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{\bf The Forest in the Library}

by Gary Snyder

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{\sl I prepared a talk for the October 19, 1990, dedication of the new
  West Wing of Shields Library, University of California at Davis.}

\medskip

In the old and original spirit of dedications, and in honor of the
life of buildings, I want to invoke the many presences that are here
--- not invisible, just rarely seen --- whose good-will toward this
project can certainly be hoped for. We are right on the territory of
the old Patwin village of Putah-toi, which was a large, settled, and
affluent community whose memories went back several thousand years.
May the deeply conservative spirit of the Native Californians, and
their love for lore and and the rituals that preserve it, welcome this
structure to a long and useful life. May the even older presences here
--- the valley oaks and in particular the great oak within the
coutyard (bemused as it may be by recent changes), the Swainson's
hawks that soar past the top of Sproul Hall, the burrowing owls, and
Putah Creek itself (reduced as it is for
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the moment) --- lend their support to this human effort of a
university and a library. May the trees that were sacrificed for this
expansion be justified by the good work that should come forth. We
devoutly hope that this large enterprise will serve the welfare of
watersheds, owls, trees, and, of course, human beings.

As for this new wing itself, it is an elegant structure of
cast-in-place concrete --- that is to say, a transformation of
water-washed gravels, a riverbed stood on end. The architects tell me
that this new part of the building is substantially made up of old
riverbeds of the Stanislaus River drainage --- which has this come
over here visiting. We are, so to speak, now introducing these
assembled elements to each other, that they may wish each other well.

It is also the case that in fin-de-millenium California we have much
longer threads of connection: in addition to the historical links
eastward to Europe and Africa, we now look westward to Polynesia and
Asia in matters both ecological and economic. We have historical and
cultural connections to the south with Hispanic culture, and the Great
Pacific flyway brings the Canada geese and pintail ducks from their
nesting grounds in the far north to the marshes just beyond the
campus. All of these lineages are present in our daily lives and are
literally represented in the cosmopolitanism of our student body and
the diversity of our studies. This is all to be welcomed, even as we
simultaneously celebrate the antiquity and resilience of the original
nature of our treasured California landscape.

We live at the intersection of many forces, and in the case of the
library in particular, there is one more force to be in%-
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voked. That is our occidental humanistic and scientific intellectual
tradition. It has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to maintain
itself through time. The institution of the library is at the heart of
that persistence. Although Strabo said, ``Aristotle was the first man
to have collected books,'' there were in truth hundreds of outstanding
privated libraries in Hellenic Greece. What survived of Aristotle's
personal library became the basis of one of the first institutional
libraries, which soon became a feature of classical civilization.
There were, of course, far older libraries, and in the broader sense
archives of literature and lore were kept worldwide, in virtually all
cultures whether they had writing or not.

The original context of teaching must have been narratives told by
elders to young people gathered around the fire. Our fascination with
TV may just be nostalgia for that flickering light. My grandparents
didn't tell stories around teh campfire before we went to sleep ---
their house had an oil furnace instead, and a small collection of
books. I got into their little library to entertain myself. In this
huge old occidental culture, our teaching elders are books. For many
of us, books are our grandparents! In the library there are useful,
demanding, and friendly elders available to us. I like to think of
people like Bartolomé de las Casas, who passionately defended the
indians of New Spain, of Baruch Spinoza, who defied the traditions of
Amsterdam to be a philosopher. (And in my days as an itinerant forest
worker I made especially good use of libraries: they were warm and
stayed open late at night.)

Making hoards and heaps, saving lore and information, are entirely
natural: some zooarchaeologists have excavated
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heaped-up wood-rat nests out in the Mojave Desert, packed full of
little wood-rat treasures, that are twelve thousand years old. We
humans are truly just beginners.

