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Barry Lopez’s Darkness and Light


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Barry Lopez, McKenzie River, Oregon. Photograph by David Liittschwager.

Some days after Barry’s death on December 25, 2020, I pulled every book of his I owned from the shelves around my apartment and stacked them on a corner of my desk. Then I walked down the hill to the used bookshop in the small Oregon town where I live and found several books of his I did not yet own. For a year, I picked at the stack, revisiting passages I recalled vividly or had forgotten. The words would come when I was ready, I figured, so I scribbled sentences on scraps of paper, lost them, found them, rewrote them, in an ambulatory manner I thought might have pleased Barry. He was the only writer who made me feel virtuous for my slowness, which I once heard him call “patience,” though I believe even Barry knew the fine line between virtuousness and slacking off. He had told me he sometimes admonished his students, “I cannot teach you discipline, and I cannot teach you hunger. You have to find those things inside yourself.” 

It was his request that I write this essay. Or maybe it was not a request, but a suggestion. He had asked it in a way so gentle, so lacking in urgency, that I would sometimes feel as if I dreamed it, but then I would relisten to a voicemail he left me, which I had saved, and there it was: “I’ve got a kind of favor to ask.” 

When I returned his call, he told me a man was writing a profile for the alumni magazine of the college Barry had attended. The man was interviewing some celebrated writers about Barry’s legacy, but it had struck Barry that these writers were all of his own generation or one below him. Did he even have a legacy if few young people read his work, he wondered? Was there any space for his work in the collective conscience, amid an economy of distraction and a literary world enamored with speed? This was two months before he died. I had known Barry only four months.

He asked me to “think about this,” in case the man writing the profile gave me a call, and maybe also to write about his legacy myself if I felt compelled. This is how he was, his profound gestures composed of language so light it seemed to drift off. I told him I would. 

 

***

 

I knew Barry Lopez’s name from the spines of books on my parents’ shelves, but the first work of his I read were essays and short stories in Orion, to which my parents subscribed when I was sixteen. I thought of Barry then as a “nature writer,” a label I would later learn he resented, but which, at that time, I liked. He had published his first book, Of Wolves and Men, to great acclaim in 1978, when he was thirty-three years old, and would write another twenty books of fiction and nonfiction in his lifetime. By the time I became aware of his writing, Barry was a bard among an international community of writers and artists defending the natural world against industrial exploitation. One of the short stories in Orion that glimmered out at me was about a man who comes across a sliver of obsidian while walking in the desert and considers pocketing the stone for his daughter, then decides against it. “He had come upon a time in his life when everything, even the things of God, needed protection,” Barry wrote of the man’s restraint. He implied that in removing it from the landscape, the stone became only an object, but if the man left the stone, he would “have to use his imagination” in telling his daughter about it, thus preserving its particular mystery. 

I saw him speak at my college around the time I read the story. I recall, mainly, his bearing—turned-inward, serious, his words impeccably chosen.  

After college, I moved West, and that year a friend sent me a link to an interview Barry had done with Bill Moyers. I watched the interview, rapt. Then I watched it twice more. He articulated beliefs I did not yet know I had, but in which I recognized myself clearly and immediately. “We have a way of talking about beauty as though beauty were only skin deep,” he said. “But real beauty is so deep you have to move into darkness in order to understand what beauty is.” He meant that to opt for beauty but not darkness was to cling to false hope, that real hope required an awareness of both darkness and beauty at once. To make space in one’s own mind for both was to remain open to a “full expression” of life. 

