February 18, 2011

The Practice of the Wild

Gary Snyder has been a mosquito, and Jim Harrison would like to be a tree. These are two important things we learn from watching The Practice of the Wild, a documentary by John J. Healey featuring the old codgers (San Simeon/ Whole Earth Films, produced by Will Hearst and Jim Harrison, 52 min., DVD, $18.95). Although it contains some archival footage and short interviews with friends and colleagues, the bulk of the film consists of a Q&A between Snyder and Harrison. Officially, it’s Harrison asking the questions and Snyder answering them—however, in truth, it’s a shared conversation. It’s a delight to watch the two friends as they amble across the Santa Lucia Mountains discussing the objects of their passions: the earth and its poetry. They make a likable pair. Where Snyder is refined and eloquent, a trim graybeard speaking with the authority of someone accustomed to being listened to, Harrison is unassuming, earthy, and unkempt. In a particularly good scene about reincarnation that demonstrates this dynamic, Snyder thoughtfully and coolly remarks that reincarnation is “a charming metaphor” that, if true, “means that I have done everything already. I’ve had every possible experience already. I’ve been in every possible form. I’ve been a woman; I’ve been this; I’ve been a butterfly; I’ve been a mosquito.” Harrison, inspired by this listing of possibilities, earnestly interjects. “A tree,” he says, “I like the idea of being a tree.” Healey does right to keep the film simple; the movement throughout is slow and deliberate, like Snyder’s poetry.

The Etiquette of Freedom (Counterpoint, 2010, 164 pp, cloth, $28.00), a book meant to accompany The Practice of the Wild, serves primarily as a transcript of the film and the unused material from Snyder and Harrison’s conversation. While readers will enjoy Snyder’s poetry at the back of the book, and the 32 pages of black-and-white photographs, the reason to pick up a copy is that it includes a special DVD edition of the documentary, complete with outtakes and readings by Snyder.

This review ran in the Books in Brief section of the Spring 2011 issue of Tricycle.

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