In the 1950s, poet Gary Snyder worked as a fire lookout in the Cascades of Washington State. Perched at 8,129 feet on Crater Mountain’s Desolation Peak, Snyder practiced calligraphy, sipped green tea, and learned to sit as the days flew by. The following is excerpted from John Suiter’s Poets on the Peaks.
Despite the wicked weather, arduous packing, and feeling “filthy with no prospect of cleaning up,” Gary was not unhappy in his hermitage. The sudden solitude after his weeks at the guard station was delicious, and although the lookout was totally socked in for the first three days, he thought the dense fog outside made the cabin’s windows look like a shoji screen in a Japanese tea hut. In fact, said Snyder, “It was perfect. There was this blank white mountain fog light in this chilly little place, and I would be wrapped in my blanket doing my zazen or doing my calligraphy.” In his journal, Gary took to calling the mountain “Crater Shan,” the Chinese appellation for a peak, as in “Huang Shan” (Yellow Mountain) or “Nan Shan” (South Mountain). He even used “Crater Shan” as his return address on letters to his friends, and by the end of the summer they were using it when writing to him.
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Although Crater Mountain Lookout was less than ideal for fire detection, it made for a perfect Zen hermitage, and Snyder had come loaded for Zen. “I took some good books up with me, basic Zen texts, and my black tea, some good Japanese green tea, and some lapsong souchong, plus sumi brushes for doing Chinese-style calligraphy,” remembers Gary. “I really kept myself busy. I had a daily schedule that included certain periods of meditation. I did zazen certain hours, and then calligraphy practice, and then I would study a text, then zazen again, and then I’d go melt snow and bring it up and cook and have tea and write some haiku and then do some more calligraphy practice and some more zazen, and the days just flew by.”
From the guy wires of the lookout, he strung Tibetan prayer flags inscribed with the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra and set up a low stone seat for doing zazen, on the lip of the precipice overlooking Jerry Glacier. Gary had tried zazen as far back as 1949 at Reed College but had practiced infrequently and somewhat self-consciously at first. Learning to sit had not been all that difficult, even in the near total absence of teachers. He had picked up the basic cross-legged sitting posture, hand positions, and so forth simply by copying the poses of statues of Buddhas he’d seen in museums in Portland and San Francisco. Developing regular practice was the hard part. On Crater Lookout he hoped to begin to do that.
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