The Practice of the Wild

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423

The tradition of writing about the natural world has been on of the most vital subdivisions of American literature. From the work of Henry David Thoreau through the recent essays of Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, and Bill McKibben, an examination and celebration of the life-sustaining powers of the unspoiled wilderness of the North American continent has been the central subject of an increasingly concerned group of artists and social activists. In a linked series of reflective essays and personal accounts, Gary Snyder continues the work he has done in this vein (EARTH HOUSE HOLD, 1969) both presenting a program for personal renewal and planetary conservation that is by logically convincing and lyrically inspiring.

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Snyder has spent most of his life on journeys through the terrain of several continents and through the accumulated learning of many epochs. His command of archaeology, paleontology, etymology, and geology provides the foundation for his argument, but his ability to write clearly, forcefully, and engagingly is what makes his argument so provocative. Readers who might be inclined to ignore a man who shares the Native American and Taoist beliefs in the spiritual life of animals and the animating spirit of landscape will be reassured by the sensible, level-headed, and practical tone of his essays, while serious students of the environment will note the iron intelligence of his observations, a striking contrast to the mystical babble of some other “New Age” nature specialists.

Snyder’s approach is to combine his own experiences in the natural world (he has been a fire-watcher, forest ranger, logger, merchant seaman, and agriculturist) with a great deal of scholarly exploration drawing on a wide variety of sources, both well-established and relatively esoteric. He examines such concepts as “freedom” and “the wilderness” while working toward a definition of the “natural” and the “free,” his writing brimming with ideas, bristling with energetic conviction charged by poetic eloquence. He remains a congenial companion through these essays, his voice always friendly and reasonable, often playful, and sometimes cautionary, but never hysterical or bitter. His anger is always justified by reason and information, and his overall expectation of an enlightened public rescuing the earth is religious in the most profound sense.

He sees himself as a spokesman for the natural realm—the eternal, self-renewing, infinitely interesting source of all life—and while he contends that it speaks for itself in many languages, he realizes that until most people learn to read those tongues of nature, his translations will remain crucial to the well-being of the inhabitants of “Turtle Island,” our home.

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