It is hard to categorize the writer Barry Lopez. He has been labeled an essayist, novelist, humanitarian, environmentalist, ethicist, and “the nation’s premiere nature writer.” In his award-winning books, Arctic Dreams and Of Wolves and Men, he synthesizes personal observation, science, and indigenous ways of knowing. This reflection is largely based on an article on Lopez in America Magazine (Spring 2019) entitled “Ethical Landscapes: The Literary Terrain of Barry Lopez” by Vincent Miller.
Lopez, born in 1945, lived his early life in California and New York. He
received a Jesuit education at Loyola School in Manhattan and then attended the University of Notre Dame. He considered entering the Jesuits and, later, the Trappists, but he sensed this was not his calling. Although Lopez values the education he received, he also sees its limitations: it was almost exclusively based on the Western tradition. When he later lived in the Nanamuit Eskimo village, he wondered why these people’s notions of justice and their insights into the natural world “were never mentioned in the good schools I attended?”
For the past 50 years Lopez has lived in a remote area in Oregon where elk freely roam and where the dense Douglas fir rain-forest forms part of his backyard. He has also traveled extensively, having visited over 80 different countries. Here are a few of his key ideas:
* Americans have traditionally glorified the individual hero. He suggests it is “now the time for communities to become heroic.”
* The Calvinist tradition sees the natural world in opposition to sinful humanity. Lopez has tried to unite nature, community, and justice—in the tradition of Catholic individuals such as Peter Maurin, Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerto. He writes, that “the exclusion of landscape from the moral universe” constitutes a sin.
* He raises the question: why a “narrow group of people” with their limited way of knowing are “sitting at the tables of decision-making” that effect all of us? How can we include individuals (like indigenous peoples) in the decision-making process?
* Lopez says we need true “elders” as opposed to the traditional single charismatic leader. The leader’s motto is “follow me” whereas the elder’s is “no one left behind.” Elders are characterized by their inclination to listen more than speak, their capacity for empathy to understand what others are thinking, and their concern for the common good. (I thought: are these the qualities we look for when choosing our leaders?)
* As we head toward an ecological disaster, Lopez wonders “whether an unprecedented openness to other ways of understanding this disaster is not, today, humanity’s only life raft. Whether cooperation with strangers is not now our Grail.”
Let me conclude this reflection with a few more quotes from Barry Lopez:
+ “We cannot, of course, save the World because we do not have authority over its parts. We can serve the World though. That is everyone’s calling, to lead a life that helps.”
+ “Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.”
+ “Have we come all this way, I wondered, only to be dismantled by our own technologies, to be betrayed by political connivance or the impersonal avarice of a corporation?”
+ “The most intelligent thing we can do is love, not reason.”
For reflection and sharing:
Is there anything that stands out for you in this reflection? If so, what? Do you know why?
Have you read any of Lopez’s writings? If so, what have you read and what is your reaction to his writing?
What role does “landscape” play in your moral living?
How might you become more open to “other ways of knowing”?
PS: Thank you for your prayers for last week’s retreat at St. Mary-of-the-Woods. Over 100 Sisters of Providence made the retreat. They were beautiful women in every way! Special thanks to Sister Judy for inviting me to come and for taking care of so many of the details.
A Treat: The Sisters have about 40 alpacas. While I was there one of them, Cecilia, gave birth (via Caesarean) to a little girl. I saw the cria (baby alpaca) when she was only 8 hours old. Here are two pictures of me with baby… and with mamma… Thank you, Sister Mary, for taking me to see these two precious alpacas–and for taking these pictures!
Here’s a beautiful piece of music by Kevin Kern entitled “Remembering the Light.” With lovely pictures, this video (at least for me) exudes peace and elicits my wonder and gratitude for our earthly home.
I would love to hear from you. Please share some of your thoughts with us below. Thank you!