The Center of the Universe: Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry’s Relationship to the World

Both composed by religious writers, Snyder a devout Buddhist and Wendell a devout Christian, Turtle Island and The Unsettling of America address man’s deeper connection to the world. Exploring the philosophical and religious connection between nature and humankind, the two highly respected pieces offer an insightful look on the power and importance of the natural world. Considered “nature writers”, Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry share a common goal in what they do, returning mankind to an organic relationship with the earth. Both men share a love of nature and strive to remind their readers of the importance of the natural world. More philosophically, Snyder and Berry want mankind to recognize their place in the world. Rather than just seeing where they are on the earth and what they can do to preserve it, both men want their audiences to dive deeper and think about the role nature plays in their lives.Although both of their respective beliefs  diverge from one another and the two men might even disagree on certain topics, Snyder and Berry share the common belief that Earth is much more than a place human beings live on, but rather the core of their respective religions. 

Despite being born and raised in the Western world, Snyder is heavily influenced by Chinese and Japanese poets. Evident in poems such as “The Bath” and “Pine Tree Tops”, Snyder has a strong voice rooted in Buddhist beliefs and traditions. As seen in his writing, Snyder views the human body and nature as one, a strong and common Buddhist belief. By blending his observations of the outside world with his personal insight, Snyder does more than celebrate nature in his work, but elevates it to main character status. While simply looking at his son’s body while he bathes him in “The Bath”, Snyder cannot help to think of the environment and how it connects to the human body. Visualizing  “The windy pines./ the trickle gurgle in the swampy meadow” while bathing his son, Snyder is reminded of the fact that “This [the world] is our body.” (Snyder, 14). He sees his son as the earth and he and his wife and the creators. This belief is widely celebrated in the Buddhist religion, as nature is viewed as the final stop to enlightenment. Buddhists turn to nature in order to feel complete, seeing a companion in the sky, trees, and water. When one fully realizes they are one with the Earth, they are enlightened. To reach this enlightenment, a Buddhist must recognize their environment and the role they play in it, a task Snyder invites readers to be a part of in “Pine Tree Tops”. In the poem, simple in imagery, Snyder hints at many Buddhist symbols. 

In the blue night

frost haze, the sky glows

with the moon

pine tree tops

bend snow-blue, fade

into sky, frost, starlight.

The creak of boots.

Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,

what do we know

(Snyder, 33). 

The moon, the sky, the snow, and the inexplicit indication of human interaction within the natural world all appeal to the Buddhist Zen aesthetic. Where a non spiritual person may walk by the trees and feel nothing, a Buddhist sees and feels a strong connection. Knowing that Snyder is very religious, this poem becomes much more powerful. Readers see the role nature plays in his life. Evident in Turtle Island, Snyder has a strong spiritual connection to the natural. He does not view himself as a part of it, but rather a companion to.

Taking on a slightly different opinion, similarly rooted in religion, Berry argues that mankind is not equal to nature, but rather subservient to it. As a self admitted “marginal Christian”, Berry still considers himself religious, just not to the extent that some might expect. In The Unsettling of America, Berry explores ideas related to agriculture and how society directly and indirectly affects it. Within this commentary, Berry, much like Snyder, explores the relationship between mankind and nature on a spiritual level. Unlike Snyder, Berry believes that humans have become too selfish in their connection to the earth. He argues that “… humanity is only a part [of the natural world]- not it’s equal, much less its master.” (Berry, 98). In Christianity, God created the Heavens and the Earth before he created mankind, a fact that Berry finds important to keep in mind when discussing the role the natural world plays in the lives of human beings. Berry argues that because mankind has become “creators” themselves, they have become “magnified”, losing touch of their place within the hierarchy of life. 

Through the lens of Christianity, man should thank the world for his creation, as Adam is created from the Earth’s dust. Berry believes that “…no matter how urban [man’s] life, [mans’] bodies live by farming; [man] come[s] to the earth and return[s] to it” (Berry, 97). This idea that man physically comes from the earth is an important aspect of Christianity and one that Berry fears is being lost. Dedicating an entire chapter to the connection between man and earth, “The Body and The Earth”, Berry discusses topics such as health, sex, and the soul, connecting all to the greater importance of the world. In doing this, Berry is making connections that he finds crucial to his beliefs and religion. Rooted in strong Christian traditions, The Unsettling of America urges more reverence toward the earth, as author Wendell Berry believes it is to thank for all humankind has today. 

In both Turtle Island and The Unsettling of America, the underlying religious tone offers insight on their respective writers. It is clear that both men wish to return to a time where the world was more valued. Although they disagree on man’s relationship to the world, Snyder and Berry share a passion in recognizing and reminding others of the necessity of nature and its preservation. Turtle Island and The Unsettling of America both candidly rooted in religion, provide deep and philosophical commentary on the tender relationship humankind shares with the natural world, something that anybody, regardless of their beliefs, can recognize. 

Works Cited

Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture. Counterpoint, 2015.

Snyder, Gary. Turtle Island. New Directions.

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