Barry Lopez is one of the world’s foremost thinkers and writers about human beings and their place on this planet. Few writers have thought more deeply about that relationship or have written more powerfully and eloquently about it. The stories and meditations in his expansive new book Horizon (forthcoming in March 2019 from Knopf), as well as in such previous writings as Arctic Dreams (1986) and Resistance (2004), contain urgent messages for our time.
Barry and I have been friends since 1984 when he first visited my school, Southern Utah University, to speak; an interview I conducted with him at that time appeared in Western American Literature in 1986. Barry made a return trip to Cedar City to speak again and to work with my students in a class on American nature writing, and we spent a week together talking about books, landscape, animals, indigenous people, and writing. We have stayed in touch ever since.
This conversation was conceived about two years ago when Barry told me his long-awaited book would be published. He said he would like to do “a sort of valedictory interview” about it, and I humbly—and enthusiastically—agreed.
On 3 November 2018 we met in Portland, Oregon, at my sister-in-law’s guest apartment. Barry was visiting family in the city, so this seemed a quiet, comfortable place to talk about Horizon and his long professional writing life.
James M. Aton (JA): We were just talking a little bit earlier about how long you say you worked on Horizon, since beginning in 1989. Can you take me back a little bit and explain how this book came about—and how your thinking about it changed over the years, if it did? This book takes us to exotic geographic locations, as does much of your work, but Horizon is much more autobiographical, I think, than anything else you’ve written.
Barry Lopez (BL): Sure. If you’ll indulge me, I’ll start back in the Seventies. In March of ’76 I traveled to Alaska for the first time. I ’d been publishing shorter work, one thing and another—book reviews, short stories, and magazine articles—for ten years before that. Then, in Alaska, something solidified for me that would drive what I now sometimes refer to as the “Big Work,” which lay ahead. The great power of the nonhuman world (also the non-European world) that emerged for me there comes through strongly, I think, in Of Wolves and Men, which was published in 1978. In 1979 I returned to Alaska and began traveling with the idea that, while there was a way in Western science to become rigorously informed about the behavior of large mammals, I would never be able fully to plumb that mystery in that way. In the company of Western field biologists in Alaska, I did learn to look deeper into the natural world than I ever had as a young man. I camped with these people all over Alaska. In one particular camp in the western Brooks Range, called Ilignorak Ridge, it struck me that I ’d been paying so much attention to the ecology and behavior of wolves that I ’d entirely missed the larger picture. An event on that trip, to the Utukok River country, became the opening scene in Arctic Dreams. That book, which opened out onto a consideration of large mammals and their landscapes, also brought me further into the associated cultural world of humans, particularly traditional people.
When Arctic Dreams came out in 1986, I sensed I needed to move still further out of my Western comfort zone, if you will. When I graduated from prep school in New York in 1962, I traveled with fifteen of my classmates across Europe for ten weeks. I visited many of the iconic elements of my small world—the Palatine Hill in Rome, the Prado in Madrid, the Somme battlefields, the British Museum, and so on. When I returned to North America, I thought, “Now I know where I’m headed.” I wanted to become a deep resident of North America. I felt no further need to leave this continent in order to learn what I thought I wanted to learn. And that was my frame of mind, up until about 1984, when I got an invitation to go to Japan. I went, and that trip changed everything.
Even before Arctic Dreams was published, I ’d begun to think about something much bigger than a single region of the earth like the Arctic. I wanted to travel to other countries and to be, for longer periods of time, in the company of people with epistemologies fundamentally different from my own. That was how, in my own small world, I intentionally jumped into the deep end of the pool so to speak. Somewhere in the spring of 1989, three years after Arctic Dreams came out, these ideas about travel and immersion began to come together and I wrote the outline for a book that would consider five places: an island in the Canadian High Arctic, the Galápagos, my experience with paleoanthropologists in northern Kenya, and my times in Australia and Antarctica. I didn’t intend to go to work on the book right away, but I shared the outline with my agent. He suggested we talk to some publishers. I agreed, with the understanding that I wasn’t sure the outline represented exactly what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to lock myself into something that I would later lose a taste for. We went back and forth with four or five publishers who offered us advances, and then I signed a contract in June of 1989 to write a book called Horizon, for Knopf.
