On Sacred Ground - writer Barry Lopez by Nicholas O'Connel
Instead of becoming a Trappist monk, writer Barry Lopez made his work a form of prayer
On an evening walk near his camp in the Brooks Range of Alaska, Barry Lopez watched the midnight sun fall across the tundra, making the landscape glow with an otherworldly light. He had come to Ilingnorak Ridge to study wolves, but was astonished by the profusion of other species--red fox, ground squirrel, caribou, wolverine, grizzly bear. He was particularly taken by the birds--roughlegged hawks, whimbrels, snowy owls, jaegers, golden plovers--and the extreme vulnerability of their ground nests. When he approached the nest of a horned lark, the small bird glared back at him, her fierceness a testament to the tenacity needed to survive in this harsh environment.
Without thinking, Lopez bowed slightly, hands in the pockets of his parka, tentative at first, unsure of what he was doing or why. Lopez described that bow in the preface to Arctic Dreams. He has repeated it many times since, both in his life and in his writing. Each of his 12 books, including Of Wolves and Men, Field Notes, and, most recently, the essay collection About This Life, makes a similar gesture to the land.
"The bow is a technique of awareness," Lopez says. "We often address the physical dimensions of landscape, but they are inseparable from the spiritual dimensions of landscape. It is in dismissing the spiritual dimensions that we are able to behave like barbarians. If the land is incorporated into the same moral universe that you occupy, then your bow is an acknowledgment of your participation in that universe and a recognition that all you bow to is included in your moral universe. If you behave as though there were no spiritual dimension to the place, then you can treat the place like an object."
As a young man, Lopez seriously considered entering a monastery, going so far as visiting Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, where the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton had lived. "That's the point at which I made the decision that I wasn't going to go into a monastery," he says. "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, but probably more as an abstraction than as a reality."
Lopez later came to see writing as a kind of prayer, a way of honoring the sacred side of the land. "Prayer is a way to formalize the relationship between yourself and a spiritual entity," he says. "But I think of prayer as larger than that; in the monastic traditions your work is your prayer. There must be moments in your life when you are saying your prayers better, and that's what writing is for me."
Today, Lopez lives with his wife, Sandra, along the banks of the McKenzie River near Eugene, Oregon. There is formality and quiet dignity about everything he does, whether splitting wood or typing up a manuscript. He has a keen, self-deprecating wit, but is more often serious, thoughtful, contemplative. In both his fiction and nonfiction, he reveals not just the observable aspects of landscape but also its spiritual reverberations, making clear that wherever we walk on this planet, we are walking on sacred ground.
Lopez was born in Port Chester, New York, in 1945. When he was three, his family moved to the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, then still largely undeveloped. "Adventure unfolded in fruit orchards and wisteria hedges, in horse pastures and haylofts, and around farming operations, truck gardens, and chicken ranches," he wrote in About This Life". "We rode our bikes out as far as Porter Ranch, the rural fringes of valley settlement where braceros worked the fields and where encounters with coyotes, jackrabbits, and even rattlesnakes were not unusual."
Lopez's mother encouraged his love of nature, taking him and his brother, Dennis, to the Santa Monica Mountains, Zuma Beach, the Los Angeles River, the Mojave Desert, Big Bear Lake, Hoover Dam, and the Grand Canyon. These places, he says, made him especially sensitive to what he calls "classical" landscapes, the deserts and arid arctic plains found in much of his finest writing.
To Lopez's initial distress, his family returned to NewYork when he was 11 and took up residence in Manhattan, where he exchanged the orchards, truck farms, and grasslands for a heady intellectual education at a Jesuit prep school.
"I grew up in a Roman Catholic tradition, and was deeply affected by it--especially the Desert Fathers, the Jesuits, and the monastic tradition--not the things one normally hears about Catholicism," he says. 'An image I have from childhood is of a group of men and women praying somewhere in the desert. The reason chronically myopic and selfish people have not destroyed us with nuclear weapons is that, in a rarefied and metaphorical way, there have been these enclaves of monastics praying. What keeps these things from exploding, perhaps, is that each of us in his own way is saying his prayers."
Lopez went on to study philosophy and theology at Notre Dame, where he was encouraged to assume a larger sense of responsibility. Taking a cue from St. Francis of Assisi, Lopez wondered if it was possible to include the environment within his moral universe.
