In the face of unprecedented and inevitable environmental calamity, sounding warnings is no longer enough. We visited with Barry Lopez in the wilds of Oregon to reflect on ethics, hope, death, and the importance of good people in times that are not.
This interview is from issue 3 of The Alpine Review.
Nobody writes the wild like Barry Lopez. More specifically, nobody writes of how the wild entangles us, teaches us, is threatened by us and can care for us, like him. His 1986 book Arctic Dreams showed that the land laid bare what science hadn’t yet told us. Lopez’s words in that book, as in all of his work, are an instrument capable of both precise, intimate, specific measurement, and vast, sweeping views of incomprehensible beauty, illuminated by the piercing endless light of the tundra. The questions he sets out to answer are questions we could all spend our lives trying to answer:
“How do people imagine the landscapes they find themselves in? How does the land shape the imagination of the people who dwell in it? How does desire itself, the desire to comprehend, shape knowledge?”
In the three decades since that foundational environmental text — only his second book after the equally vital 1978 Of Wolves and Men — Lopez has traveled to every corner of the globe, to observe and to learn from nature and from the indigenous peoples whose fates are so entangled with the landscapes themselves. He has produced several works of fiction and fables (most famously Crow and Weasel), essay collections, and an autobiography (Crossing Open Ground and About This Life).
As we sit on the deck of his guesthouse in Oregon’s Willamette Forest, where the McKenzie River snakes along the west slope of the Cascade Mountains, he tells us about the book he is working on. He’s three drafts in, but not even his editor has seen a word. He delivers manuscripts to her by hand, and tells her not to open them. The book will be, he says, “about geography, and various arrangements of space and time, that create hope or destroy hope.” An “autobiography of a journey,” as he calls it.
For decades, this forest has been the home base from which Lopez has ventured into the world’s most challenging and least knowable landscapes. He’s shown us the shed here where he keeps the archives and records of these journeys, carefully preserved. Now, as he’s just told us over breakfast, it’s not just a bum knee slowing down the outside adventure; it’s another, interior landscape, new to him but callous in its entropy — one he’s seen friends around him visit often enough. He has prostate cancer in its advanced form. This is not a fact that he treats with great lament, but it makes his questions more specific — questions of purpose, of task, of mission. He presses a typewritten list into my hand of things he hopes to get done in the next year. An essay for Granta. Exhibitions. Forewords. A broadside. Public events. I fold it and slip it into my pocket.
Before we turn the recorder on, we’ve spoken for a night and a day. He hasn’t been able to hike as much as he would like — his wife Debra Gwartney takes us on a trudge through the acres surrounding their home — but he does drive us to a stunning waterfall, where a couple of kids are tying a slackline over its crest, much to his frustrated bemusement. The woods round these parts now are full of slackliners and mountain bikers. Portland’s only a couple of hours away. As we pass a quiet bend in the river on the way back, he slams on his brakes. “Did you see it?” he asks me. He puts the car in reverse. Too late. It’s gone. There was a deer, he says, just standing, right there, in the middle of the water, completely calm.
In a 2005 appreciation in The Guardian, Robert Macfarlane warmly stated that “it is hard to imagine Lopez ever smiling.” He means this as a kind of compliment — his writing, packed with urgency and cries for consideration, has been read by some as sermonic. But the man himself is not. In the time we spend talking, there’s as much joy as there is rage. Matters may be urgent, but the things that matter, he tells us, against the impossible stakes of the planet’s own entropy — home, comfort, community — are timeless.
You write about places that are relatively untouched by the human hand. Of course, nothing’s untouched, but there’s an idea of land being at least unspoiled. In capturing these places, you make them a known place. There’s a danger in that; there’s got to be some sort of care and obligation when you write about these spaces.
