Looking Out, Looking In: Gary Snyder and Sourdough Mountain Lookout
By Scott Edward Anderson
To get to Sourdough Mountain Lookout, you hike a good five miles, gaining 5000 feet or more of elevation. The terrain is rugged and the hiking strenuous, but that’s to be expected in the Northern Cascades. Located 130 miles northeast of Seattle, Washington, the Forest Service opened one of its first lookouts here in 1915.
The view from the lookout station, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, is a postcard in every direction: Hozomeen Mountain and Desolation Peak looking north, Jack and Crater mountains out east, Pyramid and Colonial peaks to the south with Ross and Diablo lakes directly below, and, as if not to be outdone, the Picket Range is off to the west. This is impressive country and you can understand why it’s been an inspiration to poets and writers for generations.
Poet Gary Snyder was 23 when he worked as a fire-spotter on Sourdough Mountain in 1953. It was his second summer as a lookout, having spent the previous season on the 8,100-foot Crater Mountain. His friend, the poet Philip Whalen, was also employed by the Forest Service that summer, on Sauk Mountain. In his notebook from the summer of ‘53, part of which was published in Earth House Hold (1969), Snyder writes
Just managed to get through to Phil Whalen, on the radio, him up on Sauk Lookout now.
Whalen, who roomed with Snyder and another poet, Lew Welch, at Reed College in Oregon, was seven years older than Snyder, having attended Reed on the GI Bill. In addition to poetry, the three shared interests in Asian literature, Buddhism, and calligraphy, all of which were offered at Reed. (Calligraphy is the class at Reed that Steve Jobs, two decades later, monitored after dropping out and which led to variable typefaces on the Mac.) More scholar than outdoorsman, Whalen joined Snyder as a fire-spotter after the latter described the time for contemplation and reflection proffered by life on a Lookout.
The two poets were moved by the mountains and their experience on the peaks, and both wrote poems about the place, Snyder with “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout” and Whalen’s “Sourdough Mountain Lookout.” They are very different poems – as different as the two poet-friends. Whalen’s poem is more rambling, inclusive, reminiscent of Walt Whitman or maybe Allen Ginsberg (Snyder and Whalen would read at the famous Six Gallery reading that debuted Ginsberg’s “Howl” in October 1955), and contains many of Whalen’s interests and concerns, including his burgeoning Buddhist worldview. He also doesn’t take himself too seriously, opening the poem with the lines:
I always say I won't go back to the mountains
I am too old and fat there are bugs mean mules
And pancakes every morning of the world
The job of a lookout is to, well, look out over the horizon, scanning for signs of fire or what might become a fire. This looking out provides ample fodder for an observant poet:
Morning fog in the southern gorge
Gleaming foam restoring the old sea-level
The lakes in two lights green soap and indigo
The high cirque-lake black half-open eye
Ultimately, however, the observation in the poem gives way to reflection and musing on that which is ephemeral, as in the words of the Buddha, "All the constituents of being are/ Transitory: Work out your salvation with diligence."
A couple of stanzas before the poem’s end, Whalen writes,
What we see of the world is the mind's
Invention and the mind
Though stained by it, becoming
Rivers, sun, mule-dung, flies—
Can shift instantly
A dirty bird in a square time
He closes the poem with: “Like they say, ‘Four times up,/ Three times down.’ I'm still on the mountain.”
Snyder is a bit more circumspect, more controlled, in his poem’s ten lines. Almost I want to say “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout” is a kind of haiku-sonnet, with an imagistic opening stanza followed by a “turn” in the second stanza -- a turn to the “I,” whereas before the “I,” if not the “eye,” is absent. Here is the poem in its entirety:
Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.
He’s observant alright, but Snyder doesn’t want to get too attached to what he sees, just as he has let go of the things he knew or read, along with a few friends away in cities. The poet takes a drink of cold snowmelt from one of those old tin camping-style cups, which shakes him out of his reverie. He needs to get back to work and does, “Looking down for miles/ Through high still air.”
Whereas Whalen’s poem is an exploration of the mind and its philosophical wanderings from atop the mountain -- Heraclitus, Empedocles, and the poet’s grandmother are quoted in the poem -- Snyder’s poem, conversely, is a poem of work, even if that work is a form of witness, a gazing out.
As Nick Sibley points out in his essay, “Poem as Work-Place: Gary Snyder's Ecological Poetics”: “…that gaze, his reading of the landscape, is the lookout’s work.” If the work of the lookout is to read the land, to pay attention, he needs to mediate what is seen and determine whether, in fact, he need be worried about the “smoke haze” he sees in the distance.
Snyder’s poem opens his book, Riprap, first published in 1959, a book that, as Sibley notes, is “shot through with a sense of fissure, and breakage, of the act of sundering that is at the heart of the act of working the land, whether that be in the cleavage between land and self…or the split between word and world that is exposed in our work of reading these poems, and which can be read as a product of a capitalist economy of exchange.”
If “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout” is a poem of work, it is concurrently an ecopoem, and an exploration between self and land through work done on that land, even if that work is only observational rather than physical. (Snyder also cleared trails and did logging work during his several years working in both the Sierras and the Cascades.) At Sourdough, Snyder is looking out of the cabin and in this poem, but he is also looking inward, examining how all this outward gazing causes him to forget the self, as he forgets the books he’s read.
