Chapter Nineteen - Dharma Wilderness


The silence is so intense that you can hear your own blood roar in your ears but louder than that by far is the mysterious roar which I always identify with the roaring of the diamond of wisdom,” Jack Kerouac wrote in The Dharma Bums. “The mysterious roar of silence itself, which is a great Shhhh reminding you of something you’ve seemed to have forgotten in the stress of your days since birth.” Kerouac had never made it to Alaska on any of his cross-country treks in North America. But his 1958 novel, The Dharma Bums, based on his hikes in northern California and the Pacific Northwest with the laid-back poet Gary Snyder (Japhy Ryder in the novel) brought the wilderness movement to a whole new audience. Insisting that poets needed to learn the biological names of trees, plants, and animals, Snyder became a major voice for making ecology interdisciplinary.1 Not since Muir had America produced a visionary so innovative in defense of wild nature as Snyder. “Is it all lost?” Snyder asked about nature in the atomic age. “Was it ever real? A world where men and women, trees, grasses, animals, the wind—were at ease with each other’s songs?”2

Snyder was born in San Francisco in 1930, but his family moved to Lake City, a suburb of Seattle, when he was two years old. To survive during the Great Depression his parents had turned to subsistence farming: milking cows, mowing hay, collecting eggs, picking apples, and chopping cedar. Eventually Snyder’s family moved to Portland. Shortly thereafter his parents divorced. As a teenager Gary was hired by a newspaper, the Oregonian, as a jack-of-all-trades. Like so many Depression-era children on rural farmsteads, he learned to survive economically on very little. He never shrank from a hard day’s work. When Snyder was fifteen, in the summer of 1945, he climbed the volcano Mount Saint Helens. The next year he climbed Mount Hood. By the time Snyder turned twenty-two he had climbed Mount Hood many times. Extreme mountaineering was Snyder’s favorite sport. He loved to climb. To Snyder, reaching a summit was an expression of ultimate freedom. His two summers as a fire lookout, on Crater Mountain (1952) and Sourdough Mountain (1953)—which together, in 1968, became North Cascades National Park—helped him contribute a new wilderness ethos and an ecological aesthetic to the cultural phenomenon known as the Beat Generation.

Snyder had a scholarly bent and an intense interest in Native American history, and he managed to win a scholarship to prestigious Reed College in Portland. Earning A’s in English literature, an all-around excellent student, he spent his free time at the nonprofit Mazamas clubhouse on the top floor of Portland’s Power and Light Building. The Mazamas sponsored alpine hikes and climbs all over the Pacific Northwest from Mount Baker in Washington to Mount Shasta in California. Snyder, using the club’s library, studied the history of mountaineers in the Cascades, learning useful information from their firsthand accounts.3 Since 1894 the club had been a leader in conservation in the Pacific Northwest, fighting to save Crater Lake and the North Cascades from over-timbering. Snyder also joined the satirical Regressive Party (whose slogan was “Back to the Neolithic”).4The only real politics that Snyder and his friends engaged in was trying to get William O. Douglas to run for president in the Democratic primary in Oregon.5 “Marshall, Yard, Douglas, and those guys were my animating force,” Snyder recalled. “I joined The Wilderness Society at seventeen. And I received The Living Wilderness, which automatically came with membership. I was already mountain climbing with the Mazamas Club of Portland. Bob Marshall was a socialist, with very liberal ideas, and everything he had written about roadless areas made absolute sense to me. It still does.”6

What Snyder admired about The Wilderness Society was that it worked closely with Native Alaskans and other allies to ensure that local voices were heard in the public debate over public lands. Snyder, even in his teens, wanted to prevent “big timber” from taking over the entire Alaskan territory and Pacific Northwest. Reading about the early explorations of the Rocky Mountains during the 1850s, Snyder came to admire rough-hewn mountain men such as Jim Bridger; they were intrepid, and they knew how to “read” nature as the Cayuse or Paiute did. But Snyder saw the “second wave”—the stockmen, timbermen, mine operators, and sheep ranchers—as pillagers and despoilers. They bought and sold nature’s wonderful patrimony.

While Snyder was growing up, between 1947 and 1951, The Wilderness Society and the Mazamas Club were leading a campaign to designate the Cascade Mountains (from Mount Saint Helens in southern Oregon to the Skagit Mountains in north Washington and up to British Columbia) as Ice Peaks National Park. But many Washingtonians saw Ice Peaks as a land grab by Harold Ickes. Bob Marshall, along with Ferdinand Silcox, director of the U.S. Forest Service, insisted that this park would protect the Cascades from desecration. Marshall, working for the U.S. Forest Service, was able to save parts of the northern Cascades in the early 1930s: Glacier Peak Recreation Area (230,000 acres) and North Cascades Primitive Area (800,000 acres). But politicians in Oregon and Washington couldn’t or wouldn’t take on the lumber giant Weyerhaeuser. By the time Snyder climbed Mount Saint Helens and Mount Hood—which can be described as sentinel towers of the Pacific Northwest—a postwar housing boom was under way, timber was in high demand on the market, and the concept of Ice Peaks National Park was shelved.7

