- Hardcover: 160 pages
- Publisher: Counterpoint; First Trade Paper Edition edition (January 2, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1593761376
- ISBN-13: 978-1593761370
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,456,568 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Back on the Fire: Essays Hardcover – January 2, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Poet and essayist Snyder, a Pulitzer and National Book Award winner, has been a committed environmentalist and student of East Asian thought for decades. For almost as long, he has lived in the Sierra Nevada, where he saw the changes in attitudes toward preserving forests. Any reader unfamiliar with these details of Snyder's life and outlook will be well acquainted with them by the end of this new collection of essays since he returns to them with numbing repetition, down to the very phrases used. While Snyder's goal is admirable—to alert readers to the need for a more balanced attitude toward land and forest preservation—he would have been more effective had he reworked his thoughts into a single essay. There are some lovely nuggets, such as a section about the Maidu Coyote myth and an elegiac piece about Allen Ginsberg's death. But most of this slim volume is dedicated to evaluating prescribed burns as a way of saving California's ecological environment. It's hard to argue with his conclusions—that we must learn to respect nature and live within it rather than just exploit it—but Snyder's writing betrays a level of self-satisfaction with his own enlightened viewpoint that may put readers off from thinking seriously about the subject. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Poet, Buddhist, man of the land, and scholar, Snyder uses breath as his lines' measure in poetry and prose as he celebrates nature's beauty and considers humankind's impact on the good earth. Following his most recent poetry collection, Danger on Peaks (2004), Snyder now presents remarkably personal and powerful essays. Noting that "the whole world is in the trust of humans now," Snyder looks to fire as an element that can teach us about destruction and regeneration. As he writes of his beloved Sierra Nevada home ground as "a fire-adapted ecosystem," Snyder asserts the importance of being "nature literate," and of recognizing that all living entities have a right to life. We are the "problem species," Snyder avers, yet we are capable of astonishing acts of creation. Writing in praise of cave art and haiku, he defines the role artists play in the "active defense of nature." Remembering lost loved ones--his wife and poets Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whelan--Snyder, sage and incisive, gazes into the flames and ponders "the challenge of living wisely for the long run." Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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His latest book, "Back on the Fire" ($24 in hardcover from Shoemaker and Hoard), features recent essays, most previously published, that intermingle autobiography, reflections on the place of the writer in the modern world and a concern that those who have benefited from the natural world (all of us) become more thankful and "give something back."
Snyder sees the world through Daoist-Confucian-Mahayana Buddhist eyes and has little patience for those who romanticize nature with their "quasi-religious pantheistic landscape enthusiasms." In Snyder's "literature of the environment," "we will necessarily be exploring the dark side of nature -- nocturnal, parasitic energies of decomposition and their human parallels." He adds, in another essay: "Nature is not fuzzy and warm. Nature is vulnerable, but it is also tough, and it will inevitably be last up at bat."
Many of the essays deal with the forest, and fire, as a kind of symbol of changing public policy toward the wilderness. "Our wild forests have long had an elegant and self-sustaining nutrient and energy cycle, and staying within that should be a key measure of true sustainability." Periodic low-level fires are necessary for keeping the forest healthy; logging practices that remove the surviving trees after a major fire make it more difficult for the forest to sustain itself. Just as governments have to think in terms of thousands of years in dealing with nuclear waste, Snyder writes, we ought to be thinking of a "thousand year forest plan" as well. Ecology is about process, "a creation happening constantly in each moment. A close term in East Asian philosophy is the word Dao, the Way, dô in Japanese." As he writes in a poem, "--Nature not a book, but a performance, a / high old culture."
The art Snyder advocates "takes nothing from the world; it is a gift and an exchange. It leave the world nourished." "We study the great writings of the Asian past," he writes, "so that we might surpass them today. We hope to create a deeply grounded contemporary literature of nature that celebrates the wonder of our natural world, that draws on and makes beauty of the incredibly rich knowledge gained from science, and that confronts the terrible damage being done today in the name of progress and the world economy."
One November day, Snyder has cleared brush from around his house and sets fire to the pile. "Clouds darkening up from the West, a breeze, a Pacific storm headed this way. Let the flames finish their work -- a few more limb-ends and stubs around the edge to clean up, a few more dumb thoughts and failed ideas to discard -- I think -- this has gone on for many lives!
"How many times / have I thrown you / back on the fire."
Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.
Though there may appear to be no unifying theme, and though the specific subject of the role of fire in healthy forests recurs, this volume is a whole defined by itself, and by the quality of Snyder's observation, thought and expression. For me, the connection between his immersion in East Asian writing, in Buddhism, in the realities of living and working in the natural world, in American literature (Native and non-Native), and his own writing and approach to the world, has never been clearer. That impression is nourished by reading together such essays as "Ecology, Literature and the New World Disorder," "Thinking Toward the Thousand Year Forest Plan," "The Mountain Spirit's True (No) Nature," "Writers and the War Against Nature," "Coyote Makes Things Hard."
Some pieces are short and specific, and thanks to Snyder's writing, evocative, including a short piece on the death of one of the best known of his fellow poets who began in the "Beat" era, Allen Ginsberg, and a fond and informative remembrances of one of the least known, Philip Zenshin Whalen. But even these are important because of Snyder's knowledge of them and perspective over time. Others about particular people and places (especially about Snyder's own family, as in "Helen Callicotte's Stone in Kansas") are also fun to read, but always connect to larger mysteries.
In these essays Snyder writes with warmth as well as pith, and with occasional bursts of exuberant humor. He writes with specific humility, yet is not afraid to state the largest possible conclusions: "These environmental histories are cautionary. They tell us that our land planning must extend ahead more than a few decades. Even a few centuries may be insufficient."
For me, there is another key to these essays in this observation: "Song, story and dance are fundamental to all later `civilized' culture," Snyder writes. "Performance is of key importance because this phenomenal world and all life is, of itself, not a book but a performance."
So these essays can be read as performances, expressing knowledge and experience from a specific, highly varied yet integrated life. This is a book of an Elder, in the old sense. I read it with admiration and gratitude.