If you heard skyscrapers called “vertical rivers,” it probably wouldn’t make much sense, at least until poet Gary Snyder explained it to you. “They’re rivers because they’re filled with concrete, and that’s [rock] aggregate, from river beds,” said Snyder, speaking Thursday night at Columbia University. The legendary poet and environmental activist was in town to give a talk with a particular focus on East Asia, and although his river imagery was the highlight for me, he had many interesting things to say about spirituality and nature in that region.
Snyder, who has been called “the laureate of the Deep Ecology Movement,” is also deeply immersed in Zen literature and practice. Beginning in the 1960’s, he spent more than 10 years studying in China and Japan, and has fused east and west in his poetry ever since. Like many western environmentalists and social critics (WGY authors included!), Snyder began with a fairly romantic vision of how people in eastern countries interact with nature. This is on display in much of his early work, but it has evolved over time.
“What philosophies and religions say and teach is not what societies are going to do,” said Snyder, referring to the increasingly large divide between the respect for nature expoused by Japan’s Shinto religion and the breakneck pace of industrialization in that country. “What the Japanese love is their romantic idea of nature, expressed in much of their poetry. But Japan is an ecological disaster!”
This contradiction takes some interesting forms in Japan (like cement plants digging into sacred mountains), and it also raises a vexing question: Do cultural beliefs about the importance of nature stand any chance in the face of global economic competition? Whatever the answer, perhaps we can take comfort in Snyder’s poetic view of the situation. Skyscrapers may be making rivers vertical, but they are vertical “only for now,” said Snyder. Eventually they’ll run again.