I wrote other books in the years following—Crow and Weasel , Light Action in the Caribbean , Resistance . I worked on an anthology with my wife, Debra Gwartney, called Home Ground . I ’d told Knopf it was going to take me a long time to draft Horizon, that I needed to learn much more than I thought I knew in 1989, and I needed to see more of the world. Over the years following, they could not have been more supportive.
One day in April 1991, I rented a car in Puenta Arenas, on the Strait of Magellan, and drove toward a place called Port Famine. Drifting along that road—no traffic of any kind, nobody else around, a rainy/sunny day—I saw a man in the distance walking toward me, and then suddenly this small rainbow formed over him. I was so transfixed by the event that I rolled to a stop. We passed each other. He never attempted to make eye contact with me, and in the rearview mirror I saw that he just kept on walking, never looking back. I was parked on a hillside, maybe eight hundred feet above the Strait of Magellan. I had been looking down onto the Strait and outward to the landscape of Tierra del Fuego before he appeared. In that moment, I had this thought: This is how Horizon is going to end. So, twenty-seven years ago I saw that ending, but of course I didn’t know how I would get there. Then, about five years ago, I sat down to write the first draft, and I stayed with the manuscript until I finished it, writing through maybe ten complete drafts.
You mentioned that the book is autobiographical, and I suppose that was the most difficult problem I had to solve. I’ve always felt uncomfortable inserting myself in the narrative of a nonfiction book or an essay—my real self, as opposed to a narrator’s self. As I continued work on the outline, and after I ’d written the first few drafts, I saw that Horizon had to be grounded in the events of my own life if it was going to work—my childhood, the schools I ’d gone to, my home in Oregon, my divorce and remarriage. It had to have a narrator who was implicated. So I added to the original outline an autobiographical introduction as well as a chapter in which I laid out the subjects at the core of the book. And then I added one more thing, a short prologue, about the day my second wife and I took our grandson to visit the USS Arizona, the sunken hulk of a battleship at Pearl Harbor, a mausoleum for most of the 1,700 sailors and marines who were killed or drowned aboard the ship as it sank, and have been entombed there since 1941.
Once I understood that the depth and tension of the book, and whatever insight might emerge from it, depended on the honesty and implication of the narrator, I began to make more progress with the manuscript. So Horizon is about how, over time, a particular individual was informed by travel and who changed—or matured—because of it.
JA: So, as I was reading the book I saw an older man, thinking about the uncertain future for his grandson and speculating about what led him to leave home and about how his journeys to Kenya and Antarctica and elsewhere shaped the person writing the book?
BL: That’s a good summary, but it presumes that I knew what I was doing. I have to say I felt, until the very end, that I was feeling my way through the dark. I don’t think mine is a particularly notable life, I just wanted to show the process. I am mostly reporting on the wisdom of others, following people who really know what they’re doing—someone who is naïve and makes embarrassing mistakes. If you asked me, “Why autobiography?” I would say I wanted to examine my own obsession with travel and to serve as an example for readers of the way we all struggle to have purpose in our lives. I believe that in the days we’re living in now, many people want to know what they mean by their lives, before everything is swept away.
JA: Could you elaborate a little on the significance of the book’s title?
BL: There’s “known ground,” or at least ground accessible to research of one sort or another, that lies between us and the distant horizon. What lies beyond the horizon is unknown. That line, between the known and the unknown, began to preoccupy me. I thought of what lies on the other side of the horizon as a source of belief. How is one to believe now, and in what? Heidegger called the horizon “The place from which something begins its essential unfolding.”
JA: You begin the book at Pearl Harbor with your grandson, and you talk about what’s to come. Did part of why you picked the Pearl Harbor experience have to do with what a shock the attack was?
