Smith helps readers navigate 'Mountains and Rivers'

February 6, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Fans of poet Gary Snyder may have felt slightly intimidated when "Mountains and Rivers Without End" was published in 1996. After all, this was the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet's personal epic, 150 pages of poetic text written in pieces over 40 years.

To read his work appreciatively, it would help to know something about Snyder's life and its influences, which are myriad: Zen Buddhism, poetry, environmental philosophy, East Asian art, Japanese Noh drama, the Beats, the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, to name but a few.

Eric Todd Smith accepted this challenge. Smith, 32, came to UC Davis five years ago to earn a Ph.D. He chose Davis, in part, because Snyder teaches here in the spring.

"We read the 'Mountains and Rivers' manuscript in the first seminar I took with him," said Smith. "That's how I got interested in the poem." Smith earned his doctorate on literature of place last September. The last chapter of his dissertation discusses "Mountains and Rivers."

Sean O'Grady, a graduate of Davis, asked Smith to write a monograph on Snyder's work for the Western Writers Series published by Boise State University.

"I thought it was a neat opportunity given my experience and observations," said Smith. The result is "Reading Gary Snyder's 'Mountains and Rivers Without End'," a paperback companion piece at $5.95 (available in Davis at Bogey's Books downtown).

The obvious question is: Did Snyder approve of Smith's explanations?

"Apparently he did, because I know he's sent copies to people who are doing translations of the poem," said Smith.

"There's certainly a lot left to be said about 'Mountains and Rivers,' but hopefully this little book will help those who want to explore the poem further," he added.

Smith's interest in the mystery of human attachment to place developed in college. He grew up in Oregon, attending University of Oregon in Eugene.

"I went to France my junior year," he said. He was not prepared for how much he'd miss the American West.

"When I came back I had the desire to travel and hike throughout Oregon and find out where everything was and pay attention to the things around me. I spent as much time as possible outdoors my senior year," he said. He also began reading nature writers like Henry David Thoreau, Barry Lopez, John McPhee and Wendell Berry. After earning a master's degree at Eugene, he and his wife, Alice, came to Davis. What a shock.

Davis didn't conform to his mental picture of California or his own experiences of place in the West.

Smith writes about his introduction to Davis and his attempts to get to know the landscape in an essay called "Leaving Behind Your Flashlight" (the title comes from a poem by Lew Welch).

This essay will be published this spring by the Putah Cache Bioregion Project at UC Davis and it's well worth reading.

"It's about trying to figure out this new place in California. I drove around the bioregion one day trying to search out the watersheds and ended up getting lost and having no moment of truth. If you look too hard, you won't find what you're looking for," he said.

Now Smith is looking for a teaching job and has had interviews at Boise State and Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.

He says literature of place is important because it's a testimony to the kind of relationship that people often have with their physical, environmental surroundings that they don't give voice to, particularly in this age of globalization.

"People want local differences in their lives," he said. "The tension between local and global interests need not be decried but need to be explored."

He says Snyder does this, too, in "Mountains and Rivers." Snyder explores what globalization means beyond economics, in spiritual and ecological terms. The book is in part a representation of the Beat spirit but it's also about leaving the life of frenzied traveling and searching behind and coming back to and committing to a special place rather than the next stop on the road.

"You could say that Gary has written a cosmic travel narrative," says Smith.

In Snyder's case, the place he has called home since 1970 is the watershed of the South Yuba River in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in Northern California.

And in Smith's case, it's fair to say that while this area has been his place, he's still looking.

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]

[Author Menu] [Date Menu] [Genre Menu] [Printed Matter Home]
The Davis Virtual Market