Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry & Gary Snyder

Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry & Gary Snyder

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"The letters are valuable for ecologists, students, and teachers of contemporary American literature and for those of us eager to know how these two distant neighbors networked, negotiated, and remained friends." —San Francisco Chronicle

"In Distant Neighbors, both Berry and Snyder come across as honest and open–hearted explorers. There is an overall sense that they possess a deep and questing wisdom, hard earned through land work, travel, writing, and spiritual exploration. There is no rushing, no hectoring, and no grand gestures between these two, just an ever–deepening inquiry into what makes a good life and how to live it, even in the depths of the machine age."—Orion Magazine

In 1969 Gary Snyder returned from a long residence in Japan to northern California, to a homestead in the Sierra foothills where he intended to build a house and settle on the land with his wife and young sons. He had just published his first book of essays, Earth House Hold. A few years before, after a long absence, Wendell Berry left New York City to return to land near his grandfather's farm in Port Royal, Kentucky, where he built a small studio and lived there with his wife as they restored an old house on their newly acquired homestead. In 1969 Berry had just published Long–Legged House. These two founding members of the counterculture and of the new environmental movement had yet to meet, but they knew each other's work, and soon they began a correspondence. Neither man could have imagined the impact their work would have on American political and literary culture, nor could they have appreciated the impact they would have on one another.

Snyder had thrown over all vestiges of Christianity in favor of becoming a devoted Buddhist and Zen practitioner, and had lived in Japan for a prolonged period to develop this practice. Berry's discomfort with the Christianity of his native land caused him to become something of a renegade Christian, troubled by the church and organized religion, but grounded in its vocabulary and its narrative. Religion and spirituality seemed like a natural topic for the two men to discuss, and discuss they did. They exchanged more than 240 letters from 1973 to 2013, remarkable letters of insight and argument. The two bring out the best in each other, as they grapple with issues of faith and reason, discuss ideas of home and family, worry over the disintegration of community and commonwealth, and share the details of the lives they've chosen to live with their wives and children. Contemporary American culture is the landscape they reside on. Environmentalism, sustainability, global politics and American involvement, literature, poetry and progressive ideals, these two public intellectuals address issues as broad as are found in any exchange in literature.

No one can be unaffected by the complexity of their relationship, the subtlety of their arguments, and the grace of their friendship. This is a book for the ages.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619023734
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 05/13/2014
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 612,266
File size: 899 KB

About the Author

Wendell Berry is the author of fifty books of poetry, fiction, and essays. He was recently awarded the Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the Fellowship of Southern Writers and the Louis Bromfield Society Award. For over forty years he has lived and farmed with his wife, Tanya, in Kentucky.

Gary Snyder is the author of more than twenty collections of poetry and prose. Since 1970 he has lived in the watershed of the South Yuba River in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, Snyder has also been awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry and the Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award. His 1992 collection, No Nature, was a National Book Award finalist, and in 2008 he received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Snyder is a poet, environmentalist, educator and Zen Buddhist.

Read an Excerpt


Dear Gary,

I think it would be both surprising and disappointing if we agreed more than we do. If we agreed about everything, what would we have to say to each other? I'm for conversation.

Wendell Berry

Dear Wendell,

... I'm not sure if anything is [between you and me] except distance and differing plant communities and climates. That's how it feels to me, anyhow.

Gary Snyder

In contemporary American literature and environmental thought, Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder are often mentioned among the most important writers and public intellectuals of our day. Gary Snyder was born in 1930 and grew up on the West Coast in a politically active household of timber workers and dairy farmers during the 1930s and 40s. He studied literature and anthropology at Reed College and emerged in San Francisco as a central figure in the counterculture movement. He went on to travel throughout Japan and across the globe, before settling down in 1970 with his young family at Kitkitdizze, a homestead built with friends in the Sierra Nevada foothills. While living there, Snyder has written more than twenty works of prose and poetry that explore connections among ecology, Eastern philosophy, and indigenous anthropology. On the opposite side of the nation, Wendell Berry was born in 1934 and also grew up in a family committed to economic reform through the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative, a regional initiative begun in the 1920s to secure marketplace parity for local farmers, and established finally under the New Deal in 1941. After studying English at the University of Kentucky, Berry attended the Stanford Creative Writing Program in the late 1950s. His first novel, Nathan Coulter, was published in 1960. In 1965, after an extended period of travel, Berry moved with his family to Port Royal, Kentucky, where he has written more than fifty works of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. He continues to live and work alongside his wife, Tanya Berry, at Lanes Landing Farm.

