Leslie Marmon Silko published a critique of Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island in a 1977 issue of the Yardbird Reader. 1977 is the year she published her first novel Ceremony. And Yardbird Reader was a literary journal founded in 1972 by Ishmael Reed — a yearly anthology featuring writing by contemporary authors of color. Several of the writers I’m teaching this semester, in other words, wrote in dialogue with one another over the course of the 1970s. Silko titled her critique of Snyder “An Old-Time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts.”
Craftspeople need studios, workspaces, benches, tabletops, tools. When I look at my desktop, I see wires, devices, stacks of books. Time to invest in bookends. Make ’em or buy ’em. I struggle, though, with guilt, shame, fatigue. A deer lies dead on the side of the road — struck by an automobile last night, I suppose — crows munching its corpse as it festers in the sun. The sight unsettles me — and the feeling lingers even after a truck comes and removes the deer’s remains. Let us assign in the creature’s honor Gary Snyder’s poem from Turtle Island, “The Dead By The Side of the Road.” (Re-reading the poem again at dusk, I mourn the fact that I failed to offer the creature cornmeal by the mouth. I pray to its spirit and try to make amends.)
Each day we invent new terms of affection for her: Buddha nugget, snuggle bunny, astral glow worm. We march through the neighborhood en masse, forming spontaneously around ourselves a people’s patrol. I picture as our avatars the toughs from Double Dragon. Afterwards I stand outdoors reading Thoreau on wild fruits. I take breaks and dip into Sherry L. Smith’s Hippies, Indians & the Fight for Red Power, a book that references an angry 1978 review-essay by Leslie Marmon Silko accusing Gary Snyder of “cultural imperialism.” Snyder’s book Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1975. It’s a book I wish to teach alongside the Silko essay the next time I teach American Literature.
I situate myself amid circles of relatives and kin. Friends and family shower Sarah, F. and I with gifts. Each day is lovely. I wish to give back, give thanks. How do I do that properly in light of settler-colonialism? What happens, too, when we view postal systems in that light? Let our view take into its account Thomas Pynchon’s approach to these matters — but also the idea of mail systems as prehistories of the Internet. Wasn’t the Pony Express an arm of the settler state? What happens when texts replace letters as units of exchange? How do we remove or subtract from these relations guns, money, and oil — the tools, in the Whole Earth sense, at the core of the settler toolkit? Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand produced a multimedia slide show which he performed called “America Needs Indians.” His wife at the time was a Chippewa woman named Lois Jennings. How did the commune movement that Brand and Jennings catered to with their Whole Earth Truck Store negotiate its relationship to the settler-colonialist project? Were they attempting an alliance with Native people, or did they think of themselves as cowboys, as in Ant Farm’s Cowboy Nomad Manifesto? For Ant Farm, though, the cowboy was distinct from the settler. The cowboy “carried all his life support systems with him being restricted by what his vehicle (horse) could carry.” Something of the same can be said for the hero of Ed Dorn’s poem Gunslinger. Missing from that figuration of the cowboy, however, is his relation to land. Does the cowboy’s migrancy, his refusal to settle down, absolve him of complicity with the settler-colonialist project? By “migrancy,” I mean his life “on the road,” as Kerouac put it — the latter’s Dean Moriarty character nothing if not a cowboy. Poet Gary Snyder described Moriarty as an embodiment of “the energy of the archetypal west, the energy of the frontier, still coming down. Cassady is the cowboy crashing” (as quoted in Ann Charters’s “Introduction” to On the Road, p. xxix). The hippie counterculture at its best, however, was more than just a collection of “cowboy nomads.” It fashioned itself into a Woodstock Nation, a coming together, a global village, a gathering of the tribes.
A colleague of mine who has become a friend over the years, both of us members of a shared reading group, donated some of his books to a local thrift store, whereupon I scooped them up as if the cosmos had willed them toward me. All of this happened several years ago; yet as I sat today, mind churning with topics recommended or observed, my thoughts wandered from a counterfactual, alternate-history version of Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, starring not Gary Lockwood but Demy’s original choice for the lead, a then-unknown Harrison Ford. There I was imagining imaginary stills from the imaginary LA of this imaginary film, when with a wash of emotion I happened upon one of these books I’d scored from my friend: a Beacon Press trade paperback of Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization. It’s a book I should read, given what I teach. “Beyond the Reality Principle” is where it’s at, as is “Political Preface 1966,” written a decade after the book’s initial appearance. For Marcuse, a successful revolution would be one that makes the human body “an instrument of pleasure rather than labor” (xv), transforming work into play. Attempting to do my part, I pull an LP from the shelves in my basement and bask in the choir, percussion, and wolfsong of tracks like Paul Winter’s “Kyrie.”
William Irwin Thompson interjects, speaking on behalf of coming together as a mass of music rather than matter. Ecology appears here as it should, a science not of scarcity but of sacred geometry. Gary Snyder delivers his “Prayer for the Great Family,” a poem from his book Turtle Island. Let animals and plants once again be our teachers and guides.
I begin to wonder about the role played by sexuality both as influence upon and content within psychedelic literature. Allen Ginsberg was gay, of course, as was Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), as were Huxley’s closest friends during his years in Hollywood, Gerald Heard and Christopher Isherwood. As for Philip K. Dick, prior to entering a chain of unsuccessful heterosexual marriages, Dick roomed with two gay poets central to the San Francisco Renaissance, Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer. (By all accounts, however, Dick’s relationship to Duncan and Spicer remained strictly platonic.) What, if anything, can we intuit from this pattern? For an ecologically-attuned articulation of Psychedelic Utopianism, a kind of blueprint, in fact, for the creation of Acid Communism, see “Four Changes,” the essay that concludes Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island. Snyder lists there as some of his allies “Gnostics, hip Marxists, Teilhard de Chardin Catholics, Druids, Taoists, Biologists, Witches, Yogins, Bhikkus, Quakers, Sufis, Tibetans, Zens, Shamans, Bushmen, American Indians, Polynesians, Anarchists, [and] Alchemists.”