After I saw the interview, I began reading Barry’s books, and I noticed how violence and beauty cohabitated in all his work. In Of Wolves and Men, he wrote of both the admiration and hatred humans have for wolves, the former rooted in a longing for intimacy with nature even as humans grow more distant from it; the latter, in a species of fear called theriophobia—“fear of the projected beast in oneself,” or, as Barry saw it, fear of the darkness we all possess. In “Orchids on the Volcanoes,” from his 1998 essay collection About This Life, he observed a wreckage of dead birds in the Galapagos, “crumpled on the bare ground like abandoned clothing,” and “the stark terror” of the place, where “innocent repose and violence are never far apart.” He often invoked the concurrence of light and dark by pressing life’s fragility against the brutality of landscapes. Arctic Dreams, which won the 1986 National Book Award, was constructed almost entirely from this dichotomy, beginning in the introduction, where Barry wrote, “I had never known how benign sunlight could be … How run through with compassion in a land that bore so eloquently the evidence of centuries of winter,” to the end, where, after hundreds of pages of detailed observation, his point strikes the reader as startlingly succinct: 

If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.

I loved that line when I read it—“leaning into the light,” a stalk tilting toward the sun—and I love it now, even after Barry’s death when the passage containing it became one of the most quoted in his oeuvre. 

In 2013, Barry published the essay “Sliver of Sky” in Harper’s about being raped as a child. His rapist had been a doctor, a friend of his mother’s, who feigned charity by offering to entertain her sons. In the years Barry suffered these serial assaults, he wrote, “the deepest and sometimes only relief I had was when I was confronted with the local, elementary forces of nature: hot Santa Ana winds blowing west into the San Fernando Valley … ; winter floods inundating our neighborhood when Caballero Creek breached its banks on its way to the Los Angeles River.” Looking upward at a flock of birds filled him with “encouragement.” 

This nesting of natural beauty inside the horror of the essay’s disclosures was perhaps a better explanation than any for why pairing dark with light felt necessary to Barry. “I took from each of these encounters a sense of what it might feel like to become fully alive,” he wrote. But it was recently, in reading his posthumous essay collection, Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, that this necessity struck me with more devastating clarity. “The linchpin of my existence as a California boy was the ever-forgiving, ever-soothing light,” he wrote in “Missing California,” published for the first time in the collection: 

That, and for me the flocks of birds that pulled me into the sky, pulled me up and out of myself … Of course, it was the pedophile who gave me eight tumbler pigeons on my birthday, the pigeons that deliberately lose aerodynamic life and plummet to earth as though shot by a gun, only to pull out of it a few feet from the ground and soar stiff-winged toward the open sky.

The essay ends there, on the realization that the birds who relieved his suffering were a gift from the man who caused his suffering. He makes no attempt at explanation.

This is something else Barry wrote about often: the unfathomable. He wrote about unfathomable violence—his visits to Auschwitz, and the Washita River in Oklahoma, where, in 1868, the Seventh Cavalry massacred dozens of peaceful Cheyenne men, women, and children, then slit the throats of their horses.  

He wrote about the unfathomable in a spiritual sense, too, for which he preferred the word mystery. In Of Wolves and Men, he advised his readers that he was incapable of answering all our questions, but we shouldn’t worry, since “to allow mystery, which is to say to yourself, ‘There could be more, there could be things we don’t understand,’ is not to damn knowledge. It is to take a wider view.” He dealt similarly with a conflict he perceived between Indigenous knowledge gathered through generations of immersion in nature and knowledge derived from Western methods of scientific study. The latter, he argued, too often discounted what couldn’t be proven by science, while the former tended to allow some things to remain beyond human understanding. “A solution to a mystery is perhaps not a sign of wisdom,” he told Moyers. “I am perfectly comfortable being in a state of ignorance before something incomprehensible. And it’s in that moment that you’re driven to your knees and you believe. I wouldn’t call it religious. It’s just what happens when you open up to the extraordinary circumstances of being alive.”

But it was religious, in a sense. Among the revelations that have come to me from reading Barry’s work was one I found in his posthumous collection, in an essay titled “Madre de Dios.” He described his Jesuit upbringing and how he found in Catholicism a “sphere of incomprehensible holiness which, in the Western imagination, stands beyond the reach of the rational mind.” Then he recalled an encounter with the spirit of the Blessed Mother, when he was eight years old, trapped in the bed of his rapist. She hovered above the floor, hands reaching toward him, and said, “You will not die here.” 

