Magzine @ www.SierraClub.org
July/August 2003 Issue
Views from the East -
Poet Gary Snyder and artist Tom Killion paint
Japanese-influenced portraits of the rugged High Sierra.
by Gary Snyder and Tom Killion
Copyright © 2008 Tom Killion
by Gary Snyder
Though born in San Francisco, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest,
and started climbing snow peaks as a teenager. Then I did Forest
Service trail and fire workincluding two seasons on lookoutsand
was inspired by reading John Muir, about his overcoat, his dry
bread and tea.
I came back to California to study East Asian languages in Berkeleyand
fell into a rich culture of poets, bohemian leftists, and Japanese-American
Buddhists. One summer I worked in the Sierra on a trail crew,
and that fall took a sumi painting course from Chiura Obata,
a Japanese-American artist who taught at Berkeley. My Sierra-eye
was clearly shaped by the East Asian landscape sensibility,
plus Muirs hardiness and devotion, and the gritty world
of mules and packers.
Back on the West Coast after some years in Japan, I met Tom
Killion and he gave me a copy of his just-out 28 Views of Mount
Tamalpais. I knew the Marin backcountry well, and I had hiked
the trails of Tamalpais, climbed it and circumambulated it,
many times. I also knew the work of Hokusai, and his series
of "views." Tom had done, I thought, exactly the right
thing. Finding himself drawn to printmaking and inspired by
the Japanese artists, he focused on his own world: Mt. Tamalpais,
under which he had grown up. This long practice of art, craft,
and attention produced a marvelous set of images, "sky,
earth, and water," with angles from bays, estuaries, oceans;
from ridges, decks, fields, and thickets; with bridges, freeways,
pilings, and the far city in it too. It is a perfect evocation
of a place and its spirit.
When Tom approached me several years ago to suggest this Sierra
collaboration, asking if I had any unpublished Sierra writings,
I first thought notuntil I remembered my many backpacking
notebooks. I considered them overly laconic, but covering a
good span of space and time. (Being tired, cold, and hungry,
I didnt write all that much, and sometimes what looks
like the admirable brevity of haiku is probably just my haste
to put the pencil away and get some hot tea.) So I looked at
his High Sierra prints already done. They stole my heart. He
had caught the streams and mountains as they are: visionary
and earthy; icy, aloof, and dangerous; but an inspiring teacher
when approached in the right way.
by Tom Killion
Since childhood I have felt the urge to take up pencil, pen,
and brush each time Ive encountered the open vistas and
glaciated patterns of the Sierra landscape. The work I have
accumulated during four decades of Sierra journeys includes
close to a thousand sketches in pencil, watercolor, oil paste,
and, most commonly, ballpoint penmy preferred "medium."
These sketches portray every subject from the minutiae of wildflowers
to the range-encompassing vistas seen from mountain peaks. Most
are filled with a shorthand vocabulary of scribbles and marks,
supplemented by notes about vegetation and geology that I will
not translate until monthsor more often yearslater,
when I work them into the designs for woodcut prints.
I have had a lifelong interest in the multicolored woodcuts
of Hokusai and Hiroshige, early-19th-century masters of the
Japanese landscape print. Since my early teens I have attempted
to portray the California landscape through the lens of these
artists ukiyo-e ("floating world") sensibility,
using Japanese wood-carving tools, woods, and papers designed
for hanga (woodcut) printmaking.
One of the great attractions in ukiyo-e landscapes was the relationship
between humans and the natural world portrayed in them. Massive
trees and towering mountains dwarfed the country people toiling
along narrow paths, creating a reassuring contrast to the world
I grew up in, where human constructions threatened to overwhelm
the natural beauty of the Bay Area. My attempt to portray fast-changing
childhood haunts around Mt. Tamalpais through this lens must
have stemmed from some deep desire to turn the clock back to
a less human-dominated world. And so the little trails and vast
mountain slopes of the Sierra appealed to me as the subject
for a series of landscape prints.
Gary Snyders Journal
Solo Trip in the Lyell and Ritter Backcountry
Gary Snyders first Sierra backpacking trip was a solo
loop through the Ritter and Clark ranges in 1955. His first
volume of poetry, Riprap, burns with the cool flame of this
summer when, Snyder recalled, "I began writing all the
poems I consider worthwhile."
In his 1990 afterword to another book, Riprap and Cold Mountain
Poems, Snyder describes how "the transparency of mountains
and work" brought him a "curious mind of renunciation"
in which "my language relaxed into itself." The Sierra
experience of "smooth white granite and gnarly juniper
and pine" was combining with his study of Zen Buddhism
to produce a new poetic voice.
