A moment in the company of ‘Mountains and Rivers’

As a writer who struggles with manuscripts that take years, even decades to form and reform, I am often attracted to works that share a similarly long gestation. Such is Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End, a sequence of poems that he wrote over a 40 year period before they were brought together in book form in 1996.

MountainsandRiversWithoutEndCoverI have read some of this work before but this fall picked up the book and have been reading / re-reading it. It’s work that can be simultaneously light and profound, moving gracefully between settings in the western U.S. and Japan, between the 14th century and 20th, between Zen and native American sensibilities.

I happened to be in San Francisco recently, so made a pilgrimage to City Lights Books, pausing to soak in the warm ambience of The Poet’s Room in the upper loft, to sit in The Poet’s Chair. How many places can one do that? As I was leaving I noticed a poster: Gary Snyder would be at City Lights, that very night to celebrate the publication a new edition of Mountains and Rivers Without End. Alas, my travel schedule called for me to keep moving.

So I kept moving. Life is in the moments and other moments would present themselves. A few days later, our little traveling group walked through Muir Woods, craning our necks to see the tops of redwoods that had been standing that ground for over 800 years.

A momentary pause, looking up, in Muir Woods, California.

A momentary pause, looking up, in Muir Woods, California.

Back home the next week, I continued reading Mountains and Rivers, opening it to the poem “Old Woodrat’s Stinky House.” 

A spoken language works
for about five centuries,
lifespan of a douglas fir;
big floods, big fires, every couple hundred years,
a human life lasts eighty,
a generation twenty.
Hot summers every eight or ten,
four seasons every year
twenty-eight days for the moon
day / night    the twenty-four hours

& a song might last four minutes,

a breath is a breath.









  1. I like the poem, Lorne… especially the diminishing time aspect of it. I’ve heard this year’s Booker Prize winner, The Luminaries, (which I’ve not read yet) is based on each chapter being half the length of the previous one. Obviously a winning formula.

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