What a pleasure to have this chance to ponder this marvelous, and marvelously strange, poem cycle — “Mountains and Rivers

Without End”— by our friend Gary Snyder.

I must admit the poem has had me flummoxed and befuddled.  Yet I was immediately taken with the animistic terrain of these pages. This shifting, metamorphic realm where everything is alive — not just mountains and rivers, but everything. Not only bristlecone pines, and mountain sheep, but also office buildings, and objects — even a sag-assed rocking chair in the basement of Goodwill has its own struggling life. Of course, all the cultures that we know of that are thoroughly and deeply animistic in this way, for whom everything is alive and everything speaks, are oral, non-writing cultures. So I want to reflect a bit on the ways that Gary’s work, and this very literate poem in particular, aims us toward a renewal of oral culture.

In his notes on “The Making of Mountains and Rivers,” I read how, when Gary was living in Japan, he was “given a chance to see how walking the landscape can become both ritual and meditation.” This notion of walking the land as ritual made me think of the male tradition, among the aboriginal peoples of central Australia, of the “walkabout.” In the walkabout, a traditional aboriginal man — let’s say a Pintupi man, or a Pitjantjara person, or a Walpiri man — will make a ritual journey along the dreaming track, or songline — the meandering path first traveled by his totemic ancestor in the Dreamtime.

Gary’s long set, or cycle, of journey poems is, for me, primarily a bundle of songlines, of dreaming tracks. The Dreamtime, for the native peoples of Australia, is a kind of time out of time, a time hidden beyond, or rather, within the manifest presence of the land.  It is that time before the world itself was entirely awake — a time that still exists just below the surface of wakeful awareness — that dawn when the totem ancestors first emerged from their slumber beneath the ground, and began to sing their way across the land. The earth, of course, was still in a maleable, half-awake state.  And as the Dreamtime ancestors — Kangaroo Man, or Tortoise Woman, or Honey-Ant Man, or Wallaby Woman — as they first wandered, singing, across the surface of the earth, they were shaping the land as they traveled, forming valleys where they laid down, creating creeks or waterholes wherever they urinated, and forests where they kicked up dust, etc..  So today, when an aboriginal man  goes walkabout, travelling along his ancestral dream tracks, he chants the verses originally sung by his dreaming ancestor, singing the land into view as he walks through it. And, in this manner, he renews not only his own life,  but the very life of the land itself.

Because it is not humans alone who dream, and not just the other animals and the plants, but rather the land itself dreams, continually.  The Dreamtime is not something that happened once and for all in the distant past; rather the Dreaming lies in the same relation to the open presence of the land around us as our own dream life lies in relation to our conscious or waking experience. It is a kind of depth, ambiguous and metamorphic. Indeed, it is a sense of both the past and the future not as dimensions that reside somewhere else, but as realms that are hidden, secretly, within the depths of the present moment. A sense of time as depth. Deep Time.  Deep Time: that is the primary theme of this mysterious poem cycle.

Dreaming, of course, is an event that flows like a kind of subterranean stream throughout these Mountains and Rivers Without End.  This is obvious not only from the explicit dream sequences like the poem called “Journeys” and the amazing “Elwah River” poem, or in the great ghost dance dream of Wovoka, the prophet who figures in several of these poems, or the magic dream in the heights above Death Valley that immediately precedes the startling face-to-face conversation with the Mountain Spirit. It is also evident in the continual dissolving of linear, historical time into a sense of Deep Time , the vast dreaming of the earth.  Into that depth wherein all things, even the mountains, are in continual metamorphosis, all things shape-shifting, transforming into one another.  Everything shape-shifting. As in the “Night Song of the Los Angeles Basin,” when the flowing freeway of cars suddenly becomes a river of fish, and a rain shower becomes the tall flowing dress of the Goddess, who tosses a handful of cornmeal into that river, making the fish roil and swarm. Or, in a very different poem, when a mother macaque monkey, leaping from one tree limb to another, with her baby hanging onto her belly, suddenly becomes the Milky Way filled with stars arching overhead, crossing from realm to realm. These are not metaphors. They are metamorphoses.  Real transformations.  The Milky Way arching overhead is not a metaphor for the leaping monkey. Rather, the monkey becomes the Milky Way, full of stars, with all of us swinging beneath it. Which then transforms back into the macaque monkey, once again.