BL: I think the reason I picked the experience at Pearl Harbor, or why it suggested itself to me, was the nature of my relationship at age sixty-eight with my nine-year-old grandson. How is a relationship like this going to endure? How am I as a grandfather going to live up to my responsibilities when it comes to his education? How can my love for him inform this book I’m writing? What world are the both of us headed into? The combination of the love I feel for him and the ways in which he is endangered in this world, the irony of my sitting there beside a pool at a luxury hotel on Waikiki Beach, reading a biography of John Steinbeck (whose sons I had gone to summer camp with)—how does all that fit together in the shadow of Pearl Harbor, with so many of the guests at the hotel being Japanese? When that young Japanese woman dove into the pool, her movement was so graceful, so transfixing, I realized I was experiencing the very thing about humanity that I didn’t want to be destroyed by what appears to be coming for us now—erotic grace and balletic capability. The answers to these questions about mortality, I felt, lay with searching for the remains of our human ancestors in Kenya, questioning social justice in a nineteenth-century prison in Tasmania, exposing Darwin’s problematic “tree of life” in Galápagos and so on.
One reason I think we’re living in such a dangerous place in Western culture today is that we don’t like to listen to people who are not like us. So much of what I’ve learned in my adult life has come from just shutting up and listening to what other people, sometimes culturally very different from me, have to say. We are in the habit of examining other people’s cultures and then trying to redefine them—to force a different economic system on them, or a new religion, or to reconfigure them into nuclear families—without ever asking their permission. We don’t ask, “Will these particular ways of life work for you?” We don’t tolerate alternatives to our “enlightened” prescriptions for them.
JA: You’ve written a lot in these chapters, and in your other works as well, about the role of elders in traditional societies. That sounds great, but how do we translate that into our culture? Into Western culture? Is it possible?
BL: I want to believe it’s possible. How to do it, I don’t know. There is a tremendous problem here, obviously, with scale. A group of twenty or thirty or fifty people guided by a small group of elders is a different situation entirely from life in a democracy. In a democracy, we assume everyone has something to say. While this is good as an idea, if we face an emergency, it turns out that not everybody has something useful to offer. To stipulate that only a few people should have the power to make important decisions is considered an anathema in democratic societies. We often emphasize that “everybody needs to be heard,” but if you imagine a situation like the Titanic’s sinking, it’s clearly impractical to try to listen to everyone—not if the important thing is to survive the disaster. We’re now living in a time of emergency. We’re “debating” global climate change while the ship is turning its stern to the sky. We have elected and appointed officials who debate, but we have no elders to provide guidance.
The word elder as it is normally used in American society means, mostly, anyone who’s older. That’s not the case with “elders” in traditional groups. The presumption in our society—as in the familiar admonishment “listen to your elders”—is that most people who are old are in some way wise. That’s not true in traditional societies. An elder is a very special kind of person. Say you and I are having a conversation about a book, using expressions like “social justice,” “international fascism,” and “epistemological differences.” A friend of yours shows up who is unaccustomed to this kind of conversation. You have to make a choice. Either he will get the polite message that you’ll talk with him later, which is what usually happens, or our conversation ends, immediately, and another conversation begins, one in which he plays an equal role in terms of an exchange of ideas or anecdotes. He’s never made to feel that he’s not fully welcome in the conversation. But we don’t operate like that in hierarchical democratic societies. We’re forever saying indirectly to people whose language is not cultured, or who were born to another race, or who matured in another cultural tradition, that they’re not welcome, that they really can’t add to a conversation like ours—which is that of formally educated, culturally privileged, psychoanalyzed white people. The social organization of traditional societies, on the other hand, depends on the advice of elders, while our democratic societies favor charismatic leadership. We support messianic promoters, people who say, “Follow me! I know how to fix the system.” That doesn’t happen in traditional societies. Elders are guided by a different strategy. They don’t think, “Follow me, I know. ” They think, “Whatever the decision, leave no one behind.” People understand that elders listen respectfully to everyone. There’s a place at their table for every person. But they know, too, that the elders have consistently been the best people to make important decisions. People are, therefore, comfortable deferring. Their dignity is not compromised, nor do they feel powerless or demeaned, because they are carrying out the decisions of the elders. They know the elders embody the wisdom of their ancestors, that without them they would never have gotten this far.