The people I know who have endured unimaginable violence are also those who appear more open than most to spiritual or supernatural occurrences. This does not surprise me. To accept as real an act so evil, for which reason and motive could forever elude its victim, is also to accept that there are things we can’t explain. This humility, Barry seemed to argue, is not just virtuous but essential to our survival, the antidote to unimaginable darkness being unimaginable light. 

Still, spiritual belief is a hard thing to write about. Once, a writing professor told to me that he avoided teaching Barry’s work for fear his students might, in attempting to imitate him, “get a little mushy.” 

I admit I’ve found Barry’s work, dense and sprawling, difficult to read at times; if I don’t quiet everything around me, my mind wanders off. I’ve wondered if this was deliberate, if Barry was challenging readers to a meditation. “Pay attention,” he wrote over and over in his books, as he did again in an essay titled “Invitation” from his new collection: “Perhaps the first rule of everything we endeavor to do is to pay attention.” And when I do pay attention, I am mesmerized: I see Barry’s syntactical precision, the carpentry of his paragraphs, the framing built from the crossbeams of his experience. In fiction, especially, his philosophizing was tactile, as in a passage from his only novel, Resistance, in which he made the case, yet again, for mystery: 

For me, the terrifying part was the ease with which you could lose your imagination … In every quarter of life, it seemed then, we were retreating into fundamentalism. The yes/no of belief, the in/out of fashion, the down/up of pharmaceuticals, the on/off of music, the hot/cold of commitment, the dead/live of electricity, the forward/backward of machinery, the give/take of a deal … People endorsed the identification of enemies and their eradication, just to be rid of some of the inevitable blurring.

What I loved so much about this novel, told from the perspectives of nine artists and academics who each receive a letter from their government declaring their work “unpatriotic” and thus a threat to national security, is that it precisely conveys the ideas integral to Barry’s writing without straying into moralization or sentimentalism. Yet what made Barry’s work radical, I now believe, was in fact his willingness to risk these qualities—to reject the common urge to construct from language a bulwark against emotion. “The things that make us uncomfortable in public are a person who wishes to speak of what is beautiful,” he told Moyers. “That makes everybody a little bit nervous, because many of us keep this jaded, cynical separateness with the world.” 

I saw Barry speak once more, in the fall of 2019, at an event he facilitated for his friend, Robert MacFarlane, who had just published Underland. I watched, as rapt as I had been during the Moyers interview. When they finished, I left without introducing myself. What do you say to a person whose work has influenced you so thoroughly that you feel their words and ideas as a substance coursing through your body? How do you convey to a person who has never read your work how much theirs has become a part of yours? You can’t. It’s desperate, and a little bit creepy. 

So I left before I met Barry. I did not need to tell him that, in my own work, at his urging, I had gone into darkness to find beauty, and by beauty, I mean love. 

 

***

 

And so the call came as a surprise. I was driving across Colorado one day in July of 2020 when a friend in New York forwarded me a voicemail. I pulled over, hit play. I recognized his voice, serious but kind in its formality. He was explaining to my friend—whom I now realized was his friend, too—that he had finished reading the book I wrote. My friend had recommended it, and now Barry was asking my friend to pass along his number to me.

I sat on the roadside a long time. I dialed the number, got an answering machine. I hardly remember what I said. I was headed into the mountains to camp for a while. A few weeks later, in early August, I received another voicemail: 

Hi Sierra, it’s Barry Lopez calling. I hope you had a good trip. I’m looking at some photographs this morning of Blackfoot people trying to find a way out of their dilemma in 1915, moving through a whiteout on horseback, so I Xeroxed the image and wrote a letter to a friend and said, “How I’m starting to feel trying to get out of here, wherever we are.” 

We spoke on the phone not long after that. For the same reason I fear meeting writers I admire, I now fear having to distill our first conversation onto the page. Can I just say it was one hour among the most essential of my life? 

