On Monday evening, SFIFF53 is presenting a short documentary about the life and work of Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, and I recommend it; the film is interesting, plus this event will be a rare chance to see Snyder in person, as he doesn’t do much in the way of public appearances any longer. After the jump, read a few more words about the film with some choice quotes from an interview I did with Snyder and with Jim Harrison, who is also a substantial part of the film.
The Practice of the Wild traces Gary Snyder’s long and multifaceted career, from his poetry to his years studying as a Zen monk, to the work he has done advocating for the environmeent and for preserving, as far as is possible, what is left of the natural wildness of the Western landscape. All this is explored by way of his long friendship with the catankerous but sensitive Jim Harrison, himself a poet, though best known as a novelist and screenwriter. They first became friends back in the mid-1960s — in a phone interview on April 6th, Snyder said “I used to say we’ve known each other for thirty years, but I suppose now it’s more like forty-five” — and their affinities are clear: apart from the fact that both men are poets, they are both deeply in tune with the natural world and with the rhythms of the landscapes they have chosen to make their homes. For Harrison, those landscapes are several: Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula, the Great Plains, and these days where he lives, in southern Montana in the summer and southern Arizona in the winter. Wide-open spaces are a requirement of his personality. He suffers from claustrophobia easily, and you also get the impression he would suffer from having neighbors in too-close proximity.
Snyder’s landscape, on the other hand, is the dramatic, rugged coastal West, from the shores of the West Coast to the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, where he has lived since 1970 in a building he constructed himself. Since the film is more about Snyder than it is about Harrison, it’s appropriate that the background is San Simeon Park and Hearst Castle, which preserves a slice of California wilderness, which is beautifully shot in the film. Snyder and Harrison walk the grounds, talking and reminiscing and thinking out loud about subjects like reincarnation, and why Snyder became interested in Buddhism (“for all the wrong reasons” is what he says in the film) and the origins of his first, and still most popular, book of poetry, Riprap.
And there is much, much more; watching it is a lot like eavesdropping on a private conversation between the two men, but only the really interesting parts; when a particular subject gets exhausted, the filmmakers cut in a bit of an interview with a friend or an expert here, a bit of archival footage there, all of which adds up to a clear portrait of Snyder and the extent of his involvements and achievements over the years. It’s not meant to be comprehensive, just an informal portrait of a man’s career and his continuing influence.