Alan Magee, The Long-Distance Friendships, 2016. Acrylic and oil on panel, 10 x 8 inches, © 2016 Alan Magee

Now That It’s Come to This

On Barry Lopez

ONCE, BEFORE I knew him well, I asked Barry Lopez the earliest thing he could remember. Without missing a beat, the most widely traveled and sophisticated spiritual seeker in North American letters in a century—a writer of mystical sensitivity and grace, who’d been up to his armpits in snow, tracking wolves in Alaska, and who charted the migration of snow geese across Canada, who listened to Indigenous peoples across the globe, learning from their knowledge systems, especially in the Arctic—spoke at length about water.

His life began, Lopez said, with water.

He talked about being transfixed by the luminescence of a thin column of water as it poured from a spigot from the house in Reseda, California, where he grew up. This would have been the late 1940s, and Lopez, just three or four years old at the time, already sensed beauty’s power to hold . . . to protect even. He turned toward it, he recalled, mesmerized, the way we all respond to something vital in nature.

Such a long time this memory traveled in Lopez’s life, from that back porch in Reseda, along his trips through the Arctic, the Sahara, and through more than eighty other countries, nourishing in him uncommon reservoirs. You knew it upon meeting him, that his spirit had been written in water. Although he voyaged widely, he lived most of his life in a small cabin on the McKenzie River in Oregon, sticking his hands into its currents daily. He grew strong from what they told him. He shared the depths the river gave with virtually anyone who asked. Were I to name them, these wells he’d scoop his cup into, I’d call them patience, curiosity, humility, and generosity. If I were telling stories about him, I might also mention his rich springs of determination, stubbornness, and loyalty. Maybe if the stories were going late into the night, I’d want to add that deep beneath all of them was a profound aquifer of faith. He didn’t just believe, but did so deeply that the questions of faith became a daily practice of sacrifice. A stringency with himself I never once saw him impose on others.

He was hard on himself because he’d been taught to be, as a good Catholic. He was hard on himself because he knew if he paid any attention to what was said about him, he’d lose the equilibrium he so carefully built and maintained throughout his life. Long before he became sick, he knew he was on a journey to an endless sea, and in the years I became his friend—rather than fight that pull—he dedicated himself to traveling there with dignity, with the least amount of harm, leaving behind the greatest amount of clarity over the danger of our situation as humans on the planet. In this regard, Lopez was a fundamentally collaborative writer. He knew he didn’t have answers, only questions, and wanted to hear those of others. Even when he knew his cancer was probably fatal, Lopez fed and was fed by friendships with a vast tributary of other seekers: musicians, photographers, artists, bookmakers, botanists, field biologists, poets, priests, and war reporters.

Last winter, on Christmas Day, he finally ended this trip, surrounded by his dear wife, Debra Gwartney, his family, and a few treasured objects, gifts given to him on his travels. He was not a taker. We’d spoken on the telephone a little more than a day before, and in the weeks preceding. An astonishing gift of time from someone who had run out of it. He didn’t see it that way, though. A month before he died, he wanted to tell me the hilarious story of how the doctors in Oregon had restarted his heart. “I remember thinking . . . you’re doing it wrong,” he’d told me, bursting into a laugh. He’d thought the current in an EKG had been reversed, and instead of taking a reading, it was shooting electricity into him. Then he wanted to send love. Make that last deadline. To see pictures of our dogs. He also wanted me to work more with photographers, one of the last things he said. Without them, we cannot see. Then he talked to me about hominids.

 

HE WASN’T born this way. This preternaturally calm, poised, generous. Like all of us, Lopez came into the world gut-slick, fur-matted, more mammal than person. But it was like he remembered. And he used this recollection of creatureliness, wrote it into books where he threw his point of view—miraculously—into the lives of animals. In one early book, a compilation of avajo trickster tales about coyotes, there he was, so deep inside he disappeared, deep within the body of coyotes themselves. Later, in his breakthrough study, Of Wolves and Men, he did it again, penning sections, fables really, from the wolf’s perspective. In Arctic Dreams, he did it with caribou, from which they looked back at the figure of a human traveler, coming across the tundra. What did it want?

He had these encounters all the time. When I visited him in Finn Rock, I spent the night in his guest cabin, which was more luxuriously outfitted than the main house. Its green roof and a fabulous central stove heated the whole place, with double-paned windows so sealed the river was but a rumor. The morning after my arrival, he turned up in his cap and jeans with strong coffee and pointed up the hill to where he’d had an encounter recently with five or six Roosevelt elk, standing behind a large cow. She’d made eye contact with Barry, standing there in his slippers on the soft woodchip path to his studio. “Her inquiry,” he would later write, “which fills this opening in the forest where we have encountered each other, is very much larger, I think, than, Who are you? It’s closer to, What are you planning to do, now that it’s come to this? One of the calves turns into her mother’s flank as if to begin nursing. The lead cow continues to stand like someone straining to hear a faint sound. And then she moves and the others follow, all drifting like smoke into the trees.”

