IIn early August 1945, an idealistic young man scaled the 9,677 feet of Mount St. Helens in Washington State for the first time. Upon his descent, he learned that his own country had dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, striking a blow against nature and forever changing the course of human history.
Horrified by newspaper accounts of the death and carnage, the 15-year-old climber swore a vow: "By the purity and beauty and permanence of Mount St. Helens, I will fight against this cruel destructive power and those who would seek to use it, for all my life."
One of America's greatest living poets and "wilderness thinkers," Gary Snyder recalls how that vow set him on the path to becoming both an environmental activist and a Buddhist in his most recent collection, "Danger on Peaks" (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004).
Now 75 and still climbing, Snyder -- who will read from his work at 8 p.m. Thursday in the auditorium of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery -- is the key figure that links the Beat generation of writers (he was immortalized as Japhy Ryder in Kerouac's "Dharma Bums") to today's broadly based green movement in culture and politics.
If one thinks of Allen Ginsberg as the Beat generation's Walt Whitman, then Snyder is widely considered its Henry David Thoreau. It's difficult to imagine how the modern environmental movement might have evolved had Snyder not contributed heavily at the outset to its aesthetic and spiritual world view.
Born in San Francisco but raised in the Depression-era Pacific Northwest, Snyder studied anthropology at Reed College before embarking on a regimen that combined physical labor -- as a logger, trail-crew worker, and seaman on a Pacific tanker and National Forest Service lookout at Sourdough Mountain -- with the study of Asian languages and religions.
While other Beat-era writers were exploding onto the scene in the late 1950s and early '60s, Snyder was living in Kyoto, Japan, and studying Buddhism with a Zen master.
By the time he returned to the West Coast permanently in 1968, the zeitgeist had changed, and Snyder's poetry, with its closely observed images of the natural world, specificity of moment and place, environmental awareness and adaptation of both non-Western verse forms and a non-Western sense of the self, met with almost unprecedented critical and popular success.
His 1974 collection, "Turtle Island" (the title referred to the mythical aboriginal name for this continent), not only won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, but also succeeded in equating environmental activism with showing respect for Native American peoples and cultures in the popular imagination.
In many respects a retrospective on his career, "Danger on Peaks" takes Snyder back to Mount St. Helens' blast zone years after its 1980 explosion to bear witness to a natural environment regenerating itself. "Do not be tricked by human-centered views," he quotes one of Siddhartha's teachers in "Pearly Everlasting."
Subsequent passages revisit old friendships and update familiar themes with humor and grace, often employing the haibun, Snyder's hybrid verse form consisting of narrative prose passages interspersed with haiku.
Breaking new ground are the poems in the book's final section "After Bamiyan" in which Snyder links the Taliban regime's March 2001 pulverization of the ancient Buddhas in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley to its complicity with the destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center just months later.
"Humanity, said Jeffers, is like a quick / explosion on the planet," he writes, "we're loose on earth/ half a million years/ our weird blast spreading-/ and after/ rubble-millennia to weather, / soften, fragment, / sprout and green again."