Whatever solution we use to protect ourselves from danger in the future, it must include everyone. If it doesn’t, whatever it is will eventually fall apart.
So, to come back to your inquiry: How can we incorporate the only system of social organization that has consistently worked for human beings over millennia? When the scale of social organization reaches a certain level, it creates an environment for social systems like democracy and eliminates the authority of elders. Keeping in mind the driving imperatives of “progress” and “social improvement” involved, and misunderstandings about what “survival of the fittest” means and all that that dictum inspires in politics—the goal becomes not social stability but to prevail. To dominate. To unilaterally direct.
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.
I’m not a social theorist. I’m not a political scientist. My single skill as a writer is an ability to use language to present one or another reality. The inspired reader will develop and implement practical ideas. In Inuktitut, an eastern Canadian arctic language, the word for storyteller is isumatuq. It means “the person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself.” The writer is not the important person here. He or she is not the one who “knows.” The writer, in my mind, is really a servant of the community—an idea I got from talking with Eduardo Galeano. I’m not being falsely humble here. I know what my work is, and that that work is to serve the reader. For me, to turn the dangerous situation we’re living in today into a story that is comprehensible, into stories in which people can see themselves, and in which they can then discover what they will do next, is to write.
A last thing about elders: you can’t volunteer to be one. You can’t lobby for that position. It has to be acknowledged, day after day after day, that you know what to do, even though people will not always agree with what you say. Everyone recognizes this in a traditional society. When danger comes, the elders are there to serve the community, using the knowledge that has come down to them from generations of elders who have made the right choices. What the elders decide to do has not to do with them, but with the survival of the community.
Your question is the question if we’re to decide which direction to take in this moment. We’ve created a threatening environment for human beings. We have to figure out how to translate the type of social organization that worked for humanity for tens of thousands of years into something new, something that will work for all of us. That’s our challenge. That’s what we’re trying to imagine. Will it work? I don’t know. I, too, often think, “This is never going to get fixed. We’re too deep in this political, social, and environmental mess.” But I can’t go on living life like that. So I guess Horizon is, in some ways, my plea to readers to please open up, to listen, and to bring those to the table who in the past, for one reason or another, were not allowed to be there.
It’s curious to me now, thinking about the political situation in the United States, that we are headed in exactly the opposite direction from the kind of international understanding we need. The trouble here is caused partly by reactionary groups, all over the world, who are terrified of people different from themselves. They can’t accept that ours might be a moment of opportunity, not a time for fear and threats.
JA: Will you talk a little bit about the beginning and the end of Horizon? You begin, after the Pearl Harbor section and a bit of memoir called “Introduction,” with “Cape Foulweather.” Then come the five chapters about the specific places you’ve mentioned. Can you talk a little bit about how you decided to organize the chapters?
BL: I end the introduction to the book with a section about talismans, things I picked up along the way, because I think many people feel as I do; if you hold on to such found objects you’ll be okay. And that’s the refrain at the end of the book, too, about the milagros in the Chilean chapel. The milagros are a beautiful and profound expression of the fear of being alive. Death is right there in the chapel, looking at you.
I wanted to examine in Horizon the unusual amount of international travel I undertook in my forties and fifties. What was the point? Was it just to run away? I knew from the start I wanted to upend the whole idea of the authority of received matrices as dependable guides for us—things as simple as “up” and “down” and longitudes and latitudes, for example—and to say we need a different set of references. We need to know what the figurative vessel is on which we are to sail. And who is going to be the navigator?