He said kind things about my book. They seemed the kindest things anyone had ever said about my book, I believe because Barry was a writer whose perspective on the world I had long nurtured in myself, so the parts he chose to notice were parts meaningful to me already. Then he told me what he had been reading and writing and asked what I was writing, too. I explained my new book as precisely as I could, adding, when I stumbled, that I had only begun, that I had not yet decided how much I should write before I sent pages to a publisher. He replied that with every book he ever wrote he had, at some point, inevitably wondered, Why wasn’t this given to someone smarter than I am? Then he advised me to never build an outline too soon because “the idea of writing is not to find what you’re looking for.” He added, “And you have to know what you stand for. You have to resist the temptation to do things for money or fame, because you’ll wake up when you’re forty years old and not know who you are.” 

I had turned thirty-three that week. I felt young all of a sudden, my life full of possibility. I felt a warmth toward Barry rising in my throat. He asked for my mailing address in case he came across an article or book he wished to send, and he suggested I visit him soon; we both lived in Oregon, a few hours’ drive apart. It was the beginning of the pandemic, but I could stay in his guest cottage, we could eat outside, and his wife could take me kayaking on a river beside their house. In the meantime, Barry advised, I should call his landline whenever I wished. He would answer ninety percent of the time, and his wife, the writer Debra Gwartney, would answer the other ten. 

“She’s—” Barry began, pausing long enough for me to wonder what adjective he would choose. Then he said, “—first-rate.” 

 

***

 

We spoke a handful of times that summer and fall. We would talk about what he was working on and what I was working on, about books he recommended and ideas that had come to him lately, and then he would say, “Well, I shouldn’t keep you from your writing.” I could have talked to him forever, but I hung up because I didn’t want him to think I was greedy, and of course it was not me who had limited time, but Barry. He only once mentioned his cancer. He was rationing his efforts, he said, finishing an essay collection and some short stories. He often referenced his most recent book, Horizon, published in 2019, which I sensed he was proud of. Later, Robin Desser, Barry’s editor at Random House, and previously at Knopf, would tell me it had taken so long for Barry to write the book that she feared he might die before he finished it. He had signed the contract before Desser became his editor, and in her first years working with him, he wrote other books, until they agreed, in her words, “that it would be better to direct his energies to his major opus.” Whenever Barry visited New York after that, he hand-delivered a typewritten manuscript, requesting that Desser not read it but keep it on her desk so she knew he was writing. “Of course, I would sort of look at it,” Desser said. “But I also thought, I’m preserving my own reaction to this, because I felt somewhat shamanistically that if I didn’t read this version, maybe the final one would come sooner.” 

Horizon is indeed an opus—not a memoir, exactly, but a literary consummation of his wanderings. It revisits places that shaped his thinking, reinforces the stitching of his ideas across landscape and time. “A long life might be understood … as a kind of cataract of imperfectly recollected intentions,” Barry writes:

Some of one’s early intentions fade. Others endure through the inevitable detours of amnesia, betrayal, and loss of belief … But, too, the unfathomable sublimity of a random moment, like the touch of a beloved’s hand on one’s burning face, might revive the determination to carry on, and, at least for a time, rid one of life’s weight of self-doubt and regret. Or a moment of staggering beauty might reignite the intention one once had to lead a life of great meaning, to live up to one’s own expectations.

The book rarely gets more personal than this, yet it strikes me as some of Barry’s most intimate writing, deepening the idea fundamental to his work that what people most desire is “to love or be loved,” and that all human pain, particularly loneliness, emerges when a person fails to feel either.

In the same way that he repeatedly invoked the coexistence of light and dark or insisted we pay attention, this idea is a refrain from much of his prior work. In About This Life, Barry wrote, “Although I’m wary of pancultural truths, I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved.” Years later, in the interview with Moyers, he mused that everyone, at some time, “is driven to a point of despair … I think they don’t quit because there is a capacity for, a desire for reciprocated love that brings you back to life.” 

I asked Desser if she thought Barry repeated himself because he wasn’t sure his readers heard him. She believed this was true, but added, “When someone writes music, you can tell that this is Beethoven, or this is John Coltrane. There’s a theme that’s recognizable. These are the things that matter to Barry, so they reoccur … And this message about love, how many times can we hear that? Many times. We need to hear it many times.”

