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University of Iowa L . E D W I N F O L S O M Gary Snyder's Descent to Turtle Island: Searching for Fossil Love I pose you your question: Shall you uncover honey ¡where maggots are? I hunt among stones —Charles Olson, “The Kingfishers”1 “Hunting among stones” — the poetics of archeology, the search for lost origins — has been a growing obsession in America’s contemporary literature. The concern, more and more, is with descent, not the classical/ theological tradition of descent to a mythical underworld, but a distinctly American tradition of descent to the land: an attempt to get in touch with the continent at some point before the white man began to write his history upon it. This desire marks, in fact, a vital shift in the direc­ tion of the American imagination; before the twentieth century, our liter­ ature and our energies tended to look west and to the future; now they move down and toward the past. Instead of looking west, as Whitman did, to perceive a blank wilderness (“A boundless field to fill!”) onto which America, “the greatest poem,” could be written (“our republic is,” said Whitman, “really enacting today the grandest arts, poems, etc., 1Charles Olson, The Distances (New York: Grove Press, 1960), p. 11. 104 Western American Literature by beating up the wilderness into fertile farms. . . . ” ), twentieth century American poets have been engaging in imaginative descents down through the various layers of what America is and has been, back to the aboriginal land itself.2 Among contemporary poets, no one has led us further back than Gar>r Snyder. His poetic quests thus include the reversal of popular (mis)conceptions of primitive people: “All the evidence we have indi­ cates that imagination, intuition, intellect, wit, decision, speed, skill, was fully developed forty thousand years ago. In fact, it may be that we were a little smarter forty thousand years ago since brain size has somewhat declined on the average from that high point of Cro-Magnon.” “We may be the slight degeneration of what was really a fine form.”3 Humans of the distant past, then — uncontaminated by progressive society, unaddicted to fossil fuel and the industrial/technological complex that was fed by it — are the ones who hold the wisdom, the techniques and attitudes that would allow us to live and to continue to live, over long periods, on the earth. “The last eighty years have been like an explos­ ion,” says Snyder: “We live in a totally anomalous time.” So, to re-attach ourselves to sustaining traditions, to proven ways to exist and co-exist, we must reject present (aberrant) solutions, and instead descend and dig up “The Old Ways” (the phrase serves as the title of Snyder’s most recent book of essays). “The cave tradition of painting, which runs from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago, is,” Snyder reminds us, “the world’s largest single art tradition. . . . In that perspective, civilization is like a tiny thing that occurs very late.”4 This urge to get in touch with the virgin soil again, to intimately “know the ground you’re on,” is not original with Snyder, of course. It is 2Walt Whitman, Prose Works 1892, ed. Floyd Stovall (New York: New York University Press, 1964), II: 404, 434, 369. •’Gary Snyder, The Old Ways (San Francisco: City Lights, 1977), p. 16; Peter Barry Chowka, “The Original Mind of Gary Snyder,” East West Journal, 7 (June, 1977), p. 35. Chowka’s three-part interview with Snyder appears in the June, July, and August, 1977, issues of East West Journal. This interview is the most intensive and informative of the recorded conversations with Snyder, and it appears in a journal that is not found in many academic libraries. East West describes itself as “explor[ing] the dynamic equilibrium that unifies apparently opposite values: Oriental and Occidental, traditional and modem, religious and technological, communal and individual, visionary and practical.” It’s often found for sale in health-food stores. Future references to Chowka’s interview will indicate the month that particular part of the interview appeared in East West. 4Chowka, June, pp. 36, 35. L. Edwin Folsom 105 a desire...


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