Gary Snyder's life has been a seemingly endless journey through various trails across the world and he has gathered many thoughts. His worldly underpinnings of anthropological, religious, and geologic studies lay the foundation for his writing, but his ability to write practically and passionately ignites the fluidity in his words. His writing provides a striking and brilliant expansion from the mystical saunterings of previous environmentalist writers. In the chapter On the Path, Off the Trail, Snyder discusses his vision of "the ferocious orderliness of the wild" (preface X).
It is clear that our present vision of ferociousness is much different than what the world had originally intended.
Snyder says the truly experienced person “delights in the ordinary” (164). A refined person like this will find a challenge in any given situation, to the same degree as an expert mountaineer. This person does not need to risk their life to feel something great. However, he makes a point to question if there is any true meaning in that.
The real greatness, he suggests, is going completely off the beaten path, to be one who seeks the trail that cannot be followed, "leading everywhere and nowhere” (164). This “trail” he speaks of is based on the individual's mindset. The individual must be "absolutely free from all worldly engagements” (Walking, 4) – that is, far “away from any trace of human or animal regularity aimed at a practical or spiritual purpose” (164). This is a splendid expansion of Thoreau's notion, that any person can find true wild without having to venture too far, it is all dependent on where the individual is at in their own unique and wild world.
His expanded notion creates an endless series of possibilities for someone to be completely in the wild, achieving a balance of ferociousness and orderliness. This introduces the establishment of comfort zones. As a mechanism for safety and survival, we humans have progressed into the 21st century creating structures that keep us enclosed. These figurative "walls” are becoming more and more difficult to break down.
Our easy access to virtually everything has created these barriers, both environmentally and culturally, which have become challenges that we now have to work to against. Governing bodies have shaped the way we define ourselves and this promotes fear and also enables people to limit themselves to living within the structures they have so comfortably created. These structures keep us from seeing the world clearly.
To varying degrees, our comfort zones revolve around broad natural resources that grant us safeties such as food, fuel and shelter. It is important to think about safety nets that we have set up whether intentionally or unintentionally in the back of our minds, because these bring issues that unravel before our eyes. What will happen to us as population increases and the resources of food, water and land diminish? We occupy a world with increasing population and inevitably fewer and fewer resources. We must acknowledge this and learn to live in peace with each other. Snyder sees from a bioregional lens, speaking of areas that are not defined by maps or cities but by watersheds, plant and wildlife species and mountain ranges. Using this to define my place, I would say that I occupy the Missoula valley along the Clark Fork Watershed, which flows into the Columbia River and then on to the Pacific Ocean. I would include the species of Ponderosa Pine and Doug Fir trees and wildlife, instead of saying "I live in Missoula.” He states, "We must consciously fully accept and recognize that this is where we live and grasp the fact that our descendants will be here for millenia to come” (40).
Culturally, Snyder introduces the commons as "the contract a people make with their local natural system" (33). Institutional commons act as walls, literally as governing bodies that rule completely against our basic human nature. In several examples, he shows that when commons disintegrate, so do respect and the protection of ecosystems. Snyder ventures outside the United States and studies other commons in Japan, China and Southeast Asia. He observes with an anthropological perspective, with an all-encompassing holistic vision. He tells about other cultures, about their plant and animal species, and of their evolving economies. His focus does not punish the past but thrives and encourages the future. “Understanding the commons and its role within the larger regional culture is one more step towards integrating ecology with economy” (40). He advises what forms and structures our growing societies could take and how to approach this practically, mixing science, spirituality and global health.
Most of us live our lives comfortably and satisfyingly within comfort zones. Some of us have the opportunity to live bordering these areas. Very few saunter off the path, “not for the sake of newness, but for the sake of coming home to our whole terrain" (164). Comfort zones are limiting by nature. I can relate all to well with the initial discomforts of transition, especially at this point in my life where so many “new trails” are presented. It is harder and harder to relate to somewhere as home and I miss that aspect. After moving to Missoula this past August, when I unpacked my belongings I was exhausted and alone and it was a specific time in recent and less recent memory that I had felt the most scared and unsure of myself and my direction. I was missing familiarity and that was scary. Now, after four months I am feeling so much better here and increasingly sure that it is going to be an amazing few years, which is an enormous relief.
A poster that hung on the office I worked at this summer said “Great things have never come from comfort zones.” It is critical to be reminded of this, and I'm sure that Snyder would agree. Comfort zones are great and essential, but they are also relatively constant. By that I mean they will be there when you get back. We can always return to the comforts that we know we have. We will either be punished or rewarded for taking leaps, but their effects will last as long as we allow them to. This is a long-winded way to say that I have infinite respect for people who take passionate leaps and find trails that they would otherwise not have found. Joining the Wilderness and Civilization program and the Fall Trek were two leaps that I have found to be immensely rewarding for a multitude of reasons, namely the time spent in the wilderness and meeting a fascinating group who share similar interests and who are taking their own respective leaps.
There are so many variables on the impermanent trail of life. “We find some ease and comfort in our house, by the hearth, and on the paths nearby. We find the tedium of chores and the staleness of repetitive trivial affairs… The ephemerality of all our acts puts us into a kind of wilderness-in-time” (165). Time passes so quickly and speaking from experience I am encountering various surreal parts of my life constantly. Feelings and circumstances are increasingly fleeting and it is tremendously difficult to live truly in the moment, a feeling that I am sure I am not alone with. Assuredly there are environmental and cultural challenges that can be eased with humans feeling more content and able to live in the present. By living presently, with ecological awareness and intelligence, we become able to remove ourselves from the safety nets we create.
The real and true practice of the wild is to get off the trail. That is where we do our best work. This retraces back to the quote that echoes in my mind, that no greatness comes from comfort zones or that which is relative and stagnant. However, these zones are not necessarily bad things. It is important that they are there, and they can stay there, that is fine. "But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You first must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild" (165). These safety nets are important to retreat back to when we become scared, as long as we do not stay there for long. These zones, by nature, are just another aspect of the way we call wild. "We live within the nets of inorganic and biological processes that nourish everything… This is of a larger order than the little enclaves of provisional orderliness of that we call ways. It is the Way” (165). By taking these steps that turn into leaps, we reveal our wild, beautiful and complex minds that exist within a much larger system. “Our skills and works are but tiny reflections of the wild world that is innately and loosely orderly" (165). Our actions do matter, because they work within a system that is broad and complex. It is essential to consider this language as we confront all sorts of challenges that await us.