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Two Views from the East

Poet Gary Snyder and artist Tom Killion paint Japanese-influenced portraits of the rugged High Sierra.

View One
by Gary Snyder

Though born in San Francisco, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and started climbing snow peaks as a teenager. Then I did Forest Service trail and fire work–including two seasons on lookouts–and was inspired by reading John Muir, about his overcoat, his dry bread and tea.

I came back to California to study East Asian languages in Berkeley–and fell into a rich culture of poets, bohemian leftists, and Japanese-American Buddhists. One summer I worked in the Sierra on a trail crew, and that fall took a sumi painting course from Chiura Obata, a Japanese-American artist who taught at Berkeley. My Sierra-eye was clearly shaped by the East Asian landscape sensibility, plus Muir’s hardiness and devotion, and the gritty world of mules and packers.

Back on the West Coast after some years in Japan, I met Tom Killion and he gave me a copy of his just-out 28 Views of Mount Tamalpais. I knew the Marin backcountry well, and I had hiked the trails of Tamalpais, climbed it and circumambulated it, many times. I also knew the work of Hokusai, and his series of "views." Tom had done, I thought, exactly the right thing. Finding himself drawn to printmaking and inspired by the Japanese artists, he focused on his own world: Mt. Tamalpais, under which he had grown up. This long practice of art, craft, and attention produced a marvelous set of images, "sky, earth, and water," with angles from bays, estuaries, oceans; from ridges, decks, fields, and thickets; with bridges, freeways, pilings, and the far city in it too. It is a perfect evocation of a place and its spirit.

When Tom approached me several years ago to suggest this Sierra collaboration, asking if I had any unpublished Sierra writings, I first thought not–until I remembered my many backpacking notebooks. I considered them overly laconic, but covering a good span of space and time. (Being tired, cold, and hungry, I didn’t write all that much, and sometimes what looks like the admirable brevity of haiku is probably just my haste to put the pencil away and get some hot tea.) So I looked at his High Sierra prints already done. They stole my heart. He had caught the streams and mountains as they are: visionary and earthy; icy, aloof, and dangerous; but an inspiring teacher when approached in the right way.

View Two
by Tom Killion

Since childhood I have felt the urge to take up pencil, pen, and brush each time I’ve encountered the open vistas and glaciated patterns of the Sierra landscape. The work I have accumulated during four decades of Sierra journeys includes close to a thousand sketches in pencil, watercolor, oil paste, and, most commonly, ballpoint pen–my preferred "medium." These sketches portray every subject from the minutiae of wildflowers to the range-encompassing vistas seen from mountain peaks. Most are filled with a shorthand vocabulary of scribbles and marks, supplemented by notes about vegetation and geology that I will not translate until months–or more often years–later, when I work them into the designs for woodcut prints.

I have had a lifelong interest in the multicolored woodcuts of Hokusai and Hiroshige, early-19th-century masters of the Japanese landscape print. Since my early teens I have attempted to portray the California landscape through the lens of these artists’ ukiyo-e ("floating world") sensibility, using Japanese wood-carving tools, woods, and papers designed for hanga (woodcut) printmaking.

One of the great attractions in ukiyo-e landscapes was the relationship between humans and the natural world portrayed in them. Massive trees and towering mountains dwarfed the country people toiling along narrow paths, creating a reassuring contrast to the world I grew up in, where human constructions threatened to overwhelm the natural beauty of the Bay Area. My attempt to portray fast-changing childhood haunts around Mt. Tamalpais through this lens must have stemmed from some deep desire to turn the clock back to a less human-dominated world. And so the little trails and vast mountain slopes of the Sierra appealed to me as the subject for a series of landscape prints.

Gary Snyder’s Journal
Solo Trip in the Lyell and Ritter Backcountry

Gary Snyder’s first Sierra backpacking trip was a solo loop through the Ritter and Clark ranges in 1955. His first volume of poetry, Riprap, burns with the cool flame of this summer when, Snyder recalled, "I began writing all the poems I consider worthwhile."

In his 1990 afterword to another book, Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, Snyder describes how "the transparency of mountains and work" brought him a "curious mind of renunciation" in which "my language relaxed into itself." The Sierra experience of "smooth white granite and gnarly juniper and pine" was combining with his study of Zen Buddhism to produce a new poetic voice.

In "How Poetry Comes to Me," Snyder acknowledges the importance of backcountry imagery and experience in the shaping of his art: "It comes blundering over the/Boulders at night, it stays/Frightened outside the/Range of my campfire/I go to meet it at the/Edge of light." –Tom Killion

August 19, 1955
In Yosemite I bought my food. Got a haircut. Revivified the noble car, drove to Tuolomne Meadows. In the campground, distracted by the sight of a girl, clanged the car onto a boulder and grievously bent the running-board. Left Tuolomne about four in the afternoon, wandering up this long meadow-canyon.

August 20, 1955
An Ice Lake below Mt. Lyell:
Walked here early; found a good camp between large boulder and clump of whitebark pine. After hunting firewood went on up Lyell, an easy climb. Rained.
Wet rocks buzzing
Rain and thunder southwest
Hair, beard, tingle
Wind whips bare legs
We should go back
We don’t.

