My grandson, Japhy, recently moved to Washington state to attend school. He is named for Japhy Ryder, a character in Jack Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums,” loosely based on the person of Gary Snyder. Kerouac and Snyder were and are significant influences on what I consider to be the best literary, spiritual and environmental values of my generation. Not everyone in my or any other generation shares those values, but Japhy’s move to Washington brings to mind a fine book explicating how the Cascade Mountains of that state helped form those values in Kerouac and Snyder and their friend the poet, writer and Zen monk Philip Whalen.
“Poets on the Peaks” by John Suiter is a very cool book to read slowly, with appreciation, like watching a mountain at sunup. It is a scholarly work about the connections between people, places, cultures (and culture), politics, religion, scholarship, wilderness, mountains, rivers, poetry, literature, ecology, community, environment and revelation. It is full of information, insight, inspiration, history and wisdom. It is the story of three young men who worked as fire lookouts in the North Cascade Mountains in the early 1950s. Snyder was the leader, the pioneer, the guide, the only one with a mountaineering background and the temperament and training to flourish in a solitary, isolated environment surrounded by wilderness.
It was Snyder who convinced his two literary friends to take jobs as fire lookouts. First Whelan, then Kerouac. All three were serious Zen practitioners, and Snyder quoted the Zen lunatic Han Shan from a thousand years earlier: “Who can leap the world’s ties/And sit with me among the white clouds?” Suiter writes, “Gary could, Whelan could; and so should Jack.”
An experienced and accomplished Northwest mountaineer by the time he was 20, Snyder and his young friends climbed “to develop a fresh mountaineering mind set that was totally opposed to the notion of conquest.” He writes, “I and the circle I climbed with were extremely critical of what we saw as the hostile, jock Occidental mind-set that thought to climb a mountain was to conquer it. … I always thought of mountaineering not as a matter of conquering the mountain, but as a matter of self-knowledge.”
This is not the sort of writing about mountains that tends to make it into Alpinist or The American Alpine Club Journal, but it did help form the core values of a generation of mountaineers, backpackers, writers and readers. That influence continues today. Climbers of all attitudes and intentions will be charmed to find Fred Beckey, of all people, popping up in the text somewhat the way he has popped up in the mountains of the world for the past 70 years. This book has too many layers to explore here, all of them fascinating, well-researched and eloquently described, but the top one is the effect the solitary fire lookout experience had on the thinking and work of these three major American writers. Suiter had access to “scores of previously unpublished letters and journals” as well as recent interviews with Snyder and Whelan and others, giving a fresh perspective and quality and a deeper dimension to a story of great significance to American literature and thought, and to members of America’s “rucksack revolution.”
Anyone who has read “The Dharma Bums” will remember Japhy Ryder and the climb up Matterhorn Peak in the Sierra, one of the most memorable climbs in American literature. The actual climb that Kerouac used as the basis for what he wrote cemented the friendship/brotherhood between him and Snyder. Kerouac’s alcoholic withdrawal from Snyder, Buddhism, the West and the zest for life that had driven his best work and best times is presented here in his own sad, fascinating words.
The Evil Axis of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee and the shame they brought to America makes an appearance, as it must, in this record of the connections between politics and the life of the mind. Snyder was blackballed by McCarthy and the HUAC as not patriotic enough to work any longer as a fire lookout for the U.S. government. Such jingoistic stupidity would be humorous but for the serious impact it had on Snyder’s life. Unfortunately, such shameful stupidity is still alive and well and active in American life, like a brainless cobra living under the front porch.
Snyder made poetry out of such viciousness:
“I never was more broke & down
got fired that day by the usa
(the District Ranger up at Packwood
thought the wobblies had been dead for
but the FBI smelled treason
—my red beard)”
Suiter writes, “In the end, his blacklisting from the Forest Service had not been a huge catastrophe for Snyder. Unquestionably his rights had been egregiously violated—as were those of many thousands others—but in Zen fashion Gary managed to make the latest obstacle part of his journey.”
May Japhy do as well with every obstacle in his journey of life.