In 1951 Snyder earned his BA in literature and anthropology from Reed College; he then continued drifting around the Pacific Northwest in blue jeans and a zip-up rain jacket, working as a camp counselor, carpenter, and logger. Sometimes he would look for red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) and owls in the Columbia Slough, using Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to Western Birds.8 His nomadic yearnings were inspired by Woody Guthrie’s life and music. At heart Snyder was an itinerant poet with a deep love for mountain trails and for the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW—the Wobblies—and their lore. Much like Bob Marshall, he was equally comfortable with bookish academicians and with working-class people whose creed was self-sufficiency. Open-minded, uncorrupted by conformity or by the consumer culture, Snyder labored as a timber scaler at the Warm Spring Indian Reservation in central Oregon and—determined to be a poet like Robinson Jeffers and William Carlos Williams—started developing a new, sparse style of poetry: no word was wasted. He pledged to treat the planet with respect, as the North American Indians did, and he had an intuitive understanding, reinforced by his long treks into the North Cascades, that earth was a holy, living being, a single entity. But his poetry was also informed by biology, forestry, socialism, Buddhism, Paul Bunyan, and Native American customs. Snyder treated animals with particular kindness and gentleness, like such earlier, pioneering advocates of animal rights as John Quincy Adams, John Burroughs, and Henry Bergh. One of his close friends at Reed College was Martin Murie, whose parents were Mardy and Olaus Murie.9

In June 1952, the twenty-two-year-old Snyder started working for the U.S. Forest Service at Marblemount, Washington, in the northern Cascades, where there was evidence of ancient volcanic upheaval in all directions.10 This was the Skagit district of Mount Baker National Forest (sometimes called America’s Alps). The North Cascades had about 300 glaciers; only Alaska had more. Having experienced many YMCA summer camps at Mount Saint Helens and many trails in Columbia National Forest (renamed Gifford Pinchot National Forest in 1949), Snyder was erroneously convinced that to be a fire lookout was rather easy work, far simpler than scaling timber: that he would get to live in splendid isolation in the Cascades, would call headquarters on a Motorola PT 300 radio if he saw smoke rising from a distant burn, and meanwhile would read books for pay. But Snyder’s dream soon came up against reality. “Boy,” a forest ranger warned him when he showed up for duty, “you have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into.”11

At one time, many youngsters wanted to be Daniel Boone or Kit Carson—outdoorsmen who could track a whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and survive in a blizzard. Snyder’s boyhood idols were John Muir and Ernest Thompson Seton. The Sierra Club had done a marvelous job of presenting Muir as a lovable long-bearded prophet of the wild kingdom. “Muir inspired me, as a lad, on the practical level of boldly going out and staying longer in the woods with less gear, and having the nerve to do solo trips,” Snyder recalled. “So I did (for example) some lengthy trips in the summer of 1948 in the mountains north of Mt. St. Helens in the Washington Cascades, including some third-class rock scrambles.”12

Snyder had been assigned to the Granite Creek guard station, high up near snowcapped Crater Mountain, for the summer of 1952. In the winter, its rocks looked like blocks of ice and there was scant vegetation. But in the summer, this part of the North Cascades was invigorated with life. To get to the little ranger shack at Granite Creek, Snyder had to hike fifteen miles from the roadhead, into the primeval forest. The job called for an outdoorsman, able to clear trails through thickets, chop wood, and haul in hay from settlements lower down the mountain. Forest rangers throughout the Cascadian interior laughed at the skinny kid from Reed College, who was still trying to grow his first beard but who had actually volunteered for the desolate fire tower in the North Cascades. Over the summer, Snyder learned that miners and loggers were marvelous characters but poor stewards of the ancient forests. All over Washington, Weyerhaeuser—one of the largest pulp and paper companies in the world—was engaged in speed-logging, which was profitable for communities that relied on timber. (However, the area where Snyder was—the upper Skagit—was too steep for Weyerhaeuser to menace.) Worse, the 655-foot Ross Dam—constructed between 1937 and 1949—was ruining the environment of the North Cascades in order to generate electric power for greater Seattle. Snyder later wrote in A Place in Space about his worries over “mineral exploitation” and his wish that miners and loggers could learn to “make deeper connections to the earth.”13

Snyder’s home in the North Cascades was a cedar-log miner’s cabin dating from about 1920 but since remodeled. It belonged to the prospector Frank Beebe, who had looked for gold nuggets along Ruby Creek and then, desperate for a paycheck, had lit out to work with the fishing fleets of Alaska. After a few years bouncing around among salmon canneries on the Kenai Peninsula, Beebe gave up on Alaska and drifted back to the Cascades. He remodeled his little cabin on Granite Creek and tried breeding ermines and marten, with no luck. The U.S. Forest Service soon hired him as a lookout. Upon retiring in the 1950s, Beebe moved to Bellingham, Washington, a lumber town that was also a gateway to magnificent beauty.14 His cabin at Granite Creek was now fitted out to become the “guard station.” Snyder was enthralled with the primitive conditions and was proud to call this shack home. Every night, after an arduous day’s work, Snyder would stay up late reading Po Chü-i—a poet of the Tang dynasty—by oil lamp. Nearby Canyon Creek was his companion, offering cool water as a salve. And Bob Marshall’s teachings about the wilderness stayed with Snyder that summer. The bulk of his job was to make sure the backcountry hiking trails were free of debris. The young poet was fast developing his own outdoors philosophy. A journal entry from 1953 expresses his antagonism toward the “chop-chop-chop” concept of managing timberlands: “Forests equals crop / Scenery equals recreation / Public equals money. . . . The shopkeeper’s view of nature.”15

Although Snyder didn’t write much poetry in the North Cascades, he kept a subtle, intelligent literary journal, parts of which were later published as Earth House Hold.16 To his great surprise, one of his first poems, “A Berry Feast” (1952), had become a favorite among his core friends in San Francisco. In it, he had written about coyotes’ mischief and a “neat pile” of bear scat found on “the fragrant trail.”17 This long comical poem, first published in 1957 by the Evergreen Review, was celebrated for its ethnopoetic merging of traditions—Native American; Asian; The Living Wilderness—and helped develop the ecological dimension of the beat generation during the 1950s.18 Poetry, Snyder would tell the Anchorage Daily News in the 1970s, was another way—like science—of seeing the natural world as it truly is. “Buddhism is one of the few religious and philosophical systems on a world scale that asserts the ethical value of the nonhuman,” he said in that interview. “What Buddhism contributes to environmental politics is a profound spirit of compassion. In the Buddhist’s view, everything in the world has value, has authenticity. Ultimately, this goes beyond humans and animals and is an attitude of regard toward rocks, plants, clouds. Do you objectify and commodify the world when you look at it? Or do you see it as worthy, as beautiful, as full of its own intrinsic value?”19

