IT WOULD BE HARD to pick up a book of letters exchanged between Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry across some 40 years, without feeling considerable anticipation. Now in their 80s, both writers have managed to produce an uncommonly rich collection of literature, mostly essays and poetry, offering vibrant insights into the nature of the relationship between humans and their landscapes. The work in each case forms a body of art that is markedly mature; it offers not prescriptive imagery, but rather extraordinarily well-chosen raw materials, by which readers can then erect their own structures of understanding. And in large part, the maturity of the work comes from each man’s passionate, lifelong commitment to intellectual and spiritual inquiry.
In many ways, Distant Neighbors, edited by University of Waterloo English professor Chad Wriglesworth, pulls back the curtain on that inquiry. Indeed one of the most enjoyable aspects of these letters is the chance to witness a kind of mental quickening between Berry and Snyder. The alchemy is made even more enticing by the fact that they are very different writers, each with a unique take on the world; brought together like this in correspondence, they become something more than the sum of their parts. Berry, who continues to live and work in Kentucky, has been an irascible critic of the excesses of market-based capitalism, rejecting the idea that freedom or even simple contentment can be achieved through unbounded materialism. That said, to his great credit he’s spent the far bigger portion of his energy on the generative side of that debate — fighting for something, instead of against — specifically, investigating the always thorny problem of how people can come to establish satisfying lives within the environmental constraints of a given landscape. He’s frequently been inspired by certain impulses of middle- American Christianity, which are fundamental to his own roots, and at the same time, is an unflinching critic of religious institutions. In true agrarian fashion, rather than spend his efforts in defense of a pristine wilderness, he’s made a compelling argument for lands to be used in a wise, sustainable fashion.
San Francisco native Gary Snyder, meanwhile, long one of America’s most critically acclaimed poets, has shown an elegantly inquisitive ecological sensibility — one that’s remained extraordinarily relevant and appealing across more than half a century — in which his vision allows for the intertwining of humanity with the wild. Indeed it would be hard to think of an American poet or philosopher since Henry David Thoreau whose worldview is more usefully holistic than Snyder’s. Long a student of Buddhism, Snyder claims that Chinese and Japanese poets and authors have provided him with a more modern, more nimble perspective than that typically presented in the classic literature of the Western world. Asian writers, he explains, have tended to be more attuned to changing circumstances, while the great writers on this side of the ocean were more often driven by inert myth and theology. Though he stands on the shoulders of early Western landscape poets like Kenneth Rexroth and Robinson Jeffers, it was from Buddhist influences that Snyder cultivated the voice with which he speaks convincingly for the natural world — trees and rivers, forests and mountains. If it’s true that he is, in his own words, “single minded,” then it must also be said that his mind is astonishingly light-footed and well watered.
Reaching out from their individual perspectives, Berry and Snyder consider the world from each other’s viewpoint with startling vulnerability. Revealed here is a brand of curiosity that can seem all but absent from modern social discourse, given our tedious devotion to the over-specialization of opinions, to a dull intellectual territorialism. Indeed, having read a 1977 interview with Snyder in the East West Journal, Berry notes that Snyder’s words formed a powerful suggestion that “thought might proceed — instead of by argument, dialectic — by people speaking for, clarifying, confirming one another’s experience.”
Moreover, throughout the correspondence in this collection, from 1973 to 2013, the friends seem to keep each other in a delicious state of flux, their vitality growing by virtue of their willingness to put as much priority on questions as answers.
In an exchange from 1980, about the issue of authority in religion, Berry writes:
[…] I think we have to acknowledge the possibility that practical experience can be condensed to good purpose into moral law: Do not let the topsoil wash away. That does not have to be stated as a moral law. It’s a “universal.” It could also be stated: “God has forbidden us to let the topsoil wash away” or “Grandpop said don’t plow that hillside.” The point is that if such a limit has no lively existence in the community, then the hillside is not safe from authority — charismatic reformer, visionary leader, progressive institute or whatever — that may say to plow it. Or, without that kind of law, how are people going to tell the difference between a person of authentic spiritual authority and some charismatic son of a bitch who wants the hillside to produce a taxable income or a “surplus” to improve the balance of trade?
To which Snyder responds:
I would suggest another way to look at it: […] Every religion that works has I think three simultaneously functioning levels: On one level it functions to give meaning, harmony, […] legitimacy to daily life and justify the stupidity of secular authority, often. On another level, antithetically, it tends to take at least some individuals and totally pluck them out of the comfortable social nexus and make them view the terrifying nakedness. And on a third level, an even smaller number of individuals are enabled to return from that spiritual extreme and social alienation to a higher harmonized sacramentalizing view of a social and human life. In institutions like the Catholic Church, you can see the three levels at work in history, quite independent of each other, and sometimes at odds. Often at odds. I’m not sure if it has to be this way. But when the last level is at work in a society, then you don’t have to pass laws about letting the topsoil wash away; people know how to do it because grandpa said so, because they know it’s right, because it’s in their bones.
Distant Neighbors also makes clear the degree to which both Berry and Snyder have been devoted to bringing the fruits of their inquiries to ground level, planting them in daily life. It can certainly be argued that Gary Snyder has done much to maintain his focus by virtue of a daily meditation practice. Yet he’s also perfectly capable of delving into, say, plant biology, at one point driven to such investigation by a need to solve as kindly as possible an emergent weed problem in his farm pond. Or consulting with Wendell about the uses of a rototiller. Berry, on the other hand, might be found walking his fields, pondering whether it’s acceptable to use chemical fertilizers for a short time in order to ultimately get a patch of his Kentucky farm back to a higher level of natural productivity, or weighing the benefits of connecting a $200 pumpjack to his well to make up for a falling water level in his irrigation pond.
“Our lives have forced us out of the career of poetry,” Berry wrote to his friend in 1977. “After you give up poetry, then poems become ways of speaking to and for other people, not acquisitions […]”
Both men are as likely to gather fodder for their letters from daily life — a flock of ducks or a new tractor — and to revel in both the beauty and the mystery of such things, as to bother trying to squeeze out some new version of an acclaimed intellectual tradition. This propensity, in turn, seems to have left each of them wonderfully generous, open-hearted, adept at “getting out of their own way” for the possibility of divining fresh perspective. As Snyder reminds Berry, using a line from one of his essays in The Practice of the Wild (1990): “wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dip stick — don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits.”
Make no mistake: the melding and morphing of ideas that editor Chad Wriglesworth brings to the pages of Distant Neighbors will, for most readers, be the main appeal of the book. But these small, more literally grounded concerns, the tiny details of a day spent in Henry County, Kentucky, or in the foothills of the Sierras, are shining threads in the cloth of this long, good friendship. It’s news like Berry’s one spring — that he and his wife Tanya have “three rows in the garden and 35 lambs” — or Snyder’s enthusiastic recommendation of his sister’s book on the chicken farms of Petaluma, that keeps the two writers tethered to the warp and woof of their shared sense of place and time. Over and over in these pages the authors rise up to the big, mythical arenas of human existence, then float back down to the simple comforts of the mundane. Such is the feast that feeds them. And as a reader of these letters, it’s hard not to feel terribly fortunate to be seated at the table.