Thursday, August 20, 2009

About this Life: A Conversation with Barry Lopez


On the back of his new book, About This Life , subtitled Journeys on the Threshold of Memory (Vintage Press), the author Barry Lopez looks straight out at you with all the glint of a hawk in search of prey. It's a stare that betrays the precision, the sharp eyed native detail, which marks all his prose.

Born in Port Chester, New York in 1945, he was raised in southern California around fruit orchards, beaches and the Mojave Desert, before being brought back to life in Manhattan as a teenager after his mother remarried. At college he began a course in aeronautical engineering (part of a lifetime fascination for flight that still colors his writing today with a sense of uplift) switching to an English major.

Lopez went on to work professionally as a landscape and nature photographer, but grew restless with the estrangement and invasion he felt as a 'taker' of images. This dilemma led finally to a career as a writer.

He married his wife Sandra in 1967, a year after his college graduation. Since 1968 they have lived in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, where has written by longhand, then typewriter, in the same room for some 30 odd years now, largely about his global travails into the natural world.

Lopez is a regular contributor to Harper's, The Paris Review, American Short Fiction and Story and has built a powerful reputation as an essayist, author and short story writer rigorously fascinated by landscape. He is widely regarded as the America's foremost 'poet-naturalist', a man able to turn his hand to lupine habits and habitats in Of Wolves And Men (1978), or the cold and glorious north in what many still regard as his masterpiece, Arctic Dreams (for which he won the National Book Award in 1986).

Along with the airy poetic touches in his work, Lopez brings an acute sense of obligation to detail and integrity with his every observance, and something that can only be described as a spiritually driven, almost Zen-like regard for non-fiction.

His latest book, About This Life, is a collection of essays with an unusual degree of personal reflection for a writer studiously focussed on the outside world. It includes some phenomenal set-pieces like a history of his own hands as he gazes upon them in 'A Passage of Hands'; the mystically fractured obligations of a long-distance driver trying to deal with roadkill in 'Apologia'; and the strangely hypnotic drunkenness of worldwide materialism in 'Flight', his study of international airfreighters and their cargo.

In person, Lopez is a generous conversationalist, thoughtful and serene, much as his writing voice would suggest. A storyteller with a vocational commitment to awakening our appreciation of nature and landscape, he is writing at the peak of his powers today.



I was interested in this whole issue of 'voice' which I mentioned to you the other day. In your introduction to About This Life and in past essays like the piece you wrote for the Australian literary quarterly HEAT, you've talked about an American writing tradition which you've described as 'nature writing' or 'landscape writing' and 'a literature of place'. I'm wanting you to discuss this tradition with me. What you mean by it?

"Well the problem with this kind of an idea is that the definitions - and to a certain extent, the discussion of the definition of the genre - is really on the minds of critics more than it is on the minds of writers.

"What I was trying to get at in that piece in HEAT is that the incorporation of landscape - and by that I would mean not just line and color and contour and texture, but weather and the movement of landscape through time, in other words the flow of rivers and all that kind of material, everything occurring in the so-called non-human world - is not incidental to literature. It's integral.

"We have fallen into the trap of believing that to incorporate this material and let it reverberate metaphorically is... is unsophisticated I guess. In fact the history of literature, written and oral among the various human traditions, is that such material is always included - in part because it is so metaphorically rich.

"It's not instructive in the sense that a field guide is instructive. I mean the material is not in a story so that someone can learn the difference between one or another wallaby [Australian mammal], for example. The effect of that material is to cause the illusions and the historical references to reverberate more completely. So in the United States if you incorporate a particular landscape in a short story, it has historical reverberation if it's say, in the American West. That's a crude example.

"I believe something happened in the European imagination during what you might call 'the Age of Reconnaissance', when Europeans became aware of landscapes utterly different from their own. At the first level they tried to turn everything into another version of Europe. For example, a lot of early immigrants tried to turn Australia into England by tearing down the indigenous vegetation, peoples, etcetera, and reconstituting it as some sort of inferior, but fateful image of the home country.

"That has gone on in lots of places. You can track the same kinds of trees planted in colonial capitals all over the globe in an effort to turn those places into something like the European home.

"The resistance to that in all colonial literatures I'm at least aware of in English, is the insistence that the local place has an enormous effect on local behavior. And so it's only when you start to incorporate the place that you develop something distinct in a country's literature.

"[This is] what happened with Melville and Moby Dick - obviously the Pacific Ocean is not the United States - but Melville was using landscape to reinforce the moral drama that could have been there cast in another way in Paris or London. But instead of going to a city like that and casting his novel in those urban terms, he chose this huge canvas of the Pacific Ocean.

