Seeing the Wilderness With New Eyes

THE PRACTICE OF THE WILD. By Gary Snyder, Berkeley, Calif: North Point Press, 202 pp., $22.95 MIXING American Indian myths, Zen koans, personal wilderness experiences, and poetry, Gary Snyder reaches deep into the roots of language to discover the ancient origins of mankind's association with plants, animals, and the land. His writing flows much like a stream, here rushing straight along with passionate tributes to the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, then curling into eddies of anecdotes from travels in Alaska, the Australian outback, and his home in the Sierra foothills of northern California.

But ``The Practice of the Wild'' is not a casual read to pack for an outing on an Indian summer day in autumn. It has been compiled from lectures, notes, and musings spanning 15 years. But neither is it a dry intellectual exercise.

Stories from the Inupiak Eskimos and Aboriginal elders are mixed deftly with recollections of working as a ``chokesetter'' for Warm Springs Lumber in the old-growth forests of the Oregon Cascade Mountains. And this experience as a lumberman lends balance and perspective to these reflections on what it means to live in harmony with the world around us.

The book is written with wit and imagination, and the poet's voice is heard throughout. Snyder details the important lessons nature teaches, along with a sense of larger themes rising out of the earth. Each is informed by his Zen practice and deep love for all creatures.

``The etiquette of the wild world requires not only generosity but a good-humored toughness that cheerfully tolerates discomfort, an appreciation of everyone's fragility, and a certain modesty. Good quick blueberry picking, the knack of tracking, getting to where the fishing's good (`an angry man cannot catch a fish'), reading the surface of the sea or sky - these are achievements not to be gained by mere effort. ... These moves take practice, which calls for a certain amount of self-abnegation, and intuition, which takes emptying of yourself.''

Recalling primitive societies whose appreciation for the abundance of nature led them to give back to each other and the world as much as, or more than, they took from it, Snyder calls for a return to the principles of the ``commons,'' that method of administering wild lands for the benefit of the communities that depend on them as resources. He makes a persuasive argument that the further removed such administration becomes, the greater the potential for exploitation of those resources. The importance of this idea is as clear as today's headlines.

Logging practices in national parks, administered by the United States Forest Service, have changed over the last three decades from selective cutting to clear-cutting methods and now threaten the last of the ancient redwood forests of the Northern Hemisphere.

On the island of Nantucket off Cape Cod a court battle now looms over the historical practice of breaching beaches to allow water to circulate in landlocked ponds, a practice first used by Indian tribes in the region to encourage shellfish growth. Now the beaches are owned by the federal government, which is challenging this practice as potentially damaging to beach ecology. While the debate goes on, the ponds are slowly dying from stagnation.

Inevitably the arguments of ``The Practice of the Wild'' become one-sided in favor of wilderness over development, nature over industrialized civilization, and move onto thin ice as they call for a reduction of the Earth's population to 10 percent of current levels.

Snyder tells great stories and draws great lessons from the wild and those who make their life far from the cities. He embraces the wilderness and finds there the signposts to the future.

``Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order. When an ecosystem is fully functioning, all the members are present at the assembly. To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came out of that wholeness, and to consider the possibility of reactivating membership in the Assembly of All Beings is in no way regressive.''

Thoughtful writing, such as this, that begins to look at our inseparable relationship to the world and tries to discover universal laws that govern how we go about our lives, is greatly needed. Readers of ``The Practice of the Wild'' will come away from this book thinking in new ways about the world, seeing with new eyes - and head straight for the woods.

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