Back on the Fire

Three-quarters of the way through Back on the Fire, Gary Snyder writes, “The idea of a poetry of minimal surface texture, with its complexities hidden at the bottom of the pool, under the bank . . . is ancient.” Though the sentence is describing Chinese poetry, it simultaneously points out the most compelling characteristic of this deceptively complex essay collection.

Most of the essays are short, and most were written for other publications or delivered as talks; in them we find familiar Snyderian topics, from West Coast bioregionalism to East Asian culture, from haiku to Noh plays to cave painting. We meet up repeatedly with wild women, Coyote, salmon, and Bear (as in Smokey); we never stray far from the topics of biodiversity, Buddhism, and sustainability; and we say goodbye to Allen Ginsberg and Snyder’s wife, Carole Koda. It’s as if we’ve sat down with Snyder to find out what he’s been up to lately and been reminded — as he loops through his life news — of his intellectual breadth and his deep heart, both of which have made his work so engaging and important.

Back on the Fire is a book whose richness emerges best if read like a collection of poems, where ideas transform and deepen not by focused elaboration within a single piece, but by intermittent re-acquaintance and re-examination throughout the volume. What makes that technique more striking is that it mirrors Snyder’s most important message: life deepens and complicates through this same process of re-examination. For instance, Snyder recalls working in 1952 and ’53 as a fire lookout in the northern Washington Cascades, and explains the satisfaction he felt then for keeping forest fires at bay. He writes, “The joke’s on me fifty years later as I learn how much the fire suppression ideology was wrong-headed and how it has contributed to our current problems.” Snyder accepts the danger of wildfire and the impulse to fight it, but also recognizes its importance in healthy forest ecosystems. A good part of his life, he explains, is still devoted to fire — now to encouraging “controlled burns.”

Cycling through familiar ground, learning it anew, recognizing its complexity: this is the topography that awaits us on what Snyder calls “a path with heart.” It’s the path Back on the Fire lays out for us.