THIS TUNED-IN inner ear was mistaken for wisdom, rather than coping mechanism. Maybe they’re the same thing. Nevertheless, he was asked after it in interviews, asked to explain this facility to enter the lives of animals. Where’d it come from? From Port Chester, New York, to his parents’ early split, the move west, to the miracle of California and the outdoors: Barry told his early life progression of spaces and domestic arrangements to interviewers over and over—dozens of times—hundreds?—always skipping over the entrusted family friend who scooped out his childhood innocence—for years— making him do unthinkable things. A man who reminded him of the vulnerability of animals.

I met Barry in 2011, shortly before he broke that cycle of silence. In fact, he’d already begun, in 2008 writing an essay called “Madre de Dios,” which began as a piece on Catholicism and the Virgin Mary, and wound up describing how she’d come to him as a vision when he was eight years old, trapped in the bedroom of a dangerous man who did terrible things. “You will not die here,” Lopez wrote she said to him. She had been right. Lopez did what he could with that survival, and when the pressure of maintaining it was too much, he went into therapy and wrote “Sliver of Sky,” one of the most shattering tales of surviving sexual abuse. He received letters about it for the rest of his life. He answered every one of them individually. As we talked in that last month of his life, only one thing gave him anguish: not his impending departure, not the loss of his precious cedars around the house and archive claimed in the Holiday Farm Fire—a fi re from which he and Debra had escaped, awoken by brave fire-fighters—not these awful blows. Fundamental blows. What he couldn’t stand was that he could no longer write back to the people who were still writing to him about “Sliver of Sky.”

 

OUR FIRST MEETING, I realize, must have happened in the thick of this time— when he realized he’d have to pause the monumental book he’d begun, and work on himself. We met that first time in 2011 for an onstage interview, maybe his two hundredth—our first—at Portland’s fall literary festival, then called Wordstock. He turned up in what I came to think of as Lopez regalia: cowboy boots, weathered jeans, old-fashioned belt, turquoise ornaments, sporting an aloofness that was frankly terrifying. It was like something wild and animal had been led into a conference hall and, though biding its time, was eager to leave. I asked or nearly asked him all the questions I later knew annoyed him: to explain where his love of nature came from. To perform his alarm about the climate. I even asked him to comment on American nature writing, the implication being it was a genre of which he partook.

Here our paucity of genres in the U.S. lets us down. Is there a writer who has sampled so many storytelling cultures, allowed himself to be made and remade by so many? After all, in his twenties, Lopez had assembled that book of Navajo trickster stories. His first work of fiction—Desert Notes—is like a book on the American desert written by Castaneda or Cortázar. Of Wolves and Men, his classic 1978 book on our relationship to Canis lupus, juxtaposes Native American folklore about the wolf and the tales of field biologists. Arctic Dreams, his 1986 National Book Award winner, is saturated in the ways of knowing that region of the world—reminding us that imagination enters when there is a gap between knowing and not knowing.

This gap exists constantly in Lopez’s work; it’s where wonder emerges. It’s where hope exists. He never attempted to fully close it, this gap. I also believe it’s where faith exists, faith being a fiction conjured by the heart and mind to make us feel safe in that knowing of not knowing. For some reason, that day onstage, I asked Barry the question that emerged out of all the work he had published to date. Did he believe in God? Very little I ever saw Barry do was rushed, inelegant, unduly rapid. He was a rare thing—a graceful man. He was not tall; he was slightly round, bowlegged, bum-kneed, but he had an ex-athlete’s grace to him, a pace that suggested a deep deliberation of movement. But when I asked that question, his head whipped around and he stared at me—like that elk through the trees. Not, “Who are you?” It was closer to, “What are you planning to do, now that it’s come to this?”

 

Photo: Barry Lopez on the McKenzie River, 1997 (Robert Kaiser) Oregonian/OregonLive
 

I DID, WE DID, what made sense. We became friends—slowly, gently. It took years before I would have used that term. I realize in the scale of a life such as his, I was far from alone. I was just a new friend, a much younger friend—also, an editor. He did not treat me like a mentor, exchanging time and wisdom for attention, or respect. It wasn’t an exchange, full stop. It was like we’d met, as fellow travelers, and recognized one another instantly. The head whip.

I want to say I remember how it happened, but I don’t. I want to say I have all the emails, the postcards, the letters, but I don’t. We wrote letters initially, trading news, weather, gossip, philosophy. He had beautiful handwriting, long looping prewar penmanship, and a master letter writer’s lack of pretension. He instantly achieved the letter writer’s easeful interiority, too. He wasn’t speaking to you from a perch, but a porch somewhere deep inside his mind. Like he was his own message in a bottle.

