Bill Tydeman is the author of Conversations with Barry Lopez: Walking the Path of Imagination, recently published by the University of Oklahoma Press. In three long dialogues, each captured in this book, Lopez and Tydeman discuss nature, Lopez’s work, activism, social responsibility, the life of the mind, and all things literary. Lopez’s writing has appeared in Orion since 1984 and includes, most recently, “Landscapes of the Shamans,” published in the July/August 2013 issue.
You’ve known Barry Lopez and his work for a long time. Did you find yourself thinking differently about Lopez or his work as a result of working on this book?
I did not realize how the quest for social justice has shaped his life and thought. For nearly fifty years, this is a constant in his work. Remarkable.
What do you think Conversations with Barry Lopez adds to what we know about Lopez and his ideas?
I hope the book succeeds in eliminating any fixed categories like “nature writer” to explain his work. The central themes of intimacy, ethics, and identity provide a more complex, nuanced platform for appreciating and understanding Lopez’s work.
Barry Lopez is deeply committed to the role of the artist in society. How would you characterize his stance toward the arts and why he sees them as being so critically important?
I think Lopez has long understood that complex and subtle thinking takes place in the search for patterns we call art. Art, and emotion it evokes, carries with it the possibility of the transformation of consciousness.
Barry’s work has motivated and supported the work of millions of environmental activists and writers. Yet Barry takes pains not to classify himself, or his work, as being about activism. What’s gained—or lost—as a result of this?
I would say that Lopez is uncomfortable with labels that create restrictive categories. Like many leaders, he leads from behind, and lets his powerful essays, lectures, and readings speak to other activists and writers. The best way to understand Lopez’s efforts is to recognize that the label “writer” is the one label he is comfortable with. Literature is his chosen form of activism, because he believes that words and ideas can change the world.
Few people write as powerfully about animals as Barry Lopez does. What is about Lopez’s experience with animals that enables this?
Great patience and the cultivation of the art of seeing are a part of this answer. Animals are living, sentient beings with which we share the earth. The mystery of so much animal behavior reveals the complexity of relationship, the importance of perception and ways of seeing. Our fates are linked. Wasn’t it Martin Buber who said, “An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language?”