The literary landscape of Barry Lopez

Photo by John Clark

In his masterly 1978 book Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez changed nature writing by combining the perspectives of modern science, indigenous knowledge, history and mythology. In his National Book Award-winning Arctic Dreams (1986), he again combined these perspectives to explore a region of the world united by climate, ecology and culture, while separated by political boundaries. His fiction writing powerfully evokes the positive possibility of human conversion in community and coexistence with nature.

Lopez has released a major new book, Horizon, a labor of three decades in which he reflects on how he has been formed by the places he has visited and the people who reside there. It is a work of profound moral urgency with much to offer both contemporary society and the church.

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I visited Lopez in his small home overlooking the McKenzie River on the Western Slope of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, where he has lived since moving from New York City nearly 50 years ago. It is an area of stunning beauty. Roosevelt Elk roam freely through the dense Douglas fir rainforest in his backyard. In the spring, Chinook salmon still swim hundreds of miles from the Pacific to spawn in the cold river. He walks daily to the river, bringing discarded beaver twigs back to his office.

Here he can sustain friendships with people far from literary circles. “I never tried to write in New York. It’s just not the environment in which I can work. I can work here, you know, where you can step out the door and see elk. And there’s darkness and isolation and great silence.”

For decades, Lopez has sought to re-establish our ethical relationships with the land and the other creatures who dwell on it. But Lopez, like many authors, struggles against labels. He is often identified as a “nature” or “travel” writer, but he is equally engaged with the natural sciences and indigenous forms of community. Although he has written movingly of Mary in his essay “Madre de Dios” and imagined a love affair between saints in “The Letters of Heaven,” he has never publicly presented himself as a Catholic author. But he welcomed the opportunity to discuss how his Catholic formation has contributed to his work. Catholicism “was a very strong thread in my life, and it is a major thread in my life today as a writer.” He has never tried “to be a Catholic writer, in the uppercase C… but the things that stand out for me in that long education are compassion, empathy, the courage, the determination to do right.”

Barry Lopez: "I never tried to write in New York. It’s just not the environment in which I can work. I can work here, you know, where you can step out the door and see elk. And there’s darkness and isolation and great silence.”

An Expanding Vocation

Lopez spent his childhood in California, where he found comfort and safety in the landscape from the violence of the human world where a pedophile abused him for years (an experience he recounted in the haunting essay “Sliver of Sky”). After a move to New York City, this sense of wonder and love for nature provided an experiential ground for him to embrace the aesthetic and intellectual aspects of Jesuit education at the Loyola School in Manhattan, where he found “exactly the right place for myself.” Catholicism resonated with his “metaphorical cast of mind.” He wrestled seriously with a possible vocation, first to the Jesuits, then, after college at Notre Dame, to the Trappists at Gethsemani in Kentucky. Each time the “answer was ‘no.’” Yet the sense of call never left him.

This call led him to move beyond his education and tradition. He tells the story of shattering the stone in his class ring during a baseball game his senior year at Notre Dame. He continued to wear it, sensing a “lesson in that unstoned ring.” Much was missing from his education so exclusively focused on the Western tradition. One of his first thoughts when encountering a Nunamiut Eskimo village as part of the research that became Arctic Dreams was “Why did I know so little about these people?” Why were their understanding of the world, notions of justice and insights into the physical world “never mentioned in the good schools I attended?” “I can’t say I left the church. I just stopped imagining God in the terms that I was originally given. When I was traveling with other people, I thought that there’s holiness here too.”

In conversation with Lopez it becomes clear how deeply he was formed by Catholic moral practice as much as beliefs. He describes his experience with confession that communicated “a way to live in the world where you knew you were not right with it.” Rather than leave that world behind, it expanded for him to encompass relations with the natural world as much as the human. He tells the story of returning to his home in the woods on the McKenzie after his book tour for Of Wolves and Men. “I was afraid the trees would shun me because I had chosen to allow myself to be celebrated and didn’t make sufficiently clear that the knowledge in that book is something I was given directly—in some cases by wolves.”

Lopez knows the dark side of Catholicism and European culture as well. His stepfather’s family wealth derives from Cuban land granted to his ancestor Marín Lopez for building the boats with which Cortés attacked Tenochtitlán.

One must be careful to avoid reducing a complex life and claiming it for Catholicism. Although he was deeply formed by the Catholic tradition, Lopez’s work has primarily engaged other sources and cultures. But it is precisely there, in those writings that are not explicitly Catholic, that Lopez has the most to offer back to the tradition that formed him.