Is it proper for me to be here alone. Could it be shared?

–Foolish query. Best do what can be done. The act will work out its own consequences.

August 21, 1955
Thousand Island Lake: Easy stroll over Donohue Pass, through rocky meadows, down to Rush Creek, up and over here. Davis and Banner–ragged old peaks. Fantastic lake and very large.

Now being in the deva realm. But existing here generates those effects that return one to lower realms. Wind blows, Banner bright.

Three-day-old slip of a new moon over Mt. Davis.

August 22, 1955
I went to the Banner-Davis saddle, but somehow things weren’t like the Climber’s Guide and though I scrambled up much rock, found no available summit. Only a sub-summit on the ridge with a cairn and a few names from Sierra "knapsack" trip of 1948.

August 23, 1955
Went off across the meadows and creeks and up to the two Iceberg Lakes–cold, barren, rocky . . . Handsome rocks!

Intricate textures, pattern and design, color. My boots are going out. May have to walk out in tennis shoes. Ritter looms above. I am afeared of it. Try it tomorrow.

August 24, 1955
The whittled-out alpenstock worked fairly well. Made it to the Ritter-Banner saddle. With my floppy-soled shoes, looking up at Ritter and the steep snow below the chutes, decided that this foolish monk best not cause people the trouble of looking for his worthless body. John Muir

certainly had guts. So I went on up Banner Peak, an easy walk. Now I am off the peak and have glissaded through the chimney. All that remains is a long glissade and the walk to camp. To read Nagarjuna on Causality.

August 25, 1955
Afternoon: North Fork of the San Joaquin River.

A very rough trip from Banner-Davis saddle. Rock cliffs and scary places. At the bottom of it, long meadow with white pine; two abandoned and one occupied mining camps. Terribly messy. No miners at home, but a horse, a donkey and all their gear.

August 26, 1955
Morning: Frost. No sun in this canyon until late. "Wandering the wild deer paths." Up Bench Canyon; through a grassy gulch between cliffs crossed with paths.

Afternoon: Confusion! But I have come through. Large lake on the map scarcely exists; contours are all wrong. But sudden sight of a T-blaze and a new waterbreak set me proper. The cross-country ramble has ended well.

August 27, 1955
Morning: Inadequate, baffling perceptions: blunt senses, foolish mind. Thinking I am unable to see it or know it–this enormous inhuman beauty–and yet, letting go, I am simply it, being part of it, in me as well as outside. How not to understand it? And yet, how hard.

Tomorrow I am going out of the mountains. Leave us recall that the mountains are high ground being worn down; nature is everywhere, cities and all.

Now the lake is still but for trout-jumps. Sun gone on all but Vogelsang Peak, the fulling moon behind it. Sparse pines, white rocks, clear pale cold sky. Somewhere a horse with a bell is grazing. Saturn in Libra. Pine Marten just ran by.

August 28, 1955
Woke in the night, pissed, watched October star, built up fire. Woke to a still-going one, in the frosty pre-dawn.

washing the mush-pot in the lake
frost on the horse-turds
gray-jay cased the camp

Got granite boulders, a sugar-pine seedling, drove back. Through hot country. Mexicans on flatcars in the San Joaquin. Now, cool air, fog. Sea Air. Smell of straw mats in my cabin.


This article was excerpted from The High Sierra of California by Gary Snyder and Tom Killion (Heyday Books and Yosemite Association, 2002). Gary Snyder has published 16 books of poetry and prose, including The Gary Snyder Reader and Turtle Island, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. He is a former professor of English at the University of California, Davis. Tom Killion, founder of Quail Press, is a California-born woodcut and letterpress artist. His extensively illustrated books include 28 Views of Mount Tamalpais and The Coast of California.

For more information about Tom Killion’s work, go to www.tomkillion.com.


What You Can Do
Tom Killion and Gary Snyder see the Sierra Nevada through the eyes of traditional Japanese landscape artists.

The Bush administration sees it through the eyes of a timber corporation.

In March, the U.S. Forest Service proposed changes to a Sierra Nevada forest-management plan that could result in dramatically increased logging in the Range of Light. Under the guise of protecting the forest from wildfires, the agency wants to allow cutting of trees much larger than those delineated in the Sierra Nevada Framework, a rare compromise between environmentalists and forestry interests that took a decade to craft. The original plan has reduced Sierra logging by half and livestock grazing by 20 percent to protect spotted owls and other species. Now the Forest Service wants to more than double logging and allow cutting of old-growth trees up to 30 inches in diameter in the Sierra’s nine national forests and even in Giant Sequoia National Monument.


Take Action
Want to help keep the Sierra wild for the next generation of poets, artists, and ramblers? Go to www.sierraclub.org/ca/forests and send a letter to Regional Forester Jack Blackwell, asking him to uphold, rather than unravel, Sierra Nevada ancient-forest protections.


Explore
Each year, Sierra Club Outings offers more than 50 ways to hike, photograph, take care of, or just admire the Sierra Nevada. You can still sign up to backpack the range, help maintain its trails, explore the peaks with your kids, even learn tai chi in one of the most soothing settings on Earth. For more information, go to www.sierraclub.org/outings/sierra2003.asp.

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