I've spent a couple of days reading various writings of and about Barry Lopez, in consequence of an email exchange with Helen Marshall, a friend and long-ago student of mine at Acadia who now lives in Bodø, above the Arctic Circle in Norway. She said
What brought you to mind yesterday and prompted my writing was a book by Barry Lopez that I just dragged home from the library. (It's a bit heavy.) Something tells me that it must have been in one of your classes where this name first came to my attention but beyond that I couldn't get a real good fix on it. In any event, the book at hand is Horizon a sort of travel retrospective autobiography. From checking out Lopez on wiki, I realise now that I missed out on Arctic Dreams. Seeing as it is Canada and all, I'm thinking I should go back and read that one too. (Not to say for certain that I will ever plow through Horizon, but back to Lopez himself...) If it wasn't in one of your courses, where would the name first have come to my attention? I can't imagine. Can you? Limits to Growth comes to mind here as well, along with The Population Bomb...
I'm starting to think perhaps Co-Evolution Quarterly. It's just this weird feeling I have, like the name Lopez is connected with a time and place in my past, and I feel like I'd like to figure it out, just for fun. One of your Anthropology classes was certainly a good guess! I'm sure this will lead us both down interesting paths without any need for a definitive outcome.
I've certainly known of Barry Lopez for years, but I had never read any of his books. I had him filed among "nature writers" and realize that I've mostly read authors in that category when their focus was upon landscapes in which I had some particular interest. I did have one Lopez book on the Kindle, bought and browsed in 2015: Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, a marvelous abecedary of a lexicon of landscape terms which Lopez edited with his spouse, and I found The Rediscovery of North America (Clark Lectures) on the shelves, awaiting my attention. I Kindled three more:
About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memoryand followed google trails toWhat is true is that man has a power, literally beyond his comprehension, to destroy. The lethality of some of what he manufactures, the incompetence with which he stores it or seeks to dispose of it, the cavalier way in which he employs in his daily living substances that threaten his health, the leniency of the courts in these matters (as though products as well as people enjoyed the protection of the Fifth Amendment), and the treatment of open land, rivers, and the atmosphere as if, in some medieval way, they could still be regarded as disposal sinks of infinite capacity, would make you wonder, standing face to in the wind at Cape Mendocino, if we weren't bent on an errand of madness.
Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World: Essays (Introduction by Rebecca Solnit)Geography, some scholars believe, has subtly but directly influenced the development of our cultures, our languages, our diets, our social organization, and to some degree even our politics. Whenever I travel in remote or in still largely tribal places, I'm often conscious of watching for something modern humans might have misplaced on their way from Altamira to Rome and Tenochtitlán—specifically, the understanding that geography was central to any idea of their destiny. Once, I can easily imagine, we each had a fundamental sense of well-being that grew directly out of our intimacy, our back-and-forth, with the profundity embedded in the places we occupied.
The overriding goal in a gathering storm, many are convinced, is to commit to being firmly anchored in a known geography, within a familiar cultural space. Such an approach, they believe, will provide each person with a protective network of friendships and a deeper sense of personal identity, and it will strengthen in each individual the sense that they are living lives of significant purpose. In times of upheaval and social chaos, knowing exactly where one is standing seems imperative. Change is coming fast, though, on multiple fronts. Most of us begin the day now uncertain of exactly where we are. Once, we banked on knowing how to respond to all the important questions. Once, we assumed we'd be able to pass on to the next generation the skill of staying poised in worrying times. To survive what's headed our way—global climate disruption, a new pandemic, additional authoritarian governments—and to endure, we will have to stretch our imaginations. We will need to trust each other, because today, it's as if every safe place has melted into the sameness of water. We are searching for the boats we forgot to build.
Arctic Dreams which is totally awesome. How did I miss it before?