If you want to operate outside the normal frames of Western reference, you can’t remain in a world where the word “down” defines the location of Antarctica. There are many references in the book to the larger universe, which has no left and right or up and down. Horizon is my attempt to move that kind of hierarchical language out of the way—“up” meaning better, “left” and “right” with their political overtones. When I walked into the tiny library room at McMurdo Station in Antarctica on my first visit I saw a globe. In the language I used at that time, I would have said it appeared to be upside down. It wasn’t. It had only been rotated to emphasize to visitors that Antarctica was not “the bottom” of anything. This sort of hierarchical presumption informs too much of how we think about the world and its ills. I wanted to look at alternative spatial and temporal frameworks in Western thought, and to show how, unconsciously, we arrange our critical thinking according to these hierarchical principles of up, down, right, left, bottom, and top. So in writing the book I started at the conventional “top” (the Arctic) and ended at the “bottom” (Antarctica), hoping on the journey to marginalize such references. Considering our deep problems—racism, refugees, cultural exceptionalism, interminable war, global warming—hierarchical presumption creates too many box canyons for us.
The first of the five major chapters, about Skraeling Island, deals with primal human desire. Here is a four-thousand-year history of human expansion into an unknown region. How did they secure shelter? How did they feed themselves? This is just to lay out basic human needs for Homo sapiens’s survival. To ask, in whatever age we’re talking about, how can we determine what is really needed? Later, in Galápagos, the second chapter, there is a scene in which I am lying on my back in my hotel room one very hot, humid night. I arch my body so I can look “upside down” at all of the stars beyond the window. In each chapter I want to open up more the idea of how raw space is arranged according to cultural customs, to show that this is not its innate nature. You understand that constellations—the images we impose on groups of random stars to create objects like a chariot or a bear—are a convention. They’re neither true nor untrue. It’s not until you step away from these conventional matrices, I believe, that you can imagine in a fresh way what threatens us. Throughout the remaining chapters—in Kenya, Australia, and Antarctica—I’m trying to open up the landscape, I suppose, of progressive thought.
There’s another kind of progression in the book, too. Much of Skraeling Island has to do with recalling a people living along specific frozen coasts in a fixed place for a long time—and surviving. In Galápagos, the narrator is moving around a lot more. He’s scuba diving. He’s introducing Darwin’s ideas about constant change. When we get to Africa we discover Homo sapiens as a mammal changing through time. By provoking this reconsideration of space and human time, I felt I could open up some new possibilities. In Australia, I consider the idea of imprisonment. (Robinson Jeffers pointed out that in contemporary society, without knowing it, we are all living in a kind of prison.) In Antarctica, we enter a primal world for humans. Physics, chemistry, no biology. How do we proceed? This is the environment in which to truly employ your imagination. It’s a stage. What will the play performed on this tabula rasa look like?
JA: The narrator here—did you imagine this person as a kind of persona, the I? Did you ever think much about, maybe, the differences between this narrator and the actual everyday Barry Lopez? Or did you just unconsciously . . . ?
BL: For some reason I think of Of Wolves and Men, Arctic Dreams, and Horizon, those three books, as a kind of accounting of what has gone on in my head as I have encountered more of the world outside myself. A friend said to me once that in Of Wolves and Men you can really see the homework shining through. [Laughter] The narrator is a researcher. In Arctic Dreams, my image of myself was as someone standing alongside readers but, at the same time, pushing at the small of their backs, to get them to consider, alone, a vista that doesn’t include the narrator. In Horizon, as I said earlier, I still wanted to be the reader’s companion as opposed to the reader’s authority, but I felt I needed to be a real, transparent person here if I was to be trusted as a narrator.
Whenever you speak of life-threatening problems, you must establish, I think, that you yourself are implicated. In the Skraeling chapter I felt that, dramatically speaking, I had to make clear the racist error I had made in imagining myself among the historical Thule people. I had to fail here. If you examine the role music plays in this scene, and throughout the book, I guess I’m also presenting the arts as an indispensible part of everyday life for human beings. The arts—musical composition, theatrical performance, dance, painting, writing—do something that the rational mind is unable to. Without them, without recognizing their psychological importance to our well-being, we’re sunk.
