March 14, 2012, is the 15th anniversary of the International Day of Action for Rivers with events taking place in 30 countries around the world. To commemorate the event, I am posting this essay I wrote and published in 2005 about poets Gary Snyder and Robert Hass and their role as activists.
Gary Snyder says that running a river is a lot like poetry: “You’re in the flow, there’s no time to stop and think before reacting, and new vistas keep opening up. In the end you’re happy that you made it through, but not certain that you’re glad it’s over.”
On a clear, warm Sierra day, one sunset before the summer solstice, poets Gary Snyder and Robert Hass climb into four rubber rafts with 16 other people for a combination whitewater rafting trip and poetry reading on California’s American River. The trip is a fundraiser for International Rivers, a small Berkeley nonprofit that helps people around the world protect their local rivers from large dams. Hass is an IRN board member and Snyder on the advisory board. We’re rafting eight river miles today with three large rapids. After Troublemaker, the biggest and last rapid of the day, we’ll stop for lunch and a poetry reading at Marshall Gold Discovery Park where 150 years ago, a nugget of gold sent California spinning.
“Forward paddle,” commands our river guide. “Stop. Back paddle.”
We navigate our first riffle and continue at a clip through the steep-walled canyon of metamorphic and volcanic rocks. There’s something about being in the company of a poet that makes you pay closer attention to the world. A deep channel reveals Volkswagen-size boulders that appear like leviathans on the river bottom. In the shallow riffles, a diversity of smooth, rounded river rocks coat the river floor. Dry, straw-colored grass, oaks, and a few scratchy pines cover the hills on the right, whereas the shaded north-facing slope on river left hosts a jumble of alders, pines, and white-blooming buckeyes. Willows, alders and cottonwoods vie for space with blackberries and wild grapes at river’s edge, and a merganser sits on a rock in the river with its long, red hair blown backwards like Elvis rising late on a Sunday morning.
Gary Snyder looks confident paddling in the front of his raft in dark shades and a well-worn hat. This river was the first that Snyder ever ran. “Until the 1970’s, I spent all my time on the ridges. It never occurred to me that anything interesting was going on in the valleys,” he said with a grin.
Poet, essayist, educator and intellectual, Gary Snyder has published 19 books including Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, Turtle Island, Axe Handles, The Practice of the Wild, Mountains and Rivers Without End, and danger on peaks (2004). His numerous awards include the Bollingen Prize for Poetry (1997) and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1975). Until his retirement, he taught at U.C. Davis where he helped found the undergraduate program, “Nature and Culture,” a cross-disciplinary program that has become a national model.
Snyder is also an activist. Starting with his involvement in the San Francisco Beat Generation, he has written about ecological responsibility, introduced concepts like stewardship, bioregion, and watershed, terms and concepts now commonly used in environmental circles. He is active in regional, state and international environmental issues and helped to found the Yuba Watershed Institute, a volunteer nonprofit that works on forestry and land issues in his own Yuba Watershed Bioregion in the Sierras.
“In Asia and Europe, tradition counts on poets to be public intellectuals and to speak out about political issues,” says Snyder. “Poets more than fiction writers are expected to be activists. All throughout history, poets have been engaged in society.”
Walt Whitman spoke out against slavery and nursed the wounded during the Civil War. Registering as a conscientious objector during World War II, Kenneth Rexroth helped Japanese Americans evade internment. New York-born poet Muriel Rukeyser used her poetry to protest against inequalities of sex, race, and class. Black feminist and lesbian Audre Lorde founded a group that protested South African women living under apartheid. Pablo Neruda, Czeslaw Milosz, Federico García Lorca, and Octavio Paz top the list of poets seeped in social activism.
“In America, poets are not given the same role as they are in Europe or Asia,” says Snyder. “The American public isn’t aware of poets as public intellectuals not because they have an opinion about poets per se, but because they don’t think that poetry is relevant.”
Robert Hass is also a public intellectual, educator and a revered poet. His books of poetry include Sun Under Wood: New Poems, Human Wishes, Praise, and Field Guide. He also co-translated a number of volumes of poetry with Czeslaw Milosz. As United States poet laureate (1995-1997) he addressed illiteracy and promoted watershed and environmental awareness across America. He teaches at U.C. Berkeley and has been a visiting faculty member at the University of Iowa.
Hass says that a case can be made that poetry is a form of activism. If you write things down that go out into the community, they will affect change, he says. Offering the Romantic Age as an example, he says that prior to the 19th century people thought of mountains and nature as wastelands, things to be feared and tamed. But Romantic poets, composers, and painters redefined wilderness and celebrated the beauty of wild nature in their art. One of those poets was William Wordsworth. Henry David Thoreau read Wordsworth and John Muir read both. By the time Muir went to Yosemite, he had a language for what he found there, for what was beautiful and what should be preserved.
