Say the names Wendell Berry or Gary Snyder in some circles and you will elicit everything from abject worship to ennui. I belatedly came to awareness of both of them in the late Seventies and early Eighties—Berry for his finely wrought essays and stories (I did not have the maturity to appreciate his poetry then) and Snyder for his poems that were so authentically rooted, many of them, in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada. And though I appreciated both writers, and regarded both as exemplars of environmentally conscious writing, it never once occurred to me that they might be friends.
I pictured Berry plowing with mules on his Kentucky farm, and I pictured Snyder in the Sierra, running the ridges like a wolf. I thought of Berry as a student of the Scriptures, working out a biblically based land ethic, and I thought of Snyder as a Beat practitioner of Zen. But in spite of these differences they have been friends for almost half a century, first brought together in correspondence by their mutual publisher, Jack Shoemaker, and kept together all these years through mutual admiration—and sometimes by mutual consternation.
In Distant Neighbors, Chad Wriglesworth has done us the service of collecting and selecting forty years of their correspondence, from 1973 to 2013. In the fall of 2015, I was asked to introduce and interview Gary Snyder at a reading, and I told him before we went on stage that I was halfway through this book. “Wendell and I argued about two things for forty years,” Snyder declared: “Buddhism vs. Christianity, and wilderness vs. agriculture.”
That pretty much sums it up.
Berry’s essay “The Gift of Good Land,” in which he spells out a land-use ethic implicit in the Pentateuch, elicits this response from Snyder in 1979: “I found the article very useful, re-opened my thinking—jumping over and beyond
Berry, by contrast, is almost always gentlemanly and conciliatory. In a letter of 1980 he asks, “I wonder if it might not be possible to define a Western theology, sufficiently responsive to a Biblical tradition, that would not alienate a Buddhist such as yourself. The question may be merely naive, yet I think Thomas Merton had it much in mind.” He then goes on to make a case that the God of the Bible is both immanent and transcendent.
Snyder puts these cards on the table in reply:
Whereas “world religions” tend to have great charismatic human leader-founders, the natural religions, the old ways, take their teachings direct from the human mind, the collective unconscious, the ground of being. Rather than theology, they have mythology and visionary practice. The shaman[,] as key figure in the Old Ways, rarely becomes a teacher-figure; but is a medium, a vehicle for powers of nature and the mind.
He objects to the anthropocentrism of Christianity, the absolute distinction between Creator and creation, the whole hierarchical model that he sees as borrowed from the Roman Empire. But then he softens his objections: “Well, I could get along with Christianity. My mother, being raised in a strict southern town, gave me more than my share of atheist hostility, I know, and my Marxist leanings of my twenties reinforced it.” And lately, he says, he has been influenced by Zen teachers who have been in dialogue with Christian faith. “Zen, as the arm of Buddhism most given to the life of the spirit, really doesn’t care about theology or dogma.”
Berry replies, “Your distinction between world religions and natural religions is useful, and I feel it is true—though I feel extremely hesitant and uneasy in the presence of terms like ‘collective unconscious.’ ” He goes on to contend that the Bible is not essentially anthropocentric. Job, for example, suggests that “creation is not subject to our understanding much less our use. . . . I think you can argue, from the Bible, that nothing was created entirely for use, though use of some things is allowable within limits.”
Then he addresses the supposedly absolute distinction between the Creator and the created: “I think you are wrong in your statement that ‘It is heretical for a Christian to aspire to be completely one with the maker.’ To be at one—‘atoned’—with the maker is, as I understand it, a Christian aim.” And regarding Snyder’s objections to hierarchy, Berry affirms that “dominance is disastrous without responsibility.” But he goes on to argue that the Great Chain of Being is an ecological structure in Milton and Pope, a structure in which the parts are dependent upon the whole. Quite mistakenly, “Shelley wanted to set the parts free from the ‘tyranny’ of the whole.” (Throughout their correspondence, Berry refers to poets of the Western canon with deep
“I read the Bible, can’t help reading it,” Berry declares, “as the outcropping of something timeless, unhuman, and true.” But he also notes his own long-held hostility toward many institutions of faith, a hostility he regrets in himself as having created a distance from community. “I still see no church that I could be at home in. I am a solitary Christian—a most paradoxical creature.” And in this solitude he writes, “I speak my mind to you as an ally—the nearest, probably, that I have.” Five years later, Snyder signs off on a letter with “Yours for no religious wars!”
And so the conversation continues, year after year. Assertion, concession, rebuttal, apology, making nice. So very human, and so very admirable. They never really come to agreement, but both are willing to live in the tension, to express and to listen. It helps, of course, that they both care deeply about the environment (a term that Berry especially hates). But predictably they care in very different ways.