They came irregularly. Months, half a year apart. I look back on these years in his publication cycle—no book, a few stories, the odd essay—and realize he must have been working on “Sliver of Sky,” and it occurs to me what a profound capacity for intimacy he was showing when he must have been at his most frightened, or exposed. Sometimes he typed the letters, and they had the peculiar juxtaposition of his vulnerability and charm with the staunch forward, stamped march of the keystrokes.

Then in 2013, I was standing, uneasily, in a blazer, at the National Arts Club in New York, where Barry’s editor, Robin Desser—one of the great forces in American cultural life—was receiving the Maxwell Perkins Award for her tremendous work over the years as an editor. Barry spotted me, and before I could come over and think about what to say about “Sliver of Sky,” he was up and out of his chair and we hugged, and I realized how deep our connection had already gone. He was a great hugger. An embracer. There was force and surrender in equal measures.

We stood for an hour, during cocktails, against a wall, talking, comparing notes as two self-identified Westerners in what felt like a very East Coast literary night. Those were poses—he’d gone to an Upper East Side prep school, I’d spent time in places like this—but they felt important to both of us. It was a distrust of institutions, partly. Also of the indoors. As much love as he felt for Robin, Barry didn’t want to be in such places. He hated them; he felt they turned you into a reputation and a name, and time there led to vanity and bad manners. He told me once, much later, about going to a similar such dinner on a similar such night where no one stood up when a guest approached the table—all but the notable crank, novelist William Gaddis, who stood and shook his hand and commended Barry on Arctic Dreams, “a great book,” a comment that mattered to Barry.

He told me that night in 2013 he had prostate cancer. It was already stage four. For the rest of our meetings, we’d have this talk—how he was doing, what the treatments were like. It was not the main conversation, or even the secondary conversation, but it became, to some small degree, how we planned meetings. And I call them this because one scaffolding protecting us was to call what we were doing interviews. That this was all part of an endless interview.

The interview went on so long, though, the magazine that originally commissioned it went under. The deadline for its inclusion in a book blew away like tumbleweed. And still we kept on talking. We kept visiting the landscapes and places that mattered to him: New York City and the Hudson; Oregon and the McKenzie; West Texas and its dry grandeur; California and its light bouncing off the Bay.

At some point, we simply stopped recording what we said and got together. We sat down and had meals. He told me things I won’t repeat here. I felt myself change under the protection of his fond regard and discretion: permitted a seriousness I did not feel I had earned. Do I need to say how hard it is to find unguarded friendships with men as a man? How frequently what begins safely can become a kind of replication pattern—a mirror to the past? What if you get lost in that maze? Given his past, Barry never in my presence gestured toward these patterns. There were bigger concerns. Driving in 2015 across the plains in Texas, filling me in on his latest treatment, he paused— and then, immediately, caught himself— and redirected to appreciate that he could have such phenomenally expensive drugs, and so many could have none.

GIVE IT TIME and water builds our world, patiently, sometimes ferociously—without it, there’s no life, and in its reflection, sometimes, we see ourselves. Lopez’s patience, his deliberation, and his ability to see his life like a landscape allowed him to become a conduit in others’ search. In this, he became a crucial land bridge between the early North American explorers who, filled with wonder and notions of Christian dominion, wreaked terrible destruction, and the precarious future their encounters seeded. Lopez put the moral responsibilities of this original meeting in human scale, replaying them, trying to fathom whether we were doomed to replay our patterns—or if we could find other, more subtle patterns.

The emotional power of Barry’s short stories emerged from the tension this awareness of the past’s eternal dangers produced. In Winter Count, and Light Action in the Caribbean, Lopez set his heroes—and they’re often men—into landscapes charged with beauty, wracked with exploitation. His vision of the short story was huge, nonfictional, stuffed with the past. There’s a reason his heroes were often historians, researchers, specialists in archive work. He wanted to make fiction that touched the world of ten thousand things but made room for the past and its reckoning.

Lopez’s equal sensitivity to the vast lacunae that exist in human knowledge and his grasp for what has been assembled made him an extraordinary guide, a lamplight in a world made by destruction; in this spirit he wrote his great book-length essay, The Rediscovery of North America, gave birth to dozens of fictional characters existing on this precipice—a moral one, he would argue. Between states of being.

In a world seemingly defined through forms of chaos and exploitation we cannot stop, or sometimes even fathom, Barry was a poet of questions. They are what would save us, he often said in passing. I often wonder if that was why we conducted so much of our friendship in dialogue. What aren’t we asking? he often wanted to know, breaking into a kind of reverie. How does this journey through life change a person? What are the pleasures of collaborating with people in search of such engagement? What exactly causes our despair? Is there a way we could conceive of knowledge that didn’t include extraction and violence? Was friendship one form of knowledge?

