Arts and Activism
Arts and Education
Paying Attention: An Interview with Barry Lopez
by Kenneth Margolis, introduction by Stephen Trimble
On a soft, warm May morning in 1989, Barry Lopez leaned back against the sandstone near Arches National Park, Utah, listening. He had come from his home in Oregon to be part of a gathering to honor the late Edward Abbey. Lopez had been traveling--Antarctica, Africa, and the Galapagos Islands--researching his next book, an inquiry into the relationships of humans, time, and landscape in remote places. (He often describes himself simply with "I am a writer who travels.")
That bright morning in the desert he was the last to speak. With passion and concern, he spoke of the oil spill of the Exxon Valdez, the killing of African mammals, the destruction of the rainforest. His college background in theater and his moral education in a Jesuit high school and at Notre Dame surely helped to shape his delivery. He often sounds like an old-time preacher. He arouses and inspires and unsettles.
In listening to him, I sensed a stirring in the audience. Lopez speaks and writes about our sacred relationships with the earth with such seriousness and depth that he has become the most respected voice of ethical conscience in the chorus of naturalist writers.
Barry Lopez came out of college intent on being a writer. He has written for magazines for twenty years, and published a collection of this work, Crossing Open Ground, in 1988. Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping With His Daughter: Coyote Builds North America (1978) reflects his interests in Native Americans and in storytelling. In short pieces that hover on the boundary between essay and fiction--Desert Notes (1976), River Notes (1979), and Winter Count (1981)--he connects the wildness and mystery of land and animals with the most intimate of human dreams; he ends one story with, "If one is patient...there is probably nothing that cannot be retrieved."
In two award-winning works of nonfiction, Of Wolves and Men (1978) and Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (1986), he has used the traditional techniques of natural history writing to tie natural and human history together with philosophy and personal narrative. He has also gone beyond that tradition, illuminating the spirits of landscape and animals, searching for what he calls a "dignified" understanding, in language that is graceful and precise.
Barry Lopez is a careful man, careful about accuracy, careful about his choices, careful about people's feelings. He is absolutely serious about his craft and its consequences, yet has taken time to act as mentor for many apprentice writers--myself included.
He knows precisely what he wants to do with his life: to read, to think, to travel, to listen to landscape and native peoples, and to share what comes from these acts through writing, teaching, and lecturing.
He says, "Your work is your prayer." He offers that prayer, made of landscape and language, to us, his readers.
--Stephen Trimble (editor, Words From the Land: Encounters with Natural History Writing)
Kenneth Margolis: What do you think of yourself as doing in the world?
Barry Lopez: I don't think so much about what I am doing as about my responsibilities, my social responsibilities as a writer. Whenever I go somewhere, whether it is Antarctica or the Galapagos, or East Africa, or Australia, I am acutely aware of the fact that my community, all the members of my community, cannot go to those places, so I am responsible in that set of circumstances for several things. Uppermost is paying attention to what is going on there, so I can come home and tell a story that in some way or other is useful to the community.
My life is defined largely around issues of language and story and landscape, and I would be hard pressed to separate those three issues. I think the way in which landscape is imperiled--by manipulation and attenuation to serve various political and economic policies--is almost indistinguishable from the way in which language and story are imperiled.
What I am striving to do is to assist the reader in the quest to understand landscape as not only something that is living but something that includes us and upon which we are subtly dependent. In a profound, dynamic, and spiritual way, we have created, particularly in North America in the last 200 years, a culture of independent people; no one has any idea at this point what the price of that will be. We don't know what the social price is. We do know something of what the environmental price is--clearly, to pursue individual paths for the accumulation of personal wealth, for example, is an economic strategy that is simply not going to work. The landscape tells us that every day, whether we look at ozone fluctuation, accelerated timber harvests, or the activities of the North Pacific red squid fleet.
What I am doing, in the tradition of my ancestors as writers, is trying to bring language and landscape together in such a way that landscape can come to the fore as a metaphor as well as a reality. There is no more ancient or well-used metaphor for human beings than natural history. It makes possible the oldest of all allegories and it serves us still.