Dreaming. Deep time. Metamorphosis. Shape-shifting. Even in that lovely kayaking poem called “Floating,” where various kinds of people: judges and carpenters and speech makers, suddenly take off their human masks and turn back into water birds.  Let me read just a bit of this poem:

Floating in a tiny boat

lightly on the water, rock with every ripple,

Umm — I’ll interrupt for a moment to say that Gary and his partner are floating, I take it, in a double sea kayak, and this is a realm and a set of images and smells and sounds that are very familiar to me since I’ve done a lot of kayaking in Alaska, and one experience that is very vivid when you are floating there, is that sometimes it can be utterly still, and then, out of the distance comes a flapping (at first a very gentle rhythm, it gradually gets louder and louder): — “phhh phhh phhh phhh phhh phhh phhah phhah phhah phhah phhah phhh phhh phhh phh phh phh” — and it recedes into the distance, and then other, whirring wings: —  “hrrhh hrrhh hrrrh hrrhh hrrhh hrrhh hrrhh hrrhh hrrhh” — or the sound of webbed feet running upon the surface — “pteh pteh pteh  pteh pteh ptah ptah ptaah ptaah ptaah pteh pteh pteh”— these water birds, skimpering and flying by, just above the surface of the water, emerging out of the depths of the great mysterious, crystalizing into solid shapes as they get close to you and then dissolving back into the depths beyond:

twin kayak paddles turn and glint like wings

casting spume,

there is no place we are

but maybe here.


wind ripples westward, the tide goes east,

We paddle eastsoutheast

the world a rush of wings and waters,

up the slopes, the mountain glacier

looses icemelt over gravel in a soft far roar

that joins the inlet-basin world of cries and whistles


the glaciers shift and murmur like the tides

under the constant cross-current

steady drum of bird-wings

Full of purpose, some direction,

all for what

in the stroke

in the swirl of the float

we are two souls in one body,

two sets of wings, our paddles swing

where land meets water meets the sky,


where judges and speechmakers, actresses and carpenters,

drop their masks and go on as they were,


petrels, geese, oystercatchers, murrelets,

and small fish fry . . .

See, that’s stuff right out of the Dreamtime, or what the Koyukon call the Distant Time. That depth, or distance, wherein the humans take off their masks and reveal themselves as the animals that they really are. Or where the other animals take off their masks and reveal themselves as human-like folk: Kangaroo Man, or Emu Woman, or Lizard Woman. So let me now bring this back to the native Australian tradition of the walkabout. Because its not just these metamorphoses that lead me to look at Gary’s poem through the lens of this particular Aboriginal tradition,  and not just the centrality of dreaming  (“sheep dreaming” and all the rest), it is also, and even more importantly, the relentlessly place-specific character of almost everything that happens in this long poem.

Every event, every vision, every encounter in this poem, is located in a carefully identified place. I mean, for a set of poems essentially about movement, about travelling, about journeying, this work is almost weirdly obsessive about telling us exactly where in the land every event or insight occurs. Think of “Night Highway 99.”  Here we are in Ferndale, Washington, drinking coffee, and we’re off.  Now we’re in Mount Vernon, 50 Indians asleep in the bus station.  Whoop!  Now in Everett—this is what happened here:  Wobblies run out of town.  Hmmm…  Seattle:  now dried shrimp, smoked salmon.  Tacoma now, night rain, wet concrete, headlights blind.  Then in Portland, buttermilk.  And on and on, through Salem, Eugene, Dillard.  All the way down to San Francisco.  Each place with its own stories.  Each story with its own place.

Then the next poem:  “Things to Do Around Seattle”;  “Things to do Around a Lookout”;  “Things to do Around San Francisco”;  Things to do around Kyoto.” Places, again.  Or, in the poem, “The Market.”  Here we are in a San Francisco market:

Part of the city

               down town

the country side

John Muir  up before dawn

packing pears in the best boxes. . .

Then, here’s the market in Saigon—what’s happenin’ here?  Here’s the market in Kathmandhu.  Here’s what we notice at the market in Varanasi.

The beautiful poem called “The Flowing” begins:

headwaters, Kamo

River back of Kyoto. . .

Then we are at the Columbia River. Then a river in the Sierra Nevada.

“The Hump-backed Flute Player” starts out sitting

on the boulders around the Great Basin

his hump      is a pack. . .

Meanwhile Hsüang Tsang, with his pack, is returning to China from India, crossing “the Pamir  the Tarim  Turfan/ the Punjab.” Then we’re back with Kokop’eli, crossing the “Sweetwater, Quileute, Hoh/ Amur, Tanana, Mackenzie, Old Man,/ Big Horn, Platte, the San Juan.”  Then we’re in Canyon de Chelly. Then back in India, “In the plains of Bihar, near Rajgir, are the ruins of Nalanda.”