The year I studied with Gary Snyder, 1992, was a pivotal one for me. In February, I got married in Bellingham, Washington, about 80 miles west of Sourdough Mountain as the raven flies, to the future mother of my three children. We honeymooned in the North Cascades before heading up to Port Townsend and the Olympic Peninsula. A month later, I got a job with The Nature Conservancy, with whom I worked for the next 15 years. (The marriage lasted only four years longer.)
August found me in California, at the Art of the Wild Conference organized by the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, where I studied with a trio of West Coast poets: Robert Hass, Walter Pavlich, and Gary Snyder. Snyder was a hero of mine, his Pulitzer-prize winning Turtle Island one of my bibles as a teen, and his example as an environmental thinker informed much of my own sensibility about nature and our human relationship with nature.
At Squaw, Snyder said we should find totems for our poetry, “this is the world of nature, myth, archetype, and ecosystem that we must all investigate.” (Mine are ravens and polar bears.) He also told us to “fear not science,” to know what’s what in the ecosystem, to study mind and language, and that our work should be grounded in place. Most of all, he instructed, “be crafty and get the work done.”
In October of the year, back in New York, I took a Master Class with Snyder at the 92nd St Y. Not quite 29, I still had some of the hubris of my young adulthood. Snyder said my poems were "pretty good if you want to be an 18th Century poet -- but do you WANT to be an 18th C. poet?" I wrote a letter to him a few months later, saying something to the effect that, "At least I don't write 'bear shit on the trail' poems." He was right, of course, and although I apologized later, I never heard from him again. (Recently, it horrified me to learn my note is among his papers housed in the UC Davis library!)
“Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout” is anything but “bear-shit on the trail” poetry, although I do find Snyder guilty of that on occasion. This poem, however, has a more formal feeling, as do some of his later poems, and certainly shows the influence of the Japanese and Chinese masters he was reading. Sourdough clearly had lasting impact; the experience stayed with him.
A later poem of Snyder’s returns to Sourdough Mountain Lookout, this time he is visited by one of his city friends, Dick Brewer, who “hitched a thousand miles/ north from San Francisco/ hiked up the mountainside a mile in the air…” (“August on Sourdough” from The Back Country, 1968)
And again, as mentioned above, in Earth House Hold, where he gleans from his lookout notebooks such gems as,
Forest equals crop/ Scenery equals recreation/ Public equals money. :: The Shopkeeper’s view of nature.”
Don’t be a mountaineer, be a mountain.
And shrug off a few with avalanches.
The summer after Sourdough, 1954, Snyder applies to the Forest Service for a third season, but he’s rejected. The reason is unclear. Snyder eventually obtains an unsatisfactory explanation from the Department of Agriculture, claiming his “general unsuitability” for the job. It appears Snyder may have been blacklisted – or red-listed – for his union sympathies (his grandfather was an IWW “Wobbly” and Snyder himself joined the far-left Marine Cooks and Stewards Union when he was eighteen).
“I am forced to admit that no one thing gives me such unalloyed pleasure as simply being in the mountains,” Snyder wrote to Whalen at the time. “My rucksack and boots hang accusingly on the wall.” Consequently, he ended up working in a logging camp in eastern Oregon that summer and worked on a trail crew in Yosemite during the summer of ’55, after finishing up his graduate studies in East Asian Languages at UC Berkeley.
In May 1956, Snyder left for Kyoto aboard a freighter to study Zen Buddhism and climb the Japanese mountains. Once in Japan, where he lived off and on for the next ten years, Snyder met a group of Yamabushi, so-called Mountain Buddhists, who taught him how walking the landscape can be both ritual and meditation. Snyder later told an interviewer for The New Yorker, “They said, ‘O.K., we’re going to see if you are one of us.’ They told me to climb up a five-hundred-foot vertical rock pitch while chanting the Heart Sutra. Luckily, I knew the Heart Sutra, so that was O.K.”
Mountains remain important to Snyder, who makes his home these days on California’s San Juan Ridge, in the Sierra foothills. Indeed, as recently as 2009, he titled a book of poems, Danger on Peaks. In some ways, he followed his own advice, “Don’t be a mountaineer, be a mountain.” Although I’m also reminded of the end of Whalen’s Sourdough Mountain Lookout poem,
Like they say, "Four times up,
Three times down." I'm still on the mountain.
In an Afterword to his long poem-cycle, Mountains and Rivers Without End, upon which Snyder worked from 1956-1996, the poet reflects on his two seasons as a forest lookout and how the experience “gave me full opportunity to watch the change of mood over vast landscapes, light moving with the day—the countless clouds, the towering cumulus, black thunderstorms rolling in with jagged lightning strikes.”
Moreover, Snyder’s memories of those summers and all the “range of walked-in landscapes” before and since are so vivid that he seems to conjure his old pal Whalen -- who died in 2002 -- in some recurring lines from Mountains and Rivers Without End:
Walking on walking
under foot earth turns
Streams and mountains never stay the same.
The lines echo Heraclitus’s famous Fragment 91, “You cannot step in the same river twice,” as well as another fragment, “Everything changes and nothing stands still.” Perhaps, in some perfectly Zen manner, the elder Snyder gets through yet again to his late pal Whalen on whatever mountain he finds himself now, with or without a radio.
Scott Edward Anderson is the author of Fallow Field (Aldrich Press, 2013) and Walks in Nature’s Empire (The Countryman Press, 1995). He has been a Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts and received the Nebraska Review Award.