955--Snyder echoed Ginsberg’s characterization of Moloch as the despoiler of a sacred civilization and its inhabitants.

Following his undergraduate degree from Reed, Snyder had completed a year at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Graduate Program in Languages, and was ready to enlarge the scope of his view from the local and specific to the universal and eternal. In his study Gary Snyder’s Vision: Poetry and The Real Work, Charles Molesworth astutely asserts that “Snyder’s grounding in myth must be read as a way of seeing the political in some larger context.” In “#14,” he argues, Snyder recognizes that “trees have long been used in myths, rituals and sacred lore as symbols of the earth’s procreative forces.” The poem’s indictment is immediate and direct, depicting a cross-cultural slaughter spanning millennia, highlighted by dominant trans-global empires:

The groves are down
              cut down
Groves of Ahab, of Cybele
Pine trees, knobbed twigs
    thick cone and seed
Cybele’s tree this, sacred in groves
Pine of Seami, cedar of Haida
Cut down by the prophets of Israel
   the fairies of Athens
   the thugs of Rome
         both ancient and modern

The intensity of Snyder’s anger accounts for his caustic condemnation of those in power, a version of the parlance of the rough crews at their campfire . His intention is to link the barbaric practices of the past to the logging conglomerates “Luther and Weyerhauser” whom he sees as incarnations of the false prophets of profit, a contemporary equivalent of the Biblical monster Moloch, whose “Sawmill temples…/Squat black burners 100 feet high,” are

Sending the smoke of our burnt
Live sap and leaf
To his eager nose.

The final poem in the section, “#15,” is a prayer for renewal. There is an image of an impulse toward,fertility in the first stanza:

         in the void
         a pine cone falls
pursued by squirrels.
What mad pursuit! What struggle to escape!

reaffirmed by parallels among humans also inclined toward procreations,

Her body a seedpod
Open to the wind
“A seed pod void of seed
We had no meeting together”
      so you and I must wait
Until the next blaze
Of the world

the cosmos itself responding to a temporary loss, refusing to deny  rebirth.

During the time Snyder was working for the Forest Service, he signed himself ‘I, the poet.” This was the prelude to his full-scale involvement as an eco-theorist and activist, and as an essayist/pamphleteer, including service as a consultant/associate (of sorts) to Governor Jerry Brown of California. The essays in Earth House Hold (1969), The Real Work (1980), The Practice of the Wild (1990), and The Etiquette of Freedom (2010) are as essential to his life-work as are his poems, an inseparable complement. The entries in “Lookout’s Journal,” from his first stint on Crater Mountain, indicate his initial awareness of the inappropriate activity of oblivious visitors to the wild.  The June 28 entry quotes Blacking Burns’s admonition:

     tin cans, beer bottles, dirty dishes
     a shit within a foot of the bed
one sonuvabitch out of fifty
fishguts in the creek
the door left open for bear

Snyder’s capacity to see the wild from more than one perspective is an important element of his maturing vision of the ecosphere. In the poem “Ankle-deep in Ashes,” from Danger on Peaks (2004), Snyder delights in the joining of somewhat disparate agendas:

- a planner from a private-timber company
a fire expert from the State, a woman County Supervisor
a former Forest Service line officer, the regional District Ranger
a business-man scientist who managed early retirement and does
      good deeds
the superintendent of the county schools
& the supervisor of one of the most productive forests in
      the country

a community of environmentalists together on a “Field trip to the aftermath of the Star Fire, 5 November 2001.” Snyder is linking his first field work as a fire watcher with the progress through half-a-century of environmental understanding.

What abides is the forest. In his reflective essay, “The Ark of the Sierra,” Snyder observes that when “The Yankee newcomer initially came to look for gold,” they “needed lumber and thought, as newcomers everywhere else in North America, that the forest was limitless…It’s a tribute to the resilience of the local forest that, where allowed to, it has come back quite well.” For Snyder, in his maturity “as a long-time forest and mountain person,” the continuing task is to “find areas of agreement” about how “to manage long-range sustainable forestry.”  The vital value of the forest is epitomized by Snyder in the last poem in Section II of his epic Mountains and Rivers Without End (1996):

Up in the mountains that edge the Great Basin

    it was whispered to me
    by the oldest of trees.

    By the Oldest of Beings
    the Oldest of Trees

    Bristlecone Pine

    And all night long sung on
         by a young throng

    of Pinyon Pine.

This is a sentiment that is common to Snyder’s thought, a recurring celebration of and tribute to the most fundamental features of the forest. The spiritual aspects of its essence is encapsulated by his tribute to “The noble sugar pine we came to see” in the later part of “Ankle-deep in Ashes.” He is informed by the District Ranger who cuts “four little notches/round the trunkbase,” and estimates “Likely die in three more years/but we’ll let it stand.”

Snyder’s benediction concludes the poem:

         “Good luck – long life –
Sarvamagalam – I hope you prove him wrong.”

The immediate, vivid vision of the world that Snyder transcribed in Riprap has expanded towards his advocacy for:

Long-range sustainable forestry practices – such as will support full biodiversity –

        and be relatively fire-resistant – and also be on some scale economically viable –

        lasting over centuries.”

This is in accord with Snyder’s assertion that “As a poet, I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the Pleistocene.” When he was a member of Governor Jerry Brown’s California Arts Council, a fellow observed, not disparagingly, “Gary, you seem to be out of step with what most of us understand as our work here.” Snyder replied, ‘I may be out of step with the day-to-day, but that’s because I’m in line with the big flow.” Or, as he put it in the essay “Lifetimes With Fire” (2006), “A bold and visionary science contains the hope that both the Forest and the logging industry might learn to slow down and go more at the magisterial pace of the life of a forest.”


Works Cited

Ebenkamp, Paul, ed., The Etiquette of Freedom. Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison and

Molesworth, Charles. Gary Snyder’s Vision: Poetry and The Real Work. Columbia, Missouri: U of                      Missouri Press, 1983.

Snyder, Gary. Myths and Texts. New York: NY: New Directions, 1960.

__________.  Earth House Hold: Technical Notes & Queries To Fellow Dharma Revolutionaries. New York:             New Directions, 1969.

__________. Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems. San Francisco, California: North Point Press, 1990.

__________. The Practice of the Wild.  Berkeley, California, Counterpoint, 2012.

__________. Mountains and Rivers Without End. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1996.

__________. Danger On Peaks. Emeryville, California. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005.

__________. Back on The Fire: Essays. Emeryville, California. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007.

Suiter, John. Poets on The Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen & Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades.                      New York, NY: Counterpoint, 2002.



In 1983, before the formation of the Visiting Writers Series at Appalachian State University, individual faculty members were responsible for inviting creative artists to App State's campus, and Lewis was able to secure funds sufficient to invite Gary Snyder to come to Boone. After the invitation had been dispatched and accepted, the funding became unavailable, and Lewis had to write to Snyder to apologize and explain the situation. In May, he received a postcard from Snyder depicting the Haleakala volcano in the West Maui mountains of Hawaii.

Leon Lewis

Leon Lewis is a member of the Department of English at Appalachian State University, where his classes include Film Studies and Modern/Contemporary British Literature.