Han Shan and Hiker Trash
April is National Poetry Month, a fact I mention here only so much as poetry has been an inspiration and activity related to my hiking. Poetry, and the example of the lives of poets as separated by time and place as Han Shan and Gary Snyder, show a long connection between poets and mountains. The neuroses of cities have produced many neurotic poets– look no further than yours truly. A sane person doesn’t need much to be content: some food, reasonable clothing and shelter, some company, and something in which to believe. Three hots and not quite a cot can be stored in a pack, and for fellowship and ideology, nature provides both. On the Appalachian Trail, when one finds moments of solitude, there are still the voices of birds and animals, a kind of musical language like poetry. Our own voices and human languages developed from the primordial utterances of our most ancient ancestors, people living in a profoundly closer relationship to nature than we do. The diminishing of poetry as a respectable mode of expression, the oppressive ubiquity of sarcasm, the expectation of insincerity: this is the rhetorical culture of English language societies today. How far we’ve rowed from the plainspoken bench wreckers of Heorot. The complexities of bullshit imposed upon ourselves fades away into the chirping of birds on a spring mountain.
Such voices kept the confidences of the legendary poet (in both literary and historical terms) Han Shan– literally “Cold Mountain” which is also what he called the mountain where he lived, miles above a Monastery. When I think of the Uncle Nick Grindstaff monument on the southern AT (“Lived alone. Suffered alone. Died alone.”) I remember Han Shan in ancient China. What has been translated into English as his “Cold Mountain Poems” are said to have been poems he painted on the rocks of his mountain hermitage in the manner of even more ancient hermit poets. These, in generations after the poet’s death, were written down and preserved by monks by which they have entered the literary record. It is Han Shan that is so often referenced by the American Beat Generation poet Gary Snyder, who in turn is the fictionalized “Japhy Ryder,” a major character in Jack Kerouac’s novel, Dharma Bums, a favorite among hikers in modern times. Gary Snyder reminds us that the North American landscape can inspire enlightenment as much an Asian landscape. Han Shan reminds us that America didn’t invent hiker trash.
“A lot of guys want high office,” writes Han Shan in one verse, but “two bowls of rice is good enough for me. The fire that simmers the rice pot will warm my toes too.” In another verse he says, “So what in the world’s worth anything? Poetry is priceless (or at least that’s what they pay me) explaining, clearly, deeply, what monkey-hearted men will never learn.” Han Shan also offers this useful advice from 1,500 years ago: “To wander free among the mountains, you don’t have to buy them. For a steep climb you need a stout staff, and a good strong vine helps when it’s steeper.” J.P. Seaton’s translation, which I have adapted here, captures Han Shan’s clarity and depth– and wit. When I read Han Shan in a tent in the woods, it is like reading an email from a hiker friend.
In Tennessee, hiking a long section of the AT in 2014, I met two lawyers from South Carolina, section hiking. One was a Democrat and the other was a Republican, and they were old friends who avoided talking about politics. They both drank whiskey, but the Democrat lawyer drank more. I suppose it was not too surprising as the night revealed the moon and we built a big fire, someone should bring up poetry. I think the Republican lawyer mentioned Dharma Bums. It was a beautiful evening in a remote mountain valley. The Democrat lawyer got drunk and loose and recited “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats, from memory. He nailed it, word for word in our very own “bee loud glade.” Everyone applauded. I shared a poem of mine published in print and online by the Prose-Poem Project. The poem is called “Flowers” and I think it is one of the better poems I’ve written inspired by experiences on the Appalachian Trail. The lawyers both showed great enthusiasm for my poem. I have read my poetry in conference rooms of fine hotels, in bars, cafes and libraries, but my poetry reading for the lawyers and a few other hikers that night in Tennessee may be my favorite. There is a desire in so many of us to escape to the mountains and speak another, more meaningful language than the ones we speak at the office or production site.
In 2011, in Virginia, I had breakfast in a roadside restaurant with a hiker named Haiku. As his name suggests, he wrote the seventeen syllable Japanese poetic form, producing one a day from his experiences on the trail and recording them in trail shelter log books when his hiking day was done. He wrote hundreds of these haikus. Some were better than others, but all were good efforts. They were written down for the small audience of those hikers who read the shelter books. Like Han Shan, Haiku had no ambitions for publication. He was an older guy (Haiku was perhaps 60) who seemed content to hike, enjoy the mountains and eat pancakes and eggs with strangers and talk about Basho and Issa. We also spoke of Earl Shaffer himself, the original thru hiker, whose ambition was to be known for his poems about the Appalachian Trail. I admit, I have not read the Original Crazy One’s poems. People have said unkind things about them, but I do not say unkind things about anyone’s poems if I can help it anyway.
Good poetry or bad poetry, ill conceived film script or mystery novel, many people who hike the Appalachian Trail are inspired to write, just as many photographers and other visual artists are inspired to make beautiful images that capture mountains, rivers and skies; flora and fauna; humanity and sublimity and the tragedy of the ecological degradation of the east. I wrote down the line, “Walking is a prayer you say with your whole body,” in my trail notebook in 2014. A poem grew out of the line when I got home and it was published in the Autumn 2015 issue of The Louisville Review.
It is difficult to explain to people how walking hundreds of miles can aid in the production of a twenty line free verse poem, but I’m telling you it does. The psyche goes to strange places on a long hike and it is sometimes rewarding to take the time to write something down or capture an image. If a notebook weighed five pounds, I would still carry one on the trail. And a small book of poems. Some Walt Whitman or the recently departed Jim Harrison’s In Search of Small Gods, or After Ikkyu: “We are more than dying flies in a shit house, though we are that too.” The mountains are so much more than we are, no wonder why so many of us, like Han Shan himself, identify with them. Happy Trails. Don’t forget to sing something– even if its just on paper a little bit.
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