For the past two years, I have had the pleasure of working with nearly 250 letters exchanged between Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder from the early 1970s to the present. When these two men began writing to each other, neither could have imagined the impact their lives would have on American literary and political culture, nor how their lives would link them to distinct places, as well as to one another. The letters tell a story of friendship between men committed to restoring ecological, cultural, and economic health in two different American regions. They speak of shared experiences at their respective homesteads — Lanes Landing Farm and Kitkitdizze — their influence on each other's numerous writing projects, and their participation in groups such as the Lindisfarne Association, The Land Institute, and the Schumacher Society. But even more important, the letters exchanged between Berry and Snyder provide a lived example of something increasingly scarce in American culture — two people working to recover and maintain the art of dialogue — namely, the practice of sustaining a meaningful conversation that is both critical and hospitable, particularly when ideological tensions run high enough to spark division.

When reading the works of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, it can be tempting to stress points of difference, setting Snyder's radical countercultural commitment to reinhabiting the Sierra Nevada foothills as a Zen Buddhist against Berry's agrarian practice of land stewardship that is shaped by Christian thought. However, focusing on differences alone clouds the unifying power of fidelity. The beauty and witness of this complex friendship exists in the men's expressions of particularity more than stark points of division. Snyder remains a practicing Zen Buddhist committed to principles of animism and hunting-and-gathering in the Sierra Nevada foothills, even as Berry works from Port Royal, equally dedicated to revising rural economies in relation to the inheritance of Western culture. Neither man practices a superficial — what Berry calls "feckless" — expression of religiosity, but instead weaves the ecological rhythms and patterns of the places they inhabit into their lives. Their distinct cultural upbringings, educations, and commitments to particular regions shape where they stand and how they write. Yet the shared practice of restoring the health of wounded places remains intact in the work of both men.

When differences arise between Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, the two writers remain in conversation, benefiting from what Berry calls "binocular vision," the art of gaining clarification of thought by perceiving through the other person's way of being. This leads to an awareness of their mutual existence in an expansive and generous source of energy that Snyder calls "mind." For example, in 1980, after reading Snyder's The Real Work: Interviews & Talks, 1964–1979, Berry sent a letter acknowledging key differences between himself and Snyder, yet was also moved to write the following:

... I read this book with a delight and gratitude that I rarely feel for the work of a contemporary. Given our obvious differences of geographic origin, experience, etc., it is uncanny how much I feel myself spoken for by this book — and, when not spoken for, spoken to, instructed. It is a feeling I have only got elsewhere from hearing my brother speak in 'environmental' controversies — the realization and joyful relief of hearing someone speak well out of deeply held beliefs that I share. And this always involves a pleasant quieting of my own often too insistent impulse to speak.

In that same collection of interviews, Snyder — in spite of any differences — also spoke of the common bond he shared with Berry. While stating the importance of Eastern philosophy in his life and work, he insisted that Berry's commitment to practicality and Western culture "draws on the best of American roots and traditional mindfulness ... to teach us something that we're not going to learn by studying Oriental texts." In this spirit, Berry and Snyder retain their particular ways of being, but through hospitable acts of perceiving beyond the self are also enlarged into a common existence of work and hope.

Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder knew about each other long before they met in the early 1970s. After Berry and Tanya Amyx were married in 1957, the couple spent a summer living in the Camp, a family cabin on the Kentucky River. That fall, they moved to nearby Georgetown, where Berry taught English at Georgetown College. Following the birth of their first child, Mary, the growing family headed west to California, where Berry attended the Stanford Creative Writing Program on a Wallace Stegner Fellowship (1958–60). It was then, while living in Mill Valley at what is now the O'Hanlon Center for the Arts, that Berry was reading Poetry magazine and took interest in the work of Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and Gary Snyder. Before long, he went to City Lights Books and bought a copy of Riprap (1959), Snyder's first book of poems that was published in Kyoto, Japan, by Origin Press. The poems made a substantial impression on Berry, who, a few years later, spoke of Snyder's work in "A Secular Pilgrimage," a lecture given through United Campus Ministry at University of Kentucky, before it was published in The Hudson Review (1970) and A Continuous Harmony (1972).