Margolis: Social and conservation issues are a kind of subtext in all your writing. When did you become involved in these issues?
Lopez: I don't think of any one moment in my life when I became consciously aware of conservation issues. It is a frame of mind and a way of life with me. Had there been no environmental movement of any kind, I could still be in exactly the same position.
I first felt what we could call "a state of awe," moments of recognizing a metaphysical dimension in landscapes, when I was six or seven years old. I remember at the Grand Canyon, in particular, when I was eight years old, being awestruck about everything that was around me, the richness--the smells, the tackiness of ponderosa sap, the tenacity of wildflowers, those little ear tufts on the Kaibab squirrels--and spatial depth. The first mountain lion I saw was in the Grand Canyon, and it was an incident that went to the floor of my heart. If, in your words, social issues and the conservation of the natural world are a kind of subtext in what I am doing, then I would call those things the subtext of my life.
Margolis: I wonder, though, whether you feel there is a special conservation responsibility at this historical moment.
Lopez: We seem to be in a period in which the conservation of anything is disparaged--the conservation of books, the conservation of ideas, the conservation of time, the conservation of darkness, the conservation of love, the conservation of intelligence--it all gets very short shrift in contemporary society. And I think that in the environmental movement, in the curious way in which it overlaps the women's movement and other social movements of the late twentieth century, what we are really seeing is an insistence on the moral dimension of life. When I say the moral dimension, I mean issues of integrity and dignity and responsibility.
Margolis: But when you talk about a moral dimension and responsibility, don't you imply another party? Aren't ethical and moral concerns about relationships with other parties who have rights and claims? For you, who or what is the other party?
Lopez: I think it is a relationship that we have within ourselves, but it is also one that is apparent in our relationships within the family, and with each other in the community, and between the community and the state, and obviously between human beings and landscape.
This makes me think of something that may have more to do with literature than environmental concerns. Much literary fiction being written in America today is not, by and large, held in high regard outside North America. In recent years, the last twenty years or so, American fiction writers have been sharply criticized from the outside for the lack of seriousness in their work and a lack of political or social relevance--and they have criticized each other for writing solipsistic novels.
The situation in nonfiction, on the other hand, has changed rather sharply recently. Nonfiction writers have taken over territory that has been abandoned by American fiction writers. That territory is, for example, the question of what is the relationship between the individual and God or between the individual and the state, what is the relationship of the individual to landscape--the questions that transcend issues of personal relationship. Those questions are being directly addressed by natural history writers, or people I think of as landscape writers.
Novelists seem to have lost track of the social responsibility of elucidating the human predicament and creating a "literature of hope." Statements about the future of human life today can be addressed in very cynical ways by people who have had one too many years on the Potomac or been in some other set of circumstances where they just cannot any longer muster the energy to believe either in the goodness, the essential goodness of human life, or in the purpose of human life. But I think that you can write a literature of hope, in the sense that you can say, "Yes, it is quite bad and we have all this history to remind us of our flaws and our errors, but at certain points, for example with the abolition of slavery, we have changed things, done things differently."
Margolis: I think artists are drawn to the areas where great behavioral changes are occurring. And that is what is happening in the environmental field today. You are condemned to write--the resource you are writing about is diminishing as you are writing about it.
In fact, since you travel so much, you must see a lot of horrible things. Do you also see things that let you think, "By God, we may make it after all"?
Lopez: Yes, you do see those things. And what you say is true.
