The 1970s consist of much more than the disco hits that remain the soundtrack for the groovy decade. Perhaps most notable for the Vietnam War and Watergate, the 70s also usher in the start of a movement still active today, environmentalism. Although written about and discussed before, this decade sees the first strong wave of people, organizations, and political parties fighting to protect the earth. With the passion, creativity, and brains of its participants, this movement births books and other media, all addressing the state of the Earth. Among these projects, emerges a book that garners attention for its language and creative take on the issues at had. Turtle Island by Gary Snyder, published in 1974, sparks a flame in the environmental movement, as the collection of poems is unlike anything else at the time. The more creative and less explicit approach to discussing the environment is what sets Turtle Island apart from its contemporaries and what earns it the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. As Snyder proves, poetry packs a powerful punch, especially when paired with its greatest companion, nature.
In order to understand the effectiveness of Turtle Island and Gary Snyder’s language in writing, one must know the rich history of nature in poetry. Examples of stories and myths rotating around seasonal change date back to as early as fifteenth century BC with The Canaanite mythical “Poem of Aqhat” (“Academy”). Traveling through history, writing about nature appears across all cultures including Ancient China, Japan, Greece, and the Italian Renaissance, where participants write about everyday rural life. When the Romanticism movement emerges in the late 18th century, nature becomes a focal point of all writing. In a way, the natural world becomes a character. Writers use nature to represent peace, renewal, and all things beauty. Looking at poetry specifically, nature has been used as a vehicle for the human experience and emotion. Poets tend to turn toward the natural world when looking for comparisons and imagery. For example, if a poet is feeling particularly sad, anxious, and overwhelmed, they might compare their body to an ocean struck by a vicious hurricane. If a poet is feeling joyful, perhaps dandelions under a vivid blue summer sky might be the chosen avenue of writing. Just like it can represent both joy and despair, poetry about nature can express the beauty of life and the tragedies of death. The world is filled with both beauty and ugliness, both of which convey feeling. Gary Snyder recognizes this and uses the strong and storied history between poetry and nature to his advantage in educating the world about environmental issues in an original and captivating way.
At the time of its publication, Turtle Island is one of few “non-scientific” pieces written about the state of the environment. This means that Snyder is not writing to collaborate, impress, nor debate scientists with facts, data, and formulas. Instead, he is appealing to the general public with a collection of poetry. In doing so, Snyder is opening up the discussion to a much wider and more diverse group. Although poetry is more attainable and captivating to the average person compared to spread sheets filled with hard to understand facts, there is still a risk of it not hitting the intended mark. A million people may enjoy a poem, but that does not mean they walk away feeling inspired or changed. However, in Snyder’s case, readers do feel a deeper connection to his words.
From as early as the introductory note of Turtle Island, Snyder makes the environmental movement a personal issue for anyone reading. He longs to return to “old culture traditions” where the earth was not only cherished, but celebrated. In Snyder’s opinion, the only way to accomplish this is by reminding everybody of the nature, the good, the bad and ugly. By using poetry, Snyder creates a strong connection between humans and the world, commenting on our connection to and our place in the planet. As previously mentioned, emotion and nature have a strong, sometimes dependent, relationship. Snyder knows that by creating poetry, the figurative language and vivid language will transform readers to a place much more effectively than facts or figures ever could.
The poems that compose Turtle Island range from short and simple lines to more complex verse. In every format he explores, Snyder succeeds in connecting readers to the natural world. In “Pine Tree Tops”, a simple description of pine trees and animal tracks in the ground beg the question “what do we know” (Snyder 33). The poem is both straightforward and thought provoking. No complicated imagery or figurative speech is used. There is no clear story, but readers are left with the opportunity of creating their own. Where did the animals wander to? Who is creating the “creek of boots”? The open endedness of this piece is what makes it effective. Readers begin to think about the mysteries of the natural world and all the beautiful creatures that make it up. Perhaps the next time they go for a walk, a reader will purposely look for the small details hidden in nature, something Snyder would greatly appreciate.
Proving the versatility of his language, Snyder contrasts “Pine Tree Tops” with a more complex and vivid “The Bath”. Recalling in great detail a time he batehd his son, Snyder draws connection to human creation and the world to this powerful verse. Perhaps only something parents will understand, Snyder sees his son’s body as a “hidden place of seed” a perfect creation by him and his wife. (Snyder 13). He’s in awe of how he created such a beautiful thing and connects that feeling to the cycle of life that makes up the natural world. For an average reader, the comparison of Snyder’s son to the creation of the earth makes environmental issues seem so much personal. How could we destroy something that is as perfect as our own children? In posing this question, Snyder creates a seamless connection between humans and the world.
Turtle Island proves that poetry can make a difference. The collection of poems is considered a milestone in the history of environmental writing, as it serves as a catalyst for more personal discussions of the earth to be had. Without Snyder’s emphasis on the personal tie between humans and nature, which he achieves through poetry, an entire generation of people may have missed out on crucial information about the world. Doing more than just informing readers about environmental issues, Snyder sparks a love of nature within readers. He reminds everybody that some much of what we hold, both physically and emotionally, comes from the natural world. Turtle Island leaves one with a newfound appreciation for the world, as they feel like a stronger part of it. A book full of facts and science, albeit very important, could never accomplish this.
Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, poets.org/glossary/nature-poetry.
Snyder, Gary. Turtle Island. New Directions.