Barry Lopez: “I can’t say I left the church. I just stopped imagining God in the terms that I was originally given. When I was traveling with other people, I thought that there’s holiness here too.”

Seeking What the Tradition Would One Day Embrace

Many have observed that some of the great converts of the 20th century—Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton—did not simply choose the tradition as it was. They were attracted to potentials in Catholicism that were often ignored by those born into the Catholic Church, and their conversions awakened dormant aspects of tradition. Perhaps something similar can be said about some who move beyond the tradition as well. The “more” they seek can be something the tradition itself demands.

Throughout his career, Lopez has labored to bring landscapes and all those who dwell in them to our awareness: the geology of the Galápagos Islands and the geography of the Arctic, the social lives of wolves and the revery of a polar bear nursing her cubs. In this work he draws deeply from the knowledge of the geologists, biologists and ecologists whom he often accompanies in the field. Lopez has always taken care to make native peoples partners in this project as well. On the scientific front, he notes they have observed animals far longer than modern scientists. But their knowledge goes deeper than mere observation. The sustainability of their forms of life speaks to a deep participation in the ecologies they inhabit. Their cultures manifest the “moral geography” of the landscapes in which they live, a connection at times audible in the very sounds of their languages.

All of this resonates profoundly with “Laudato Si’,” the encyclical in which Pope Francis notes that the complexity of the problems we face demands solutions that do not “emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality. Respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality.” Pope Francis calls for special attention to indigenous communities’ cultural traditions and their connection to the land as “a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values.” In many ways, Lopez’s synthesis of science, indigenous knowledge and attentiveness to creation anticipated the notion of “integral ecology” expressed in “Laudato Si’.” As an author, Lopez set off long ago in a direction that the tradition would one day follow. And now, as the Catholic Church seeks to put the teachings of “Laudato Si’” into practice, Lopez’s life work provides guidance for the spiritual attitudes and virtues we need to cultivate.

Throughout his career, Lopez has labored to bring landscapes and all those who dwell in them to our awareness: the geology of the Galápagos Islands and the geography of the Arctic, the social lives of wolves and the revery of a polar bear nursing her cubs.

Community and Landscape

Literary scholars like Paul Giles and Una Cadegan have argued that Catholic literature departs from the solitary heroes of modernism and focuses instead on the individual’s entanglement within community and history. Attentiveness to community also pervades Lopez’s work. In “Before the Temple of Fire,” a kiln in the woods of Oregon becomes a study of community, not simply a sketch of a cast of characters, but a story that attends to the potters’ shared work and the ethos this requires. The characters in Resistance recount their reasons for leaving Western society. But what could be simple stories of solitary escape are grounded in community as each recounts to lifelong friends the relationships, communities and guides (a plains grizzly, an Assiniboine elder named Virgil) that facilitated their transformation. Lopez observes: “Maybe we are at the end of the time of the individual hero, and it is now the time for communities to become heroic.”

There is a second, related Catholic dimension to Lopez’s work. In his insightful religious history of environmentalism, Inherit the Holy Mountain, Mark Stoll argues that the American notion of wilderness is the product of a thoroughly Calvinist imagination, in which God’s glory is best manifested in nature, untouched by human depravity. Landscape painting, for example, originated as a Dutch Calvinist rejection of the human focus of portrait painting. The same aesthetic is evident from the Hudson River School painters through the photography of Ansel Adams. There is no room for human presence in these portrayals of nature’s splendor. The land’s indigenous inhabitants were generally painted out of the picture, just as they were expelled from the land. This leaves us with a disjuncture of humanity and nature, between which we cannot imagine harmony. This vision is so deeply embedded in our collective memory that we simply take it for granted.

Curiously, Stoll finds a different aesthetic among Catholics, which expresses a different ethos. The Civil War-era photographer Timothy O’Sullivan provides a pointed contrast. In his photographs for the government surveys of the West after the war, O’Sullivan always included people in the frame “as if the landscape were empty without humans in it.” Similarly, the history of Catholic environmental activism is marked by figures like Peter Maurin, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who sought to unite nature, community and justice.

A similar perspective suffuses Lopez’s work. Although he has traveled to the ends of the earth, Lopez seldom writes of empty wilderness. Arctic Dreams explores different islands and corners of the Arctic sea, but in a way that is populated with the musk oxen, polar bears, narwhals and other creatures who thrive there. These in turn are engaged through the culture of the Arctic’s human dwellers, past and present: Eskimo hunters and their forebears in Dorset and Thule. Even maritime geography is described in terms of native people’s navigation and the treacherous expeditions through which it was mapped by Europeans.

