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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Deep Ecology and Confucius

Having just about wrapped up my most recent novel, Sherlock Holmes in Egypt in 1923 figuring out who poisoned the discoverer of King Tut’s tomb, and incidentally how King Tut himself had died three thousand two hundred years earlier, I turned this week to research for my next book, and was reminded of the second verse of Confucius’ Analects (written a mere two thousand five hundred years ago): “Isn’t it a joy to greet friends from afar!”

The new book will focus on unexpected parallels between the views of John Muir, the Taoist tradition in China, and modern scientifically-inspired movements regarding the place of humans in the natural world. I’ve long been a student of Muir and Taoism, and had sat down to read up on the third leg of the book, the modern movement called “Deep Ecology.” Turns out the movement was founded several decades ago by a Norwegian philosophy, Arne Naess, drawing upon the burgeoning scientific field of ecological studies. Naess’ principal collaborators in the development of Deep Ecology (and the authors of the 1985 book Deep Ecology) were two Californians, George Sessions from Sierra College a hundred miles south of me, and Bill Devall from Humboldt State University a hundred miles west of me.

No, those aren’t the “friends from afar” I’ve referred to. But between these three gentlemen, there was a prominent, interlocking complex of references in their writings and the courses they taught to two giants from earlier in California arts and letters: Robinson Jeffers and Gary Snyder—my friends from afar that it was indeed a joy to reconnect with.

I first heard of Robinson Jeffers (“the California poet” of the early and mid-twentieth century) from a student in the late 1970s. He was an unusual student, his name lost in the mists of time, who in spite of requiring weekly doses of a key (genetically-missing) enzyme to keep himself alive, had bicycled some four hundred miles down the Pacific coast of North America from Washington state to the Eagle Lake Field Station in northeastern California, of which I was then the director. Around campfires on the beach of Eagle Lake after days of research, he would recite for us by memory long, lovely poems by a poet I’d never heard of, extolling the beauty of stars and the rocks and sea creatures of Carmel, California.

A decade later I recalled Robinson Jeffers, possibly because a colleague in Chico State’s English department was editing his collected works. Reading his poems, I was inspired by his vision of the grandeur and beauty of the California coast, his paeans to the natural world. Jeffers was a bit too misanthropic for my taste, but this was easily forgiven, since I have been there also, and after all one can understand the trait in a man whose adult life was book-ended by the two World Wars of the twentieth century. Tammy and I love his poems so much that we gave our son the middle name of “Jeffers,” and have visited his “Tor House” home in Carmel upon several occasions.

The second friend from afar, Gary Snyder, is also a poet, but came later in California history, being a member of Allen Ginsburg’s “beat generation” (and the inspiration for the character Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums). Snyder grew up in the Pacific Northwest, came to know the mountains intimately both as a trail worker and backpacker, and spent a decade or so immersing himself in Zen Buddhism in Japan. He settled in the Yuba River watershed and founded a community in the area dedicated to Buddhism and stewardship of the land. A Pulitzer-prize winning poet, Snyder has also written numerous essays on the importance of knowing your local watershed’s ecology and becoming part of it. I corresponded with him a few times when I first moved to California, but nothing particular ever came of it.

But for the past three decades, Jeffers and Snyder have been among my highest beacons leading the Way to cherishing the natural world and particularly the California chunk of it that we inhabit. How delightful, then, to unexpectedly discover that others also regard them as inspiring, and have woven them into the fabric of the Deep Ecology movement. I am eagerly looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with Jeffers and Snyder even as I dig more deeply into Deep Ecology and begin the process of weaving all of this together with John Muir and the Taoist tradition. Cultivating our “heroes” is surely one of the most delightful and important of our tasks as we seek to live authentic and rich lives in these troubled times.
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