There is, and it can take a long time to learn how to do the right thing. I have been scrupulously honest in nonfiction. I never make anything up, but some thirty years ago, I did a story about the Mojave desert, an essay called “The Stone Horse.” As part of the research I was given directions to find a ground glyph of a horse that was probably six- or seven-hundred years old. I did find it, and I saw that it had been damaged, and when I wrote about it, I described it being in a place where it wasn’t. I felt that I had an ethical obligation to talk about it as a cultural artifact and how it might affect us, but not to provide an entry point for somebody. It’s just a small percentage of people, but they wreak havoc out of proportion to the numbers. It just takes one person to smash something. In traveling with aboriginal people, I’ve seen things that I would never write about, because it would serve nobody but bigots. We’ve already denigrated traditional people enough. We don’t need yet another story, particularly because we’re reluctant to write those stories about our own people.
I got a shock in 1987 when I was on an archaeological dig, way up north on Ellesmere Island, and a charter plane landed at the little abandoned RCMP post there. It was tourists, all with the same red parka on. They came to the little island where we were working, and I assumed that I was just an anonymous person working with these three archaeologists, but somebody came up to me and mentioned Arctic Dreams. A few minutes later, the tour group leader came up and said, “I don’t know how to properly thank you, I’ve been able to create a business because of this book.” He was out of Vancouver, and his entire business was taking people to these landscapes that I had described. The senior archaeologist on our group was angry about those people being there and the danger they presented to all of these exposed artifacts.
By finding the language to open up and elevate the landscape that you’re describing, you’re also extending an invitation to people who are attracted to it in the same way that they might be attracted to the description of a new sitcom or something like that, who say, “Oh this should be great, let’s go and do it.”
“Do it” being the key phrase.
“Let’s do the Arctic.”
That would be it. Check off a thing on their list. Frankly I’m in a quandary about what to do. I want to celebrate and pay homage, and respect the translators that I travel with, but I’m beginning to feel that I myself am a trespasser. I was with the Warlpiri people once in Woolowra [Australia]. A group of them were going to go up to a place in the Tanami Desert where a lot of aboriginal people had been killed at a waterhole. They had not been there in fifty years or so, but they were going to go and “clean it up.” I was flattered that they invited me to go with them, and I really wrestled with that invitation, but I finally decided that the best thing would be for them to go and come back and tell me about it. There’s a thing that I can’t quite get a handle on, about somebody like me who builds a life around these situations, and the reader doesn’t have any of those privileges. In that instance, I thought, I’m just not going to be comfortable being invited in to this very special set of circumstances and then talking to the reader about it. No matter how I ran it through my mind it felt like a violation.
I find myself less and less confident about what is ethically right for me as a writer. When I was a young man, I worked on a ranch in Wyoming. We packed people into the Teton wilderness area and remote parts of Yellowstone National Park, and I worked as a horse wrangler. There was an older man that I worked with who would come and do the cooking. His name was Bill Daniels. Somebody had flown him to New York once to act as an expert on a group of Shoshone people that were called Sheepeaters. They lived in the mountains, they subsisted entirely on sheep; they used sheep the ways plains people used buffalo. He knew all about them. One day it was just the old man and me in camp. He asked me if I wanted to go for a ride with him. We rode way off into the mountains, and he told me that there were many places that he could take me to that were storehouses, essentially, of Sheepeater cultural artifacts. I said, “Well you know, you’re getting on, Bill. Are you going to tell anybody where they are so people can inventory them or learn about the Sheepeater people?” And he said, “No, that would be knowledge I’m taking to the grave with me. It will come to nothing but ruin. It’s best left to molder and pass away in the places where these people put it.”
In our privileged, urban lives, we have a problematic relationship with land and wildness. We have a romanticized idea of authenticity and preservation that often means we should go nowhere near something. There is of course often an ethical obligation to not go near, to respect, to stay away. But also, it seems vital for humanity that we do know and connect with land at a profound level. How do we do both of those things simultaneously?
