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Teale lecturer points to Asia
for lessons on the environment
October 5, 1998

America should implement the environmental ethics of Buddhism in nature preservation, said Gary Snyder, the first in a series of six speakers in this year's Edwin Way Teale Lecture Series on nature and the environment.

Citing his studies of environmental practices in East Asia, dating back to pre-Judaic-Christian times, Snyder said China had individual rulers with good ideas but the ideas were never put into legislation.

Snyder, who spoke September 24 at the Dodd Research Center, said the world should learn from the deforestation of China. He called for a constitutional amendment to permanently ascribe "value to nature and landscape in America, just as humans have been given value in the Bill of Rights."

Snyder also described a recently emerged field known as environmental ethics, that studies the "ethical obligation of human beings to non-living and human entities" in the midst of the current capitalist, expansionist society.

He said people should employ enlightened self-interest and a "non-harming" moral standard to our treatment of all beings, including rocks, clouds, and trees. "If you take everything apart, save all the parts," he said.

Snyder was raised on a Washington dairy farm, north of Seattle, where his initial concern for the environment was sparked by seeing huge eight- to 12-foot wide tree stumps, the remains of trees used to build the cities of the west coast.

He said he feels a connection to Edwin Way Teale, the Connecticut author, photographer, and naturalist for which the lecture series is named, because he also spent time in the woods where, Snyder says, he was "being challenged by the ghosts of those trees."

As a graduate student in Asian studies at the University of California-Berkeley, Snyder became familiar with Buddhism and later spent 12 years in Asia. There he observed the contradiction between ethical East Asian culture and the deforestation that had taken place for the manufacture of ink and charcoal and the construction of buildings.

Snyder closed his address with an anecdote from his 1983 trip to the Great Wall of China. Looking out over the mountains surrounding Beijing, Snyder asked his Chinese literary friends if they thought there had ever been forests there, and they replied, no. Yet Snyder's research had shown this to be untrue. The trees to which we owe our gratitude, he said, had been forgotten.

Marisha Chinski