Thursday, October 9, 2008

Elk Trails

Among my favorite poets is Gary Snyder, who now lives up in the hills above Sacramento but has  a storied life living on the road or working on fishing boats or with his hands. He was one of the "Beat" poets of the 1950s-1960s; he won a Pulitzer a few years ago. Snyder's poems are intensely spiritual, worth mining and meditating upon, and reflect his Buddhist orientation (and he has translated a number of ancient Chinese texts into English). Years ago I used to meditate in my morning prayers with a portion of his epic poem Mountains and Rivers Without End.

I've met Snyder a couple of times. The most fascinating such encounter was at a writing symposium at the University of California, Davis, where Snyder was a professor for years. The speakers included writer John McPhee, and Eldridge Moores, a geologist (and friend) whose work on plate tectonics was the subject of McPhee's Pulitzer prize winning book. With Gary Snyder rounding out the conversation, you can imagine the word imagery flying in the room that afternoon.  

Here's a Gary Snyder poem worth traveling with awhile:

Elk Trails

Gary Snyder


Ancient, world-old Elk paths

Narrow, dusty Elk paths

Wide-trampled, muddy,

Aimless . . . wandering . . .

Everchanging Elk paths.


I have walked you, ancient trails,

Along the narrow rocky ridges

High above the mountains that

Make up your world:

Looking down on giant trees, silent

In the purple shadows of ravines—

Above the spire-like alpine fir

Above the high, steep-slanting meadows

Where sun-softened snowfields share the earth

With flowers


I have followed narrow twisting ridges,

Sharp-topped and jagged ass a broken crosscut saw

Across the roof of all the Elk-world

On one ancient wandering trail,

Cutting crazily over rocks and dust and snow—

Gently slanting through high meadows,

Rich with scent of Lupine,

Rich with smell of Elk-dung,

Rich with scent of short-lived

Dainty flowers.

And from the ridgetops I have followed you

Down through heather fields, through timber,

Downward winding to the hoof-churned shore of

One tiny blue-green mountain lake

Untouched by lips of men.


Ancient, wandering trails

Cut and edged by centuries of cloven hooves

Passing from one pasture to another—

Route and destination seeming aimless, but

Charted by the sharp-tempered guardian of creatures,

Instinct. A God coarse-haired, steel muscled,

Thin-flanked and musky. Used to sleeping lonely

In the snow, or napping in the mountain grasses

On warm summer afternoons, high in the meadows.

And their God laughs low and often

At the man-made trails,

Precise-cut babies of the mountains

Ignorant of the fine, high-soaring ridges

And the slanting grassy meadows

Hanging over space—

Trails that follow streams and valleys

In well-marked switchbacks through the trees,

Newcomers to the Elk World.


(High above, the Elk walk in the evening

From one pasture to another

Scrambling on the rock and snow

While their ancient, wandering

Aimless trails

And their ancient, coarse-haired,

Thin-flanked God

Laugh in silent wind-like chuckles

At man, and all his trails.)

1 comment:

Maisha said...

Simply amazing!
these poems know our imagination to travel .. away .. the prairie, the flowers and nature .. it's nice to live among the colors of life :)