Barry Lopez observes: “Maybe we are at the end of the time of the individual hero, and it is now the time for communities to become heroic.”

Recollection of Place

In his new book, Horizon, a grand work that defies genre, Lopez revisits many of the landscapes he has written about previously: the Arctic, the Galápagos Islands, eastern Africa, Australia, Antarctica. He reveals himself more here than in previous books, exploring how he has been formed by encounters with diverse landscapes and the people who inhabit them. It is an extended reflection on our openness to the multifaceted world—from the expansiveness of the ocean horizon and indigenous ways of knowing to figures like James Cook and Charles Darwin who have widened our ways of seeing. The book is taut with the moral concern of one who has traveled the world and witnessed both its astounding beauty and the horrifying scale of human destructiveness. Horizon is suffused with care for what the poet Adam Zagajewski calls “the mutilated world.”

Horizon offers indelible images of destruction and indifference. Lopez visits a night market on the Yangtze River and recounts merchants shouldering buckets of butchered meat, “strings of ulcerated fish” from the polluted river, monkeys and hedgehogs staring “out from the confines of screened metal cages,” wicker trays of crickets and caterpillars arrayed beneath “sparrow-like birds hung by their feet.” Here he catches a glimpse of “the future, the years to come, when we would be killing and consuming every last living thing.”

He witnesses the destruction of aboriginal rock art in Australia dating as far back as 25,000 years and still central to the ritual life of the Jaburrara people. Bulldozed to make room for a chemical plant, the art was dumped into a lot surrounded by cyclone fencing, exposed to the view and mockery of all with no concern for its ritual meanings and sacred restrictions. “The flayed walls of the caves at Lascaux and Chauvet, dumped in a barrow ditch.” Lopez describes the Jaburrara desperately trying to rearrange the stones by hand to hide their sacred images, lacking the heavy equipment that dismantled their “great lands of knowledge.”

He reports sailing smoothly through Peel Sound near the northernmost shore of North America, a passage not considered navigable without an icebreaker even in the summer, viewing what has never occurred before in the history of our species: “There was not a single ice floe in the waters ahead. Not a scrap of ice.” An expanse of open water lay where polar bears evolved to hunt on the ice.

For Lopez, such destruction is ultimately a result of indifference. As these images illustrate, the darkest visions are full of things deserving ethical respect that we instead exploit and destroy. This ethical indifference is tied to our perceptions of the land. We are alienated from it, our perceptions and even language formed by the exploitative cultures of agriculture and the industrial revolution. Elements of the landscape have a “numinous dimension...as real as their texture or color.” Presented “with a certain kind of welcoming stillness,” even a stone “might reveal, easily and naturally, some part of its meaning.” In our conversation, Lopez elaborated: “The exclusion of landscape from the moral universe of humans would constitute for me a sin.”

In his new book, Horizon, a grand work that defies genre, Barry Lopez revisits many of the landscapes he has written about previously: the Arctic, the Galápagos Islands, eastern Africa, Australia, Antarctica.

Attentive Accompaniment

Lopez finds such attentiveness in the native peoples he has accompanied. He describes the silence of the Pitjantjatjara as they walk through the land. If they do speak, it would be “a story about the place we were then moving through.” It “would start just as a prominent feature of the place came into view” and end when it passed; language paced to the rhythm of walking in a landscape. When asked about the geography, they have difficulty abstracting themselves from the land or imagining themselves above it as we tend to do. The loss of so many such indigenous cultures is a profound diminishment of our understanding of the world. “The loss of an entire way of knowing...is a tragedy hard to reckon.”

Lopez does not write about native peoples voyeuristically. He recounts being invited to journey for days into the Tanami Desert to attend a Warlpiri ceremony to cleanse a waterhole where a group of their ancestors had been murdered by police. He declined and instead waited for their return, so they could be the interpreters of their culture to him.

Lopez makes clear that he has no desire to trade places with native peoples. “What I wanted to understand, really, was what they might know that would be of use to my own people, whom I saw traveling very fast on a spavined road.” Time is growing short. “With the horsemen of a coming apocalypse so obviously milling on the horizon, riding high-strung horses, why [is] there so little effort to bring other ways of knowing—fresh metaphors—to the table?” Why is such a narrow group of people “invited to sit at the tables of decision, where the fate of so many will be decided?”

