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LIVING LANDSCAPE: A n In t e r v ie w w it h G a r y S n y d e r JOHN P. O’GRADY In October 1997, I interviewed the poet Gary Snyder. The sub­ ject of our discussion was the influence the American West and its literature has had on him and on his work. Over the course of his long career, he has published more than two dozen books and has been awarded both the Pulitzer (1975) and the Bollingen (1997) Prizes, but his importance extends well beyond literature. “I wish to be a spokesman,” he has said, “for a realm that is not usually repre­ sented either in intellectual chambers or in the chambers of govern­ ment” (Turtle Island 106). Snyder is one of our culture’s venerable teachers. Since 1986, he has been a professor at the University of California, Davis, where, in addition to conducting classes in writing and literature, he founded that institution’s acclaimed Nature and Culture Program. I first met Snyder at Davis in April 1986, during my first year of doctoral studies and his first year on the faculty. To introduce himself to the university community, he gave a reading and talked about the mountains of the West. In particular he spoke of the Cascades, that snowy string of volcanic peaks that extends like a necklace along the Pacific Slope, from northern California to British Columbia. “Those unearthly glowing floating snowy summits are a promise to the spir­ it,” he later wrote in The Practice of the Wild (117). Even when shroud­ ed in clouds, the “Guardian Peaks” of the Columbia— now bearing the names Hood, Adams, and St. Helens, but formerly known as Wy’east, Klickitat, and Loowit— were always visible in his imagina­ tion. He came to know his home place intimately by climbing its mountains. He stood on the summit of his first major peak when he was fifteen years old, and from there he could see the next mountain. He resolved to climb it. From the top of that peak, he could see the next. And on it went, one climb leading to another, a life measured in mountains rather than years. In the library of the Mazamas, a mountaineering organization in Portland, you can browse through the old summit registers, those ledger books that used to sit in heavy aluminum boxes at the top of each peak. Successful climbers would sign in on these pages. It was a 276 WAL 33(3) Fa l l 1998 record of achievement, as good as pinning your name to a cloud. In the register from Mount St. Helens on August 13, 1945, you will find the bold signature of a fifteen-year-old boy named Gary Snyder, who would one day write a line that, if now applied to this particular vol­ canic landscape, would seem an understatement: “Streams and moun­ tains never stay the same” (Mountains 143). JO ’G: What do you remember about your first climb of Mount St. Helens? GS: I was first doing backpacking and then snow peak moun­ taineering. I really got my initiation into snow peak mountaineering in the summer of 1945, when I was fifteen, climbing from the YM CA camp at Spirit Lake. That was an old-style climbing party in which the guide was from Yamhill County, Oregon, an old gent who had climbed western snow peaks many, many times. He was the last per­ son I ever saw who wore the garb of the earlier generation of Pacific Northwest climbers, namely, stagged-off logger’s pants, caulked, twelve-inch logger’s boots, and a black felt hat. Instead of an ice axe, he carried a long alpenstock, and he covered his face with white zinc ointment to prevent sunburn. You look at early photographs in a Mazama yearbook and that’s the way everybody’s dressed. It was great! (Laughs.) I loved snow peak climbing from my first ascent there on Mount St. Helens. The next year, ’46, I signed up for a Mazama climb. I knew that the Mazamas led mountaineering trips every year. I did my first ascent of Mount Hood with the...


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