In the last couple of years I have been traveling quite a bit in China, Japan, Kenya, and South Africa. Most of the places I go are pretty remote, so I don't see on a daily basis the kind of loud, blinding horror that the marketing of certain Western products and Western ideas has caused. But I do see in the bush that hopelessness and despair that is part and parcel of the lives of Third and Fourth World people every day. And still, what astonishes me is the resilience of the human soul. Individuals I have met who have literally no home, no personal possessions outside of a bed sheet they are wearing and a pair of sandals, still have a quality of spiritual transcendence that is breathtaking and also intimidating, because what it says is that all this that the Western world addresses itself to, the accumulation of material possessions, really counts for nothing. I often feel when I travel as an American that I am the son in a rich family going to sojourn among the spiritual ancestors. There are people in the Sudan at this moment who have no food. They are not keeping themselves alive by dreaming of living lives like Western people live. They have got to call on something else.
It is also there in the struggle of men and women who write and go to prison because they write. And they won't quit. I remember driving through Johannesburg one evening with a friend who was with the Wall Street Journal, and he turned to me at one point and said, "You know, what I cannot get over about these people is that when they are put in jail and then after a month are turned loose--never having been charged with anything, just hauled off the street, interrogated, families interrogated and intimidated and beaten half to death--the first day they are back on the streets they are right back bearing witness to the same thing." And he said, "You simply cannot kill this in human beings--this desire for dignity and for freedom."
I would say the same applies in some way to the modern, colonial exploitation of the land. Certainly some of the most heroic people I have known have been people who have given over their whole lives, and often lost a family in the process, to conservation issues. People who have said publicly and privately, "The fate of the earth, the fate of the physical earth, is of more importance than my personal successes in life or my personal happiness." These are to me the great contemporary heroes, the nameless men and women who fight in the halls of Congress and deal with all the duplicity there.
Margolis: Barry, many people read your books, and you have an influence. Nevertheless, do you feel in your personal life an obligation to try not to be part of the "blind juggernaut"?
Lopez: Oh yes, I feel it all the time. It costs a lot in fuel, for example, to get me from place to place. I guess my position is indefensible except insofar as I can say, "this is what I do in the community." There has always been this function in society of people who go "outside." I would say--and I guess this would be my defense--that it is essential in human life to address the "other." And in order to do that you must in a figurative and in a real sense, leave home. You must leave the security of your own language, the security of your form of government, the security of all the psychological cushions built into your culture and your way of life. In other words, if you come face to face with the other you can come home and see the dimensions of the familiar that make you love it. And if you can do that, then you can rekindle in your community a sense of what your home really is, instead of perpetuating the notion that the world is reducible, everywhere the same, or even more debilitating, that your own landscape is common.
Margolis: By the way, don't misunderstand me. I don't mean to imply you require a defense...
Lopez: No, I don't feel that I require a defense, but I do think it's a good question and I do address it in myself.
Margolis: Just one more question. Do you find ways in your personal life to make yourself feel more comfortable with being a member of our technological society, ways to live lightly?
Lopez: I do, but they are old, unremarkable habits, habits that are now twenty years old, that have to do with recycling everything. I guess that's not buying lots of new things, making old things work again. That sense of preservation and conservation and recycling has been a part of my daily life for a long time.
The level of waste and the level of greed that is tolerated socially is increasingly incomprehensible to me, and painful. I have friends, photographers for National Geographic, who are away in remote places for three and four months at a time. We touch base when they return to the states and many of us have the same feeling--the reentry into North America is extremely painful. It's like coming back to deal again with a spoiled child.
But the reason that you do is that it is your child, you are part of this community. I would underscore strongly that the feeling is not one of condescension, but of coming back and being sick at heart with the love that you bear your own country. In its waywardness you don't abandon it, but outside of writing or saying my prayers, I don't know what else to do.
Margolis: Spank the child, maybe.
Lopez: Well, that's what we are trying to do, I guess.
Ken Margolis has worked in the conservation movement since 1972 and was a co-founder of Conservation International and Ecotrust. He is currently president of River Network, a national organization that helps people organize to protect and restore rivers and watersheds.
Stephen Trimble is a writer and photographer, and was the editor of Words from the Land: Encounters with Natural History Writing.
Barry Lopez's newest book, About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, was just published by Knopf.
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This interview was originally published in the Summer 1990 issue of Orion. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at email@example.com.