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An Interview With Gary Snyder

Walking Mount Tam

by STEVE HEILIG

Mount Tamalpais is Marin’s Mount Everest. Although only 2,574 feet high at the summit, it dominates the county; to get to or from West Marin from almost anywhere else, you have to go over or around it.

Much has been written about "Tam" and countless photographs taken and published featuring its image. However, what may prove to be the ultimate book about Tam does not feature a single photograph. Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History, and Prints, published by visionary Berkeley publisher Heyday Books, is a labor of love by West Marin artist Tom Killion and the poet Gary Snyder.   

Gary Snyder is one of the great literary figures of our time. Prominent in the San Francisco poetry scene of the 1950s and early 60s; he first gained wider  renown as the thinly-fictionalized primary figure "Japhy Ryder" in one of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, published in 1958. But he has long transcended any "beat poet" label with his prescient ecological and Buddhist thought, and voice of true "green" values who walks his talk by homesteading in the Sierra foothills for four decades. Before settling in there, though, Snyder lived in Mill Valley in the 1950s and 1960s and has been walking all over Tam for over 60 years.

Tom Killion grew up in Mill Valley and recalls a feeling of awe about Tam since early childhood. After much education and world travel, he settled in Inverness, where his woodblock printmaking studio is a productive source of the many colorful prints that have graced numerous books and countless walls and exhibits. He  first collaborated with Snyder on their book The High Sierra of California in 2002.    

Killion has been "carving Tamalpais" in both color and black-and-white prints since the early 1970s, and his first book featured those early works. Tamalpais Walking is primarily Killion’s project, featuring 60 of his prints, done over decades and done from vantage points  all over the mountain and from all over Marin and the Bay Area. Killion also contributed essays on his own experiences with Tam and the mountain’s history as well as descriptions of how he produces his prints.

But at Killion’s request, Snyder wrote of his own almost lifelong experiences all over its slopes, nooks, and crannies. Poetry pertaining to Tam by Snyder and others is featured throughout. Snyder is now at work on a book "which will be pretty much a personal memoir of 20th century trans-Pacific Buddhism." But he still loves to talk about "Tam."

What is your earliest memory of Mount Tamalpais?

Gary Snyder: I grew up the Pacific Northwest, but actually was born in San Francisco. My aunt lived in Richmond, and in 1939, the Treasure Island World’s Fair was on. My aunt invited my parents to send me down to stay down with them in the Bay Area for a month and get a chance to experience the World’s Fair. I was nine years old and they put me on the train, and for that month I really experienced a lot of good things, San Francisco, the zoo, the beach and ocean — and Muir Woods and Mt. Tam. We went over the Golden Gate Bridge, which was still quite new then, and up to the top of Mt. Tam, and then spent a day in Muir Woods. And I was suitably impressed.

Impressed enough to come back before you were too much older, right?

Yes, but actually my first experience with Tam after my childhood was in 1948 when I was passing through the Bay Area on my way back from working as a seaman in South America. My college sweetheart lived in San Francisco and I connected with her and we went on a hike all over the mountain, as described in the book. Anyway, after I finished my undergraduate work in Portland, I went to Indiana University for a semester of linguistic anthropology, decided that wasn’t what I exactly wanted to do, and came out to the West coast in the Spring of 1952. I lived for a while in Berkeley, and then enrolled at UC Berkeley and stayed there until I first went to Japan in May of 1956. But before I left, I lived for 4 or 5 months in Mill Valley and did a lot of walking on the mountain then.

It was still legal to camp anywhere up there, right?

Well, I think so, but I’d never asked! I still really don’t know if it was; I read somewhere that it was sometime in the early 70s where they decided to ban most camping there. But it was not very intensely managed, other than the state park at Pan Toll. Actually I didn’t sleep up there too many times. It was best for long day hikes anyway. At that time I was living in Homestead Valley, off Throckmorton, and I could walk out the door of my little cabin and get onto trail walks that didn’t involve very much walking on pavement at all.

On those hikes did you encounter very many other people hiking?

Only on weekends.

Then it hasn’t changed that much in that regard. So you soon got this concept of walking all the way around in a day …

Yes, I had all these old maps and had studied them closely. When I went to Japan there were two big hills nearby called Atago and Hiei. And the first thing I did was discover how to catch a bus to the base of the base of Mt. Atago and climb it. There was a Shinto Buddhist shrine up there; and Mt. Hiei had been for many centuries the headquarters of the Tendai sect. There were still a lot of temples up there, and I learned from some of the priests there of one of their many practices, although one not much done much anymore, which was circumambulation. This involved going around the mountain by a certain route for a thousand days. People have been doing that for centuries; it’s an old practice not only in East Asia but also in North India, Nepal and Tibet. It’s a Buddhist practice that is probably older than Buddhism.

So when I was in India in 1962 with Joanne Kyger (a Marin poet and Snyder’s wife at that time) and Allen Ginsberg, we heard more about circumambulation. I made a little note to myself to see if we couldn’t find a way to do that elsewhere.    

