A Problem of Nature in The Call of the Wild by Gary SnyderThe poem Call of the Wild by Gary Snyder represents an ecological view on relationship between nature and Western civilization, as well as on peace and war. The image of the West in this poem is characterized by repression, ignorance, and violence. It ruins both wild nature with its forests and animals, and civilized human ‘nature’. Thus, the term nature itself appears to be problematic.
I argue that Snyder is not a simple ‘back-to-nature’ poet who summons people to leave the cities and dissolve themselves in the dark woods. The Call of the Wild represents a number of ecological miscronarratives rather than one single ideologically charged macronarrative of Rousseauist type. First, let us briefly overview Snyder’s biography, which is closely connected to the ideas he supports in his poetry. Gary Snyder is an American poet, essayist, and environmental activist born in 1930 in San Francisco. His family was impoverished due to the Great Depression, so at the age of two they moved to a countryside. Snyder was raised on small farms in Oregon and Washington state.
The nature of the countryside greatly influenced his ecological views. In particular, young Snyder was distressed by “the wanton destruction of the Pacific Northwestern forests” (“Gary Snyder Biography” para 3). Snyder also became interested in Native American culture as he believed it “offered a more harmonious relationship with nature“ (Ibid).
Besides, American Indians were as much vulnerable as the nature in the teeth of Western civilization.Snyder studied at the Indiana University (Reed College those days) and Berkeley University, where he became fascinated with Oriental culture and Buddhism. While studying, Snyder also worked as a seaman, lumberjack, and fire watcher. Snyder graduated with degrees in anthropology and literature. Later, he was influenced by the Beat Generation and became a part of writers’ community which also included such famous Beat figures as Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. In 1956, Snyder moved to Japan and remained abroad for the nest twelve years. He practiced meditation in Kyoto Zen monastery and traveled to India, Indonesia, and Turkey.
After he came back to the United States, he built his own house nearby the Yuba River, California, where he still lives. The poem Call of the Wild was included into Snyder’s 1974 book Turtle Island, which won the Pulitzer Prize. The title of this compilation of poems and essays refers to an Indian name for North America. The Call of the Wild is a free verses divided into four parts. What is the theme of The Call of the Wild at the first approximation? The poem praises the nature and shows its vulnerability. Its aim is to awaken an ecological consciousness in readers.The nature is personified by the figure of a Coyote.
Coyote emerges in several Snyder’s poems, it is a recurrent character. Evidently Coyote is chosen because it is typically American species that lives no-where else but in Northern and Central America. Actually, North America is defined as “the land of Coyote and Eagle” (Snyder 1974, 21). Controversially, in The Call of the Wild, Coyote personifies vanishing nature. The poem warns us that soon “there’ll be no place a Coyote could hide” (Snyder 1974, 23). However, it should be regarded as a poetic metonymy because in the real life, coyotes are not endangered by deforestation and successfully reproduce in metropolitan ares, unlike wolves who do suffer from human expansion. The poem not only raises the question of ecological problems, but it is also an antiwar manifesto. “The Government finally decided to wage the war all-out.
.. So they bomb and they bomb” (Snyder 1974, 22). The poem clearly points to the Vietnam War as it was an important issue in 1970s and Snyder mentions a pro-Communist Viet Cong. At the first glance, The Call of the Wild does nothing but summons an audience to respect the wild nature and join the antiwar rally. These two topis are quite typical for Beat Generation of late 1960s and 1970s. This cultural trend refers to the utopias of Rousseauist type. As we know, Jean-Jacques Rousseau praised a concept of a ‘gentle savage’, an ideal of a man who is not corrupted by civilization.
This idea is based on the opposition between civilization and nature. Civilization is repressive and corrupting, while the state of nature is some sort of the Paradise lost, the state of innocence and purity.Beat Generation and hippies praised this simplified interpretation of Rousseau. They thought that culture and civilization bring nothing but sexual oppression, social inequality, and wars, so it would be much better to return to a primitive state. They thought that primitive savages were united with a wild nature and knew no so-called ‘moral’.
The adepts of primitivism movement shared a belief “that the best antidote to the ills of an overly refined and civilized modern world was a return to simpler, more primitive living” (Cronon 76). Let us refer to another poem by Snyder, There Are Those Who Love To Get Dirty, which contains a controversial claim: “There are those who love to get dirty and fix things. They drink coffee at dawn, beer after work. And those who stay clean.
.. at breakfast they have milk and juice at night” (as cited in Snyder 2003). Here, we can see a clear confrontation between healthy and simply life and a sick life. The opposition is based on such categories as purity and dirt; nature and corrupting civilization; diet and omnivory. But is is relevant to oppose milk and coffee in terms of nature? Coffee is no less natural as milk. People make coffee from seeds of the coffee tree, so it is processed with human hands.
But bread is as well processed with human hands. The opposition is not relevant, because the term ‘natural’ is an artificial and problematic concept. Respectively, the confrontation between civilization and culture is also artificial.