There was nothing flaky about Gary Snyder. Even while tramping around America he found time to take graduate courses at Indiana University. He always considered nature a cure for the depression induced by society. To Snyder solitude was to be relished, not merely endured. And people should always be treated with generosity, kindness, and namaste, a bow of respect. Ever since childhood, Snyder had valued secret hiding places in the deep woods, as if he were a hobbit.20 Inspired by Japanese mentors, he taught himself Zen meditation and, as noted above, read Chinese poetry of the Tang dynasty. Perhaps remembering the Portland YMCA credo “I am third” (God is followed by loved ones and then by oneself), Snyder perfected the art of humility.21

Snyder had also become infatuated with D. T. Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism. By day he protected the North Cascades; by night he read Suzuki. A central message of Suzuki’s was, “In Zen there must be satori; there must be a general mental upheaval which destroys the old accumulations of intellectuality and lays down a foundation for a new faith.”22 Snyder and his best friend, the poet Philip Whalen, liked to exchange Zen traditional sutras, koans, and sermons by Buddhist teachers. So here was Snyder, working for the Forest Service in Washington state and dreaming about the silent world of places like Alaska and finding inspiration in the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and the Lankavatara and Surangama sutras. Before Snyder, few poets had considered the western wild places from a Buddhist perspective. Primitive, roadless areas, Snyder now believed, emptied the mind. A desolate peak, to him, became a prayer mat. Sitting cross-legged, he repeated the old mantra, Om mani padme hum, and drank green tea from a handle-less cup.23

It was during this first summer in the North Cascades that Snyder read the Platform Sutra of Huineng. The contemplative Huineng would have made a good member of The Wilderness Society. Born into a minority clan in southern China, he became a Buddhist wanderer, avoiding envious monks, sleeping in caves, and cunningly eluding pursuers. His philosophical reflections became known as prajna wisdom. Snyder took from him the notion that wilderness wasn’t a commodity and that universities weren’t the real places of learning. The North Cascades were Snyder’s college; and enlightenment could be found in a spruce branch, a smooth rock, or a butterfly. Huineng taught awareness of all living things. And the combination of reading Huineng’s meditations and being alone in the North Cascades freed Snyder from money-driven America.

After a few weeks in the cabin at Granite Creek Snyder packed his rucksack with provisions—including brown rice and soy sauce—and headed up Crater Mountain. His work as a lookout was about to commence. He would be watching 3 million acres of measureless mountains. His nickname, given to him by a district manager of the Forest Service, was “the Chinaman.” Snyder wore the appellation as a badge of honor. He carefully studied old-growth conifers, huge stands of Douglas fir, and ponderosa pine stretching high up into the sky. Alaska had taller peaks above the timberline, but in the North Cascades a climber saw 7,000-foot summits jutting up like teeth. Stepping as sure-footedly as a Dall sheep through snow piled up against boulders, Snyder became one with the mountain; the immense void of the North Cascades engulfed him. “Aldo Leopold uses the phrase ‘think like a mountain,’ ” Snyder recalled. “I didn’t hear that until later, but mountain watching is like mountain being or mountain sitting. How do you watch a mountain? Nothing’s going to happen in any time frame that you can consider—except the light changes on it. And so that was my mountain watching.”24

Snyder felt that at the top of any desolate peak, the trail died and a dreamscape began. Summits were the end of the earthly road. Nature was supreme. On top of Crater Mountain, in the clear air, with only his two-way radio to connect him to the world, Snyder served admirably as fire lookout, but he was also filled with thoughts. His visions from Crater Mountain soon became an impetus for the beat generation, a spiritual reawakening based on a nonconformist attitude toward the military-industrial complex of the 1950s. Around this time, David Brower of the Sierra Club and Howard “Zahnie” Zahniser of The Wilderness Society toured the North Cascades, with the photographer Philip Hyde. Together they conceived of the “American Alps” campaign to save the Washington range as a new national park.25

Zahniser had become a legend in The Wilderness Society. While others went on hikes and picnics in the Sierra, he stayed deskbound. An advocate of the Adirondacks “forever wild” movement, enacted through legislation in 1895, Zahniser committed himself to protecting wilderness for “the eternity of the future.”26 A bureaucratic infighter, one of the sharpest lobbyists in Washington, D.C., Zahniser ceaselessly championed creating wilderness areas on public lands. Starting in 1935, he wrote a column for Nature. In 1945, he was asked to be executive director of The Wilderness Society; it was a post he kept until his death on May 5, 1964. Four months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act of 1964—a milestone in land protection—originally drafted by Zahniser; 9.1 million acres were saved as “untrammeled by man” zones.

