One of America's most celebrated environmental writers and a lifelong conservationist, poet Gary Snyder returned to his boyhood home Tuesday in Lake City. He is in town for a reading tonight at Benaroya Hall, part of Seattle's Arts & Lectures series.

Share story

Back before all the asphalt, the cars and the strip malls, this was a forested glade, where Gary Snyder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, would beat a path into the woods to his secret camp, to snug down with the quiet night, dreaming a fifth-grader’s skinned-knee dreams.

One of America’s most celebrated environmental writers and a lifelong conservationist, Snyder returned to his boyhood home Tuesday in Lake City. He is in town for a reading tonight at Benaroya Hall, part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures series.

Known for his writings imbued with sense of place and love of nature, Snyder reflected on how the local landscape has changed since he first explored its tangled woods as a boy, and how loving and knowing a place is the first step to preserving it.

Long before he grew into one of America’s most famous Beat poets and was immortalized as Japhy Ryder, the fictional hero in Jack Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums,” before he put down roots in California and crisscrossed the Pacific, over and over, to study Buddhism in Japan, Snyder grew up here, living with his parents on a subsistence farm.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

He helped tend the chickens in a two-story barn and milk the family’s cows. His father planted the apple tree that can still be seen out back, and some of the fir trees stand even taller than before. But mostly, the woods he remembers are long gone, and the animals with them replaced today by concrete garden statuary rabbits snugged into the closely clipped landscaping that surrounds the house today.

On Tuesday, traffic beat by Snyder on what used to be a quiet gravel lane. Strip malls and housing crowded in where the trees used to be.

“The changes that have happened here are the same as everywhere in the West,” Snyder said. “It goes with the uncritical acceptance of the ideology of constant growth, that’s still the majority view. It is a minority view that there are limits to growth.

“Nothing is going to slow this down until we run out of oil. … Truthfully, if I feel a sense of loss, it’s the same sense of loss on the whole West Coast.”

Snyder isn’t bitter, just very sure that saving a place requires knowing it first, and that too few people take the time to know the landscapes around them the way everyone used to.

“Start out to know the difference between a native plant, and an introduced one. Notice where the watersheds are and which way the streams are flowing. You are teaching yourself the place, what is the natural vegetation and the lay of the land,” Snyder said.

The best way to learn a place? Walk it, and slowly. Bicycling is second best because it teaches the gentle upgrades and down. A car erases all of the contours and anesthetizes the rider.

Knowing a place is everyone’s business, and the work everyone used to do, Snyder said. “In normal times you wouldn’t need to say these things,” Snyder said. “This is what everyone’s grandmother used to teach.

“It’s a conversation that goes on all the time, that is keyed to the seasons. It is care taking. Having a certain basic sense of place and being locally nature-literate gives you something to work from.”

The next step, of course, is to know your maps, and how to read them. Then learn to read the sky, and the seasons. Learn, too, not only the natural boundaries of the place you call home, but the ownership boundaries, “for then you will know who to call together,” Snyder said, to do community work on behalf of a place.

Sharing a place is powerful, and that goes for Snyder as much as anyone: When the current owners of his former boyhood home, Pauline and David Dubois, met him unexpectedly for the first time Tuesday, it was like a gathering of lost relations, united by their common bond of sharing this home.

She was an English major in college, and Pauline said she had heard Snyder once lived here. So, she had been careful to never change the house much. And somehow, she never quite wanted to move.

“I guess,” she said, beaming at Snyder, “you must be the reason.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.