Gary Snyder and Julia Martin, Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places

Review by Jennifer van Alstyne

(Trinity University Press, 2014)

Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places, a new release from Trinity University Press, includes three interviews over a span of three decades (in 1998, 2005, and 2010, respectively) between poet Gary Snyder and South African scholar Julia Martin, author of the travel memoir A Millimetre of Dust: Visiting Ancestral Sites (NB Publishers, 2010). These discussions include topics from Snyder’s Buddhist practice, Ring of Bone Zendo, to his political, pedagogical, and social stances on issues such as gender, feminism, and the environment. Snyder’s approach to life and his role in the universe is both logical and authoritative, stemming from years of research, practice, and study. Snyder’s conversational style is fiercely intelligent, yet somewhat combative, and some of his responses might appear controversial, such as when he compares the lack of critical thought in modern Zen centers, which he says cater to “alienated, educated members of the upper middle class,” to Roman cults in the second and third centuries.

Snyder’s logic is loosely based on writer/activist Paul Goodman, author of Growing Up Absurd (Vintage, 1960), whose concept of “natural society” is based on gradual community-based building blocks ultimately resulting in a free society. Snyder says:

…that’s why I divide my time between what you may call culture-building, or community-building, and Buddhist teaching. It would be really easy to live in the city and teach at a Zen center and do nothing but Buddhist teaching. I wouldn’t want to do it that way. I’d rather go out and start working in the neighborhoods as much as I could because I think you have to work the ground for a Buddhist society first. You can’t just leave your society the way it is and say ‘We offer this as one of the teachings.’ You’ve got to help the society get its feet on the ground before those teachings can begin to flourish.

Teaching, for Snyder, is a life-long commitment to the world, beyond environmentalism, and he says that it starts local, that taking permanent root in a community is key. “This generation of back to the land people is very clear on wanting to establish a long-range relationship to a place,” Snyder says when discussing the separation between his own generation of rural land-owners and the current generation of “back-to-the-land people” as a choice beyond his own political upbringings, particularly on the side of his father who was active in left-wing labor-based groups such as the League of Unemployed Voters (Loc. 145). Rather, Snyder feels both a mixture of duty to the land and desire to nurture the direct nature around him. He’s accepted an eventual end of civilization but, while America is a land of mobility, Snyder prefers commitment to place. Snyder believes that a return to a “natural society” can be achieved with the ‘coyote-mind’ that understands multiple sides of an equation. A natural community, mythos, and culture would evolve because of this, which is why Snyder has created his own translation of Tao te Ching, “The Way that can be followed is not the true or correct Way,” rather than the more traditional translation of ‘spoken’ rather than ‘followed.’ Action and commitment is necessary to a true life.

While the interviews are extensive and provide insight into Snyder’s opinions, they are lacking in the titular promise of writing-talk. The selected letters that follow the three interviews date from 1983 through 2011 and bring us to the basis of both the interviews and Martin and Snyder’s three-decade long friendship of shared interests and discussion. We see themes arise then in discussion of the goddess, first mentioned in Martin’s original letter to Snyder and still debated in 1998 at Kitkitdizze in their discussion of gender and nature. But the beauty of this is the debate itself, Martin growing from graduate student to literary critic and activist herself over the span of a few hundred pages.

This book ultimately teaches us that discussion is essential to life-long learning. And while Snyder and Martin’s friendship is decades in the making, it is also a teacher-student relationship based on mutual respect, two people in different parts of the world quite literally creating connection. That original letter from Martin is ineloquent, typical of a graduate student writing a greatly admired teacher. So not only do we see changes in Snyder’s beliefs and arguments as life brought experience, we see Martin enter a professional world gaining not only a mentor, but a friend, her letters refining with time. Whether talking about her vegetable garden, a long wedding anniversary poem from her husband, or her father’s accident and lengthy recovery, we gain insight into the mind of one of South Africa’s bright scholars. “And now, end of letter. What a long one. I imagine it arriving as part of your daily wad of correspondence…You’re often in my mind, and even when I’m not thinking about your writing, I’m interested in your responses to things” (Loc. 1831), Julia says.

This practice, it seems, is thinking-as-writing at its best. Two writers, thinkers with a similar view of the world, with bases in ecopoetics, have come together and created insight into one of the great contemporary poets of our time, but also showed that the mind is human and, thus, fallible, logical, emotional, and personal. This is a book of debate and exploration, of both formal and informal discussion (after all, Snyder does sign a letter “Yrz, Gary” but also includes the occasional subject header) that constantly returns to Buddhism, to practice, and to teaching. And whether Snyder’s advice is about writing or life, his beliefs come down to choice, to living the best or truest life for oneself and, at the end of the day, having a place to which one belongs.