Barry Lopez: Nature Writer–and Much More
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!
Thanks for the recommendation, Sr Melannie! It seems from the excerpts you’ve quoted that Mr Lopez has a rare knack: a sensitivity to the issues of our time, and the ability to express that sensitivity in a prose that does not hector, but gently (and unmistakably) awakens us to the urgency of the issue at hand. (Plus, anyone who has ever entertained the idea of Cistercian/Trappist monasticism is, for me, a kindred soul!) I shall have to explore Mr Lopez’s books, and soon! Thanks again!
Good morning, Sister Melannie! My thoughts echo what Tom has so
eloquently stated above.
“Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.”
Right on, brother!
I had not heard of Mr. Lopez but will certainly look him up. He does seem to be a kindred spirit on many levels. Beautiful song and also loved the pics. Thank you for sharing.
Yes, why DO a “narrow group of people” with their limited way of knowing are “sitting at the table of decision-making” that effect all of us? Barry’s books are on my list to read. Thanks!
Wonderful reflection Sr. Melannie!
I like the Lopez quote: . . . 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. Our political conversations are so in need of elders.
I too loved the music and photos. The Native American people have great respect for “the elders” and their wisdom. In Maine, I live close to a Passamaquoddy Reservation, and see the ways the elders are respected. Storytelling is important to them, and to see and hear a native storyteller is an entrancing experience not to be forgotten.
This is truly an inspiring reflection. Lopez captured my heart. I pray for more elders for our nation.
The song was a perfect fit. Thanks for all of your inspiring messages.
Wow! I like Mr Lopez’s insight and quotes. Much to ponder. Looking good Sister Melannie!
The music and grand pictures are like going on a great vacation in your easy chair. Thanks. I wonder why a convent would have 40 alpacas??
Dear Sr. Julie,
One of the Sisters’ ministries is their White Violet Center for Eco-Justice. The 40 alpacas are part of that ministry. They are raised for their valuable wool. The Center also has 150 laying chickens, a 7 acre organic garden, an orchard, bee hives, berry patches and a farm store. They conduct educational tours–especially for children. You can visit their website spsmw.org. for more information. It’s a beautiful place! Melannie
I especially love the pictures of you with the alpacas! Do you know what the baby’s name is? How adorable!
Sometimes it seems to me that we are divided into (at least) two camps: those who are seeking greater oneness with all of creation and want to help preserve and serve, and those who are only concerned with short-term goals that make money at the expense of health and the environment. I know it’s not that simple and our choices drive some of the sad situations in our world, but I hope we all can care enough to move more toward oneness and be willing to make the sacrifices and changes needed.
Thank you for reflecting on this topic!
The baby’s name is Providence Jean Raphael. Like a royal baby, she has several names! Melannie
Love this meditation and thank you. I wrote down to remember, “Lead a life that helps” by Barry Lopez.
Touched by the alpacas, music, and photos!
I visited an alpaca farm in Michigan and they became my friends as I fed them. They are so friendly and tame. Openness to the new in life is key!
I enjoyed the quote about Leaders and Elders. Very wise.
BEAUTIFUL music and wonderful with the video. Thank you for all your music choices.
We read your beautiful blog this afternoon while sitting on our back porch
gazing at our peaceful “landscape”. We have an overgrown back yard with an old vine covered wooden fence and lots of Milkweed. Three Monarch butterflies have recently emerged from their chrysalis and Fritillaries and Zebra Long-wings are busily laying eggs on our Passion-vine. The sky is blue, the pool water is warm and our two little dogs are periodically chasing our resident squirrel up and down the fence. The pictures that accompanied the lovely musical selection caused us to reflect on past family vacations. We are so blessed in our old age. I’ve often said that all any of us have are our stories.
I just looked at my summer reading list and discovered that “Horizon” by Barry Lopez was at the top of my list!