Pursuing this line of thought, my friend Jack Hicks of the English
Department and I were talking about how one might see the university
as a natural system, and wondering what the information flow would
look like. We found ourselves, in this year of forest consciousness,
recalling the venerable linkage of academics to groves. In China, too,
academies such as the Han-lin were called ``groves.'' We considered
that the information web of the modern institution of learning, right
down to the habitat niches of buildings, has an energy flow fueled by
the data accumulationof primary workers in the information chain ---
namely the graduate students and young scholars. Some are green like
grass, basic photosynthesizers, grazing brand-new material. Others are
in the detritus cycle and are tunneling through the huge logs of old
science and philosphy and literature left on the ground by the past,
breaking them down with deconstructive fungal webs and converting them
anew to an edible form. These people on the floor of the information
forest are among the hardest workers, and to be sure are affrighted
occasionally by hawklike shadows sailing over them.

The gathered nutrients are stored in a place called the {\sl
  bibliotek}, ``place of the papyrus,'' or the {\sl library}, ``place
of bark,'' because the Latin word for tree bark and book is the same,
reflecting the memory of the earliest fiber used for writing in that
part of the Mediterranean.

If you allow me to carry this playful ecological anal%-
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ogy further, we can say that the dissertations, technical reports, and
papers of the primary workers are in a sense gobbled up by senior
researchers and condensed into conclusion and theory --- new studies
that are in turn passed up the information chain to the thinkers at
the top who will digest them and come out with some unified theory or
perhaps a new paradigm. These final texts, which are built on the
concentrated information assembled lower on the chain, will be seen as
the noble monarchs of teh academy-forest. Such giants must also
succumb in time and return to the forest floor.

When asked ``What is finally over the top of all the information
chains?'' one might reply that it must be the artists and writers,
because they are among the most ruthless and efficient information
predators. They are light and mobile, and can swoop across the tops of
all the disciplines to make off with what they take to be the best
parts, and convert them into novels, mythologies, dense and esoteric
essays, visual or other arts, or poems. And who eats the artists and
writers? The answer must be that they are ultimately recycled to the
beginners, the students. That's where the artists and writers go, to
be cheerfully nibbled and passed about.

The library itself is the heart of this ancient forest. But as Robert
Gordon Sproul [former president of the University of California] said
in his highly regarded speech of 1930, the library would be useless
just as a simple collection of books or information. It is the
organization, the intelligent system that can swiftly seek out and
present one tiny bit of its stored information to a single person,
that makes it useful. What lies behind it all, of course, is language.
As I have written
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elsewhere, language is a mind-body system that coevolved with our
needs and nerves. Like imagination and the body, language rises
unbidden. It is of a complexity the eludes our rational intellectual
capacities, yet the child learns the mother tongue early and has
virtually mastered it by six... Without conscious device we constantly
reach into the vast word hoards in the depths of the wild unconscious.
We cannot as individuals or even as a species take credit for this
power; it came from someplace else, from the way clouds divide and
mingle, from the way the many flowerlets of a composite blossom divide
and redivide.

Yet acknowledging all that freshness and order from within, our
inherent intellectual infrastructure, should only intensify our regard
for the amazing {\sl deliberateness} that has given us our
institutions of higher learning, within which the library is another
sort of relatively unappreaciated infrastructure not unlike language
itself. The refinement of organization makes a library work, and like
the rich syntax of a natural language, it almost eludes us. For most
of us, it borders on mystery and calls, if not for offerings, at least
for gratitude. So I want to express the gratitude we must all feel for
the good luck that has brought us together today, with this fine
library, admiring its handsome newly extended shell, which will be
serving the great project of world intellectual culture. We celebrate
a new opening, a new step, in this old-new project of human
self-knowledge.

\bigskip

\hfill{\sl [1990]}

\bigskip
\bigskip


{\sl \footnotesize [Transcribed from the book: {\rm A Place in Space --
      Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds (New and Selected Prose)}.
    Counterpoint, 1995, pp.199-204]}




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