Filed in Arts & Culture

Thinking Like a Mountain

John Suiter reflects upon Gary Snyder's poetic hermitage within the Cascades of Washington State.

John Suiter

In the 1950s, poet Gary Snyder worked as a fire lookout in the Cascades of Washington State. Perched at 8,129 feet on Crater Mountain’s Desolation Peak, Snyder practiced calligraphy, sipped green tea, and learned to sit as the days flew by. The following is excerpted from John Suiter’s Poets on the Peaks.

Despite the wicked weather, arduous packing, and feeling “filthy with no prospect of cleaning up,” Gary was not unhappy in his hermitage. The sudden solitude after his weeks at the guard station was delicious, and although the lookout was totally socked in for the first three days, he thought the dense fog outside made the cabin’s windows look like a shoji screen in a Japanese tea hut. In fact, said Snyder, “It was perfect. There was this blank white mountain fog light in this chilly little place, and I would be wrapped in my blanket doing my zazen or doing my calligraphy.” In his journal, Gary took to calling the mountain “Crater Shan,” the Chinese appellation for a peak, as in “Huang Shan” (Yellow Mountain) or “Nan Shan” (South Mountain). He even used “Crater Shan” as his return address on letters to his friends, and by the end of the summer they were using it when writing to him.

* * *

Although Crater Mountain Lookout was less than ideal for fire detection, it made for a perfect Zen hermitage, and Snyder had come loaded for Zen. “I took some good books up with me, basic Zen texts, and my black tea, some good Japanese green tea, and some lapsong souchong, plus sumi brushes for doing Chinese-style calligraphy,” remembers Gary. “I really kept myself busy. I had a daily schedule that included certain periods of meditation. I did zazen certain hours, and then calligraphy practice, and then I would study a text, then zazen again, and then I’d go melt snow and bring it up and cook and have tea and write some haiku and then do some more calligraphy practice and some more zazen, and the days just flew by.”

From the guy wires of the lookout, he strung Tibetan prayer flags inscribed with the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra and set up a low stone seat for doing zazen, on the lip of the precipice overlooking Jerry Glacier. Gary had tried zazen as far back as 1949 at Reed College but had practiced infrequently and somewhat self-consciously at first. Learning to sit had not been all that difficult, even in the near total absence of teachers. He had picked up the basic cross-legged sitting posture, hand positions, and so forth simply by copying the poses of statues of Buddhas he’d seen in museums in Portland and San Francisco. Developing regular practice was the hard part. On Crater Lookout he hoped to begin to do that.

“Crater Mountain was the first opportunity I had to really see if I could sit. That was one of the reasons I went on lookout,” he remembers. “It gave me a chance to be consistent and to see if I could carry through and be comfortable with such a thing day after day. And I was quite comfortable. In fact, at the end of the season, I didn’t want to come down.”

* * *

On lookout there was ample time to simply be present in nature, to watch and listen to the buzz of the flies, the lazy flap of the prayer flags, the sudden scream of a hawk piercing the blue valley air over Devil’s Creek. Over it all, the ever-gliding clouds advanced, incessantly shifting shape and dragging their fluid shadows across the ancient hides of the mountains. Sitting still with eyes half-open, or leaning in the lookout door, observing this vast spectacle of change across a visible mass of three million unbroken acres became an art for Snyder—the art of mountain watching, as he called it in his journal. Out of his solitude came a new sense of time, encompassing butterflies, Vaux swifts, chipmunks, map lichens, as well as cycles of change in the stratified metamorphic rock—“more than enough time for all things to happen”—even to the mountains, whose rumpled flanks were mottled with old burns and brilliant meadow greens, grooved with avalanche chutes and red fans of talus, pocked with snow, bristling with vast stands of conifers. In such a landscape—“a chaotic universe where everything is in place”—the lookout’s task of scanning the ridges and drainages for smoke slid easily into the zazen of mountain watching.

“Aldo Leopold uses the phrase Think like a mountain,” remembers Snyder. “I didn’t hear that until later, but mountain watching is like mountain being or mountain sitting. How do you watch a mountain? Nothing’s going to happen in any time frame that you can consider—except the light changes on it. And so that was my mountain watching. The changing light on the mountain was like the changing thoughts in my mind, just these little shifting shadows, that’s all that it is.” ▼

From Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen & Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades, © 2002 by John Suiter. Reprinted with permission of Counterpoint, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.

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