She told me that by the time he wrote Horizon, and especially after he published the essay about his childhood abuse, she sensed that Barry felt relief in mostly having said what he wanted to say, and now his task was to unite all he ever said into a single work that refracted his ideas through the variable lenses of the far-flung places in which he had reported. The book, like his life’s work, “contained multitudes,” she said, in how it encompassed vast geographies and histories yet returned, always, to the same idea—to love. 

The book wasn’t everything, though. In the closing pages, Barry warns against taking it as his last word: “We assume sometimes that whatever the dying say at the end, or last write down, represents a conscious final thought, but I don’t believe this is very often true. What is really going on at the end mostly goes unspoken and … remains unknown to the living.” 

Was he saying that death is a preservation of mystery? Those closer to him know better than I do how much of himself he left out of his books. My phone calls with Barry, like my experience reading his work, were intimate but never revealing. We said almost nothing about our personal lives. I never told him, for example, that his first call came the week I ended a decade-long partnership, that our conversations spanned the loneliest period of my life, that his voice brought me comfort, that whenever I conjured an image of him in the house he called me from—a house he had lived in over fifty years, in a forest he once described in an essay as the place a person knows so well they “sense that they themselves are becoming known … and this reciprocity, to know and be known, reinforces a sense that one is necessary in the world”—I felt relief from my own unmooring.  

In September, I moved my belongings into a new apartment, then drove to Northern Michigan to see my parents. The day I arrived, fires caught in Oregon. The late-summer smoke had become an annual frustration, and I was grateful to have escaped it. 

Then a friend wrote asking where Barry lived. His town was engulfed in flames, she said. I called his house; neither he nor Debra answered. 

The next morning, the smoke had drifted over Lake Michigan. I woke to an eerie, familiar light, a muted-orange patch on the bedroom door. I went kayaking with my parents, paddled around a point to a broad beach where we watched the cloud loom like a wave stalled before its crest. I would later learn from my friend in New York that Barry and Debra were woken by firemen pounding on their door and fled with only essential belongings. The house had been saved but not the forest, nor an outbuilding containing Barry’s papers.  

 

***

 

It has become a trope that writers whom publishers have long placed in the box called “nature writing” flinch at the term like it’s an epithet. “ ‘Nature writing’ has become a cant phrase, branded and bandied out of any useful existence, and I would be glad to see its deletion from the current discourse,” Robert Macfarlane wrote in 2015. Their complaint is that the label consigns writers to an obscure literary corner, whereas what they have chosen as their subject—most succinctly, survival—is as fundamental a story as it gets. “I’m not writing about nature. I’m writing about humanity,” Barry told Moyers. “And if I have a subject, it is justice, and the rediscovery of the manifold ways in which our lives can be shaped by the recovery of a sense of reverence for life.” 

I agree with Barry. It was not his descriptions of arctic summer or of forests along the McKenzie River, beautiful as they may be, that drew me to his work; it was the way he made clear our predicament, which is that violence toward land begets violence toward people, and vice versa, that violence of any kind wounds both victim and perpetrator, heaving across space and time, marking land and bodies, drawing us all into a collective trauma that perpetuates by its own momentum. 

Consider the way he describes the Spanish incursion into the New World in his most concise book, The Rediscovery of North America:

It set a tone in the Americas. The quest for personal possessions was to be, from the outset, a series of raids, irresponsible and criminal, a spree, in which an end to it—the slaves, the timber, the pearls, the fur, the precious ores, and, later, arable land, coal, oil, and iron ore—was never visible, in which an end to it had no meaning. The assumption of an imperial right conferred by God, sanctioned by the state, and enforced by a militia; the assumption of unquestioned superiority over a resident people, based not on morality but on race and cultural comparison—or, let me say it plainly, on ignorance, on a fundamental illiteracy—the assumption that one is due wealth in North America, reverberates in the journals of people on the Oregon Trail, in the public speeches of nineteenth-century industrialists, and in twentieth-century politics. You can hear it today in the rhetoric of timber barons in my home state of Oregon, standing before the last of the old-growth forest, irritated that anyone is saying “enough …, it is enough.”