Barry Lopez: “With the horsemen of a coming apocalypse so obviously milling on the horizon, riding high-strung horses, why [is] there so little effort to bring other ways of knowing—fresh metaphors—to the table?”

Needed Wisdom

One of the aspects of native cultures Lopez finds most relevant to our predicament is their political practices. Lopez contrasts the traditional “elder” to our model of the charismatic individual leader. Elder-based societies believe “wisdom is part of the fabric of a community.” Leader-focused societies believe “wisdom is only to be found in certain people.” The leader says “follow me,” while the elder’s motto is “no one left behind.” He discusses in detail elders’ traits and modes of proceeding. Key among these are elders’ inclination to listen more than to speak, and their capacity for empathy, to understand what others are thinking. One cannot look far in the church or society without seeing the desperate need for such attentiveness.

Successful elders are those who have greater capacities in this regard. Lopez locates these capacities in the evolution of modern Homo sapiens. Drawing from evolutionary psychology, he argues that the breakout moment for our species occurred with the rapid increase in the cognitive capacity for communication and empathy around 55,000 years ago. We were able to thrive precisely because of this capacity, which made complex communities possible.

One could summarize the argument by saying that it is the capacity to discern and act for the common good that has made Homo sapiens so successful. Lopez finds this evolutionary conjecture confirmed in contemporary experience: “Today, the careful use of language—sincere, thoughtful, respectful—and participation in ceremony still create a powerful social cohesion when human beings come together.”

Barry Lopez: “Today, the careful use of language—sincere, thoughtful, respectful—and participation in ceremony still create a powerful social cohesion when human beings come together.”

If the emergence of modern humans was a result of evolving psychological traits that enabled empathy and communication, Lopez is concerned about the very different psychologies being elicited by contemporary technology and economic systems. Could these lead to the emergence of fundamentally different sets of behavior that could mark a new species division of Homo sapiens that leaves “both groups isolated on either side of a chasm”?

This yields specific guidance for our predicament. The common good depends on the practice of seriously listening to one another and seeking to understand one another’s concerns and motivations. This is not a call for split-the-difference moderation, but for an active engagement across the many lines that divide us. Our divisions are not destructive only because of the violence they breed, but also because they deprive our communities of the full range of imaginative and moral resources we need to address our profound challenges. Facing the growing scramble for dwindling resources, Lopez wonders “whether an unprecedented openness to other ways of understanding this disaster is not, today, humanity’s only life raft. Whether cooperation with strangers is not now our Grail.”

Lopez’s work serves as an example of how the Catholic tradition flows in places that often go unrecognized. Some who move beyond a tradition are still searching for things it values. After a lifetime of honest searching, Lopez has found much to offer and to challenge the tradition that formed him.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mitch Finley
4 weeks 1 day ago

Vincent Miller's essay is an admirable look at Barry Lopez and his work. At the same time, it bears similarities to not a few other essays and books on admirable individuals who grew up Catholic and continue to be influenced by the Catholicism of their past. Along the way, however, Lopez and other such individuals chose to distance themselves from a living of the Catholic faith here and now. They are, to use the language of the past, "lapsed" Catholics. Yet it's not unusual for Miller and other essayists to leave their readers with the impression that there is something admirable about their subject's decision to leave Catholicism behind.
"I can’t say I left the church," Lopez remarks. "I just stopped imagining God in the terms that I was originally given." It seems that, for Miller and other writers about ex-Catholics who went on to impress the world, to "stop imagining God in the terms [they were] originally given" necessarily led to becoming an "inactive Catholic." Indeed, Lopez seems to say that, for him at least, to stop imagining God in the terms he was given in his youth could not but require him to abandon the everyday practice of a healthy, traditional Catholicism. This, Miller seems to imply, was not unfortunate at all but an act of courage and broad mindedness that greatly enriches post-Catholic studies and/or works of art. Indeed, Lopez did Catholicism a favor by leaving. He seems to say that if he had remained an active Catholic his work would have suffered from narrow, poverty stricken images of God because that's all Catholicism has to offer.
I'm convinced, on the contrary, that "narrow-minded Catholic" is an oxymoron. Are some Catholics not narrow-minded? Of course they are. But people who prefer the world views of secularism or other religions are sometimes narrow-minded, too. To leave Catholicism behind guarantees nothing positive. Rather, to do this is to abandon a rich, bottomless source of images and metaphors for God. To leave the Catholic ("universal"/all-embracing") faith behind is to substitute a world view that is in no way superior to a Catholic world view.

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