I really wanted to like Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, given that it has been such an important text for ecocriticism, but I just could not like it. Sure, there were parts of it that I enjoyed, but on the whole it left a sour taste in my mouth. I think I was expecting something more than what Snyder gives, so perhaps my negative reaction comes as much from wrong expectations as from the material itself. For those of you who don’t know, Snyder is one of the pre-eminent nature poets in American literature. He came of age with the Beat Poets but took a very different route than they did, engaging with the natural world and dipping heavily into Buddhism and eastern religion. The Practice of the Wild collects a series of essays he had published in various places.
Okay, my first problem with this book was the essays themselves. I found them too diffuse, unfocused, and lacking in rhetorical punch to be effective. This is not to say that Snyder should have written them like a politician’s speech, but rather that the unfocused nature of some of the pieces detracts from their strength. In “Good, Wild, Sacred,” Snyder moves from a meditation on wild land versus good land versus sacred land into reflections on preagricultural peoples, California politics, a trip into the Australian outback, dreams and their significance to Australian Aborigines, shrines in Japan, early North American explorers, the meanings of the word cultivation, what sacred land might mean, and, finally, returning to the Sierra Nevada foothills where Snyder lives. As you can see, he covers a lot of ground here and although this is not necessarily a bad thing the writing does not make sufficient transitions between topics to make it work.
My second problem is more conceptual in nature. Snyder firmly believes that wildness will be the savior of the contemporary moment. He makes a strong case for its importance in human experience in essays like “The Etiquette of Freedom,” but I am not entirely sold on the efficacy of wildness as the key part of environmentalist rhetoric. I could go into a long diatribe of why I believe this, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that wilderness and experiences of wildness are a relatively recent phenomenon historically speaking and seem to speak more to affluent citizens who have the time, money, and will to engage with them (without properly acknowledging this privilege as such).
I really did want to like Snyder’s book. I even read parts of it in the wilderness. I found a number of parts useful, particularly one section where Snyder calls on readers not to abandon where they live for the wilderness but to take lessons from the wild back to their home places: “The best purpose of such studies and hikes is to be able to come back to the lowlands and see all the land about us, agricultural, suburban, urban, as part of the same territory – never totally ruined, never completely unnatural. It can be restored, and humans could live considerable numbers on much of it” (101). Here, Snyder puts forward from very sage advice. Unfortunately, I think this advice tends to be disregarded in favor of Snyder’s preference for the wild.
I would recommend this book to fans of Snyder’s poetry and fans of wilderness. Be forewarned about the loose writing though.
Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint. 1990. Print.