I mean, he’s relentless! All these place names, these specified locations. And then Kokop’ele is back in the mountains at the edge of the Great Basin.  And so it goes, through the whole sequence, which ends, of course, back at the Great Basin edge. Even the painting of Streams and Mountains Without End, which frames the whole cycle of poems, is precisely located. Where? “At the Cleveland Art Museum, which sits on a rise which looks out toward the waters of Lake Erie.”

Now, this may all seem very innocuous to you. “I mean — so there’s a lot of places named or indicated — so what?  It’s only to be expected. The poem is by Gary Snyder, for heaven’s sake! The guy’s big on the notion of place —we’ve always known that.  Big deal!”

But I think there’s something much more interesting going on here.  For this insistent locating of storied events and experiences in particular places is common to virtually all indigenous, oral (or non-writing) cultures.  Indeed, it is central to the discourse of so many oral peoples.  For instance, the Navajo people — or the Diné, as they call themselves.  Even when they are talking about the most minute occurences, the Diné always say where those events happened.  If they don’t say where something happened, then the event loses its significance. Why might this be? Why this insistence on locating every event or encounter in a particular place, at a specific site or locale?

Well, here is the key question:  how, in a culture without a formal writing system — a culture without books — how is all of the ancestrally gathered knowledge to be preserved?  All of the knowledge about how to survive in the land without destroying each other, and how to find the particular plants that are good to eat, and the knowledge of which plants which are good for which kinds of medicines, and how to prepare them, and which parts are toxic, and how to hunt particular animals and the best ways to prepare them for skins and clothing and shelter.

All of this savvy, how is it preserved? How is all the ancestrally accumulated knowledge preserved and handed down?  For us, it is easy.  We simply go to the library or to the bookstore, find the right book, and look up the information that we need.  But in a culture without writing, how is all this preserved?

All of us who have pondered this question a bit have realized, quickly, that the knowledge must be held in stories.  All of this information is stored, as it were, in stories.  Perhaps we call them “stories” because all this stuff is stored in them!  The stories are like the living encyclopedias of an oral culture.  But the question remains: how is it, then, that the stories are preserved?  How is it that the stories are remembered?  And it is not simply that they are repeated, again and again, because the stories can only be told at certain seasons, and indeed some story cycles repeat themselves only once every several years, sometimes once every ten years.  In Indonesia I was present at a cycle of stories that is recounted once every one hundred years! How are such stories preserved in a culture without writing?

Well, one important key is that the stories are often associated with particular local animals, like Jackrabbit, or Bear, or Mountain Sheep, who figure as central characters in the story.  Then, whenever you encounter that animal, you remember the teaching stories linked to that critter.  But, even more crucial is that the stories are commonly associated with particular places.  And when you see the place where these events happened, or where this part of the story is supposed to have happened, it triggers the memory of the events that ostensibly happened there.

As you walk through the land, then, the places you see and the sites you encounter are continually sparking the memory of the particular stories associated with those places and sites.  The land, in other words, is the primary mnemonic, or memory trigger, for remembering the oral stories.  So while ancestral knowledge is held, as it were, in the stories, the stories are held in the land. The land is alive with stories!

We might think, here, of the Western Apache teaching stories recorded by Keith Basso — the Agodzaahi tales, each of which is told only after naming the place where it happened: you announce the place-name, then tell the story, and then you tell the place where it happened once again.  “It happened at ‘White Rock’s Tumble Down in a Big Heap’. . .” Or, “it happened at ‘Big Cottonwood Trees Stand Spreading Here and There’. . .” And so on.  An Apache who goes off to live in the city, returns to the reservation after a year-and-a-half, saying, “I forgot how to live right in the city.  I couldn’t remember the teaching stories.  Because I no longer encountered the places where those stories happened.  I no longer saw them.  So, I had to move back.”

