The Etiquette of Freedom edited by Paul Ebenkamp
What is the wild? What is wilderness? What defines human civilization at its best? In this DVD documentary, poet and essayist Gary Snyder and his old friend of almost fifty years, novelist, poet, and food raconteur Jim Harrison, walk the coastal prairie and native grasslands of California's historic preserve and working Hearst Ranch, talking about their lives, their work, and their friendship. The film, directed by John J. Healey and produced by Will Hearst and Jim Harrison, focuses primarily on Snyder's lifework, but with Harrison's craggy wit and Buddhist kindness to sweeten the mix. It's clear these two nature boys have been friends for a long time—sometimes they finish each other's thoughts or sentences. Joined at table by the filmmakers, Scott Slovic, a professor of literature and the environment, and others; and on film by Snyder's ex-wife Beat poet Joanne Kyger, Beat poet and inner and outer cosmos Michael McClure, and Counterpoint publisher and long-time Snyder-friend Jack Shoemaker, the conversation covers everything from Buddhist stories, being hung upside-down from a cliff in Buddhist initiation, the making of poetry, biographical details, ecology, the Beats, food, and of course, how humans should live on Turtle Island (Snyder's name for our earth taken from Native American folklore).
Snyder's poetry, essays, and life grew out of Native American and Zen beliefs that soul permeates everything, and that our Oneness with Nature goes beyond the recognition of humans as animals, the importance of ecological stability in preserving human life, or Nature as something to be preserved, although outside us. I had forgotten how important Snyder was to my own early recognition of these truths, a recognition I learned as a three-year-old with my face in the grass, but confirmed by my own readings in Zen, Vedanta, and poets such as Snyder as an undergraduate student. My first edition of Rip Rap has always sat on my shelf of special books. It's not hyperbole to assert that Snyder's work from the 1950s on helped define the environmental movement, and a more active and lived understanding of Buddhist practice in America.
Although Harrison has always written poetry, and considers himself a poet first, I wasn't aware of his poetry until his 1986 book The Theory and Practice of Rivers. However, his poetry from that time on, full of Zen insights and love of the natural world, possesses an even stronger Asian flavor than does Snyder's. Anyone who knows Harrison's fiction or followed his essays in Esquire on wilderness living and cooking in the wild would understand his deep relation to the wilderness, to wild things, and to his own inner wildness. Snyder and Harrison came from similar backgrounds, and that, along with common literary concerns brought them together as friends. I'm not sure if there's anyone in the literary community more like the Zen poet sages of old. Both live their lives as close to nature as possible, where their own inner wildness can live softly on the earth, and they can more easily recognize, fulfill, and reveal their common soul with/in the natural world.
The accompanying book includes in addition to the DVD, a complete transcript of the documentary, photographs, a small selection of Snyder poems, outtakes from the interviewees, and other focused conversations between Hearst, Harrison, and Snyder. The world is in a mess, we all know, and the likelihood of ecological disaster (for human society) is imminent. I wonder how much worse it would be if it weren't for the influence of Snyder and Harrison. Their example gives hope, for I know their work has changed many readers and human institutions. The Etiquette of Freedom in many ways is an effortless film, stepping lightly across Snyder and Harrison's lives and works, while covering complex and crucial issues.
The wild requires we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges and tell a good story when we get back home. (Gary Snyder)
Jim Harrison: A tree; I like the idea of being a tree . . . I like the idea of being a tree, a tree that bends and dances in the wind and stuff like that, and has nests, bird nests in it. I just think I would love to be a tree for one hundred thousand years.
Will Hearst: Trees don't live that long, Jim.
Jim Harrison: No, but a tree through generations.
Gary Snyder: Oh, but a tree family does.
Jim Harrison: A tree family.
That's it. One tree, all trees. Snyder, Harrison. Poetry, landscape. Food, spirit. If you need ecological literary spiritual guides, start here. Stay together / learn the flowers / go light ("For the Children", Snyder).