Friday, September 30, 2016

Reviewing the Old Ways the Old Way

Original box for Gary Synder's audio book The Practice of the Wild (1991).
Despite his voice being a touch higher than I recall, perhaps due to the tape being too tightly wound on a long undisturbed cassette, The Practice of the Wild cassette book is very much how I recall the poet sounding back in 1991 when I heard him speak at Nazareth College. At least I think it was Nazareth College. While cleaning out the attic a few weeks ago, I came across a small collection of books-on-tape that I purchased shortly after  graduating from college with my undergraduate degree in English Literature/Secondary Education. Among them was the aforementioned double cassette. In an age of digital sound, listening to the tapes took a little effort, especially as we, like most American homes, have converted everything to CDs and digital download. After procuring my late father's Walkman, I was ready to take another walk in the woods...

Like many college English Literature majors, I was introduced to the work of Gary Snyder in an introductory poetry course, and as a young man growing up in an urban neighborhood attending Catholic elementary school, the content and perspective was exotic and new. At the time, I had not traveled beyond the freeway connecting our home to my relatives' outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the idea of anyone espousing a belief system outside a Judeo-Christian one was unfamiliar to me. Snyder's poetry then was a gateway to the larger school of thought he represented and further (if not a touch more concretely) articulated later in a number of essay collections. If the earlier Earth House Hold (1969) or Myths and Texts (1960) appealed to the revolutionary spirit most moderately embrace in undergraduate studies, the nine essays that comprised The Practice of the Wild spoke to the adult domesticity I found myself accepting as a parent shortly after graduation.

The Practice of the Wild (1991) double cassette runs 3 hours and is a traditional book on tape in that its contents reflect those of the original text, published a year earlier in 1990. Having the text read by Snyder lends an added sense of gravitas and nobility to the its already comforting and airy message. In many ways, my experience to listening to Snyder's verbally share his work is reminiscent of listening to classic music on the way  to work with my untrained ear. Both are incredibly comfortable auditory experiences that establish an educated yet grounded mood. On rare occasions some small understanding is revealed to me as the recipient.

Much like a film with many quotable lines, The Practice of the Wild has many phrases and sayings that since its initial publication have become popularized as inspirational quotes, such as “With no surroundings there can be no path, and with no path one cannot become free.” Also like a quality movie with many good lines, the parts are even stronger when taken as part of a whole. The tape (and book) both add depth and meaning to Snyder's personal philosophy of compassion for all sentient beings, a class in which he includes mountains, trees and water. Key to continuing to foster and nurture this relationship with all beings is allowing our language to grow and develop in a manner that suggests the interdependence necessary for survival. "Wild," "nature," and "place" are just three of the words that Synder's clarification of within the context of his environmental politics, serve as common entry points for those unfamiliar with his thinking. As someone who is superficially aware--and deeply appreciative of--Snyder's work, I find myself always in need of a re-engagement with his brand of deep ecology. This rewiring of our linguistic present is just a precursor to what Snyder hopes will blossom into a radical restructuring of modern living in accordance with his ideas.

I seem to recall having seen a more current version of The Practice of the Wild text with the audio book included, but was unable to find it on line. Fortunately, Snyder is such a beloved literary-cultural figure that many of his speaking appearances and interviews have been capture on video and are available for viewing on YouTube. If unable to find the book-on-tape, you could do much worse than spending a few minutes with Gary Snyder at Colorado College in 2015. 

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