By the late 1950s, Gary Snyder was already something of a legend in the San Francisco poetry scene. After graduating from Reed College, he worked several jobs for the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Park Service, and the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Between periods of work, writing, and hitchhiking up and down the West Coast as an itinerant laborer, Snyder also studied Chinese and Japanese at University of California, Berkeley. Then, in 1955, after meeting Kenneth Rexroth in San Francisco, he read "A Berry Feast" alongside Allen Ginsberg's Howl at the now famous Six Gallery event. At the time, Snyder was living in Mill Valley with Jack Kerouac, who went on to cast him as Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums (1958). A year after the Six Gallery reading, Snyder departed again, this time on a marine freighter to study Zen Buddhism in Japan. For nearly fifteen years, he lived in Buddhist communities, worked on an oil tanker, explored India, and made several trips back to San Francisco.

The 1960s proved to be a decade of travel for both Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, ultimately leading to conscious decisions to settle down and raise families at specific homesteads. After the publication of Nathan Coulter, Berry spent a year with his family, mostly in Florence, Italy, on a Guggenheim Fellowship (1961–62). When they returned to Kentucky their second child, Den, was born — and the family moved again — this time for a teaching opportunity in New York City. Two years later, Berry took an appointment at the University of Kentucky, and the family purchased a small farm in Henry County, where Berry's ancestors had lived and farmed for seven generations. While the family was restoring an old farmhouse above the Kentucky River, Snyder was living in Japan, making plans to return to the West Coast with his wife, Masa Uehara, and their first son, Kai. Upon returning to California, their second child, Gen, was born and the family settled into the Sierra Nevada foothills where they built a homestead called Kitkitdizze. With Berry and Snyder now rooting themselves in very different places, it did not take long for these like-minded neighbors to find each other across the miles and cultures between them.

Jack Shoemaker, an editor and publisher in the Bay Area, proved to be a catalyzing link between Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. Shoemaker had met Snyder in the early 1960s, when the poet agreed to do a reading for the opening of the Unicorn, a bookstore that Shoemaker started with friends near the University of California at Santa Barbara. A few years later, in 1969, Shoemaker read Gary Snyder's Earth House Hold and "a book by a young writer [he'd] barely heard about, The Long-Legged House by Wendell Berry." Enamored by both works, Shoemaker remembers that "where Snyder's book celebrated the exotic and otherness of life, from Zen in Japan to working as a merchant mariner and a fire lookout in the Sierras, Berry's book explored and celebrated the familiar, the possible, an American life that [he] could imagine living." While traveling through Kentucky the next year, Shoemaker visited Port Royal and spent a few days at Lanes Landing Farm. The two men talked about writing and publishing, as well as Sand Dollar Books, an independent bookstore and press that Shoemaker was starting in Berkeley. Within a few years, Shoemaker had further extended his literary friendship to both Snyder and Berry by publishing Howard McCord's Some Notes to Gary Snyder's Myths & Texts (1971) and An Eastward Look (1974), a book of poems about Chinese paintings that Berry entrusted to him.

In 1973, while Jack Shoemaker and Wendell Berry worked through the production details for An Eastward Look, Snyder stepped into the conversation, and a correspondence began to take shape. Snyder's first letter to Berry expressed thanks for A Continuous Harmony (1972), a book that mentions Snyder as a contemporary poet with "an impulse of reverence moving toward the world, toward a new pertinence of speech and a new sense of possibility." Berry responded to Snyder's letter with words of mutual appreciation. He wrote of purchasing additional acreage and farming with horses, as well as "reading with pleasure several booklets by you that Jack Shoemaker sent me." Berry closed the note by wishing Snyder prosperity at Kitkitdizze, and in this polite exchange a journey of more than forty years of friendship had begun.