“I can also make a case that poetry is not activism,” says Hass, using George Oppen as an example. A poet and a printer, Oppen lived in New York City, where during the depression he quit writing poetry to help organize strikes for unemployed workers. For 25 years he chose not to write poems, and in 1968 gave his reasons to an interviewer:
"If you do something politically, you do something that has political efficacy. And if you decide to write poetry, then you write poetry, not something that you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering," said Oppen.
Hass likes that clarity. “Politics is politics and art is art. When I’m making art, I’m not trying to get anybody to do anything in particular. I’m not trying to change other people’s minds when I’m writing a poem,” Hass says.
Until recently, Hass didn’t have time to be socially active. In America, he says, artists are forced to have two jobs. One full-time job is their art, and the other is a job to support your art. If you add a relationship and a family, it’s difficult to do any of it well. He figured that once his kids were grown, he could give a portion of his time to political activism. And that’s what he’s doing now.
Hass first became involved with IRN in 1995 during his first year as the United States poet laureate. Supported by IRN and coordinated by writer Pamela Michael, Hass co-founded a poetry and art contest for children based on the theme of watersheds. The first year, River of Words had a few thousand entries from children within the United States, but it has since become an independent nonprofit and matured into an international contest with about 20,000 entries annually.
With the contest housed in IRN’s office, poetry and art began to infiltrate the cracks between policy papers and campaign strategies. Children’s art adorned the copy room doors and poems were read at staff meetings. “Fear was my first reaction,” said IRN’s executive director Juliette Majot. “Activists don’t like to be vulnerable. We are calculating and technical in all that we do and tend to shut out our emotions. But I’m convinced that after Pam started bringing poetry to our staff meetings, the organization changed. We paid more attention to our emotional selves. You can’t be a good activist if you are closed down. Poetry reminds us of that vulnerability.”
Looking at the work that IRN does, you can see why they don’t invite vulnerability. From a small office above a pizza parlor in Berkeley, they have delayed construction, fought for and won resettlement packages for displaced people, and played an active role in international decision-making arenas. Driving their work is the belief that human rights and environmental protection are intrinsically linked.
IRN invited Hass to join the board of directors in 1997. A formal discussion never took place about how poetry and activism would fit, says Majot. The two rivers were merely allowed to share the same floodplain, and they have since joined as a braided channel. Hass and Snyder have drawn large crowds for fundraising dinners where commemorative broadsides were sold. Before his death, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz donated his poem “Rivers” for a broadside to be sold at a dinner at Hass’s request (Hass had translated the poem).
“Poets are good low-rent celebrities,” said Snyder. “I’ve donated my time to hundreds of organizations. Many poets do. We do it because we support the work and believe in the cause.”
Troublemaker is the last and biggest rapid of the day. Although the river feels wild on this stretch of river—the nation’s most popular recreational whitewater run with at least 100,000 people floating here annually—we are actually sandwiched between dams. There are 13 of them upstream of where we put-in at Chile Bar, and downstream is the 340-foot concrete Folsom Dam. If we ran the whole stretch of river from Chile Bar to Folsom reservoir, we’d run into the slack water of the reservoir where you can feel the life of the river drain. If dam builders had their way back in 1977, there would be four more dams between Chili Bar and Folsom Dam and we’d be paddling canoes on still water. But local activists successfully fought the project.
Not all dams can be stopped. After a decades-long fight against the Three Gorges Dam in China, the floodgates closed on the Three Gorges Dam and the water is flooding the centuries-old cultural hearth of the Three Gorges valley. When the monolith is complete in 2009, it will create a 600-foot-deep reservoir that is 365-miles long (as long as mainland Greece), and is estimated to displace 1.3 million people (some of whom aren’t even born). Beneath the reservoir, which is predicted to quickly become a polluted cesspool of silt and waste, ancient Chinese poetry is carved on rock walls.
What can activists do when the dam is built, when the floodwaters rise? How do they recover from setbacks, survive defeat, and find inspiration? Hass says that poetry and art can help activists with the bigger picture. He often speaks to watershed managers at the Environmental Protection Agency who say that they get so involved with their campaigns that they forget why they’re doing the work in the first place. Poetry reminds them.
“Activists, like everybody else, need to find ways to be reflective,” said Snyder, “to look at the full frame, to be open and creative and not always caught in a single-minded linear focus. You have to step back and smell the breeze. Part of that comes with going for walks, watching birds, running a river. You can also get that perspective from looking at art, dancing, or reading poetry.”
The day ended with a late lunch and poetry reading on the banks of the river. In wet clothes and hair like mergansers, Hass and Snyder read new, unpublished poems to a small group of activists on the banks of the American River.
“It will be the local people, the watershed people, who will prove to be the last and possibly most effective line of defense,” Snyder said in Coming in to the Watershed.
Our future depends on the watershed people, and that goes for poets as well as activists. Win or lose, they are our best line of defense.
This essay by Aleta George appeared in Divide: Creative Responses to Contemporary Social Questions, University of Colorado at Boulder, Fall 2005. At the time, I was a staff member at International Rivers and had helped to launch the International Day of Action Against Dams.