These Conversations

The book arrived today, a collection of interviews and letters between Gary Snyder and myself. Last week my editor emailed me a FedEx number, and at once Google popped up a link for tracking the book’s journey across the planet. Over the next while I could occasionally check its progress. It traveled from San Antonio to Memphis to Paris to Cape Town, all the way to our house at the foot of the mountain in Muizenberg, where there was in fact nobody home when the FedEx man rang the doorbell. 

Today he came back, and I was here. I signed the form, received the parcel, found a knife to rip through the tape, and held the small book in my hands. Nobody Home. 

A small book. That was my first impression. Many pages, a generous font, good paper, and small. I had seen the cover with its spacious picture of Gary sitting in the Black Rock Desert, I knew the letters and interviews pretty well, and I’d worked back and forth on the proofs. But I hadn’t expected the size to be so . . . holdable. Intimate, almost. It was surprising, delightful. It felt appropriate. 

Appropriate to what? My friendship with Gary Snyder, I guess. That’s what the publisher asked me to write about here, and what I’ve been putting off doing because I didn’t know where to start. But now that I have the book on the desk beside me, I can open to any page and find a dialogue that evokes it. 

So that’s at the heart of the friendship: dialogue. It began thirty years ago and has continued through all the changes of our lives. Serious and a little formal in the beginning. Increasingly playful and probably more serious as we grew older. In 1983 when I wrote the first letter, I was an earnest graduate student and Gary was an eminent writer, kind enough and curious enough (to be receiving a letter from Cape Town, South Africa) to respond.  

Part of what energized the dialogue, I think, is that it had nothing to do with the popular idea of Snyder as cultural icon. I wrote that first letter because I liked his writing and trusted that someone who could write that way would be open to my questions. From the beginning we talked about poems and prose and then picked up on whatever else that writing evoked—the practice of writing, writing as practice, and the priorities in (spiritual, ecological, political) practice that writing can bring to the fore. 

In coming up with the book’s subtitle, we signaled those priorities with the words “Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places.” A pretty large canvas, you might say. But I think that’s just it. Gary’s openness of mind and heart has meant that no topic, really, is off-limits. As he explained when we were deciding which letters to include, “I’m not a very private person.” That said, we have found ourselves returning over and over to questions about ecology and places and spiritual practice and home. The interviews discuss these questions in a slightly more public voice, more abstract. The letters (often packed with poems and articles) tend to explore the same urgencies in the particulars of lived experience, telling stories about our personal lives, and about suffering and impermanence. 

To say that I’m grateful doesn’t come close. And as Gary puts it in his foreword, it’s not over yet. 

But yes, about the book, I am grateful and happy. It feels good to hold this small well-made book in my hands, and to wonder at how these conversations of ours have made their way across the world. Nobody Home. It brings together so much.

Julia Martin is a South African writer and literary scholar. Her longstanding involvement in the work of Gary Snyder is part of a broader interest in ecological thought, metaphors of interconnectedness, and the representation of place. She enjoys experimenting with creative nonfiction, and her travel memoir, A Millimetre of Dust: Visiting Ancestral Sites, is a narrative essay about archaeology and the apprehension of deep time. She lives with her family in Cape Town, where she teaches English at the University of the Western Cape.

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