I think you can. When you travel in Alaska, it all looks pristine to you, or much of it does, but then you realize: people have been living here for thousands of years, but it appears undisturbed. That’s because their intercourse with it is at the level of the human, not at an industrial level. Once you have industrial logging, industrial mining, that leaves noticeable scars, and seems to us, ethically, to be more than is necessary. It’s very damaging, and it’s depressing to see. So if you draw a line around a piece of landscape and say, “This is a wilderness area,” it’s going to get an impact merely because it’s defined as a wilderness area. But you can go outside a designated wilderness area — you can go right over on that hillside [points over river] and there’d be many places where you’d be the first person that was ever there. It’s because it’s too steep to log, and now there are protections in place that would keep it from being logged. Pristine wilderness? You’re looking right at it, right there, a thousand yards away.
The dilemma that you describe though, I don’t know how to answer. I’ve entered a period in my life where I think so much of what I’ve seen and celebrated has been pulverized. My own effort to understand what’s there and to try to communicate it to a reading audience, I don’t know anymore what the point of it is. I’ve made an effort over the past ten years to insert myself in places that are truly desecrated — in the Middle East, places like northern Sumatra that were devastated by tsunami, desertification. If you took aerial photographs over the past sixty years, you’d see the Sahara moving south, where there once was greenery. So all of these changes, it seems a juggernaut. The momentum is something impossible.
So at this point in my life I’m very, very interested in talking to other writers who work in the world that I do — Elizabeth Kolbert, Bill McKibben, David Quammen. What is it that we’re supposed to be doing now? We’re all reporting on dire straits, and is that what we should be doing? I just don’t know. It’s much more complicated than it was thirty or forty years ago.
Or is it the same complication as thirty or forty years ago, extended and amplified? What was being written about then was a warning about what was coming. Now you might not have been writing about climate change…
Right. Well McKibben was.
Yeah, he was. But in Arctic Dreams, there’s no mention of climate change as a concept, because it wasn’t one. But do you think that also creates more of a challenge? If we’re looking at something like Arctic Dreams, we’re thinking about it in terms of humans’ direct impact on the land. The idea of Alaska or the Arctic as a frontier or a wilderness that you could leave alone; people would live down here and would leave that to remain pristine. But now, we see that even your behavior as a human in a city, or completely on the other side of the world, can impact it in the same way, which has complicated the situation. To be ecologically ethical doesn’t require you to act well in the wilderness, it requires you to act well all the time.
Everywhere, yes. I can go back to my years in university and recall the emotional compulsion to act in the world. I had very conventional ideas, I think, and very little exposure outside of the world that I was raised in, which at Notre Dame was Christian, white, middle class. Beyond that, I just didn’t know very much, but I intuited that I didn’t. My impulse when I graduated was to get out of the comfortable. I think many of us, when we turn around and look over our lives, we’re unconsciously colonizing the past. We tend to go back and say, I always wanted to do this, when in fact you didn’t have that idea until you were thirty-five or something. I did know that I wanted to help; that impulse to serve was very strong. I came that close several times to joining the Peace Corps. I was too young and naive to recognize that the problems that I would go overseas to address were right there in my backyard, but they didn’t have the allure of the other. They had the opposite thing, which was the misery of commonplace banality and ordinary trouble. I had this naive young man’s idea of going to other countries and helping them build waterways and clean water and all that. And it’s laudable, but somehow I just never quite stepped into it. What I did instead was continue to write and then, at some point, I realized that that’s what I was — I was a writer.
For a while, until 1981, I was also a landscape photographer, but I couldn’t manage both of those sensibilities, so I continued to write in these two forms that we call fiction and nonfiction, and I understood enough to know that the foundation in nonfiction is factual truth, and the foundation in fiction is emotional truth. When we talk about the evocation of place, the ethical issues are different for the fiction writer and the nonfiction writer. The fiction writer is freer to deal with the mythos of the culture in which she or he is writing. Even to the point of magical realism, you can bring in components to heighten the drama of the human situation in a particular place. But you can’t do that as a nonfiction writer.
There is a kind of nonfiction that is not simply reporting. I don’t know what the terms are, but there is a kind of nonfiction writing that is acutely sensitive to the use of language, employs music in the structure of sentences, and is lyrical without trying to be lyrical; it’s not heavy-handed lyricism. That’s a particular kind of nonfiction, and it’s distinct from what I would call journalism. I have done journalistic pieces, and that’s a tradition that I honor, but I have a different latitude to employ with creative nonfiction.