In a letter of 1986, Berry complains that “the issue of preservation of farmland and farm people has drawn nothing like the attention that has been given to wilderness preservation.” Even wilderness has to be stewarded, he says, and “if the domestic landscape were adequately wild, then its inhabitants might not have to join the crowds trampling the national parks. For somebody like me, for instance, . . . one trip to Yosemite might last a lifetime.” Berry is mainly concerned, he says in a letter of 1997, with the development of “truly local and native economies in the countryside—agrarian and sylvan economies.”
Snyder is also concerned with the development of local economies, but for somebody like him (for instance), one visit to Yosemite would not last a lifetime. As a born and bred Westerner, Snyder needs a living space that includes vast tracts of wilderness. As a born and bred Kentuckian, Berry is happy on the farm, with a few trees in the creek bottom. In a letter of 1983, Snyder points out that “clearly you are pro-agrarian, and I am pro-hunting and gathering, which only shows I am even less credible, in the 20th century, than you are.”
In my 2015 interview with Snyder, he was less charitable. When I asked him about his relationship with Berry, he said, “I’m just not that into agriculture.” He went on to describe a short camping trip they took together in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada (the current site of Burning Man—which, said Snyder, he does not attend, having spent enough time in his youth romping naked around bonfires). Snyder said that he and Berry sat out in the desert in a couple of lawn chairs for a while, and then Berry finally said, “You couldn’t grow a single thing out here.” In a letter of 2012, Snyder sends this news of his son: “Kai I am very pleased to say has taken up snow peak mountaineering . . . and now has climbed four or five of the major West Coast peaks. It’s an excellent way to really see the landscape out here and it makes you feel (I will testify at any rate) really good.” Berry, one assumes, prefers the view from behind the plow.
Aside from (and amid) these persistent discussions of faith and landscape, the letters shine with just the quirks and grace notes that one would hope for in personal correspondence. Both complain eloquently of hurry, distraction, and overwork, laughing at the popular conception of themselves as leading some kind of idyllic existence. In a letter of 1985, Snyder writes, “I had a person express dismay and disillusion recently when I offhandedly said I owned a chainsaw. Wait til they hear I have three cars, one truck, and two motorcycles all registered to run!” Berry often expresses his vexed relationship with teaching stints at the University of Kentucky. In a letter of 1976 he complains, “I’m done with the fall semester teaching—a bust. I gave nearly 1/3 incompletes. That is to say, I’m afraid, that the impossibility of teaching has begun: there is nothing in or behind many students to hold them up against a discipline.” He would seem to hold the same opinion of poets being interviewed as he does of his students in class. In a letter of 1980 he writes, “Most poet-interviews I see strike me as glib, shallow, self-exhibiting, worthless, embarrassing, and irresponsible. . . . I regret tractors, I guess, at least as much as I regret interviews.” And then he goes on to note, “In all of Boswell’s talks with him, Johnson is always a conversationalist, never an interviewee.”
When I finished this book of letters, two moments came to mind that crystallize to some extent the differences between these men. The first was a reading some years ago by Wendell Berry at our local university. In the question-and-answer session that followed, one woman stood up and asked, “Mr. Berry, do you think we should teach gardening in the schools?” She clearly thought she had provided a fat pitch that he would hit out of the park. Berry paused for a good, long while, then said, “I think we should teach Homer and Shakespeare and the Bible in school, and teach gardening after school.” He then went on to give an eloquent defense of the Western canon as that which provides us with help and comfort. People have lived our troubles before us, and left their witness. I did not see the woman afterward, but I think she went away disappointed.
The second moment came during Gary Snyder’s recent appearance at the same university, in the same hall. He was reading from his latest book of poems, This Present Moment. Truth be told, he was doing more pontificating than reading, but when he came to the prose poem “Otzi Crosses Over,” something quite different happened. The poem is about the body of a man of perhaps four thousand years ago that was recently found, perfectly preserved, in a glacier in the Italian Alps. In the course of the poem, Snyder imagines his way into the life of this man, crossing the mountains to visit his daughter as winter approaches. The poem ends in this way: “Sore knee, and painful shoulder—but—about to step out on the icefield, cross it and go down the other side, more snow and rock and alpine fir below. This moment sun and wind—my little knife, my fire-kit, my settled daughter, this lonely route.” And at this moment, for the only time that evening, something caught in Snyder’s voice. His eyes glistened. Was he thinking of his own death, his own “lonely route” ahead? Perhaps, but my distinct impression was that Otzi was a sacrament of the Old Ways, the Neolithic, the hunters and gatherers who preceded the Western canon. For Snyder, this tangible presence was profound and sacred comfort.