"Unlike many of my companions in their late teens and twenties, my break with the Church Was not a violent one," he says. "I didn't disparage my religious training; it just seemed I was after something larger."
After college, Lopez married and moved west. He entered the University of Oregon's graduate program in English, but found it pretentious and dropped out after the first semester. He did, however, find a mentor in professor Barre Toelken, a folklore specialist. Toelken introduced Lopez to North American Indian myths, which hit Lopez with the force of a revelation.
"Toelken pointed me toward anthropological research which demonstrated that other cultures approached questions of natural history and geography in the same way I preferred," he says. "They did not separate humanity and nature. They recognized the divine in both."
Lopez became especially fascinated with the figure of Coyote, the trickster of Native American stories. He read and reread Coyote tales, analyzed their structure, and eventually began translating them anew. The result was his first book, Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping With His Daughter: Coyote Builds North America. His translations highlight the animistic dimension of the land, giving a fuller, deeper appreciation of it than is typical in a modern, realistic story.
Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven, his second book, goes a step further, synthesizing aspects of his background--his early memories of Southern California deserts, his inclination toward monasticism, as well as his affinity for Coyote tales. The multiple perspectives of Desert Notes gave him the freedom to address issues of spirituality in terms of the natural world.
"Natural history is the metaphor I feel most comfortable with as a writer--a kind of natural history that includes geography," he says. "A writer has a certain handful of questions. Mine seem to be questions of tolerance and dignity. You can't sit down and write directly about these things, but if they are on your mind, they're going to come out in one form or another."
In addressing such questions in terms of landscape, Lopez follows a tradition in American literature that goes back to Melville and Thoreau. In his own stories, he says, "What nature may do for the characters is awaken them to their own possibilities. I believe in the power of nature to heal or to impel us to more spiritually balanced lives. Certainly today we have developed a culture so strongly consumer-based that it threatens what little remains of those wild landscapes. But perhaps the larger problem is something else. We live so much of our lives inside our own heads that we have lost the tonic, the imaginative stimulus, the counterpoint of those wild places."
Lopez sees his own work and that of other nature writers as reconnecting readers with the land. In Arctic Dreams and other works, he accomplishes this by describing journeys into wild landscapes and by detailing the lives of Native people and animals who still have a close relationship with the land. Drawing on his own experience of the Arctic, as well as perspectives from biology and anthropology, Lopez presents a vision of North America in which the land is mysterious, animate, and, above all, sacred.
Although Lopez often describes himself as "a writer who travels," making extended trips to the Arctic, Antarctica, Africa, and Australia, he maintains an allegiance to the McKenzie River valley. It is through coming to know and love a local landscape, he says, that we can achieve a larger spiritual dimension in our lives.
"If a society forgets or no longer cares where it lives," he wrote in About This Life, "then anyone with the political power and the will to do so can manipulate the landscape to conform to certain social ideals or nostalgic visions. People may hardly notice that anything has happened or may assume that whatever happens--a mountain stripped of timber and eroding into its creeks--is for the common good. The more superficial a society's knowledge of the real dimensions of the land it occupies becomes, the more vulnerable the land is to exploitation, to manipulation for short-term gain."
Several years ago, Lopez got a chance to do something for his native ground. A 32-acre parcel of old-growth forest adjacent to his home went up for sale. Local timber companies were on the verge of buying it when Lopez and his wife bid for the land. After some negotiation, they purchased the entire parcel, putting the land in trust so that it could never be logged or developed. In doing so, they ensured that this small corner of North America would be preserved not for its material values but for what it offers the spirit: a sense of belonging within the larger fabric of life.
"What does it mean to be rich?" Lopez asks. "Is it to possess the material, tangible wealth of North America--the gold and the silver, the timber, the fish, and the furs? Or is real wealth, lasting wealth, something else? Most of us, I think, believe that it is something else. We have taken the most obvious kind of wealth from this continent and overlooked the more lasting, the more valuable and sustaining experience of intimacy with it, the spiritual dimension of a responsible involvement with this place."
This cultivation of intimacy is a lifelong affair. Lopez does it, in part, by taking daily walks in the ancient forest. And he still stops to bow, aware of the privileges and responsibilities of his stewardship. "It's a kind of love--agape--between me and the place," he says. "I recognize God in the place and I love the place because of it."
NICHOLAS O'CONNELL is the author of At the Field's End: Interviews With 22 Pacific Northwest Writers (University of Washington Press, 1998).
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