JA: Speaking of art, you talk about the painting by Nicholas Roerich that appears on the end sheets of the book, about a traveler leaving home and being worried about his experiences out there, and whether his leaving will be justified. I wondered if you saw part of yourself in that figure in that painting.
BL: I did. I think all of us search for a path in life by referring, in part, to those things that are not us. That traveler, his hesitation on leaving, I have known that sense of doubt often.
JA: In many of the places—not all, but most—that you travel to in the book you’re with scientists or elders or other kinds of experts. Most of them are men. Did this ever bother you?
JA: Did you just accept it as a fact you didn’t have any control over, so you were forced to deal with what you had?
BL: It was often on my mind. I tried to choose situations that were not stereotypical—there on Skraeling Island, for example, I’m with a party of three people, two men and a woman. In Antarctica there were more women than men in our dive group. In Africa, I had no choice: there were no female paleoanthropologists working with us, which says something about how women are kept from participating in certain kinds of exploration. I hope people recognize that this is often how we organize things in the West, and, of course, that we suffer for it. It’s the men, usually, who get to go out and look for evidence of the phylogenetic history of mankind. In Australia, it was intentional on my part to leave a situation of colonial imperialism at Port Arthur and to begin an excursion with a woman as a guide, and to make common cause later with the anthropologist Petra Morel. In Antarctica, you know, I was with five meteoriticists at Graves Nunataks, two of whom were women. If the question is, “What is the fate of Homo (homo refers to humanity, as distinct in Latin from vir, meaning men as distinguished from women),” how can it be legitimately pursued when most of the participants are formally educated white men? My generation was not one that initially understood the advantages of having other points of view. The consideration in Horizon, I hope, is that without the other point of view, you’re no closer to wisdom than you were when you started.
JA: One passage of interest to me is where you talk about native plants versus non-native plants and invasive species. You link it to some xenophobic tendencies. Then you talk later in the book about restoration efforts being mostly successful on a psychological, not a scientific, level.
BL: Yes. When you say you’re going to restore a landscape, you should go back and read Darwin. Restoration is not how evolution works. It’s not a machine. You can’t swap parts in and out and expect it to work better. I wanted to talk about that because, in our zeal to address ecological damage, I think we fail to look at the situation carefully enough, to understand that this is simply not possible. I guess I want people to think about the necessity for diversity. Diversity is not merely a characteristic of biological life. It is necessary for life.
JA: In the Southwest we have a number of non-native species that get a lot of attention. Tamarisk and cheatgrass are two; you’re probably aware of this. There’s lots of money and discussion about trying to replace these. Would you say that probably our energies would be better served in some other way?
BL: Yes, I would say that. The first thing your effort “to restore” should be directed at is a redefinition of what the problem really is. The material that I talk about in the Galápagos chapter, where what amount to aerial gunships are being used by professional hunters from New Zealand to kill goats on the islands, is a pretty radical first step. So, how do you feel about that as a reader? Is that good? What are we trying to save here? We often make the mistake, I feel, in talking about immigrants or “alien animals,” of thinking that there is some kind of orthodox primal organization—which is quite biblical—that needs to be preserved. No, Darwin is saying nature is an evolving system. Its past is no more valuable than its present. And it’s not up to us, anyway, to establish which creatures are to be defined as expendable. That’s, again, the imperial mindset of hierarchical arrangements. The women’s movement and the environmental movement, the Native American movement, the general insistence on social justice, I hope, is floating underneath this book. How disastrous this idea, to create and enforce hierarchy, is proving to be in our emergency times! Or at least that is what I have been thinking.
JA: In the Cape Foulweather chapter you talk about how mountain gorillas in the Congo and giant pandas in the Wolong Reserve in China are wild animals, but you say they’re not free animals. Will you talk a little more about that distinction and where animals are wild and free?
