Gary Snyder on Mount St Helens, Hiroshima, other blasts


Seattle, WA (USA) -- For more than 50 years, Mount St. Helens has been a symbol of destruction and rebirth for Gary Snyder, whose explorations as a poet, Buddhist and outdoorsman have helped bridge the gap between Out West and Far East.

The blasted post-1980 peak, photographed across Spirit Lake, is on the front cover of Snyder's new book, "Danger on Peaks."

The mountain's symmetrical pre-blast perfection is on the back, along with Snyder's pledge after returning from his first ascent - at 15 in August 1945 - to learn of the U.S. A-bomb attack on Hiroshima.

"I swore a vow to myself," he writes, "something like, 'By the purity and beauty and permanence of Mt. St. Helens, I will fight against this cruel destructive power and those who would seek to use it, for all my life.'"

The slim book's six chapters take the reader from the pristine forests then surrounding St. Helens to Hiroshima, and on - through reflections on nature, time, friends and family - to three more devastating blasts:

  • The mountain's deadly 1980 eruption,
  • The Taliban's 1998 destruction of ancient, towering Buddha figures in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley,
  • The 9-11 terror attacks that downed the twin World Trade Center towers in New York.

So did Mount St. Helens' deadly 1980 eruption - with the destructive power of "five hundred Hiroshima bombs," as Snyder described the blast - undermine the purity and beauty and permanence of the mountain?

"That's really what the book is about - the charming illusions of purity and perhaps the deeper and profounder purity of impermanence and ongoing natural transformations," Snyder said in a telephone interview during a recent series of readings in the Northwest.

"So coming to terms with a different kind of beauty and a different kind of purity in the wake of destruction is part of that," Snyder said.

"But that's hard to talk about, because you don't want to sound and don't want to be callous, or unconscious of the suffering that's also involved. It's a challenge to all of us."

The destruction of the Buddha figures was apparently related to the Islamic ban on depictions of nature or figures as usurping God's work, Snyder said.

"I look at the destruction of the Buddha figures as part of an extremist Muslim reaction to destroy any traces that there had been something else there," Snyder said.

"There was a tremendous amount of Buddhist art in the museums in Afghanistan, which the Taliban also tried to get rid of," said Snyder, whose verse attributes destruction of the figures not only to the Taliban but to "woman-and-nature-denying world views that go back much farther than Abraham."

But religious differences are really not the point, Snyder said.

"The point is to get some understanding of the forces of destruction and the forces of regeneration through my own lifetime."

Regeneration in the blast zone surrounding Mount St. Helens is visible in the green blush on patches of the pumice plain, in mini-forests of waist-high trees, in rising steam as the mountain rebuilds itself. It is audible in the buzz of insects returning to the recovering land, the footfall of elk.

As for the post-9-11 nation, "I hope it doesn't take so long," Snyder said. "It's going to take a couple hundred years there."

In the poem "Loose on Earth," he describes humanity as like an

"explosion on the planet
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"

The evergreen Northwest is familiar ground to the San Francisco-born Snyder, 74, who spent his early childhood in Depression-era Lake City, a north Seattle neighborhood that borders Lake Washington.

That was long ago, before he was made into an icon as Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac's novel "Dharma Bums," won a 1975 Pulitzer Prize for his "Turtle Island" poems and spent years in Japan, studying Zen and Japanese and Chinese poetry.

Snyder, a teacher and environmental activist, lives with his fourth wife and stepchildren in the foothills of California's Sierra Nevada. He drove north for readings in Bellingham, Seattle and Port Angeles and said he was taking time along the way for "many grand old friends, having so many grand conversations."


"Danger on Peaks," by Gary Snyder, Shoemaker Hoard, $22