But here is a better example.  Gary Snyder tells this interesting story in The Practice of the Wild, about the time when he was visiting Australia, with Nanao, I think, in 1981.  And he was travelling in a pickup truck, in the central desert, with an Aboriginal elder, a Pintubi man named Jimmy Tjungurrayi.  And as they were driving through the outback, this Aboriginal man starts talking to Gary very quickly, telling him some stories from the Dreamtime, about some Wallaby People who met up with a couple of Lizard Girls at that spot over there, and some real mischief happened, so the Lizard Girls went up on top of that hill over there, but then they got into some real trouble because they bumped into Kangaroo Woman, and oh, that was a problem, so those girls had to go off over there and straightaway he is telling another story, and then another one, very, very quickly, and Gary can’t keep up.  He wants him to slow down, slow down!  Until finally Gary realizes, with a start, that the stories are meant to be told while walking.  But they are riding through the outback in a pickup truck!  So they are passing, very rapidly, each of the places where these stories occurred.

This anecdote makes vividly evident the deep intimacy between language and the land in an indigenous, oral culture — an intimacy is so intense that you must pace the speed of your speaking to the speed at which you are moving through the terrain!  We might say that the land, for indigenous, oral cultures, is the very matrix of linguistic meaning.  So, to force a traditionally oral people off of their ancestral lands — perhaps because you want to drill for oil on those lands, or you want to flood those lands with a new hydroelectric dam project, or to clearcut their pristine forests, as in Indonesia and Malaysia, or for whatever other purpose — to shove an oral people out of their ancestral homeland is, effectively, to shove them out of their mind.  Because the land is what they think with.

Now, you can see what happens when writing begins to come into such a culture, and the stories begin to be written down.  Writing is usually brought in by Christian missionaries carrying the Good Book. But as the stories begin to be written down, they are teased off of the sites that traditionally carried those stories, pried off of the clustered rocks and streambeds and creeks, and replanted on the page.  So the stories can now be carried elsewhere. They are not held to that earthly locale. They can be read in distant cities, and even on distant continents.  And the original placed-based specificity in the stories, all the practical knowledge and savvy regarding those actual places is readily forgotten, and is often written out of the stories entirely.  So now the folks in the city read these stories about the “wee people who live in the fields,” for instance, these little persons who live down there among the grasses, and they think, “Gosh, what wild imaginations those unlettered peasants have!”  But, if you lived back on that land a couple hundred years ago, and your grandmother was tugging you out in those fields, saying: “Now look at that wee little one there.  You have to look at her real careful, just under the mushroom there, do you see? Ah there, with those two antennae, there she comes, real slowly peering out at us.  She’s a wise one, y’ know!”  And you suddenly realize that that is Slug-woman sliding out from under that mushroom, and that she has all sorts of insights and gifts to give you.  And so you realize that the knowledge carried in these stories is richly place-based, savvy and specific.

But once the stories are written down, the page begins to become the primary mnemonic, or memory trigger, for the originally oral tale. The inked traces made by the pen as it traverses the page begin to replace the tracks made by the animals, and one’s animal ancestors, as they moved across the land. So the land itself is no longer necessary for remembering the stories; it is no longer necessary for remembrance.  We no longer need the land to think with. Now the books carry the stories, and the land can begin to seem rather superfluous, unnecessary. Gradually the living land begins to recede into the background, flattening into a kind of backdrop for our more pressing human concerns.

For all of the literate artistry in Gary’s poems, for all of the rich scholarship and the density of literary allusions in Mountains and Rivers, one of the things this poem cycle is doing is renewing oral culture.  Reawakening that ancient, oral intimacy between language and the land.  Remembering language to its oral ancestry.  Think of all the moments when the language of the poem suddenly breaks into a chant. Or into a rhyming song, like this one:

            —nutrient minerals called together

like a magic song

to lead a cedar log along, that hopes

            to get to sea at last and be

                        a great canoe.

Or where it breaks into an incantatory prayer, or spell:

Old Ghost ranges, sunken rivers, come again.

Chants, spells, songs, all drawing us back into that ancient oral modality of place-based participation, renewing oral culture.  Not to the exclusion of literacy, but alongside our literate culture.  Or not really alongside, but rather, underneath the culture of literacy, grounding the culture of the book — and now, also, the culture of the computer and the Internet — in a thriving, oral culture.

This, I think, is what Gary Snyder is secretly up to in this poem, this bundle of journey poems: offering us a set of songlines, a bundle of dreaming tracks, of songs and visions precisely located out there.  Precisely located.  And that is why the events and visions and encounters in these poems are so carefully planted in the places where they happened.  Mr. Snyder is showing us where we may find these stories for ourselves, not on the page, but out there in the breathing earth.  On that sidewalk in Manhattan, or San Francisco, or in that stand of bristlecone pines, at the edge of Great Basin.  He’s showing us how we may begin to find again the songs and stories hidden in the land, including those stories that we don’t write down.  Because they only live out there.