 

THESE WERE the questions driving Lopez’s last book, Horizon, which wrestled again and again with the frames we’ve put around the grand questions humans often pose of ourselves. Who are we? Why are we here? What is good? What is justice? Gestated, he told me, for twenty-five years, written over the last five of his life, Horizon narrated with restorative complexity a traveler’s life in search of better ways to understand the umbrella such questions make.

What a lot of ground it covered. A partial list of coordinates from which Lopez’s dispatches emerged include the Bering Strait, West Antarctica, Cape Foulweather, Botany Bay, Afghanistan, Kenya, Tasmania, the Falklands, South Georgia, Idaho, Auschwitz, the Canadian Arctic, the Grand Canyon, New York City, and—vicariously—the Mariana Trench, some seven miles beneath the surface of the ocean.

Threading these journeys together were stories of fellow seekers, not just the archaeologists and paleobotanists and biologists and field guides over whose shoulders Lopez gently peers, but the lives of explorers themselves. Figures like Columbus, or Captain James Cook, whose legacy and achievements Lopez measures with monumental clarity, as well as lesser-known figures, like Ranald MacDonald, a mestizo explorer who managed to gain entry to Japan when it was a closed society.

Each long chapter pried open vast, almost Bierstadtian—minus the assumption of dominion—space. Acres of storytelling made three-dimensional by Lopez’s evocations of history, Native culture, personal anecdote, and exquisite sensory detail. If anything else, the book revealed Lopez the seer coming home. What a palette! Prune, oxidized copper, the white of church linen, beryl green . . . Not to mention Lopez’s enormous, sensuous, and often antique vocabulary: who in their recent Scrabble game has deployed xeric, rill, talus, tombolo? Buoying us across oceans of time and spaces we took too much for granted, Lopez ended his life in books as a navigator, out on the water itself. Our navigator in a time looking for one.

 

IT WASN’T his last work, though, not even close. The last time we saw each other in person was in Berkeley, over tacos. He was coming to grips with the fact that his days of traveling might be over. Even if he wanted to dream of one last cross-country road journey. Maybe with a sparrow. The bird had been another friend’s idea. He would drive from Florida to Oregon. He would do it alone. It wouldn’t be an expedition, just a coda—a return to the small scale of his jeep-bound travel that had provoked Desert Notes.

He liked symmetries, returns. He never got that coveted orbit, back to Desert Notes, but he did achieve another. In the last year of his life, he spent his time writing about other people’s work. He wrote five forewords for five different books by other people, some he didn’t even know, a final dip into his well of generosity. It was a late burst, this series of essays, which fanned out to contemplate respect for the knowledge of Indigenous people, landscape, the power of photography, and yes, water. In the final piece published in his lifetime, just days before he died, he mused on the connection between love and water. How the latter often brought animals together, and how if you were quiet and respectful, you might get to observe them from an unharmful distance, a microcosm of the “incomprehensible privilege” of being alive. He saw it early in that shimmering cord, and never stopped; he found a million ways to express his love to the world. Some of it is in books. The rest of that great aquifer is all of ours now. O

 

Subscribe to Orion Ad

Comments

  1. Thank you, John Freeman, for this generous and revealing essay into the life, mind, and heart of Barry Lopez. Not long before his death, I wrote him a brief note of gratitude and appreciation for Horizons, acknowledging its impact on my perception of our lives and timesl.He responded with a brief , sensitive, and friendly postcard, concluding with his hopes for completing several new projects before his death. Indeed, he lived as well as he could, for as long as he could, and now he is gone, like everyone else….

  2. I’m heading over to another website – time to fill in the holes of my Lopez bookshelf. Thank you for such a deep dive into your friendship. We’re all jealous.

  3. Thank you for taking the time show us another example of Love Without Conditions in a world conditioned to love in a way that does us an injustice, until we Awaken and Realize WE ARE LOVE. What a Be-You-To-The-Fullest sharing, John. You and Barry are splendid models for what IS True and Real.

  4. I’ve taken my children (now adults) and grandchildren often to our nearby rivers. We’ve discovered many things dipping our hands into them; fresh water clams, crayfish and more. The links to nature are everywhere in such riparian habitat. }:- a.m.

  5. You may be surprised at how many of us are out here? We believe in (God), but not some institutional church conjured notion. Creation itself has revealed more truth to us than man ever could. }:- a.m.

  6. I read Barry’s Horizon, and felt so much from his writing. Thank you. For telling me more.

Submit Your Comments

Please Note: Before submitting, copy your comment to your clipboard, be sure every required field is filled out, and only then submit.