Within a few months, Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder were making plans to meet in person. Snyder was giving several readings in Ohio and Texas and hoped to stay in Port Royal a couple of days "to help with work around [Berry's] place. And talk some." Subsequent letters say very little about that first meeting, but the encounter made a lasting impression on both men. Snyder returned to Kitkitdizze and sent back several books, along with updates on poetry and politics in the Bay Area. The positive energy felt by Snyder was mutual. A few years later, at an event organized by Jack Shoemaker at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Berry and Snyder read poetry together for the first time. Before the reading, Berry called the evening a "moving event" and remembered the pleasure of welcoming Snyder to Port Royal some years ago. He had felt "close to [Snyder] for a long time from his work" and told the crowd that "to have an orderly head visit you from the other side of your subject" was certainly "a welcome event" and cause for excitement.

After that initial visit, Gary Snyder returned to Kitkitdizze and continued working with bioregional poets in the Bay Area, while Wendell Berry resumed the patterns of life at Lanes Landing Farm. Letters traveled between California and Kentucky over the winter. Then, with the onset of spring, Snyder received a warm letter from Berry, who wrote, "I have been keeping you and your place and things you told me about it a good deal in mind." He had hoped to visit Kitkitdizze soon, but farming obligations and the recent death of friend and neighbor, Owen Flood, would postpone any trip out west. He regretted the distance between them, but encouraged Snyder to bring his family back to Port Royal. With that invitation, Berry enclosed the poem "To Gary Snyder," a memory about their previous visit together.

A few years later, when Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder read poetry together at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Berry told listeners the story behind "To Gary Snyder" in a tone that was both lighthearted and serious. He said:

The day that Gary left to go to the airport, my boy Den and I went on up to visit the neighbor up a creek. The river was up and we were going along the edge of a backwater and we became aware that we were coming up on a rather large flock of mallards that had come down on the backwater. So we began to ease along to see if we could get up close to them. And we did. We got very close, crawling along on our bellies. And we stayed and watched a long time, got into that companionable spirit that you can get into with creatures — especially ducks, who are very conversational. And then, for some reason, we did a thing neither one of us anticipated. We said, "Well, we got to be going now" and the ducks didn't move. ... The reason we had spoken, I think, was because we hated to break it up. ... And we were walking along together, being sort of amazed at ourselves and pleased, and Den said, "I wish Mr. Snyder had been here." And I knew exactly what he meant and I wrote a poem about it.

Berry and his son, Den, had set out to check on a local neighbor cut off by backwater, but instead stepped into an unexpected encounter with nature that stirred longings for a new and distant companion still present in their minds despite his physical absence.

The language and structure of "To Gary Snyder" connect Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder together as distant neighbors — allies with a common stance in the world — while still acknowledging the geographic space and cultural differences between them. The poem reads:

To Gary Snyder

After we saw the wild ducks and walked away, drawing out the quiet that had held us, in wonder of them and of ourselves, Den said, "I wish Mr. Snyder had been here." And I said, "Yes." But many fine things will happen here that you will not see, and I am resigned to ignorance of many that will happen in your hills. It cannot often be as it was when we heard geese in the air and ran out of the house to see them wavering in long lines, high, southward, out of sight. By division we speak, out of wonder.

The poem begins with a moment of intimacy shared between a father and son, yet by the concluding lines this community of affection has expanded to also include Snyder. Wendell and Den are connected to a place, but also within a memory. They recall the presence of a new friend, one who was drawn into their home — and then released again — to return to the responsibilities and pleasures of his own place.

With distance set between Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, the pattern of migrating geese becomes the metaphor that links the two men across any geographic or cultural divide. In a moment of shared wonder, Berry and Snyder watched the geese "wavering in long lines, high, / southward, out of sight." Snyder's time at Port Royal came and went quickly, like the geese that passed over the farm and called both men outdoors with eyes set to the sky. Now enclosed with a letter, Berry's own poetic "lines" are sent across the miles — like geese in flight — to offer an affectionate hello and good-bye, a gesture of friendship that speaks fidelity across the distance. When read from this perspective, the concluding moment of the poem does not speak of "division" as separation. Instead, the final line communicates the existence of two lives within a mutual vision, separated by nothing more than a comma that holds two distinct expressions of being together: "By division we speak, out of wonder."


Excerpted from "Distant Neighbors"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Chad Wriglesworth.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

About the Letters,
Distant Neighbors,
A Note of Appreciation,

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