When we read these beautiful and quirky pages, we should not fail to notice what they quietly, inadvertantly tell us about not writing, about what we don’t write down, about what exceeds and cannot be held on the written page.  Like in the very opening poem, when at one point

The watching boat has floated off the page.

Or, in “Walking the New York City Bedrock”:

—Peregrine sails past the window

Off the edge of the word-chain. . .

Or at the end of “The Flowing,” the poet standing in the river mouth, the river making love to the poet:


            you thick

            vomiting outward sighing prairie

                        muddy waters

                        gathering all and

                        issue it

                        end over end

                                    away from the land.

The faintest grade.

Implacable, heavy, gentle,

— O pressing song

            liquid butts and nibbles

            between the fingers — in the thigh

            against the eye

curl round my testicles

drawn crinkled skin

            and lazy swimming cock.

Once sky-clear and tickling through pineseeds

            humus, moss fern stone

            but NOW

the vast loosing

            of all that was found, sucked, held,

            born, drowned,

sunk sleepily in

to the sea.

            The root of me

            hardens and lifts to you,

            thick flowing river,

            my skin shivers. I quit

            making this poem.

The fluvial erotics of this poem carry a quiet teaching for us, about what we don’t write down: “my skin shivers. I quit / making this poem.”

Or also and especially in the last words of the final poem in the book – words which seem at first to offer a new and fitting metaphor for an author’s mortality and the inevitable closure of a life lived in the thick of things, but which can also, less ponderously, be taken as a little teaching about restraint, about setting aside the pen and the written word on behalf of other non-verbal conversations always already going on:

The space goes on

But the wet black brush

tip drawn to a point

                               lifts away.

* * *

Why is it so important, finally, to renew oral culture?  Because there is simply no way of alleviating the ecological crisis, I suspect, without rejuvenating oral culture, fast.

Oral culture is local culture.  The title of this confluence, “Ethics and Aesthetics at the turn of the Fiftieth Millennium” is instructive.  “Aesthetics”   comes from Greek aesthesis, which really means the work of the senses:  touching, hearing, seeing, smelling, and tasting. Feeling the world with our senses. Well, the sensuous world is the world of oral culture.  Because the sensuous world is always local.  It is not what is happening on the other side of the planet, but right here.  And it is never strictly human, since it is made up of the ground on which we walk, and the gravity which holds us to that ground, and the air that we breathe — this air that is breathed out by all the green and rooted folks around. The sensuous world is the face-to-face world that we inhabit with our sensing, animal bodies — the world in which we are corporeally immersed. And in which we bodily participate, simply by the very fact of being here.

Now, it seems to me that “ethics” is not primarily a set of mental injunctions, but is something that we only really learn, first, with our breathing bodies, as our bodies come up against other bodies, against other beings:  turtles, and lichen-encrusted rocks, and spiders delicately weaving their webs across our path, and robins wrenching worms out of the ground, and people, lots of people, and cottonwood trees, and rivers swelling and drying up with the seasons.  Ethics is what we begin to practice as we encounter these others in the flesh, face to face, and learn to orient and to dwell in the same world that they inhabit, learning to move with restraint, and playfulness, and an appropriate boldness. It is only there, in the thick of the palpable, sensuous world, that we really learn how to be with others, and how to move with others.

Ethics, from this angle, is a felt sense within our muscles.  We don’t learn ethics, really, from books, and we certainly don’t learn ethics from the screen of the computer.  It is a bodily thing.  And it is learned in carnal reciprocity and relationship with other bodily beings in a particular place, a particular terrain or watershed.  We cultivate ethics only by remembering the sensuous, local, more-than-human world, and by taking this world as primary, as the secret source and heart of all those other, more abstract worlds in which we now find ourselves — whether the global marketplace, or the subatomic world of quantum physics, or the transcendent spiritual domains to which our New Age friends lure us, or the multiple virtual realities that now beckon to us through the dazzle of the digital screen — it’s only by taking the sensuous world of our direct unmediated interactions with other bodies and beings as the touchstone and guide for all these other worlds.

Taking our primary guidance from squirrel and blackbird and rainstorm.  Only then do we have a chance of growing the ethical savvy needed to orient and to navigate in the multiple technological realms that now open before us at the turn of the fiftieth millennium. This, then, is one of the key things I have learned from Gary Snyder, and from this wild sequence of meandering songlines: Rejuvenate oral culture, fast.


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