Snyder called his lookout shelter—a prefabricated structure built by the CCC at 8,128 feet—“Crater Shan,” Chinese for high point. Emptying himself of ego and pretension, he basked in its utter commonness. Snyder recognized anew, in the North Cascades, that money-consciousness, the reigning motivator in postwar America, was counterproductive. Withdrawing national forests from preservation, he feared, would lower water tables and accelerate the process of erosion. “Who can leap the world’s ties,” Han Shan had asked in a poem Snyder later translated. “And sit with me among the white clouds?”27

Snyder relished his Zen hermitage. He kept his ax sharp. Chinese calligraphy and meditation were part of his daily regimen. Insatiably he read the texts of Mahayana Buddhism. Some mornings his little shelter was awash in fog. On a clear day, however, he could almost see the Hope Range of British Columbia in the far distance. As an old Zen saying went, everything was “blue heaped on blue.” In the center of his cabin was an Osborne fire finder, a rotating dish map with a peep sight; it could see over far ridges in all directions. Snyder hung Tibetan prayer flags on his walls. After having climbed Mount Hood numerous times, he had developed a pantheist attitude toward mountains as living entities; Aldo Leopold would have approved. Snyder was disdainful of the “hostile, jock Occidental mind-set” prevalent in Europe and the United States, the idea that mountain climbing was an act of conquering. “I want to create wilderness,” Snyder was fond of telling friends, “out of empire.”28


Deeply attuned to his surroundings, Snyder learned, that summer in the North Cascades, how strange being alone in the wild can be. Unlike Robinson Jeffers, the great nature poet of the California coast who enjoyed interacting with seabirds and raptors more than with people, Snyder, perhaps because he was reading Buddhist texts on Crater Mountain, craved people when he came down from his lonely post. The essayist and novelist Edward Abbey, in Abbey’s Road, wrote of his own experiences as a paid fire lookout in the Southwest: “Men go mad,” he said, “in this line of work.” Abbey imagined a married couple getting assigned by the U.S. Forest Service to fire-watch together in the North Cascades: “Any couple who survives three or four months with no human company but each other are destined for a long permanent relationship,” he wrote. “They deserve each other.”29

Committed to forestry, Snyder signed up to be a lookout again in June 1953; this time Sourdough Mountain was his assignment. Joining Snyder that summer in the North Cascades was another graduate of Reed College, Philip Whalen, whom Kerouac described in The Dharma Bums (under the name Warren Coughlin) as “a big fat bespectacled booboo . . . a hundred and eighty pounds of poet meat.”30 After serving in the U.S. Army after World War II, Whalen visited the Vedanta Society in Portland, his hometown, and became interested in eastern religions. Whalen had brought with him to Sank Mountain Ezra Pound’s Cantos and William Blake’s Poems, and he bragged of “absorbing” vitamins out of these volumes in the North Cascades. Also, Snyder had introduced him to D. T. Suzuki’s books on Zen. Snyder and Whalen—who talked by radio from their respective peaks—were paid a handsome $700 a season for being lookouts. At Sourdough, as at Crater, Snyder had an Osborne fire finder in the middle of the all-purpose room. “Sourdough Mountain is very sweet,” Snyder recalled. “It’s a beautiful alpine environment.”31

Snyder brought with him to Sourdough Mountain in 1953 a rucksack full of his own dharma literature that included Daito Kokushi’s Admonition, William Faulkner’s Sartorius, and Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. Like Rockwell Kent on Fox Island, Snyder kept a detailed chart of William Blake’s cosmology in his cabin. In Snyder’s journal of 1953 is a passage from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”32 According to the biographer John Suiter, author of Poets on the Peaks, Snyder wrote next to this passage a simple, “Ah.”33

The question Snyder and Whalen were asking that summer of 1953 in the North Cascades was whether modern societies were capable of living in harmony with nature. Did Americans have the ability to say no to the extraction industries? Would man destroy the planet Earth and move on to a different solar system? L. Ron Hubbard and the Scientologists thought so. World War II had brought new mechanized terrors—culminating in the atomic bomb. Many lovers of Earth wondered whether the apocalypse was at hand. Whalen, who became a Zen monk in 1973, believed that wilderness sanctuaries, where quiet ruled, were essential to rejuvenate an America that Henry Miller had derided as an “air-conditioned nightmare.” Whalen wrote poems with the sparse energy of Bashō’s in the early stages of zazen (Zen Buddhist meditation). During his time in the North Cascades, Whalen wrote poems that would later be collected as Canoeing Up Carbarga Creek: Buddhist Poems 1955–1986, most of them concerning nonattachment as the mind drifts through the cosmic world.34

The modernist poet Robinson Jeffers cast a constructive spell over the thinking of both Snyder and Whalen. A Pennsylvanian by birth, Jeffers had gotten married in 1913 and constructed the granite Tor House and Hawk Tower in Carmel, California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. At the core of Jeffers’s long verse narratives, some resembling Greek tragedies, was his philosophical belief in inhumanism (the idea that humans were egoists: self-centered and unable to grasp the “astonishing beauty” of the natural world). Jeffers wanted poets to shift the emphasis of their verse from “man to notman,” and urged the “rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence.” Jeffers’s poetry—particularly lines such as “long live freedom and damn the ideologies” (from “The Stars Go over the Lonely Ocean”) and “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk” (“Hurt Hawks”)—pointed toward a new distrust of political authority and from an embrace of religious instinct that included respecting wildlife.

Amid fears of radiation and of McCarthyism, reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden on Sourdough Mountain must have been reassuring to Snyder. Thoreau held the key to the wilderness: solitude. He knew the feeling of “total removal” found at the top of the world because he had explored Mount Katahdin (in Maine) and Mount Greylock (in Massachusetts). As he wrote in Walden, the most interesting dwellings in America were the “humble log huts” and “cottages of the poor.” Snyder, who felt himself part of the Buddhist cosmos, was happy living in exactly this type of primitive structure. The new environmental consciousness that Snyder hoped would sweep America during the 1950s seemed to come from a single line of Thoreau’s: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”35 Snyder, like The Wilderness Society, wanted to see the North Cascades left completely untouched by commercial development. Ironically, San Francisco became the urban center where this Thoreauvian philosophy found a suitable home. All around this area were natural mysteries: seal rocks, redwoods, multicolored pebbles shimmering like jewels on the ocean beaches. There was a certain pioneer “island mentality” in San Francisco—a sense that this city, bounded on every side by wilderness or the Pacific Ocean, was the end of the road.