So, back on the West coast in the mid-60s, I connected a route on Mt. Tam and walked it once or twice by myself, and then took Philip Whalen [a poet and Zen priest who once lived in Marin] and Allen Ginsberg together to do it with me. We initiated stops at certain locations, to chant and blow the conch and such. It was a lot of fun. This is all described in a book titled Opening the Mountain [by Matthew Davis and Michael Farrell Scott, with a foreword by Snyder.] It’s become a practice for a fair number of other people since.

So how did you hook up with Tom Killion to start collaborating on these books of images and words?

I had first met him in the 1960s I think, and he had given me a gift of his early book Views of Mt Tamalpais. He’d become a passionate print artist fairly early on. After some years he got hold of me to do a book on the high Sierra, which was a wonderful project. And after several more years he said he’d like to do another on Mount Tam, and I was interested from the start, although we agreed it would in some ways be a very different book.

What’s the main difference?

Tam is used by very many people, and is not a wilderness area like the Sierra. Tom was already well read about the history of the mountain, so I started reading up about the history of hiking, especially in the late 19th century when many people got excited about it. It was not just done for wilderness travel. William Wordsworth and his sister walked 30 miles through a rainstorm all night! People could be really hardy; John Muir was not so special in that regard. Many people got out to be gold rush miners by walking the whole way. That’s the way most of the world was.    

I’ve trekked around the Himalayas, and there and in other areas walking still is the primary transport. Yes, it’s not weird to walk long distances — to not do it is what’s weird.

So how many times do you reckon you have circumambulated the mountain?

Oh gosh, I don’t know. Others have done it much more. But easily a dozen, I’d say. There were a lot of other great walks on it though — when the narrow gauge railroad was working, you could take it over to Fairfax, get off there, walk across the mountain on the north side on a trail that would take you over to Stinson, back up over Bolinas Ridge to Mill Valley, and catch the train back home. Part of that trail is now obscured by the reservoirs up there, but it was originally a major Indian trail between Richardson Bay and Bolinas Lagoon.

There was a lot of struggle through the years to preserve Tam from development and logging; did you study that?

Yes. It’s fascinating, really; the mountain has never been that intensively managed and there is no one single landholding jurisdiction over it — it was cobbled together by the good will and strong spirits of all kinds of people. It’s also mostly not the federal government, other than when William Kent decided to give them Muir Woods — and not let them name it after himself, by the way — and then some parts of it are now in the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. The efforts of private citizens from different parts of areas around the mountain combined in various ways to save it, even though they were often not quite sure exactly what they were trying to do a lot of the time. The people who had the railroad to the top also wanted to extend it over to Stinson and Bolinas, but that got stopped. A developer was going to log and build housing in Muir Woods until Kent bought it. Then the Marin Water district came into existence and that saved a good chunk of the north side of the mountain. Audubon Canyon extends all the way to the top of the Bolinas Ridge.      And so all of this combined to give us a place where you go walking on trails that were mostly built by volunteers, and you rarely go through a boundary that says "You have now left this and entered that." So that’s part of the fascination I have with the social and political history of the mountain. 

In the book, there is an ironic observation that a century ago, there was a ‘class’ distinction about hiking; if you were rich, you rode your horses in Golden Gate Park, but if you were of more limited means, you hiked Mt. Tam.

Right. Once stages and cars came into being, walking started to become something you only did if you had no other option. But later it again became something anyone did. But a lot of the early hikers on the hikers weren’t poor; some were influenced by English and French romanticism. Rousseau was a great walker, and Dickens went for a ten or 15-mile walk, every night sometimes, throughout London. Which could have made him crazy.

As for other writers, you first took Jack Kerouac hiking on Tam, right?

Yes I did, several times in the 1950s when I was living in my little cabin in Homestead Valley. I had already introduced him to hiking in the Sierra when we went up on the Matterhorn in October of 1955, which is described in The Dharma Bums — one of the few things in the book which is actually close to truth (laughing). And I took Allen on the mountain, and Philip, anyone I could get my hands on. Jack was a hardy hiker and old football player, who had no problem laying on the ground and going to sleep, and after Tam I talked him into applying for his famous fire lookout job. Allen was thought of as one of these wimpy Easterners, but he and I did a ropes, ice axes, and crampons climb of Glacier Peak in the North Cascades in Washington state one time.

Do you have any favorite spots on the mountain?

Well, it’s very diverse there, because it has the ocean on one side, the interior on the East, and microclimates all over. You can go into a damp drippy redwood grove in one part of the day, and be in cypress and serpentinian vegetation later. One special place is up in that basin where Rock Springs used to be, and the serpentine outcropping just a short walk away. Potrero Meadows is always surprising in its openness and scope, especially this time of year when it is fresh and green and wet. The slopes coming up from Muir Woods are very nice, and to go down the Steep Ravine trail is remarkable. I used to always come down the absolutely barren rocky trail that would take you down to Mountain Home, but wisely enough they’ve closed that as a route and point you to a more sensible and safer one. And I really love the old Mountain Theater, which is nearly always empty of people. What energy they had in those days they had to think they could have a theatre there and hold full-scale plays. I’ve sat there and meditated, just pick any spot on the stone seating, looking out over the city and bay and sometimes all the way to Mount Diablo.