BL: Well, animals are wild when they aren’t living with us; and they are free as long as we don’t know where they are. There are many definitions, of course, of what it means to be free. Two extremes might be “free to do whatever you want” and “freedom from intrusion,” which Robinson Jeffers so keenly desired. Part of what I’ve been most grateful for over the years has been the privilege of being able to spend so much time with animals that were not only wild but also free. Free from all sorts of human interference. The “wild” animals of Ngorongoro Crater are not, for me, free. This distinction allows us to see how we continue to define animals that are more or less constantly on display as “wild,” even as we ignore our own intrusive role in monitoring them and denying them independence. The wild animal is not always free. It is often bounded by the human desire to have it provide tourists with an experience.
We’ve coopted most wild animals in order to make them our own. This is high colonialism. It stems from a belief that we are essential to the ongoing existence of a nonhuman world. That world will go on just fine without our help. We’ve failed to appreciate that human nature is but one aspect of Nature.
JA: Following up on that, at one point in the book you also say, “Nature will be fine without us.” So the moral imperative, for us to take better care of the nonhuman world, in the end really means taking care of ourselves.
BL: Yes. The divide we’ve created between the human and the nonhuman world is part of what makes it difficult to understand what our dilemma is. Phylogenetic variation in the genome, together with a changing environment—that interface is what gives us a different world every day. Somebody said to me once, “When people say they are worried about the loss of our ‘environment,’ they’re mostly just talking about the Holocene.”
JA: In the chapter on Africa you talk about a goshawk you saw in Namibia that had one eye torn out of its socket, but was still hunting. Is this a metaphor for all of us?
BL: Yes, I guess. When I saw that pale chanting goshawk turn, and I saw what a mess its face was, and then it just turned back to what it was doing, I didn’t have to remind myself to remember that moment. To succeed as damaged people we need this kind of determination. This kind of integrity.
JA: You also say that your system of belief—your religious upbringing—has been replaced, or augmented, by the belief that there is a numinous dimension to the world, a dimension substantial and real. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
BL: Yes. I think there is a primal resonance between specific individuals and the natural world. You do not take notice, for example, of all stones. Nor will all stones notice you. But the awareness that there is always more to be had than meets the eye is very important for me. One of the Huxleys—I don’t remember which one—criticized someone for insisting that traditional people act on the basis of superstition. He said, “Superstition is not the right word. These are techniques of awareness.” I immediately liked that way of putting it: an expression of metaphysical awareness. It’s said that if you remind yourself every day to make a bow of respect to those portions of the inanimate world from which you feel a numinous energy flowing, then you will continue to be incorporated in the nonhuman world, and that will make it easier for you to develop an ethic that includes everything in the nonhuman world. And you will therefore never be lonely.
We’ve had all these historical revolutions—the scientific revolution, the agricultural revolution, the Industrial Revolution. All of them represent, I think, the breach of certain contracts that were long there between human beings and plants, or human beings and what we refer to as raw materials. We gained tremendous advantage by breaking those contracts, by excluding the natural world from our ethical world and proceeding with our only guide being the desire to own and acquire. Now we’re paying the price for that. We’re now paying, for example, the medical bill for the Industrial Revolution.
JA: I like where you talk about how meaningful social change is less about inspiring, about charismatic figures like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., than about the work of many people. Can you give me an example of how social change is the work of many people?
BL: I don’t know that I can. Like most other people in our culture, I have always thought of dramatic social change as the result of the presence of a charismatic personality.
JA: I mean, the Civil Rights movement really was about a lot of people.
BL: It was. The Civil Rights movement, of course, is more than just the story of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., of Medgar Evers and others. One thing I was trying to suggest in the book is that although we tend to think of human genius as a quality possessed by singular individuals, the kind of genius we actually need today belongs anonymously to a community of individuals. Genius becomes apparent in the life of one or another individual, but it rises up from the community of which that individual is a part. I’ve got a picture up in my studio of the Dalai Lama having a conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s there because she’s vilified now for what she “allowed to happen” to the Rohingya in Myanmar. The Dalai Lama is not vilified. He’s trying to save the culture of the Tibetan Plateau, and she apparently is destroying social diversity in Myanmar. She’s fallen into international disfavor and has been condemned by many people, but the fact that the two of them would sit together in this photograph and speak to each other is more powerful, for me, than two people like Gandhi and the Dalai Lama sitting and talking together. We believe a person’s failure is incompatible with the character of the culture hero. We shouldn’t.