"That tradition in the United States continues all the way through the 19th and 20th centuries and some of the names now are quite obvious, like Thoreau and Steinbeck, down to the present. Probably the American writer who most embodies that tradition of fidelity to place, and incorporation of place in fiction where it is integral - and not incidental - is Peter Matthiessen.

"What I'm trying to get at is, look, what distinguishes literatures at the close of the 20th century? Probably the thing all English speaking literatures are after, one way or another, is a definition of community - and an elucidation of what has happened to community in the wake of colonialism, and, in contemporary terms, under the forcing pressure of capitalism.

"So a very disparate group of writers [are dealing with this] - lets say a handful of Australian, a handful of Indian, a handful of South African, Canadian, U.S.... And no matter what their educational background or their chosen metaphor might be, most of us are concerned about the fate of community. It might be of the fate of that essential dyad which is the man and the woman who form a family. It could be a concern over family and the disintegration of family - a lot of America literature is about that now. And at a larger level it could be about issues between the human community and the state, or the human community and the industrial world.

"I think nature comes into it because of the commodification of landscape - the level, the degree to which landscape has been commodified, turned into a scenery or one or another sort of thing that is bargained around or traded in or bought and sold. To my ear people who treat landscape like that are using the language and have the attitudes of 19th century slavers. It's that the land must do something and if it doesn't it's punished. It must produce and it must work in the fields and it must show up, in another way of thinking, like some sort of tart. As scenery on the arm of the aging plutocrat.

"So what I'm trying to get at all the time is the impulse to examine the big questions - which are, what is the relationship of the individual to the state, what is the relationship of the individual to society, what is the relationship of human culture to place? All of those questions now, at least in the United States, are being most rigorously addressed in this genre called 'nature writing'."


When you talk about this Post-Colonial literature, an obvious aspect - whether you are speaking about Salman Rushdie or the 'magical realism' of South American writers and figures like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the sheer poetic beauty in someone like Michael Ondaatje or an Australian writer like Tim Winton, and obviously within your own writing - always there is a sense of not just the elemental and the natural, but also of magic and transcendence within landscapes, within story, within language itself. And that dream-life in words, which these writers are stimulating, is, I think, very, very interesting today.

"You know I see reverberations of this quite a bit in [David] Malouf. In Imaginary Life and in Remembering Babylon. David is an urbane individual and he's perfectly at home in Sydney or Italy or London, wherever he happens to be. But I think David really gets what the connection is between culture and place.

"He's able to see that there's something daft about wearing a tweed coat to dinner when he's growing up in Brisbane on a summer day when it's a sub-tropical city, it's not London. And all of the business of trying to import a kind of clothing and behavior to Brisbane that's inappropriate to the climate - that registers in his mind and he sees the imposition of culture on a place and that it's inappropriate. At the same time I think he is able to see some of the true integration of indigenous people and place which comes through in some of his thinking in Remembering Babylon.

"Here's another turn on this - I don't know if it's interesting to you or not - there's a kindof... I guess there's a way of talking about Thoreau that isolates him within the confines of that book Walden. And when I think back on my reading of Thoreau, the piece that stuck with me wasn't Walden, but his essay On Civil Disobedience.

"And I have recently reflected that, at least in the United States, the most forceful arguments against government and industry, which were raised by people like Rachel Carsen, are carried largely by this group of people who are called 'nature writers'. So if there is going to be a voice flying in the face of business and government in the States, this is where it is going to come from.

"An interesting thing about Thoreau - and now this is just speculation - but it's worth looking at - I think Thoreau saw the end of American civilization. I think he intuited with the rise of capitalism in England in the 1830s and the development of the Industrial Revolution and the way it carried over in to the United States, that there was something essentially dysfunctional about the situation of a society in a place - in other words, the culture was poorly situated in the place.

"Emerson said once about Thoreau, 'Oh he just wants to live among us as an Indian' - and I think what Emerson meant was that that Thoreau understood that the relationship between indigenous people in North America and place had been so well worked out that those societies had been stable for hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years. And of course those societies faced the same problems as we do with corruption or infidelity or prevarication, whatever it is, all the human ills. But they'd stabilized.

"What Thoreau saw was that without another kind of mythology American civilization was going to collapse. And the mythology that he was trying to work out was a different kind of moral relationship between place and culture.

"I don't know colonial literature as well as perhaps I should - but I think that men and women writing in countries that have a colonial sense of identity - and America, though it pretends that it doesn't, to some extent does - I mean there was a great American Revolution 200 years ago, but America still looks over its shoulder at England and asks, almost as if England were the parent, 'Are we doing everything all right?...."