Snyder hoped that the wilderness cause, supported also by the Mazamas Club, would take hold in both high art and pop culture on the West Coast. Instead of an elite movement—in which members of the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote memos about primitive roadless areas, and people like the Muries occasionally had their work published in Scientific Monthly or the Sierra Club Bulletin—Snyder envisioned a revolution of youth consciousness would reject industrialization. Fear of nuclear annihilation and toxic pollution was the root of his thinking: some kinds of technology were not to be trusted.* Howard Zahniser wrote in The Living Wilderness that wild places like the Cascades and Arctic Alaska weren’t a “disparagement of our civilization.” Rather, they were “admiration of it to the point of perpetuating it.”36 Echoing Leopold, proponents of roadless wilderness like Zahniser spoke about a nature aesthetic instead of using the outworn terms preferred by the National Park Service: “scenic” and “wonder.”37 When Mardy Murie complained that Americans had an insatiable need for “comforts and refinement and things and gadgets,” she was saying much the same thing. “Where is the voice to say,” Murie asked, “look, where are we going?”38

When Snyder came down from Sourdough Mountain in the fall of 1953, full of pleasant thoughts, he moved to Berkeley. Hungering for further enlightenment, he enrolled in courses on Japanese and Chinese culture at the University of California–Berkeley. The Bay Area was swirling with creative energy. The dean of West Coast poets, Kenneth Rexroth, had recently published The Dragon and the Unicorn to great acclaim. Snyder thought it a great book.

After two years of intensive study Snyder needed a break. Wanting to connect with the spirit of John Muir, Snyder worked on a trail crew in Yosemite National Park in June–August 1955, writing his fine poem “Riprap” (first published in 1959 as the title poem ofRiprap). Snyder later explained that riprap meant a “cobble of stone” that was “laid on steep slick rock to make a trail.” He had learned it from master trail builders in the Sierra. To construct these stone trails took the skill of a mason and the precision of a surgeon. Snyder was paid $1.73 an hour working around Pate Valley and Pleasant Valley. Always frugal with money, he planned to spend a couple of months in San Francisco and then take a steamer to Japan to study with Zen Buddhist masters. And he started thinking a lot about Alaska: “My sense of the West Coast,” Snyder said, “is that it runs from somewhere about the Big Sur River—the southernmost river that salmon run in—from there north to the Strait of Georgia and beyond, to Glacier Bay in southern Alaska. It is one territory in my mind. People all relate to each other across it; we share a lot of the same concerns and text and a lot of the same trees and birds.”39


In the fall of 1955, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg became fast friends in San Francisco. They were something of an odd pairing. Certainly, Ginsberg had a more urban disposition, writing poems about his Jewish roots, such as Kaddish in 1961. But Ginsberg was a fierce critic of Moloch. Rejecting the notion of America as a monoculture, Ginsberg chastised industry, whose “factories dream and croak in a fog” and whose “smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!”40 Since the early 1920s lead components had been mixed into petroleum as antiknock agents, regardless of the toxic effects on humans. Ginsberg was aghast. Until his death in 1997, Ginsberg enjoyed hiking with Snyder in California and the Pacific Northwest. One afternoon, in the fall of 1965, they were exploring around Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, walking in rhythm with the chant “Hari Om Namo Shiva.” Snyder had a Vandyke beard and a crew cut and wore a mountaineer’s cap. Ginsberg had long curly hair flowing down from his balding head. A little group of fishermen looked at them incredulously. Ginsberg walked up to them. “Hello,” he said, extending his right hand. “We are forest beatniks.”41

Ginsberg and Snyder’s friendship began during the fall of 1955. Ginsberg was taken with Snyder’s calm, scholarly way. “He’s a head, peyotist, laconist,” Ginsberg wrote to a friend, “but warmhearted, nice-looking, with a little beard, thin, blond.”42 The poet Kenneth Rexroth, a polymath who had a regular arts-culture show on KPFA-FM, had booked them together for a reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. This art cooperative was run by young painters from the San Francisco Art Institute, who threw a poetry party that launched the beat movement on the West Coast. (From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the gallery was an auto repair shop.) Ginsberg had arrived in the Bay Area bearing a letter of introduction from the poet William Carlos Williams, making the acquaintance of Kenneth Rexroth, and bragging about his French-Canadian friend Jack Kerouac from Lowell, Massachusetts, whose novel The Town and the City (1953) had marked him out as the new Thomas Wolfe. For the reading at the Six Gallery, Rexroth was asked to be the master of ceremonies, as a gesture of respect for his many years of mentoring poets in San Francisco. Four Bay Area poets were asked to read: Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and Philip Lamantia. Snyder was excited to share the stage with Rexroth, whose poems, including “Another Spring” and “Toward an Organic Philosophy,” expressed his own wilderness ethos.

On October 7, 1955, the night of the famous reading at the Six Gallery, more than 150 people showed up, in a festive mood. Wine bottles were passed around. With the exception of Lamantia, who read poems by a deceased friend, the participants focused on the theme of humans reconnecting with nature. Philip Whalen contributed the comical “Plus Ça Change,” which kindly mocked Americans’ fear of touching each other, a reaction attributed to “alienation conditioning.” Kerouac, who was working on his novel On the Road—about his cross-country trips in the late 1940s and early 1950s, often with his delinquent friend Neal Cassady, sat Buddha-like on the concrete floor of the Six Gallery, hooting and hollering, slugging down wine, as the “forest poets” read their compositions.

