An Interview With Barry Lopez
Throughout his many stories, novels and essays, Barry Lopez sensitively and beautifully portrays human relationships with each other, with the past, and with nature. Lopez is best known for a loosely connected trilogy of short stories. Spanning almost twenty years, it began with Desert Notes from 1976, followed by 1979's River Notes, and concluded with the third volume, Field Notes, published in 1994.
Despite the lapse in time between River Notes and Field Notes, Lopez does not believe that the trilogy has been brought full circle. "I don't think there is a circle," he says. "The way these books are linked is tenuous. I wrote Desert Notes when I was about twenty-four, and I wrote River Notes when I was about thirty-three, and the first draft of Field Notes when I was forty-seven, so that's a long stretch of time over which those books evolved.
"I knew when I wrote Desert Notes all those years ago that I was probably going to continue to look at the way landscape and culture were intertwined, and when I signed a contract with a publisher in 1975 to publish it, I was already working on River Notes, and I knew somewhere up ahead was the third volume," he continues. "I didn't know what it was, or even what it was called.
"When it finally came along it was very sudden and very clean. I wrote all of the stories between January and July of 1992. When I began thinking more about what I was trying to do with the stories, I began to rearrange them, but they resisted my doing that so they stayed in the order that they were written. I edited the book several times, and I think of Field Notes as a book and not just a collection of stories that are not closely linked," he explains, giving the impression that the stories within the single volume of Field Notes are more closely connected than the trilogy itself.
Lopez has spent most of his writing life studying the relationships between human culture and nature, a relationship he sees as becoming more complex over time. "When I went back and read Desert Notes for the first time in a long while, I felt an affection for my young self. I could see some of the things I was trying to address, and the way in which I went about it.
"Now, all these years later, I bring a different history to the work, to these stories. So I would say overall, from the time of Desert Notes through River Notes into Field Notes, the characters have become more complicated and the situations more complex."
The stories in Field Notes all have in common characters that are forced to deal with situations that are surprising, tragic, or harrowing. When the human characters struggle with their predicaments, an almost Divine guidance comes from nature. In "Introduction: Within Birds' Hearing", a man lost in the desert and nearing death from thirst is led to water by the song of a wren. Several wolverines in "Lessons from the Wolverine" explain to an astonished Alberta hunter why they do not want to be trapped. "Pearyland" is the sorrowful story of a wildlife biologist who discovers a place where dead animals come back to search for new bodies when the hunter prays after the kill. It seems as though Lopez is making a statement that nature and its mystical healing powers hold the key for humankind's future. Yet Lopez dismisses the notion that his observations about our relationship with nature provide any commentary about where we are headed as a species.
"I think it's presumptuous of me to say where we're going; it's much too large a topic for me to address in any realistic way. I think all I could do is offer an opinion, and everybody's got an opinion," he says before embarking onto one of his characteristic explanatory tangents.
"I grew up in a rural landscape in Southern California, I spent a lot of time in the Mojave desert as a child, so in those early years I came to look at the world in terms of those images," he begins. "I raised pigeons. The release of pigeons, the way they flew, and the way they described the air above me were the first ways I came to understand the complexity of life.
"Many years later when I had been through university and had been exposed to a huge range of ideas in Western culture, the logical outgrowth of that combination was that I began writing about those things that I was interested in, using the metaphors that I had been steeped in as a child. So, I went on to write about the Arctic for example [such as 1986's National Book Award-winning Arctic Dreams], or about wolves, and that was the primary level of my focus. But the larger issues were consistently drawing me. I think if someone were to read what I have written through the years, it would be clear that the issue I'm interested in is human dignity, and the nature of tolerance," he explains.
"I think wherever it is we are headed, I think I come circling back to the same question all the time, and that is: what is it that makes a worthy life? The supposition is that wherever it is we are, or we are going, a worthy life is essential, and a life led with moral intention is important."
Lopez faced this question as a young man when he considered becoming a Trappist monk, a sect that is Earth-centered and known for simplicity and hard work. Although Lopez decided that such a life was too easy for him, his spirituality remains evident in his work where nature is represented in an almost holy light. "I would say that I find a spirituality in life itself," he clarifies. "I'm not a person that draws a very sharp line between nature and something else. I think that there is this thing nature of which we are a part. I believe our culture is infused with nature in the same way I imagine nature is infused with culture.
"In other words, if you approach the world in a metaphorical rather than a literal way, you see it's possible to talk about the non-human world as though it were possessed of the same kind of complexity that we believe, say, is there in language in other dimensions of human culture. For us, in North America, [nature is] the oldest metaphor in story, and for us it remains an essential metaphor."
Lopez describes how he has changed as a writer over the last twenty-five years mostly in terms of his output. "When I was 25 I might have been writing as many as 20 or 30 articles or essays or books reviews a year. Now it's more like three to five. But, a higher percentage of the three to five end up in a magazine.
"Like every writer, when you look back twenty-five years ago you find a lot of stuff that you thought was a real barn burner when you were writing it, and go back to it the next morning, or two years later, and say, 'Oh my gosh, I'm glad I never published this!' he laughs. However, he claims that he has never cringed with revulsion when re-reading his earlier work -- the reason being, once the article or book has been signed off Lopez never looks back.
"I very infrequently read anything that I've written," he explains. "I'll look through it, I'll glance at it, but I don't read it. I'm more focussed on what is going on in my mind at the moment, than what I've done."
What exactly is on Lopez's mind at the moment is hard to tell, as he is very reluctant to comment on his current and future projects. "I don't think about those things very often. I think about what I'm interested in, in terms of 'real things' and how I'm going to approach those things.
"I don't have any place where I have to get. I feel privileged just to go on working."