There are few writers who have made so clear that the exploitation of resources—as well as all the displacement, pollution, ecosystemic collapse, and climate havoc this exploitation engenders—is, as it has always been, a colonial project. 

I am even less a nature writer than Barry was, but this is where our work overlapped, in that we each spent much of our adulthood around Indigenous communities. Learning from Indigenous people had conferred on him a certain loneliness, in that he would never belong to nor attempt to belong to the communities he visited, and yet he more often identified with their perspectives and methods of existence than those of European American culture. “You end up on this odd ground where you don’t have many people to talk to,” he told me.   

I wish I had asked him to elaborate. Had I never read his writing, I might have thought he was suggesting we shared some sort of romantic and voyeuristic curiosity about cultures unlike our own. But what I believe Barry meant is that being among people who have struggled and continue to struggle to maintain a relationship to their original home made obvious to him his position as a descendant of colonizers, illuminated the legacy he was part of. It helped him more precisely identify that which he now felt obligated to push back against. 

He wasn’t perfect on this front—no white writer who has ever tried to find their place among Indigenous stories is. If I have a criticism of Barry, it is that he too often wrote about Indigenous people in the past and not enough in the present. Perhaps he felt that history is a commons, while the ordinary, private lives of people today were verboten to him. Regardless, his work reads at times as a kind of salvage ethnography, edging dangerously close to reinforcing the falsehood that Indigenous cultures and people are dead, or that their value diminished as they were influenced by modernity. (In one short story, he implies the Mandan were completely “wiped out,” which I imagine would offend the Mandan descendants I know.) Then there is a collection of coyote trickster tales Barry published in 1978, which, though Barry carefully states his intentions at the start of the book, still strikes me as straight up appropriative. 

I will never know why he made these choices or how he felt about them later on. What I do know is that in all his writing about the people he encountered in his lifetime, Barry was respectful, attentive, humble in his awareness of his own fallibility. Desser told me she saw him amend his approach to writing about Indigenous people over time, and his later work reflects this. What remained consistent was his message: That land and people are fundamentally linked, and that a disregard for both could ruin us all. 

 

***

 

He called me a month after the fire, from a house in Eugene where he and Debra were living temporarily. He had finally gone back to the property, he said, and it looked “like a flayed human being.” His voice broke when he said this, and it occurred to me that the fire erased for him the sense of knowing and being known. Then he brightened a little, explaining that a friend who accompanied him had found a bit of tree root, still alive. In the spring, they hoped to replant the forest.

We spoke only once more, a week later, when he asked me the favor. Eight weeks after that, I learned of his death like most everyone else, from the news. 

I never met him. I know he valued my work, but I also know he nurtured many similar, longer friendships, and ours was more significant to me than to him. I suspect Barry first called me to pass along a gift that he once received when he was young from an older, celebrated writer. The writer complimented him “in such a way that you felt you had to continue, and maybe do better just to live up to the implied expectation,” Barry wrote of the encounter. “Here is this person whom I knew but slightly, who in our first meeting found a way to say, with such integrity, I love you.”

I read of this encounter only recently, in Embrace Fearlessly This Burning World. Barry was working on the book when he died, assembling essays that previously appeared in magazines, as well as several yet unpublished. Debra, his wife, helped Desser finish the collection; Rebecca Solnit wrote the introduction. The essays span three decades, revisiting once again the places common throughout Barry’s work—the Arctic and Anarctic; the California of his childhood—but lingering longer than his writing ever has in Finn Rock, Oregon, in the forests of the Cascades, his chosen home. 

The title of the collection comes from an essay he published in Orion the month we met, before the fires, in which Barry asks if it is “still possible to face the gathering darkness and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?” 

If he had a last word, perhaps it would be this—a question calling from the dark, turning toward the light.  

 

Sierra Crane Murdoch is the author of Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. 

Barry Lopez’s posthumous essay collection, Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, was published in May by Random House.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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