If the United States faced a spiritual crisis in 1955, McClure believed, it was because many Americans insisted that animals didn’t have souls. To most Alaskans, for example, harpooning a whale, shooting a wolf on ranch property, and slaughtering polar bears for fun were economic propositions. McClure, whose poetry combined biology with mysticism, challenged the reckless treatment of wildlife in his long poem “Point Lobos: Animism.” Biologists and physicists admired his poems. Drawing on the scientific writings of Ernst Haeckel, who argued that all living entities were sacred, McClure hoped to teach Americans to treat ecosystems with reverent respect. Native Alaskans, for example, thought themselves equal to the polar bear, perhaps even inferior, but never better. “What I was interested in was the intersection of science and poetry,” McClure recalls. “There was too much distance between them, when in reality they have a lot in common.”43

The breakthrough poem at the Six Gallery was McClure’s “For the Death of 100 Whales.” McClure said that slaughtering whales was immoral. In April 1954, Time magazine had published an article about how the U.S. troops stationed at a NATO airbase in Iceland had gone on a rampage, slaughtering whales en masse with machine guns. They killed 100 whales, causing a wave of blood to ooze across the choppy waters. Making artistic use of this troubling story, McClure claimed that the cold-blooded killers were the troops, not the innocent whales, and protested against the carnage. The poem chastised the “mowers and reapers of sea kine”; the closing verse was:


There are no churches in the waves,

No holiness,

No passages or crossings

From the beasts’ wet shore.44


When Allen Ginsberg, bespectacled and brazen, took the stage at the Six Gallery, the bohemians in attendance whooped like warriors. His underground reputation for poetic drama had preceded him. While Ginsberg wasn’t a nature poet, his long signature poem “Howl”—exploding with shamanistic prophecy45—was a bardic condemnation of modern city life, a fiery indictment of society’s destructive forces. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold had written that when a wolf howled, it was “an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.”46 This was the insurgent Ginsberg at the Six Gallery, chanting with conviction, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.”47 With this apocalyptic poem, a new American consciousness—a paradigm shift—was happening.

Ginsberg’s reading of “Howl” was the highlight at Six Gallery. His sizzling words would ricochet from San Francisco to Singapore and beyond for the next decade. Some critics believe the beat generation was born that evening, with Ginsberg boldly putting the modern condition on trial. But Kerouac didn’t see it that way. Long before Ginsberg chanted “Moloch,” other poets—such as William Blake (in “London”) and T. S. Eliot (in “The Wasteland”)—had expressed the same ideas. The real breakthrough, Kerouac’s keen poetic ear told him, came from the last reader: Gary Snyder.

Rocking back and forth, mesmerized by every line, Kerouac thought Snyder’s “A Berry Feast” (later published in The Back Country) an important statement of human love toward animals. McClure’s “For the Death of 100 Whales” seemed fueled by anger, which never solved much, whereas Snyder exuded a love of bears and coyotes. When Kerouac wrote about the event at Six Gallery in his 1958 novel The Dharma Bums, he described Snyder (the character Japhy Ryder) as a “great new hero of American culture.” Kerouac intuited that Snyder represented an avant-garde new way—actually a revivification of an ancient way—of looking at nature holistically. “And he had tender lines, lyrical lines, like the ones about bears eating berries, showing his love of animals and great mystery lines about oxen on the Mongolian road showing his knowledge of Oriental literature,” Kerouac wrote of Snyder. “And his anarchistic ideas about how Americans don’t know how to live, with lines about commuters being trapped in living rooms that come from poor trees felled by chainsaws (showing here, also, his background as a logger up north).”48

Snyder shared with Ginsberg the belief that atomic bombs would destroy the world—that this genie had to be put back into the bottle. The most controversial line in Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems came from “America”: “America go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.” It was unclear whether the obscenity laws of the time allowed such language to be put in print. But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agreed to defend City Lights Books, which had published Howl and Other Poems (with an introduction by William Carlos Williams). It was the U.S. Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas, always for freedom of speech, who insisted that books like Howl had to be protected by the First Amendment against would-be censors. “None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militarists’ silence, to the intellectual void—to the land without poetry—to the spiritual drabness,” McClure wrote in Scratching the Beat Surface. “We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision.”49 At its core, Ginsberg’s “America” was a burlesque of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

On November 1, 1956, when “America” was published in Howl, Ginsberg didn’t know that the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was establishing the “Plowshare Program” to “investigate and develop peaceful uses for nuclear explosives.” An Inupiat from Point Hope Village, Alaska, would watch anxiously from a bluff as two men in a boat started unloading supplies on a spit of land jutting out into the Chukchi Sea. Before long, other Inupiat would gather around the boats asking, “Who are you?” The answer baffled them: the visitors were “surveyors” of the AEC.50

The AEC had chosen a site at Ogotoruk Creek, about thirty miles southeast of the Inupiat Eskimo village of Point Hope, as a nuclear test ground. Rumors swirled through Point Hope about the planned detonation. Would the residents get radiation sickness? What was the timetable? Would the people be paid reparations?