Yes, well Australia suffers from this as well obviously.

"Oh yeah, of course. Well I'm just saying that people don't think America suffers from it and we do. And I think what some of us are trying to say in our literatures is we have noticed that one of the ways we are failing is we haven't mounted a civilization that's congruent with the place. We've brought a civilization and in certain quarters, certain ways, it's not working well at all. And I'm one of those people who believes that whatever revitalization is going to come in Western civilization, its going to come from the periphery."


At the same time this is where I find myself in conflict - because there are writers who represent an extreme urban perspective, a very dark and violent perspective, and a very nihilistic perspective. And yet they offer a kind of shock which throws a mirror up to people and gives them pause to stop - it can be quite disturbing and maybe it's gratuitous, and destructive too. But I really do wonder what people like Irvine Welsh or Bret Easton Ellis, or a Bukowski even... how these people strip away hypocrisy and throw consumerism back in the face of people and horrify them and disturb them perhaps because they are horrified and disturbed in some way themselves...

"Yes, yes. Well you know Cormac McCarthy does that if you are in the States. But those wouldn't be writers I would ever dismiss. The essence of all art I think is to resist - and in many ways writers working on different sides of the issue, really what they are trying to do in your terms is strip away the mask and make apparent what is really going on...

"So the responsibility of the artists is to resist - and to undermine complacency. And there are many ways to do that. What I don't like is the intimation is that if you choose metaphors like natural history or anthropology that somehow you are not addressing modern problems or that you are being sentimental, when that's not the case at all.

"With a writer like Peter Matthieson or I would hope myself in certain things I am writing, the issue is social justice - or something allied to justice. I think a great impulse in so-called 'nature writing' is an impulse towards justice. And just relationships.

"The United States has a history of having to be explicit, finally, in legal terms, about all of its prejudices. And so you evolve a series of laws which make it explicit that women and blacks, for example, must be fairly treated - that it can't be just a country that works well for white men. And we're now at that stage where there is some restitution, some recognition, of the rights of indigenous people. The next step after that is, 'If you don't have a moral relationship with the place that you live in, you're a barbarian.'

"We're in the middle of a kind of second barbarism now. The first barbarism was Mongol invasions and the Vandals and the Huns overrunning Europe. The second barbarism is the invasion of world culture by American pop culture, which is all about reducing people to consumers - its diametrically opposed to the virtues of sharing, for example. And it is a kind of barbarism, because at the same time it promises infinite freedom - we will give you the kind of clothes you want, the toys you want and the look you want etcetera etcetera - it tangles you deeper and deeper and deeper in a system of purchase and debt. So you don't achieve freedom through all these purchases, you're enslaved."



In one of your essays you talk about indigenous people and the way they recognize 'the immanence of the divine in both man and nature.' What really struck me about that point was when you talked about it as 'a remedy for loneliness'.

"So many indigenous people, when you have a coffee or a beer or something like that and you're just talking as friends and you ask, 'What is it about us, what do you see when you look at us?', the answer often has something to do with what a hallmark of our culture loneliness is. I remember I guy said to me in an Arctic village one time, 'You know, whenever you come you come alone. You bring no family, you don't have any children.' We are profoundly lonely people with extraordinary skill to create a material culture, a kind of dazzling group, but very lonely."


Obviously an aspect to that need for connection is the whole matter of storytelling. You place a lot of emphasis on storytelling... Have you found that when you've had dealings with indigenous people - that there has been this sort of giving of the story to you? It's almost as if they know you can carry the story on.

"Yes. I think one of the most touching aspects of 20th century and now 21st century almost culture, is the willingness with which indigenous people will give away what little they have with the thought that it will be preserved. Or that they want it preserved. Time and again, white friends of mine will say - people I trust who've some kind of long term thoughtful relationship where they've gone through the romantic business of wanting to be, say, Pitjantjatjara [Aboriginal] - they realize that they'll never be that (laughs), they realize that they're going to be white and they've made their peace with it. And then stayed with it. Kept up their friendships. And then things are passed along and you feel a common bond with people quite different from yourself. And the bond has to do with keeping the stories alive because of the way stories take care of people.

"I don't want to put too fine a point on this, but I think it's good in a culture like ours where there's a commercial dimension to the work you do as a writer, to remind yourself that your real responsibility is to the reader. And that the idea is that your work will help.

"When you come upon a book and you realize that it's really all about the writer, you know things are less than good - what you want is a book in which the writer feels like someone who knows you are there. I sometimes think of this as the difference between the writer as an authority and the writer as a companion. And what I would put the emphasis on is the responsibility of the writer to be the reader's companion, not the authority.

