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Gary Snyder argues for "The Etiquette of Freedom" 

Wednesday, Dec 1 2010

If all you had to go by was its title, The Etiquette of Freedom might imply some crummy blowhard's latest George W. Bush–nostalgic gas blast of foreign-policy punditry. What a relief that the actual book is something more like the opposite.

Even if you've never heard of Gary Snyder, the Pulitzer Prize–winning San Francisco native poet, and his old pal Jim Harrison, the author of Legends of the Fall, you'll quickly get the sense from this patchwork quilt of conversations between them — with section headings such as Trans-Species Erotics and Zen and Poetry — that this is no ode to jingoism.

The Etiquette of Freedom essentially amounts to a hardbound printed supplemental feature to the recent documentary The Practice of the Wild (included on DVD in the book's back cover), wherein Snyder and Harrison, plus a few friends and colleagues, hang out and chat about life, literature, and their mutual appreciation of "Deep Ecology," a philosophy holding that responsible citizenship of the world includes mindfulness with regard to humans and nonhumans alike. (The Practice of the Wild also is the title of a Snyder essay collection, also recently rereleased in a new expanded edition from this book's publisher, Berkeley's Counterpoint Press.) As Snyder puts it, "Learning the birds and the flowers is not just high school science or nature study — it's local etiquette. It's rude not to know your neighbors, you know?"

Although a fundamentally complaisant exercise, The Etiquette of Freedom does at least challenge the prevailing habit of assuming films to be at the top of our cultural food chain. In the case of this material, it suggests, there's still further to go when the documentary is done — namely, into the good, old-fashioned immersive tranquillity of a book. Snyder is the main figure here, and the book's penultimate section, a loose array of written or transcribed character references, might reasonably be characterized as The Gallery of Golly Isn't Gary Great? After that comes a handful of poems bearing that assessment out, including "A Berry Feast," which Snyder read at the same Six Gallery event in 1955 that launched Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" into the world. There are also 16 pages of photos, kicking off with a great one from 1940 of the poet's decidedly merry fifth-grade class. He isn't identified, but a familiar grin and twinkle in the eye makes him easy to find.

Today, ever the impressively well-adjusted Beat retiree living in a hand-built home in the Sierra foothills, Snyder still knows what's going on. "The odd thing right now is, what with the current global recession, a lot of business are declaring themselves to be 'green' just as a safety measure," he says. "People are rushing to hold up the green flag whether they've changed anything or not, whether they even know what that means or not." He's levelheaded enough to describe the current administration of the San Francisco Zen Center as "too serious, and a little too correct." And to remember his mother's response when he first became interested in Buddhism: "All that navel-gazing isn't going to help the people!"

The book does sometimes push its luck through redundancy: It provides transcripts both of the finished film and of the writers' full conversation. That means reading some of the same stuff more than once. But it's still an uplifting read. Thanks to Snyder and Harrison's conviviality and gentle intelligence, the notion that freedom should require an etiquette seems not hectoring but instead lightly treading and delicately poetic.

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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