The truth was that the AEC did plan to detonate an atomic device, 100 times more powerful than the bomb used at Hiroshima, in Arctic Alaska. Ground zero was Ogotoruk Creek. The scheme—which later became infamous—was called Project Chariot. Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, was overseeing the project. As the director of the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California–Berkeley, Teller publicly announced the program on June 9, 1958. The AEC would detonate a 2.4-megaton atomic device on the northwestern coast of Arctic Alaska. According to Teller, there were two reasons for the explosion: to stay competitive with the Soviet Union, and to create a deep-water hole, which could thereafter be used as the Arctic harbor for the shipment of coal and oil extracted on the North Slope.51

Following Teller’s stunning announcement, Lewis Strauss, the feisty chairman of the AEC, asked for 1,600 square miles of land and water in Arctic Alaska to be withdrawn from the public domain. Teller himself came to Alaska to promote another supposed reason for Project Chariot: jobs. Alaska could become an oil producer like Texas or Saudi Arabia. New federal funds would come pouring into Alaska. Traveling around Alaska to win support from various chambers of commerce, Teller promised that “the blast will not be performed until it can be economically justified.”52Doctor George Rogers, an Alaskan economist, recalled having breakfast with Teller in Juneau that summer. “He gave me the pitch again [for Project Chariot],” Rogers recalled. “Then I said, ‘Well, the Native people, they depend on the sea mammals and the caribou.’ He said, ‘Well, they’re going to have to change their way of life.’ I said, ‘What are they going to do?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘when we have the harbor we can create coal mines in the Arctic, and they can become coal miners.’ ”53

But many Alaskans asked smart questions of Teller as he went around the territory. Undaunted by his well-earned fame as a nuclear scientist, they wanted answers: Wouldn’t it take decades for such a port to be operational? How would the money generated trickle into working people’s bank accounts? Meanwhile, the national conservation groups seized on Project Chariot as the worst idea ever conceived by mankind. Albert Einstein called it lunacy. Alliances of concerned citizens were organized to save Arctic Alaska from becoming a nuclear testing ground. “I was running the Camp Denali lodge when I learned about Project Chariot,” Virginia Wood recalled. “This was a turning point for me. I knew we’d have to organize against the Project. That was beautiful country up there, the homeland to the Native Alaskans! I voted for Eisenhower. . . . I think. But I knew this one was wrong. That whole Arctic area needed to be left alone.”54

The AEC was surprised by the backlash against Project Chariot in Alaska. Because the territory was preparing for statehood in 1959, the assumption was that only the Inupiat would complain—and they didn’t matter in Washington, D.C. Recognizing that a potential economic boom wasn’t a compelling argument, the AEC shifted gears. John A. McCone, now chairman of the AEC, testified in Congress before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy that they were seeking an alternative to the Alaskan harbor because they couldn’t find a corporate partner.

The AEC now went back to the drawing board. What was needed, they determined, was a Project Chariot Environmental Studies Program. Being out of tune with the ecology movement, the AEC had underestimated the impact Lois Crisler and Walt Disney had made on the American psyche with regard to Arctic Alaska. The environmentalists had depicted Project Chariot as bombing polar bears, caribou, seals, and whales—species the American people cared deeply about. The AEC had gotten ahead of itself. When Teller went around Alaska, he repeatedly claimed that the fish around Point Hope wouldn’t be affected, that nuclear testing wouldn’t be harmful to humans, that there would be no seismic shock, and that the people of Japan had already recovered from radiation sickness—none of which was true. Teller, for all his talents, may not have been entirely sane.

A group of scientists at the University of Alaska, led by William Pruitt, stepped up to dispute the AEC’s scenarios. Never resorting to emotionalism, giving only the biological facts, Pruitt correctly noted that the food chain in the Arctic was hypersensitive and fragile. Caribou became his Exhibit A. Recent nuclear fallout in the Pacific had already affected the tundra; North Slope caribou suet in the late 1950s had a level of strontium seven times higher than the cattle in Texas or Oklahoma. Because caribou grazed on lichen and other rootless plants, the amount of nuclear dust they ingested was extremely high. They ate radioactive lichen “straight up,” before it was integrated with other earth compounds. The same scenario applied to many of Alaska’s migratory birds.55

Once Professor Pruitt had presented these counterarguments in a public forum, the Inupiat angrily entered the debate. Caribou meat was the staple of their lives—material, cultural, and spiritual. On the North Slope, the Gwich’in people had a creation story, passed down for 1,000 years, that the caribou had absorbed a chunk of human heart and the Gwich’in, reciprocally, held a piece of the caribou heart in their own bodies. In this way, each would always know what the other one was doing. Their relationship went beyond symbiosis; they were one. Upon felling a caribou, Gwich’in hunters offered a prayer of appreciation to their brother species, immediately biting into the heart at the “kill spot” to show honor and gratitude. That was the burden and joy of Gwich’in history. Would Gwich’in hunters get radiation sickness, after Project Chariot, from eating caribou heart? If the caribou died off, would the Gwich’in also die? Furthermore, because the caribou were so far-ranging, the impact of the project would be broader. Caribou migrated more than 500 miles around Alaska each spring, and not only the Gwich’in depended on them for sustenance. All the North Slope tribes who relied on caribou as a food source would become ill.

With emotions running so strong, the Eisenhower administration ordered the AEC to tone down the rhetoric. While Project Chariot wasn’t canceled, it was “deferred.” Still, rumors circulated in the beat and Native underground in the late 1950s that the U.S. military had injected Eskimos with radioactive iodine-131 as part of a research program to learn whether soldiers “could be better conditioned to fight in cold conditions.”56 Evidence for this claim is rather scant. But in any case many Native Americans in Alaska were feeling empowered to fight for the ecological integrity of their region.

There is no paper trail to clarify what President Eisenhower thought of Project Chariot; he may have pulled the plug on it himself. Douglas L. Vandegraft of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believed that Eisenhower had a quasi-purist view of the Arctic and Alaska; in fact, he wasn’t keen on seeing either the north pole or the south pole developed for economic purposes. What interested Eisenhower was atomic energy for peaceful purposes. Project Chariot, however, was too dangerous—and absurd.57

The 1950s were a time when faith in science—and the urge to explore new frontiers, using new technological developments—was soaring. The United States had sent a Jupiter-C rocket into space for the first time in 1956; and in 1957 the Soviets launched the satellite Sputnik. Despite the cold war, a remarkable event occurred in December 1959. President Dwight D. Eisenhower led the way to set Antarctica aside as a scientific preserve. All militarization of Antarctica was banned. This agreement—promoted by the United States—was considered the first major arms control treaty of the cold war. Forty-seven countries concurred in making Antarctica a sanctuary. Perhaps Eisenhower wanted to do the same with the Arctic?


