snyder, the sea otter

Yesterday, May 8th, Gary Snyder turned 93 years old. The zen-beat poet, original dharma bum, was a great friend of Nanao Sakaki. When they met in Japan in the 1960s, they instantly became friends and immense influences on each other's lives and writing.

To celebrate this friendship on Gary's birthday, we share here a beautiful and simples text that Nanao wrote about their time together on the volcanic island of Suwanose, in the Banyan Ashram community. The text was originally published in Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life, a 1991 book edited by Jon Halper and published by Sierra Club Books.


Dust From my Old Backpack

1) The First Star

One evening, probably in early summer 1965, Gary Snyder & I are rambling on one of the long and narrow lanes in Kyoto, just after a brief rain.

Several Japanese gentlemen are walking behind us. We hear them speaking of us as ‘gaijins’ (outsiders). Looking back at them Gary shouts in Japanese: ‘We are Naijins’ (insiders). Leaving them open-mouthed we keep on walking. Soon we see the first star in western sky.

2) Sea Otter

1. We are on a coral reef of the Tidal Point, the southernmost point of the Suwanose Island in the East China Sea. As the solar system revolves ceaseleslly, it’s now the summer of 1967. Exited about their first dive into a coral reef, about then young people wearing snorkels, diving masks, and fins stand on the beach in a calm cove of the Tidal Point. Gary Snyder is among them. Soon we discover that he is a surprisingly good swimmer. ‘Sea otter, ins’t he?’, somebody shouts. He sometimes pushes up his head above the waves, then dives again into the coral garden. He moves further and further away from the shore.

2. By chance, the chief elder of the island passes by. He makes a sign to me to come ashore. ‘That American is going too far. It’s very dangerous to go beyond the reef. Call him back, please!’.

“You think so?”

“The Black Stream washes there the Tidal Point. You know it very well, don’t you?”

3. Three days before Gary’s arrival on the island, I rowed the small fishing boat with six islanders against the current of the Black Stream. The great oceanic river runs three nautical miles per hour at the Tidal Point. My hands still remember what a hard rowing it was even for seven men.

4. Anxious and irritated, the elder almost scolds me.

“Bring him back quickly! If not, who knows what will happen to him?”

“Gary, come back! Come back, Gary!” Wind and waves blow away my voice. Now he changes into a sea otter completely. His head shows above the waves one second or two, then instantly disappears into the blue water. Under the scorching midsummer’s sun we see him again at another unexpected spot.

5. Surprised by my shouting, with confused faces everybody gets out of the water. The elder’s half crying voice moves me. At that moment I catch a glimpse of the Sea Otter’s head near the Tidal Point. From rock to rock, like a flying goby, my body runs, jumps & flies to the Tidal Point. I signal him, using my red loin cloth as a flag. At last the Sea Otter gets my sign & swims up t me.

6. “What is the matter?”

“Are you going to swim al the way to the West Coast?”

“Should I try?”

I point to the sea. “The Black Stream runs right here. Everybody on the beach is worried about you. Let’s go back!”


Now, two sea otters swim back toward the beach, fighting against the ebbing tide. When we land at last, the elder smiles at us approvingly.

7. A couple weeks before that, Banyan Ashram was born at the foot of a volcano. Everybody in the ashram was joyous and trusting each other. At that time we knew very little about the ocean or the volcano. During those few weeks the usually so active volcano remained silent. But the cicada’s song was roaring in the bamboo thicket day after day.

8. In the evening after the first diving we enjoy our humble but delicious dinner under the Banyan tree. Here comes a firefly, then the elder with presents of a bottle of homemade sake & a big Spanish mackerel. The elder teaches us many magical tricks: for example, how to locate the direction of a typhoon without any weather report. And then he tells about several sea accidents that happened on the island. Once, at the Tidal Point, a student from Osaka was carried away by the Black Stream & never seen again. A few islanders were on the beach nearby but they had n way to bring him back to the shore.

9. The next day, first passing through a semitropical woods – camellia, Fatsia japonica, palm… we all dive again into the water. The Sea Otter heads straight for the Tidal Point. He hold the elder’s adivce in his mind. But the coral garden lures him further & further into the ocean. At the end I see him swimming on the reef’s edge.

10. Our third day of diving, the Sea Otter goes beyond the reef with a spear. A couple of hours later he comes back to the ashram with three sea breams & a huge octopus.

— Mt. Akaishi, February 1989

Nanao Sakaki and Gary Snyder, in the U.S., more then 20 years after meeting at Suwanose Island. Picture by Allen Ginsberg.