There’s a useful section at the end of Gary Snyder’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning poetry collection Turtle Island called “Plain Talk,” in which Snyder expresses profound reverence towards nature, and insights on how all the elements of earth are alive, magical, and responsible for human existence.
Snyder addresses the dire global problems that are becoming increasingly worse because of human carelessness towards the earth, in practical terms. In his essay “Four Changes,” originally distributed as a pamphlet, Snyder maps out what he believes are the four most necessary human changes needed for the survival of the planet, and gives practical solutions for how to act on these current problems. The essay addresses: Population, Pollution, Consumption, and Transformation. Snyder argues that there needs to be large scale cultural transformation in order to change the environmental problems that have been growing exponentially due to the over-population of humans, sanctioned polluting of the earth, over-consumption of resources, and negligent disposal of resources.
Another important section of “Plain Talk,” is the essay, “The Wilderness,” where Snyder discusses the very real need to represent the plants, animals, air, water and soil in government, and in all human decision-making. Natural beings are our life-giving mothers, and it’s necessary to protect and defend them as we would our own bodies.
Gary Snyder says:
“I don’t like Western culture because I think it has much in it that is inherently wrong and that is at the root of the environmental crisis that is not recent; it is very ancient; it has been building up for a millennium. There are many things in Western culture that are admirable. But a culture that alienates itself from the very ground of its own being—from the wilderness outside (that is to say, wild nature, the wild, self-contained, self-informing ecosystems) and from that other wilderness within—is doomed to a very destructive behavior, ultimately perhaps self-destructive behavior.”
The actions of many in today’s global capitalist society disregard the air, soil and water as being inanimate—when in fact these elements create human life. To disregard nature is to exist without feeling what it’s like to be truly alive, for the body is the earth, and requires air, water, soil and sun to survive. It is self-destructive to destroy our earth. Though the plants, air and water may not speak our language, they have a sophisticated language of their own, and carry molecules that connect all life.
Snyder points out that it’s natural for a poet—the deep feeler, sensitive receptor artist—to feel akin to nature and defend the earth:
“You would not think a poet would get involved in these things. But the voice that speaks to me as a poet, what Westerners have called the Muse, is the voice of nature herself, whom the ancient poets called the great goddess, the Magna Mater. I regard that voice as a very real entity. At the root of the problem where our civilization goes wrong is the mistaken belief that nature is something less than authentic, that nature is not as alive as man is, or as intelligent, that in a sense it is dead, and that animals are of so low an order of intelligence and feeling, we need not take their feelings into account.”
The poetic muse is the earth goddess: the animals, wind, birds, rivers, oceans, lakes, mountains, flowers, trees.
Gary Snyder offers solutions within “The Wilderness,” which look to primitive cultures and life ways, where historically people have opened themselves up to the representing other life forms through art.
“What we must find a way to do, then, is incorporate the other people—what the Sioux Indians called the creeping people, and the standing people, and the flying people, and the swimming people—into the councils of government. This isn’t as difficult as you might think. If we don’t do it, they will revolt against us. They will submit non-negotiable demands about our stay on earth. We are beginning to get non-negotiable demands right now from the air, the water, the soil.”
Melting icecaps, flooding, tsunamis, fires and major storms are the non-negotiable demands from the earth. A reciprocal relationship between us and the planet must be nurtured and respected for our own health and sustenance, and in order for human life to be sustained.