Ginsberg’s poem “America”—epitomizing the spirit of the First Amendment and the impulse to “speak truth to power”—was clearly applicable in Alaska. But what Kerouac loved most about the reading at the Six Gallery was how Snyder made the coyote—the Native American trickster figure—into a protagonist. With suburban developers chasing the coyote out of its homelands in the West, Snyder placed Canis latrans on a hillside, wiser than humans, scoffing at the idiocy of clear-cutting, bulldozing, and despoiling the natural world: “The Chainsaw falls for boards of pines/Suburban bedrooms, block on block/Will waver with this grain and knot,/The maddening shapes will start and fade/Each morning when commuters wake—/Joined boards hung of frame/A box to catch a biped in.” As Snyder’s Coyote watches a “Fat-snout Caterpillar, tread toppling forward/Leaf on leaf, roots in gold volcanic dirt . . .” all he can say is “Fuck You!”58

But Snyder doesn’t end “A Berry Feast” with the long-suffering coyote losing out to what the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, publisher of City Lights Books, called “the omnivorous corporate monoculture.”59 Instead, the deity Coyote, after grievances accumulate, watches the world being restored, as a new generation adopts The Wilderness Society’s ethos of leaving nature alone: “From cool springs under cedar/On his haunches, white grin long tongue panting, he watches: Dead city in dry summer, Where berries grow.”60The Coyote and the poets themselves were messengers, perhaps fools, certainly brilliant trickster figures filled with creative power; their ideas about ecology were revolutionary. “The idea of saving wilderness for wilderness’s sake came from West Coast consciousness,” the poet and cofounder of the Fugs (a rock band) Ed Sanders recalled. “Ginsberg was the first one to use universe in poems. But it was Gary Snyder who taught us to think in terms of river systems, not boundary lines.”61

Besides Thoreau, Blake, and Zen, the West Coast beats also developed an affinity for old Rockwell Kent. Considering himself a conservative, an ascetic, and a political socialist, Kent became a target for Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. When forced to testify before a Senate investigations subcommittee, Kent took the Fifth Amendment, refusing to state whether or not he was a communist. Once the most popular illustrator in America, Kent now found himself blacklisted, and his Wilderness was removed from libraries as subversive literature. New York galleries and museums in the late 1950s refused to show his Alaskan work. Defiantly, Kent donated his paintings, illustrations, and manuscripts to the Soviet Union. Today many of his Alaskan paintings and illustrations are on permanent display at the State Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg.62 Only one painting—his portrait of Virginia Hawkins—remained in Seward, Alaska.

Ferlinghetti—publisher of Howl and Other Poems—also had a fierce ecological consciousness in the 1950s. However, he was concerned more about Malthusian theory than about the wilderness per se; he considered overpopulation “the root of all the other ecological problems.” Why were rain forests in the Tongass being destroyed? To make more houses for people. Why might Point Hope be bombed? Because an oil port was needed to fuel people’s vehicles. Why was air pollution becoming a health hazard in Los Angeles? Because more automobiles were needed. “No matter what subject you brought up in the 1950s,” Ferlinghetti recalled, one “can trace it back to overpopulation. This is the basis of all ecological problems.” Ferlinghetti, through City Lights Books, provided an open forum to any ecologically minded poet seeking to promote environmental awareness. His getaway home in Big Sur became a haven for talented artists who wanted to contemplate sea, forests, and air. Working closely with McClure—who developed a friendship with the British molecular biologist Francis Crick, one of the codiscoverers of the helical structure of DNA in 1953—Ferlinghetti published what some scholars consider the first true ecological periodical in America: Journal for the Protection of All Beings. “What Alaska had going for it,” Ferlinghetti believed, “was that unlike California, it hadn’t been overrun with people. Nature still had a fighting chance.”63

Crick was also a Malthusian. But what attracted him to McClure was the almost molecular swirl of vivid words and surreal images in McClure’s poems about nature. McClure also seemed almost intuitively able to understand key concepts about human consciousness, and he and Crick shared an interest in peyote. “The worlds in which I myself live,” Crick said, “the private world of personal reactions, the biological world (animals and plants and even bacteria chase each other through the poems), the world of the atom and molecule, the stars and the galaxies, are all there; and in between, above and below, stands man, the howling mammal, contrived out of meat by chance and necessity. If I were a poet I would write like Michael McClure – if only I had his talent.”64

Loving people so much, always needing human company, Snyder shied away from Malthusian fretting and from poetry inspired by DNA. As a warmhearted Buddhist, he didn’t feel like telling people not to breed. In 1956 Snyder moved to Japan to study on a scholarship at the First Zen Institute of America. Often, he lived in an ashram. The monastic life suited Snyder fine—for short spells. But his wanderlust soon compelled him to get a job on the oil tanker Sappa Creek, traveling to Ceylon, Guam, and Istanbul. In the western Pacific in 1958 Snyder, aboard the tanker, wrote the four-verse poem “Oil.” He was full of fear and dread about the planet’s future, when “hooked nations” would need “long injections of pure oil.”65 America, he believed, was a society of petroleum junkies. Maybe—who knew?—Snyder later mused while visiting Alaska, the internal combustion engine would become obsolete. As Snyder wrote in his poem “Energy Is Eternal Delight”:

We need no fossil fuel Get power within Grow strong on less.66

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