Gary Snyder Wins 2008 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize

Gary Snyder Photo

(Photo: Giuseppe Moretti from BeatScene Online)

Few people may have seen as much of this beautiful planet and also looked as deeply within for inspiration as poet Gary Snyder. When he won the 2008 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize earlier this summer I was deeply moved. Gary is known here in Japan for having practiced Zen with Isshu Miura at a temple in Kyoto (back when almost noone travelled to this side of The Pacific). He first arrived in 1956, and spent a decade studying, researching and translating Zen texts. He also spent six months travelling throughout Asia, where he had the honour of a meeting with the Dalai Lama, and travelled through India with other poets including Alan Ginsberg.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning Turtle Island (1974) he is a very global treehugger:

The poems speak of place, and the energy pathways that sustain life. Each living being is a swirl in the flow, a formal turbulence, a 'song.' The land, the planet itself, is also a living being - at another pace. Anglos, Black people, Chicanos, and others beached up on these shores all share such views at the deepest levels of their old cultural traditions - African, Asian or European. Hark again to those roots, to see our ancient solidarity, and then to the work of being together on Turtle Island.

In 1969, Snyder returned to the States, where he established a farmstead on the San Juan Ridge in the foothills of the northern Sierra Nevada. From there, Snyder has become a major figure in the deep ecology movement, along with Arne Naess, Bill Devall, George Sessions, Dolores LaChapelle, Alan Drengson, Michael Zimmerman, Robert Aitken.

coyote man image

(Illustration by Robert Williamson, from KJ)

Then again, some of you will perhaps find him too far out on the edge of humour and political sarcasm, as in Coyote Man, Mr. President & the Gunfighters, a story inspired by an ancient Chinese text, in Kyoto Journal:

Mr. President was fascinated by gunfighters. Expert gunfighters were invited to his White House, three thousand of them, like guests in the house. Day and night they practiced fast-draw and shootouts in his presence until the dead and wounded men numbered more than a hundred a year.

The Senator from the Great Basin was troubled by this, and summoning his aides, said, "I’ll give a basket of turquoise and a truckload of compost to any man who can reason with Mr. President and make him give up these gunfights!" "Coyote Man is the one who can do it!" said his aides.

Gary also writes for Sierra, the Sierra Club magazine, as noted here on Treehugger, about five decades of experience with fire control in the Northwest US:

In 1952 and '53, I worked on fire lookouts in the Skagit District of the Mt. Baker Forest, in the northern Washington Cascades. Crater Mountain and then Sourdough. Those were the first jobs I held that I felt had some virtue. Finally, guarding against forest fires, I had found "right occupation." I congratulated myself, as I stood up there above the clouds memorizing various peaks and watersheds, for having a job that didn't contribute to the cold war and the wasteful modern economy. The joke's on me 50 years later, knowing how much of the fire-suppression ideology was wrongheaded and how it has contributed to our current problems.

Congratulations, Gary, we all have a lot to learn from you.

Written by Martin Frid at

Gary Snyder Wins 2008 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize
(Photo: Giuseppe Moretti from BeatScene Online)

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