Although we may find a propaganda of vegetarian diet and a healthy way of life in Snyder’s poems, he himself is not a vegetarian and not a Luddite (Weinberger). Snyder does not seem to divide his world view in dual categories, being aware these oppositions are artificial, but rather clings to a holistic position. The opposition between nature and civilization assumes that we operate with metanarratives.The metanarrative of innocent, unspoiled, and pure nature was developed by Rousseau and supported by the Beat Generation. In the postmodern society, the faith in metanarratives is lost. People no longer believe in great narrative structures that assume there is strict ideological system. However, does Snyder’s The Call of the Wild represent metanarratives? Does this poem operate with simple binary oppositions? Todd Ensign suggests it does not. He argues that Gary Snyder differs from those environmentalists who still believe in an utopian metanarrative of a ‘natural’ and ‘wild’ society liberated from oppressive practices.
“Snyder rejects the binary opposition of wilderness and civilization in favor of a multitude of perspectives“; “he celebrates micronarratives of ancient cultures, love of wildness, and the human spirit” (Ensign para 2). In The Call of the Wild, Snyder seems to show a skeptical attitude towards hippies of those days. He calls them “the acid-heads from the city converted to Guru or Swami” who “dream of India” in the forests of North America (Snyder, 1974, 21). Although Snyder himself is a Buddhist, he is aware that the Paradise lost young people want to rediscover in Oriental practices is a myth, an artificial construction. This artificial construction became that seductive because it disguises itself under a mask of natural.As William Cronon notes, “wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural (Cronon 69).
If we look closer, there is no dichotomy between civilization and wild nature in The Call of the Wild. Snyder’s ecological claim means something different from a simple confrontation between the city and forest. It is more about alienation of humans, animals, and nature.
Let us look closer to the metaphors Snyder uses in The Call of the Wild. First, there is an eighty-year old man who is irritated by the Coyote singing. He is separated from the music of the meadows. He does not want to hear it and that is why he calls a trapper to kill Coyote.
Respectively, men call a logger to cut off old cedar trees because they are “full of bugs”. The same thing happens with relation between American Government and Non-American people. Americans are depicted as those who live in special cities in the sky. They are up above the ground; they are disconnected from the earth. Their houses look like domes “stuck like warts in the woods”.
All of these metaphors serve to create a picture of alienation which is “a noteworthy dimension of contemporary human life” (Kerr 1). We see that everywhere there is a distance between Government and people it bombs; between an old man and a Coyote; between people and trees; between cities and earth. There is not a problem of opposition between metanarratives, but rather a problem of isolation of humans, animals, and objects.
It does not mean the city is not ‘natural’ but it means that people in the city are separated from each other. A separation is located inside them. Snyder is perfectly aware that we can not trust the term ‘natural’ since “there is nothing in the universe that’s not natural by definition” (Kerr 1). As Joshua Kerr claims, Snyder distinguishes nature and wilderness.Not only forests and rivers are natural but also cities and other realms of human life.
In contrast, wilderness, according to Snyder, is “a diversity of living and nonliving beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order” (Kerr 2). This order is not imposed externally but is innate and internal. Snyder claims that the wild within us is endangered. The lines “I would like to say Coyote is forever inside you but it’s not true” mean that we may lose the wilderness within us.
As we have observed, the problem stated in The Call of the Wild is that people live in a fragmentary world. They are alienated from their own environment. People are about to lose a wildness which is defined as a unique innate order.
However, Snyder does not state that we are doomed. He only warns us that Coyote is not “forever inside us”. People are able to re-establish their connection to the nature and to each other, because the wilderness is not something external. Snyder argues that a “person with a clear heart and open mind can experience the wilderness anywhere on earth. It is a quality of one’s own consciousness” (Cronon 89). Snyder himself finds the way out in Buddhism. He defines his religious experience as “the territory of the completeness and beauty of all phenomena” (Weinberger) as opposed to alienation and fragmentation. He summons the audience to “really enter the world” (Ibid.
) As long as we are alienated from the wilderness, we are not able to really see the world, to feel it in its completeness.The world appears to be a stripe of images and copies that move rapidly without making any impact on our senses and minds. In contrast, Snyder proposes to become engaged in the real world, to feel oneself inside of it.
In The Call of the Wild, he uses allusions to myths and rituals as an “essential demonstrations of man-in-nature and nature-in-man.” (“Gary Snyder Biography” para 5). Coyote is a figure of mythological trickster recurrently appearing in Native American stories.
The poem tells us we should not deny “Coyote inside us”.Works citedSnyder, Gary. Turtle Island. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1974. 21-23.
Snyder, Gary. “There Are Those Who Love To Get Dirty.” American Poems. N.p., 21 Feb 2003.
Web. 10 Oct 2013. . Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.
” Ed. William Cronon. Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995. 69-91.
Print. . “Gary Snyder Biography.” The Poetry Foundation.
Web. 10 Oct 2013. . Kerr, Joshua.
“Philosophical Concepts of Nature and Wilderness in the Poetry of Gary Snyder.” 1-8. Web. 10 Oct 2013. . Ensign, Todd. “Gary Snyder: a Postmodern Perspective.” Ed.
Cary Nelson. Online Journal and Multimedia Companion to Modern American Poetry: an OnlineJournal and Multimedia Companion to “Anthology of Modern American Poetry” (2002). 25 Apr. 2007 Weinberger, Eliot. “Gary Snyder, The Art of Poetry.
” Paris Review. Fall-Winter.74 (1978): n. page.