the trail is not a trail

One of my favourite poets is American poet Gary Snyder. He is described as the ‘poet laureate of deep ecology’ by some and I would agree with that. I guess he is a natural fit for me – he studied Zen Buddhism in Japan for years and writes a lot about the human spirit and nature.

I have to defend his work from most of my poet friends who think his stuff is ‘obvious’ or romanticises nature or whatever – but I think a) the simplicity of his work often echoes that of the Zen Koan (short poems or spiritual conundrums) he is obviously schooled in.

You could say this very famous poem by seventeenth century Japanese poet Masahide is ‘obvious’ and yet in its simplicity it also contains multitudes of meaning:

Barn’s burnt down-

now I can see

the moon.


And b) I don’t find his nature writing to be ‘romantic’. I find it to be frank and direct. However, it is hard to write ANYTHING about nature in the 21st century and not be accused of being ‘romantic’ and Wordsworthian. Nature poetry has an undeserved bad rap, I think.

Anyway, here is my current favourite Gary Snyder poem. Like a Zen koan, it is deceptively simple and yet depending on your reading of it can blow out and up and be a big existential gesture. As well as enjoying it aesthetically, I am returning to it lately as a reminder of mindfulness…because the trail is not a trail, there is no destination, ….or if there is it is only death – hence the pressing need to be present in the moment!

Here it is:

The Trail is Not A Trail

by Gary Snyder

(from Left Out In The Rain, North Point Press, 1986)

I drove down the Freeway
And turned off at an exit
And went along a highway
Til it came to a sideroad
Drove up the sideroad
Til it turned to a dirt road
Full of bumps, and stopped.
Walked up a trail
But the trail got rough
And it faded away—
Out in the open,
Everywhere to go.

4 responses to “the trail is not a trail”

  1. Beautiful, Helen. Thanks for the reminder re the trail is not the trail etc. Funny thing, my aunt Briar Hornung wrote similar lines re the moon and stars to me in a letter after her house burnt down! Yup, house! Made me think of her.


  2. I had a friend whose house burnt down we she was a kid and it was the defining experience of her childhood – she would talk about it all the time – a big life lesson for a child, I guess.


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