If we’re going to talk about social progress, we’ve got to find a way to incorporate the darkness with the light. If we look at all the minutiae surrounding the lives of heroic people, you will find many quotidian and mean-spirited moments among them. What that should tell us is that the Civil Rights movement doesn’t succeed or fail because Martin Luther King Jr. might have committed adultery. The moral courage of this man is something the community possesses and they let it rise up in him. But it is not necessary that he be perfect. This is also why in the book I say that maybe the time of Joseph Campbell’s hero has passed. Maybe the thing we should be thinking about is how to understand the community as heroic, as capable of heroism.
JA: Do you consider how your work as a writer who hopes to protect remote landscapes might actually be doing the opposite? In the Skraeling Island chapter, you talk about Arctic Dreams and its success possibly causing scientists like Peter Schledermann, the director of an archaeological project there, some lack of privacy, I presume because of increased tourism, which brings with it certain problems. Has that happened, do you know?
BL: It has, and it happened on that trip. We had heard that a private group was going to fly in to the airstrip at Alexandra Fjord lowland on a chartered plane. They were bringing inflatable boats with them so they could actually cross the water from the mainland and visit Skraeling Island. Peter hated the idea and was upset about it all the time. I, of course, didn’t see myself playing any role in this. We all just sort of stepped back when these people came ashore. Peter retreated to his tent, and he wasn’t available to answer any of their questions. He was outraged that these tourists were there. The leader of the group walked up to me and said, “I don’t know how to adequately thank you. Arctic Dreams has built a business for me.” He was from Vancouver, B.C., and ran an outfitting business. It was he who had brought all these people, and who had advertised that he could take you into the High Arctic to see the places you had read about in Arctic Dreams. I was appalled. I thought, “My God, what have I done?”
I realized that Peter’s occasional testiness had to do with the fact that my having written about the High Arctic had created problems for him and made the sites vulnerable to disturbance and theft. Tourists were starting to arrive in all these previously unvisited places in the Arctic.
JA: Changing focus: Crow and Weasel, which was published in 1990, is your longest work of fiction. With Horizon about to be published, do you plan to return to fiction? Might you have a novel in mind?
BL: I do have a novel in mind, and I have in fact outlined it. My sense, though, is that I will never get to it. Right now, I’m trying to complete a collection of short stories—I have about twenty in first or second draft. And I want to complete another collection of essays. The next book, though, will probably be a collection of nonfiction, like About This Life. And there’s a long fiction manuscript that I need to one day address.
JA: Can you talk about it or would you rather not?
BL: I ’d rather not. It’s called Encounters on the Granite River, but let’s leave it at that.
JA: Okay. Any other work coming along?
BL: I hope to begin work soon on another new work of nonfiction. I want to try to write it in a form the Japanese call haibun, the form in which Basho wrote The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I want to write it in a much less lyrical form of prose than I usually employ. Less ornate. Spare, very straightforward. And, in Japanese the prose is broken up by haiku, or in English by short, two- or three-line poems. I’ll have to teach myself to write with such concision, but that’s the form I want to work in. I should, of course, say that all of this is daydreaming. I just want to push hard on whatever the work in the future turns out to be.
Barry Lopez’s essays and fiction have been appearing in The Georgia Review since 1993; he was the keynote speaker at our third annual Earth Day Program in 2011, and for this year’s eleventh edition he will be our first repeat presenter. His Of Wolves and Men (1978) won the John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing and was a finalist for the National Book Award—which his Arctic Dreams (1986) won. Lopez’s numerous short-story collections include Outside (Trinity University Press, 2015) and Resistance (Vintage, 2004); also among his more than a dozen volumes are the novella-length fable Crow and Weasel (1990) and (with Debra Gwartney) Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape (Trinity University Press, 2006). A world traveler to more than seventy countries, Barry Lopez has lived for decades on the upper McKenzie River in Oregon.