Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
As a meditation on the religious nature of plants, “For Plants” is an example of Gary Snyder’s belief in the sacredness of all life. His fascination for primitive sources of knowledge is also evident in his references to the Native American use of peyote in religious rituals. Snyder even describes the peyote cactus as a blessed infant, a “holy baby.” Marijuana (hashish) and other psychoactive substances derived from plants have been used for centuries by people in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa to alter consciousness or to facilitate the religious experience.
Snyder’s interest in the mythology of other cultures has taken him on journeys to India, Japan, and other countries in the Far East. He spent several years as a merchant seaman, and it was during this time that he discovered lands which were distant both physically and psychologically from the west coast of North America where he was born and reared.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, Snyder looked to China and the East for inspiration rather than to Europe. Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End (1965) displayed evidence of an extensive Asian influence. In fact, Snyder studied both Chinese and Japanese and has translated poems from both languages. As a graduate student at Reed College, he became interested in Zen Buddhism and later, in Japan, attended lectures at the First Zen Institute. He has been a practicing Zen Buddhist ever since.
The Zen belief that everything, in a sense, is alive is conveyed in “For Plants.” By referring to various plants as children, even goddesses, Snyder is trying to show that plants not only have a lifeforce but possess a kind of sacred energy as well. By being aware of the healing and consciousness-altering properties of plants, humans may better understand the connection between themselves and nonhuman life forms.
This sense of interrelatedness, in a very basic way, embraces the ecological concept that all life forms are dependent on one another. By citing primitive myths regarding the healing and religious uses of plants, Snyder finds support for this view. Snyder is also mythmaker in “For Plants.” He reminds and instructs the reader to “see” and revere objects in nature not merely as inanimate or nonhuman things, but more deeply and more significantly as part of the vast web of spirituality that unites the universe.