I traversed the stone plain as directed, but, in spite of the frankness of the land, I came on the horse unawares. In the first moment of recognition I was without feeling. I recalled later being startled, and that I held my breath. It was laid out on the ground with its head to the east, three times life size. As I took in its outline I felt a growing concentration of all my senses, as though my attentiveness to the pale rose color of the morning sky and other peripheral images had now ceased to be important. I was aware that I was straining for sound in the windless air and I felt the uneven pressure of the earth hard against my feet. The horse, outlined in a standing profile on the dark ground, was as vivid before me as a bed of tulips.
"I think for people like myself—male, white, educated, seventy-four years old—the goal now has to be to listen. We're trying to find a way of life that will work for everyone, and you cannot do that if you don't listen to other people. You can't find your way back to your own elders, if that were even possible."
Has our culture as a whole lost touch with the natural world?
And when this occurs, what happens to the culture?
The culture becomes solipsistic. It produces too much self-referential material and loses a sense of itself in the world because it creates too much of the world in which it lives. The reason you go into unmanaged landscapes is in part to get out of a world in which all the references are to human scale or somehow devised from a sense of human values.
So by going into these landscapes, you have a chance to learn about something that's nonhuman?
It encourages you to think in a pattern that's nonhuman. The proportion, line, color, and activity in wild landscapes are not arranged according to human schedules or systems of aesthetics. It's important to expose yourself to this. Otherwise you have no check on your philosophy except what you make up.
I went to Gethsemani in Kentucky, where Thomas Merton was, in 1966. That's the point at which I made the decision that I wasn't going to go into a monastery. The work I wanted to do with my life—I didn't have anything specific in mind—I was going to do outside. The monastic life is very attractive to me, probably more as an abstraction than as a reality.
At Notre Dame it was a requirement for undergraduates to take four years of philosophy and two years of theology. You were exposed to the thinking of Hegel, Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard.
The courses that were of lasting importance were these in philosophy and theology, not because you believed one way or the other, but because you realized from them that you had to be responsible in your life for what you did. You had to be responsible as a human being, responsible as a writer.
...I found that some of the things I'm trying to talk about as a writer are not things of interest to other cultures. If you can make sense of things for your own culture, that's quite enough.
Is this what you were trying to do in Arctic Dreams?
Yes. The Arctic was a place where I could examine some of these large issues. One of the critical things in the book for me is coming to an understanding of what North America has to offer us. When Frobisher sailed into Frobisher Bay in 1576, he thought the land to the north was Asia, and what lay to the south was North America. He thought he had discovered a passage down which he could sail to the Spice Islands and China. When he came back to England and made his presentation to Queen Elizabeth, he offered her the opportunity to name the southern land. She called it meta incognita, the unnknown land.
North America is the meta incognita of our Judeo-Christian, Western European civilization. We are still in the process of discovering North America. We are still looking for the Northwest Passage, trying to find a passage through our projected understanding of North America to a real understanding of it.
The Voice of the Landscape (Verlyn Klinkenborg in NYRB, 2019)
"Landscape" is a special word for Lopez; it evokes his core beliefs. The land is the entity he's always investigating, whether he's traveling with scientists or indigenous peoples or on his own. To him, the land is a creature, "an animal that contains all other animals…vigorous and alive." It's "sentient and responsive." It's also the source of language, which, Lopez writes, isn't "something man imposes on the land. It evolves in his conversation with the land." Even the oceans—so often regarded "as waiting grounds, empty places waiting to be defined by an event"—are "a type of consciousness" for Lopez, who adduces "a unique Polynesian epistemology" rediscovered only in the twentieth century: "The primary frame of reference was not land surrounded by water but a mass of water containing widely scattered bits of land." The Polynesians inhabited the oceans the way other cultures, with equal percipience, have inhabited the land.
You can't learn these ways of looking at land and water from within what Lopez handily calls "civilization." Nor will you find there his conception of animals, which, he wrote forty years ago, "are no more literally like us than are trees." These are indigenous ways of knowing. The special value of Lopez's work has always depended on his belief that scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge are parallel, not contradictory. This isn't a philosophical conclusion. It's an experiential one, drawn from years of travel and acquaintance with people whose way of inhabiting the landscape has nearly been lost.