Snyder was born in San Francisco and raised on small farms in Washington state and Oregon.
Because he lived close to nature from earliest childhood, Snyder was distressed at a young age by the wanton destruction of the Pacific Northwestern forests, and he began to study and respect the Indian cultures that offered a more harmonious relationship with nature.
Snyder went to public schools in Seattle and Portland, and he augmented his education by reading about Indian lore and pioneer adventures.
Wild regions continued to fascinate him as he matured; he became an expert mountain climber and learned back-country survival techniques.
A visit to the Seattle Art Museum introduced him to Chinese landscape painting, and he developed an interest in the Orient as an example of a high civilization that had maintained its bonds to nature.
After high school Snyder divided his time between studies at Reed College—and later Indiana University and the University of California-Berkeley—and work as a lumberjack, trail maker, and firewatcher in the deep woods.
The balance between physical labor and intellectual pursuits informs his earliest writing.
In the autumn of 1952 Snyder moved to the San Francisco Bay area in order to study Oriental languages at Berkeley.
He was already immersed in Zen Buddhism and had begun to write poetry about his work in the wilderness.
He became part of a community of writers, including Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, who were soon heralded as the forerunners of a counterculture revolution in literature.
The literary fame of the Beat Generation was launched with a poetry reading in October of 1955 at San Francisco’s Six Gallery.
His Mountain and Rivers without End project was begun on April 8, 1956 (talk about devotion) and is considered an “epic of geology, prehistory, and mythology.”
When Snyder published this volume in 1996, he was awarded the honorable Bollingen Poetry Prize, the Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award (from the LA Times), the Orion Society’s John Hay Award, the 1997 Award for Poetry from the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association, and the Freedom of Expression Award from Focus magazine.
He had also won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1975 for Turtle Island, and his No Nature made Snyder a finalist for the National Book Award in 1992.
Gary Snyder has won numerous honors and awards for his writing, including the Bollingen Prize, an American Academy of Arts and Letters award, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, the Bess Hokin Prize and the Levinson Prize from Poetry, the Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Times, the Shelley Memorial Award, and the Ruth Lilly Award.
Snyder was elected a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets in 2003. He is a professor of English at the University of California-Davis.
Currently, Snyder is a professor of English at the University of California at Davis.
He still does poetry readings and talks (including speeches on his ongoing project Mountains and Rivers Without End).
Recently (August 11, 2000), Gary Snyder read his entire epic-poem, Mountains and Rivers Without End.