Taking stock

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The Etiquette of Freedom: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison and The Practice of the Wild
Edited by Paul Ebenkamp
160 pages, hardcover/DVD: $28.
Counterpoint, October 2010.

Bird Cloud
Annie Proulx
256 pages, hardcover: $26.
Scribner,
January 2011.

Two Pulitzer Prize-winning Western authors have books coming out in the next few months. Both Annie Proulx and Gary Snyder are taking stock these days, looking back up the trail to ask where we are, and where we are going.

Proulx, in her new memoir Bird Cloud, observes that America is a rootless culture. Our obsession with "individual achievement" and "the acquisition of goods and money" is built on our "alienation from the warmth of the home culture. ... This separation from one's tribe creates an inner loneliness that increases as one ages." Proulx, 75, seems fiercely aware of such loneliness, or at least determined to launch countermeasures against it. In this, her first work of nonfiction in two decades, she teams up with her grown children to buy 640 acres of wild Wyoming land (which she names Bird Cloud) and build a home suitable to her "interests, needs, and character" where she hopes "(she) will end (her) days."

Proulx's fiction is well known for its hard edges, for its exploration of bleak, often-hopeless lives in the rural West. In this more personal book, her tone is comforting, friendly, even intimate. The reader becomes both companion and confidant. This is not Proulx the public figure, but Annie, gorging herself on the details of everyday life. The writing is most engaging after the house is built, and Proulx moves into it. She likes to stand at the window, looking out on the land: "The sun struggled up and the mist rose in great humps over the remaining ribbons of open water. ... Spring seemed very far away, but the bald eagle pair sat side by side catching the first rays." Such beauty is tempered and enhanced by the harshness of the place, as Proulx struggles with snow, wind and the free-range cows that find their way past her fences. She explores her family's history and its French-Canadian origins and ponders the archaeological evidence of the Indian cultures that once lived on her land. This is the way, she seems to tell us, to find a home, to be at home.

But Proulx fills too many pages with the mundane details of home building; not enough space is given to her own engagement with the place. She seems to know it better as a subject than as a place. Yet for readers who love Proulx's fiction, Bird Cloud provides a rare window on the world of this very private writer, her dreams and desires, her doubts and questions.

At 80, Gary Snyder is also taking stock in this portrait of his life and work, The Etiquette of Freedom, which is being released with its companion film, The Practice of the Wild. The titles are borrowed from Snyder's earlier work. Novelist and poet Jim Harrison is part of the story, but the focus is on Snyder, with Harrison serving as a kind of sounding board. Other voices weigh in, too: publisher Jack Shoemaker; Joanne Kyger, a poet and Snyder's ex-wife; and Michael McClure, another poet.

The book and film are packaged together, and are clearly intended to be experienced together. The film, however, stands easily on its own, while the book does not. Though the book does include some source material not in the film, the project really relies on the experience of being in conversation with Snyder through the medium of film.

At San Simeon on the rural California coast, Snyder and Harrison discuss Zen Buddhism, personal identity, poetry and other topics in a series of walks, fireside chats and gatherings at the supper table. Snyder does much of the talking, and Harrison is quirky, endearing and easy to forgive. At first, the scenes feel oddly punctuated, as if the viewer is stepping into the middle of a conversation without knowing its back-story. (The book does help a bit here.) Then the scenes begin to line up, one behind the other, to tell a complete story. Snyder's poetic vision is instructive here. He says that he was attracted to the monosyllabic rhythms in Chinese poetry, something he also discovered in pre-Norman English. Those rhythms are like rocks, he says, and so he decided: "I'm gonna try to work with monosyllabic English, with an old-style vocabulary like I was building a little rock trail."

Snyder recites bits of his poetry throughout the film, but even better is the DVD "extra," which features him reading the poems published in the book. He sits alone in the corner of a room, light coming from the windows behind him. Snyder is earnest, but not pedantic. Listen closely, he seems to be saying. These poems are not of my making alone, but of your making, too; they are about you.

Now in their elder years, neither Proulx nor Snyder claim to have the answers that will shake us loose from the challenges of our time. Their achievement in these projects lies not in saying something new, but in affirming what they, and we, have always known. Our lives and our cultures are fragile, as is our world. We must take care of each other. Snyder's poem "For the Children" offers instruction to this end:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light