Do you have any most striking memories of incidents or sightings up there?

You know, my memories are not like I have a single great story; it might be just a particular hawk or vulture going over, an old tree… I suppose I could tell a few things I did with girls but that wouldn’t go into a newspaper. It’s just a great place to take people, who may have looked at it from the city or the Bay Bridge, but it’s full of details and endlessly interesting. 

As a poet, do you have any favorite poems about Mount Tam, by yourself or others?

Lew Welch’s poems about the mountain, especially some of his final ones, are really touching [Welch was also associated with the Beats and lived in Marin in the 1960s before disappearing in 1971; some of his poems are included in the new book.] He was another person who really got to know the mountain.

In the new book Killion writes that you avoid using words like ‘sacred’ about the mountain. Why is that?

I do think the word "sacred" is overused — in fact, it’s thrown around without treating it sacredly. My ancient mother, who died recently, always said she was an atheist. I asked her about it one time and she said "Well, there might be a god, but if there is a god, it’s so powerful, amazing, and beautiful that it would be kind of disrespectful to say you believed in it!" I really liked that. So, you also shouldn’t have to call wilderness, or a mountain, ‘sacred’ in order to have to protect it. Mount Tam is not the High Sierra of California. It has been a very powerful and perhaps half-unrecognized influence on the whole Bay Area. Tam is a model for appreciating nature close at hand and not needing a total icon of pristine wilderness to get your attention. We can make the most out of all kinds of areas closer to us. And I hope this book might being some new people into consciousness about Tamalpais, and they might want to get out on the mountain and take a real look around.

Coda: Tom Killion of Inverness Dismantles a Myth

Growing up in Mill Valley, Tom Killion’s first memory of Tam is "when I was about seven, and went way up on the fire roads with my next-door neighbor family, and discovered I could just go right out the back door and up some flights of steps and be on the trails — it was a real adventure." And thus his sense of awe about Tam’s slopes. But as an historian, he did not harbor much awe for the widely told story of local Native Americans seeing Tam’s outline as one of a ‘sleeping lady."     "It’s an invention, one of the 19th-century creations of the new settlers,’ he says. "As the Europeans took over new parts of America, they seemed to want to create some sort of ‘back’ story for themselves. And what they did was foist it upon the people they’d displaced. Here at least it is relatively benign. The "Sleeping Beauty" story was really popular in the mid-1800s, as the Brothers Grimm had just published their collection of stories, and then out came some operas, such as Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Germans were the biggest population group of immigrants in the Bay Area in the late 19th century, and they loved to go hiking and pioneered the hiking culture on the mountain."    

Killion points out that the first mention in writing of the Sleeping Maiden or Lady dates to the 1870s, but that the image’s creation of the "Indian" aspect of the story came later. "To make it seem more authentic, the first generation of kids born and raised in Marin and San Francisco in the late 1880s and early 1900s started to put it into poetry and such. There were all sort of invented Indian legends then; they couldn’t quite decide how to view the Native Americans here, for as long as they were still contesting them for the land they hated them and it was massacres and genocide, but once they were subdued and disappeared into the background, they became ‘noble savages’." Killion says it is not surprising that no mention of any ‘sleeping maiden" has been found in Native American lore, as "you just don’t find that kind of anthropomorphizing of places around here." Finally, "People I’ve talked to here who are descendants of Miwoks say it was all invented."     

"The fascinating thing is how young people in the early 20th century, already a generation removed from the days when there was much interaction between Miwok people and the early settlers, wanted this mountain they loved to somehow have a romantic past. So they came up with these wonderful adolescent stories — and the adults grabbed ahold of it and used it to create a recreational background for their culture of hiking. One of the Marin kids was actor in the Mountain Play and the myth found its way into the play in 1921      Still, he admits, "once somebody says it, you can really see it. It’s more obvious from the East Bay, and in those days many more people were out on the bay as that’s how one traveled then."    

Killion "never took any art classes" and is largely self-taught. His earliest woodcut of Tam dates from 1969 or 1970, done when he was a teenager as a holiday card for his family. Now, with many layers of color in his more elaborate pieces, he says a single work can take him over 300 hours of work. "I tend to expect that I will spend two months on something, but it often runs to almost four months for these big color ones," he says. "It’s almost like painting with wood blocks at this point; I get the basics down and keep carving away a little more, building up the colors, and sometimes have gone up to 15 or more layers."    

As for his own favorite spots on the mountain, he lists "out at the serpentine power point above Rock Sprints, and down along the front of Bolinas Ridge, most any old place, and an area over on the north side trail where you have this wonderful flora, madrones with that beautiful pink bark growing over that grey wacky rock that is all over Mt. Tam."    

Killion has many more spots he loves on Tam, including "Lone Tree Spring, on the dispea trail — I’m sure that’s what Lew Welch was thinking of when he wrote that hymn to a spring."

This interview first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser.