Excerpts from the final essay of Gary Snyder’s book The Practice of the Wild (1990). The essay’s title is “Survival and Sacrament.”
It’s not that I agree or disagree with everything written by Mr. Snyder, but rather something in these snippets poked at me. While reading, I frowned and I chuckled. I was surprised, hopeful and somber after reading this book and I look forward to discussing it with my daughter, who is also reading it as part of our 2-person book club!
“It is said that about a million and a half species of animals and plants have been scientifically described, and that there are anywhere from ten to thirty million species of organisms on earth. Over half of all the species on earth are thought to live in the moist tropical forests (Wilson, 1989, 108). About half of those forests, in Asia, Africa, and South America, are already gone. (At the same time there are seven million homeless children on the streets of Brazil. Are vanishing trees being reborn as unwanted children?) A clearcut or even a mile-wide strip-mine pit will heal in geological time. The extinction of a species, each one a pilgrim of four billion years of evolution, is an irreversible loss. The ending of the lines of so many creatures with whom we have traveled this far is an occasion of profound sorrow and grief. Death can be accepted and to some degree transformed. But the loss of lineages and all their future young is not something to accept. It must be rigorously and intelligently resisted.”
“Defend all of these plants, bugs and animals equally? Little invertebrates that have never been seen in a zoo or a wildlife magazine? Species that are but a hair away from one another? It isn’t just a case of unique lineages but the lives of overall ecosystems (a larger sort of almost-organism) that are at stake. Some archly argue that extinction has always been the fate of species and communities alike. Some quote a Buddhist teaching back at us: “all is impermanent.” Indeed. All the more reason to move gently and cause less harm. Large highly adapted vertebrates, once lost, will never return in forms we have known them. Hundreds of millions of years might elapse before the equivalent of a whale or an elephant is seen again, if ever. The scale of loss is beyond any measure the planet has ever known. “Death is one thing, an end to birth is something else” (Soule and Wilcox, 1980, 8).”
“Everyone who ever lived took the lives of other animals, pulled plants, plucked fruit, and ate. Primary people have had their own ways of trying to understand the precept of nonharming. They knew that taking life required gratitude and care. There is no death that is not somebody’s food, no life that is not somebody’s death. Some would take this as a sign that the universe is fundamentally flawed. This leads to disgust with self, with humanity, and with nature. Otherworldly philosophies end up doing more damage to the planet (and human psyches) than the pain and suffering that is in the existential conditions they seek to transcend.”
“A subsistence economy is a sacramental economy because it has faced up to one of the critical problems of life and death: the taking of life for food. Contemporary people do not need to hunt, many cannot even afford meat, and in the developed world the variety of foods available to us makes the avoidance of meat an easy choice. Forests in the tropics are cut to make pasture to raise beef for the American market. Our distance from the source of our food enables us to be superficially more comfortable, and distinctly more ignorant.”
“And if we do eat meat it is the life, the bounce, the swish, of a great alert being with keen ears and lovely eyes, with foursquare feet and a huge beating heart that we eat, let us not deceive ourselves.”
“We too will be offerings – we are all edible.”