Turtle Island

A Native Role; Gary Snyder as the seer and prophet in ‘Turtle Island’

July 26, 2019 by Essay Writer

Charles Altieri writes that in his collection of poetry, Turtle Island, Gary Snyder encapsulates two roles: the seer and the prophet. Altieri describes the two roles vaguely, the seer being one who is able to look past the irrelevant aspects of modern life to a purer kind of experience, while the prophet is able to articulate a traditional way of thinking native to the land of America. It could be argued that due to the vagueness surrounding the description of these two roles it would be hard not to find some continuity between Altieri’s idea and the poems, but regardless the distinction between the two roles can clearly be seen. Two good examples of Snyder acting as seer and prophet are the poems “The Bath” and “The Uses of Light” respectively.

Before the two poems can be dealt with, it is worth mentioning the title of the collection as incorporating both the vision of the seer and the understanding of the prophet. The name Turtle Island is a direct reference to Native American culture, it being a name for the American continent based off of the creation myths of several Native tribes. In his essay “Gary Snyder: The Lessons of Turtle Island”, Michael Castro writes that the title encapsulates a “recurrent theme among its poems and essays [that there is a] need for modern Americans to return to the perception of the earth as a living organism to whom we are related”.[1] Through Castro’s note we can see that in the title, Turtle Island, the seer calls for the individual reader to abandon the ego so prevalent in modern culture, and see themselves as incorporated in a wider system entwined with not only the physical land of America, but also the earth as a whole, while the prophet emphasises that this wider system is not a modern notion, but a far more indigenous and ancient concept held by the original inhabitants of the American continent. Even in his title Snyder is clearly shown to support Altieri’s idea of the seer and the prophet, setting a standard for the collection as a whole for upholding a clear artistic and symbolic intent.

In “The Bath” Snyder, acting as the seer, challenges modern notions surrounding the family and consciousness, advocating for a collective consciousness and a more naturalistic attitude towards family relations. The poem presents Snyder, his wife, and his young son Kai bathing together, and much of the imagery of the poem could easily be read as inappropriate due to the frank language Snyder uses:

“…washing-tickling out the scrotum, little anus,

His penis curving up and getting hard

As I pull back skin and try to wash it

Laughing and jumping, flinging arms around,

I squat all naked too”. [2]

This language, focussing particularly on Snyder describing his son’s genitals, serves a purpose other than simply shocking the reader for affect. Rather, it symbolises an openness Snyder and his family have found through their countercultural practices that include Native beliefs, an openness that permits a relationship between father and son that many people, both within the poems context of the 1960s and a contemporary readership, would deem as inappropriate. By removing themselves from the cultural consciousness of the 1960s and accepting a countercultural lifestyle that borrows heavily from Native ideas about the family, Snyder is able to separate the body and sexuality, allowing for a freer relationship between his son and himself. As the seer, Snyder is able to see through the modern misconceptions of sexuality and thus embodies a type of familial experience that is more honest, tender, and open than that of the wider culture of 1960s America.

This separation between the body and sexuality that Snyder proposes is continued throughout the poem, and is extended to a collective physicality through a shared consciousness. Throughout the poem there is a refrain that, though changing slightly, is based around the question “is this our body?” [Snyder, pp.12] As Snyder’s description of the familial bath is moved away from focussing primarily on the physicality of Kai and incorporates more collective actions, such as “sucking milk from this our body sends through / jolts of light; the son, the father, / sharing mother’s joy” [Snyder, pp.13], and scenic depictions, such as “The cloud across the sky. The windy pines. / the trickle gurgle in the swampy meadow” [Snyder, pp.14], the separation between Snyder, his wife, and his son becomes blurred and indistinct. The poem’s conclusion presents Snyder’s family as a unified whole, inseparable from each other and aware of their place on the Earth: “This is our body. Drawn up crosslegged by the flames … Laughing on the Great Earth / Come out from the bath.” [Snyder, pp.14] The progression from the questioning “is this our body?” to the declarative “This is our body” shows an acceptance of an innate connection between the family members, as well as between the body and consciousness. While in a modern context the individual is taught to think in a more individual manner, and to stay away from communal thinking, Snyder, as the seer, incorporates Native thinking to show the connectedness of the world, that the individual ego does not exist but rather there is a collective consciousness that exists in many separate bodies. Furthermore, the mention of the “Great Earth” suggests a link between this collective conscious and the connections that Native culture states exist in the natural world. Acting as the seer in “The Bath”, Snyder does much to dissemble modern notions of egocentric consciousness and installs in its place a collective consciousness that allows a more direct approach to experience.

The role of prophet, to recognise and articulate a native way of American thinking that outdates America as a nation, can be seen in “The Uses of Light”, a poem that explores the many ways that light is used in the natural world. In the poem, Snyder records how five different entities use light, progressing from the least relatable to the reader to the most: first the stones, then the trees, moths, deer, and finally a voice one can assume to be that of Snyder himself taking on the perspective of a Native American. In the poem Snyder creates a sense of interconnectedness between these five entities, and also creates a sense that this connectedness, as a belief, is ancient. The first stanza, “It warms my bones / say the stones”, personifies the stones in a voice that has an elderly, archaic, creaky tone, suggesting a history to this belief that predates not only Snyder, but also perhaps modern American culture. As the first stanza, and thus the base of the hierarchy of life that Snyder has created in the poem, the stones symbolise how deeply this connectedness is rooted in the natural world. While we, readers immersed in a modern culture and mode of thinking, assume that stones, unlike plant or animals, are not living creatures, Snyder articulates a Native belief that the world as whole entity is a living organism. Life, therefore, is not held only by those organisms that breathe and grow, but is rather a quality everything in our world has in common.

The final stanza articulates this sense of Native tradition perhaps the most clearly:

“A high tower

on a wide plain.

If you climb up

One floor

You’ll see a thousand miles more.” [Snyder, pp.39]

As Snyder, for the greater part of the collection, does not talk about an urban environment, but rather a rural great plains one, we can assume this “tower” is not a literal anachronistic building, but rather a metaphor. Perhaps Snyder is taking on the viewpoint of a Native American who climbs a hill to survey this “wide plain”? Light in the poem is frequently used as a means of survival: it warms the stones, it helps the tree grow, and allows the deer to be wary of predators, so perhaps this Native American is surveying the land for survival as well, wanting to “see a thousand miles more” to search for food or shelter. Through this interpretation Snyder, as the prophet, presents a use of light in accordance with a tradition native to the American land, as well showing how the indigenous people believed in sharing the light with the world as a whole and thus enforcing the connectedness that is so prevalent in Native culture.

As both prophet and seer, Snyder floods Turtle Island with Native American belief, and creates a vision of America where a traditional interconnectedness exists as the primary driving force of life. Whether it is through the seer of “The Bath”, or the prophet of “The Uses of Light”, the message Snyder presents is always the same, only the means he uses change. This message can be seen as a call back to a traditional way of thinking, turning away from the modern consciousness or mind-set, and accepting a way of life reminiscent of the ancient Turtle Island of the Native peoples.


[1] Michael Castro, “Gary Snyder: The Lessons of Turtle Island”, Criticial Essays on Gary Snyder, ed. by Patrick D. Murphy, (Boston: G. K. Hall and co., 1991), pp.132

[2] Gary Snyder, Turtle Island, (New York: New Directions Books, 1974), pp.12

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