In "How Poetry Comes to Me," Snyder acknowledges the
importance of backcountry imagery and experience in the shaping
of his art: "It comes blundering over the/Boulders at night,
it stays/Frightened outside the/Range of my campfire/I go to
meet it at the/Edge of light." Tom Killion
August 19, 1955
In Yosemite I bought my food. Got a haircut. Revivified the
noble car, drove to Tuolomne Meadows. In the campground, distracted
by the sight of a girl, clanged the car onto a boulder and grievously
bent the running-board. Left Tuolomne about four in the afternoon,
wandering up this long meadow-canyon.
August 20, 1955
An Ice Lake below Mt. Lyell:
Walked here early; found a good camp between large boulder and
clump of whitebark pine. After hunting firewood went on up Lyell,
an easy climb. Rained.
Wet rocks buzzing
Rain and thunder southwest
Hair, beard, tingle
Wind whips bare legs
We should go back
Is it proper for me to be here alone. Could it be shared?
Foolish query. Best do what can be done. The act will
work out its own consequences.
August 21, 1955
Thousand Island Lake: Easy stroll over Donohue Pass, through
rocky meadows, down to Rush Creek, up and over here. Davis and
Bannerragged old peaks. Fantastic lake and very large.
Now being in the deva realm. But existing here generates those
effects that return one to lower realms. Wind blows, Banner
Three-day-old slip of a new moon over Mt. Davis.
August 22, 1955
I went to the Banner-Davis saddle, but somehow things werent
like the Climbers Guide and though I scrambled up much
rock, found no available summit. Only a sub-summit on the ridge
with a cairn and a few names from Sierra "knapsack"
trip of 1948.
August 23, 1955
Went off across the meadows and creeks and up to the two Iceberg
Lakescold, barren, rocky . . . Handsome rocks!
Intricate textures, pattern and design, color. My boots are
going out. May have to walk out in tennis shoes. Ritter looms
above. I am afeared of it. Try it tomorrow.
August 24, 1955
The whittled-out alpenstock worked fairly well. Made it to the
With my floppy-soled shoes, looking up at Ritter and the steep
snow below the chutes, decided that this foolish monk best not
cause people the trouble of looking for his worthless body.
Muir certainly had guts. So I went on up Banner Peak, an easy
walk. Now I am off the peak and have glissaded through the chimney.
All that remains is a long glissade and the walk to camp. To
read Nagarjuna on Causality.
August 25, 1955
Afternoon: North Fork of the San Joaquin River.
A very rough trip from Banner-Davis saddle. Rock cliffs and
scary places. At the bottom of it, long meadow with white pine;
two abandoned and one occupied mining camps. Terribly messy.
No miners at home, but a horse, a donkey and all their gear.
August 26, 1955
Morning: Frost. No sun in this canyon until late. "Wandering
the wild deer paths." Up Bench Canyon; through a grassy
gulch between cliffs crossed with paths.
Afternoon: Confusion! But I have come through. Large lake on
the map scarcely exists; contours are all wrong. But sudden
sight of a T-blaze and a new waterbreak set me proper. The cross-country
ramble has ended well.
August 27, 1955
Morning: Inadequate, baffling perceptions: blunt senses, foolish
mind. Thinking I am unable to see it or know itthis enormous
inhuman beautyand yet, letting go, I am simply it, being
part of it, in me as well as outside. How not to understand
it? And yet, how hard.
Tomorrow I am going out of the mountains. Leave us recall that
the mountains are high ground being worn down; nature is everywhere,
cities and all.
Now the lake is still but for trout-jumps. Sun gone on all but
Vogelsang Peak, the fulling moon behind it. Sparse pines, white
rocks, clear pale cold sky. Somewhere a horse with a bell is
grazing. Saturn in Libra. Pine Marten just ran by.
August 28, 1955
Woke in the night, pissed, watched October star, built up fire.
Woke to a still-going one, in the frosty pre-dawn.
washing the mush-pot in the lake
frost on the horse-turds
gray-jay cased the camp
Got granite boulders, a sugar-pine seedling, drove back. Through
hot country. Mexicans on flatcars in the San Joaquin. Now, cool
air, fog. Sea Air. Smell of straw mats in my cabin.
This article was excerpted from The High Sierra of California
by Gary Snyder and Tom Killion (Heyday Books and Yosemite Association,
2002). Gary Snyder has published 16 books of poetry and prose,
including The Gary Snyder Reader and Turtle Island, which won
the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. He is a former professor of English
at the University of California, Davis. Tom Killion, founder
of Quail Press, is a California-born woodcut and letterpress
artist. His extensively illustrated books include 28 Views of
Mount Tamalpais and The Coast of California. For more information
about Tom Killions work, go to www.tomkillion.com.
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poets, artists, and ramblers? Go to - www.sierraclub.org/ca/forests
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