"People who read your work are imaginative, that's a human trait, and it's absurd to think that you're there to instruct the reader. The reader is going to bring his or her imagination to the material you present, and your obligation is to construct something, the story, in which a number of disparate imaginations can range freely and widely and productively."


You've referred to geography as an alternative for you to Freud and psychoanalyses. Now I know you've also referred to coming from what used to be called 'a broken home'. I couldn't help but wonder, because there is obviously a healing desire in your literature and the way you talk about your writing, whether that childhood background, that family background, has nonetheless stimulated this healing desire.

"You know Mark, that's usually not the kind of question I entertain. But I would respectfully answer you yes, and that I've often wondered whether it isn't our individual exposure to pain that makes us compassionate about the pain that others have suffered. I had a certain amount of difficulty in my own early life with my situation at home, and then since then travelling around the world I've seen godawful things - incredible poverty and broken down lives and people succumbing to disease and the ravages of inner city life in the United States or anywhere else.

"And what I think has grown in me is a deeper and deeper sense of compassion for what human beings are going through. I think in the United States of one thing: the ravages of alcohol. I don't know what its like for you in Australia and for your friends, but in this culture I would say I don't have a single friend or acquaintance whose family has not been touched, often violently, by alcohol or drug abuse. That's an astonishing thing to say - that a dysfunctional personality has been made more dysfunctional and caused unnecessary harm and perpetuated cruelty because of an addiction to alcohol or drugs. This is incredible. And we're mired in this to such an extent no one is saying 'How could such a high percentage of American families be so dysfunctional?'


It makes me think about how when you are a child you glory, quite unconsciously, in your imagination. But you also as a kind of protective sphere, find you can retreat into it. I think part of the process of becoming a writer involves bringing that imagination out into the light. At the same time a writer's dilemma is that there is always an essential element of the solitary. I think this can separate you from those people who are closest to you. Do you find this as a writer? That this is a dilemma?

"I don't know..."


Because your voice is very serene, but your voice is also very solitary. And there's a love of the solitary in the landscapes you enjoy - obviously in something like Arctic Dreams, or your attraction the [Australian] Tanami desert. Personally I have a real love of desert landscapes - and I often wonder about that love of the solitary in me and how it relates to my voice as a writer.

"Well an analogous thing to me would be this - and that is, people say to me 'How can you write as often as you do about community and yet be a person who is traveling all the time?' And I think about all the traveling that I did for that piece about air freighters ['Flight', in About This Life], scattering myself all over the world.

"But the example for me here in my home in Oregon is how the house sits on a big river in the mountains. There's salmon in that river, and they spawn on these gravel bars in front of the house. And when the salmon hatch in February they go off down this river and then another river and finally the Columbia and into the Pacific and then they're gone for three or four or five years, and when they come back they're huge fish. I don't know, because the mathematics of it is always a trick, but you are talking about a fish that is two inches long when it leaves and 40 inches long when it comes back. And they spawn here and they die.

"It took me forever to make the connection. I was always after myself, 'Well how can I be writing about community and place when I am always going away.' But the salmon are born here and they come here [again] to spawn and then they die. And it's very like that for me as a writer. I go off to Antarctica or Australia or some place and try to sojourn intelligently and then return home and write a piece about it. And then I go out again. I'm not a recluse. Or a person who doesn't enjoy human company. I'm not a gregarious person, I don't think - I just prefer a few companions in a place like the desert rather than a 100 people in the city. It's just my metier - it's just a place where I feel comfortable. But I have these questions about society in my mind all the time.

"I don't want to make too much of this, but I think traditionally - at least among native peoples - the ones who end up being the storytellers... are... part of what they do is stay in touch with a world that is... (sighs) I don't know... difficult to stay in touch, I guess. I don't know what I'm trying to say here. There's an enormous energy loose in the world and it passes through all of us. And some people who end up being writers or photographers or painters try to shape that energy through the techniques they have mastered or apprenticed themselves to. And make out of that energy a story. And so they stay attuned in their lives to that movement of energy through them. And for most artists that attunement requires some degree of solitariness - either in the reception or the creation..."


Interview by Mark Mordue


* This interview was first published in the Australian literary journal Westerly, Issue No. 3, 1999 and later republished at 12Gauge.com in the USA.

- Close up photo of Barry Lopez accessed from www.simonandschuster.com
- Rustic portrait of Barry Lopez by Matt Valentine - www.mattvalentine.com/writers/
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