‘Learning Native wisdom’

Published 10:29 am Wednesday, August 6, 2008

“We are all related; we are all one,” —the old Sioux Song

Gary Holthaus cites this in his 1984 book of poetry, “Circling Back.” Gary Snyder, one of America’s stellar poets, says of this book: “If I had to recommend one book on the West, this would be it.”

Three of us from Austin were at Eagle Bluff to hear Gary Holthaus discuss his newest publication titled “Learning Native Wisdom: What Traditional Cultures Teach Us about Subsistence, Sustainability, and Spirituality.”

While dining I noticed a guy across the way that looked familiar. When he later passed by our table I stood up and asked “Didn’t you go to Austin High School?” He turned out to be Robert Ashton. We graduated together. He’s now living in Rochester and is a director of the Eagle Bluff facility. We talked some more after Gary’s presentation. It was nice to become reacquainted with Bob.

Betty Benner and Vennie White were along. Betty was one of the first to meet with Gary Holthaus when she and Mabel Hjelman were in a poetry class Gary offered in the John Hassler home relocated next to the Hassler Theater in Plainview where the open mike readings occur I frequently mention. I later joined them after the poetry course officially ended but then continued to meet.

It has been interesting to become acquainted with Gary over the years. It sounds like Gary has just completed several months in North Dakota working on sustainability. As Gary was introduced a list of things he has done over the years was shared. This introduction brought some laughter from Gary as he prepared to speak saying it sounds like he had not been able to hold a job, bringing a chuckle from the audience.

What I think of so often of Gary was the point in his past when he decided to show his poetry to poets he preferred. He didn’t send his material to them instead he drove to where they lived, most of them in the West. He would stay with the poet for a period of time and then move on. That move would be to another poet that the poet he was staying with would suggest. To me there was a free spirit about him that many of us long for.

He shared with the audience that his next venture is shaping up to be another trip to Alaska where he gathered the material for Learning Native Wisdom. As I understand it Gary’s son is teaching in Alaska. Teaching, Gary tells us, is what originally brought him to Alaska where the textbooks didn’t really apply to the ways of the Eskimo and other Native American peoples of Alaska. Gary then talked about his years in Alaska.

The inside flap of his book reads: “Scientific evidence has made it abundantly clear that the world’s population can no longer continue its present rate of consuming and despoiling the planet’s limited natural resources. Scholars, activists, politicians, and citizens worldwide are promoting the idea of sustainability, or systems and practices of living that allow community to maintain itself indefinitely.”

In the book Gary refers to “structural cultures” and “functional cultures.” He tells us the toxic pattern of “English only” that the United States, particularly our education system, has followed “is as brutal as gladiatorial combat.”

The book begins with the poem Axe Handles by Gary Snyder:

One afternoon the last week of April/Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet/one-half turn and it sticks in a stump./He recalls the hatchet-head/Without a handle, in the shop/And go gets it, and wants it for his own./A broken-off axe handle behind the door/Is long enough for a hatchet,/We cut it to length and take it/With the hatchet head/And working hatchet, to the wood block./There I begin to shape the old handle/With the hatchet, and the phrase/First learned from Ezra Pound/Rings in my ears!/ “When making an axe handle/the pattern is not far off.”/ And I say this to Kai? “Look: We’ll shape the handle/By checking the handle/Of the axe we cut with—“/And he sees. And I hear it again:/It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century/A.D. “Essay on Literature”—in the/Preface: “In making the handle/Of an axe/By cutting wood with an axe/The model is indeed near at hand.”/My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen/Translated that and taught it years ago/And I see: Pound was an axe,/Chen was an axe, I am an axe/And my son a handle, soon/To be shaping again, model/And tool, craft of culture,/How we go on.