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Losing The Junk That Goes With Being Human: Melissa Mylchreest And Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder

"A decade ago I packed everything I owned into my little car and drove across the country to Montana, in part because of a few poems," writes essayist, poet and two-time winner of the Obsidian Prize for Poetry, Melissa Mylchreest.

"Not the poems typically associated with Montana, such as those by Richard Hugo or James Welch, but instead from a different time and place: I had spent months reading the works of the ancient Chinese wilderness poets, like T'ao Ch'ien and Han Shan, and they had me dreaming of wild, unpopulated places.Writing as early as the fourth century about a life of solitude and contemplation in rugged peaks and valleys, they portrayed a kind of grounded, landscape-based spirituality that resonated with me. Chopping wood, carrying water, wandering the mountains, they distilled life down to basics in a place that demanded self-reliance and hard work, but offered up lessons in return: how to be humble, how to sit in stillness and listen, how not to take anything too seriously, how to lose oneself into the landscape and how to return to civilization.

I came to Montana because I believed it is big enough and wild enough to hold those lessons within its rivers and mountains, and it is. The land is endlessly instructive, endlessly mysterious. There are reminders here to keep us in our place, and to keep us fully alive, the fierce cold of winter, fire, and the staggering dryness of summer. The fixed and unforgettable stare of a grizzly when you stumble upon it resting, The way your heart beats more fully for having stumbled, and stared back, and stepped away unscathed but not unchanged."

Mylchreest pairs her reflection with a poem by Gary Snyder, winner of the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Snyder, also influenced by Chinese wilderness poets, writes as gracefully about metaphysics and spirituality as he does about logging and trail-building. Like Mylchreest, he experiences the vast landscape and returns changed.

“Piute Creek”

One granite ridge
A tree, would be enough
Or even a rock, a small creek,
A bark shred in a pool.
Hill beyond hill, folded and twisted   
Tough trees crammed
In thin stone fractures
A huge moon on it all, is too much.   
The mind wanders. A million
Summers, night air still and the rocks   
Warm.   Sky over endless mountains.   
All the junk that goes with being human   
Drops away, hard rock wavers
Even the heavy present seems to fail   
This bubble of a heart.
Words and books
Like a small creek off a high ledge   
Gone in the dry air.

A clear, attentive mind
Has no meaning but that
Which sees is truly seen.
No one loves rock, yet we are here.   
Night chills. A flick
In the moonlight
Slips into Juniper shadow:
Back there unseen
Cold proud eyes
Of Cougar or Coyote
Watch me rise and go.

(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 7/20/16 and 1/25/17. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)

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