And so, the question of what you should be doing as a writer that I mentioned before, talking to my colleagues, What should we be doing now? We’ve never been here before. We know that human life all over the planet is seriously threatened by global climate change, ocean acidification, methane gas coming out of the tundra. We know all of these things, and it doesn’t seem things will go well for us. So if you’re in that world of journalism, you can see a way to approach it, or if you are strictly in the world of fiction, you can see another way, like Cormac’s The Road — not that anybody could write like him, but the possibility to create a book like that as a response to the moment is there. Or David Quammen writing Spillover — here’s where we are, with regards to zoonotic disease and more of it is probably coming.
What does it mean to be a writer today? What are you supposed to do?
Traditionally storytellers in traditional societies are just another person in the community. The storyteller isn’t what we need, what we need is the story.
I gave a talk once at the Athenaeum in Providence, Rhode Island, and I asked the man who was my host, what is it that Emerson and all of these people did on a Sunday afternoon at the Athenaeum? Did they talk about politics, or did they talk about science, or did they talk about sports? What was it that made these talks so much a part of cultural memory for us? And he said they just elevated — they brought the level of the conversation up. And I reflected on that and thought, well, that’s what I want.
Here’s what I’ve been given: I wasn’t given a keen understanding of psychological drama in a corporate boardroom, but I do know some other things. What you know as a writer is that the metaphor is not the important thing; you choose the metaphor that you feel most comfortable with in terms of accessing vocabulary, syntax, anecdote. You choose the place where you’ve got a lot of stuff to work with. But you can write about justice and truth and beauty, the things that you’re seeking, using any number of metaphors, and the audience will be any number of people depending on their predilections. It’s not important for you to reach everybody, that’s not going to happen. That’s why we have libraries. But there is no such thing as a definitive text. It’s the height of hubris to say that you’ve written the definitive text, and the height of stupidity to say that you’ve read it. I mean, how much can you know to be able to say that this book says it all? No book says it all.
You’re talking about Quammen, Kolbert, McKibben. Maybe individually you could all ask, “What impact is my work having?” But as a body of work of a certain period of time that is actively and clearly saying a broad sweep of important things, that’s elevating something surely?
Yes. And part of the idea behind the establishment of our collection at Texas Tech is that they would make an effort to bring the papers of all of those people together, because they all communicated by letter. If you go into my papers, there are dozens of letters to [Gary] Snyder and [Peter] Matthiessen, to my friend David Quammen, and back and forth between McKibben and me, Annie Dillard and me. So, for a scholar who’s trying to ask what happened after 1965 in the way we wrote about place, McKibben’s papers are there, Quammen’s papers are there, my papers are there, Gary Nabhan, his papers are there, we’re hopeful that Elizabeth Kolbert’s papers will end up there. So a scholar could go there and be reading not only manuscripts and notebooks — all my field notebooks are there — but they can also be going through reams and reams of what these people were writing to each other, and that speaks perfectly to what you’ve emphasized about the communal effort. Orion magazine is the same way. Orion has been insistent on the issue of community since its inception, and I for one would rather be in that community of people than trying to set myself up as an authority about anything.
But to go back to this question we’re all three trying to wrestle with: What are you supposed to do? You know, I consider my physical condition now, and I know that it’s right there in front of me that I’m not going to be able to take three weeks and dive into the ice in Antarctica anymore. I can’t manage that. The last time I camped in a cold camp, meaning you have no source of heat, you’re just working at thirty below and it’s thirty below in the tent until you turn on the cook stove, I can’t do that anymore. The last time I did was in 1999, when I wrote twice in my journal, do not ever try to do this again. I wrote it again, because I knew, six months later, I’d say, Ah, y’know, it wasn’t that bad.
The body has no memory for that kind of pain.
No. But I can’t do that anymore. I can’t go out and report. I wrote a piece about why, in my life, it seems that I’ve never been at the center, that I’m always at the edge. I’m peripherally located. I mean, look where I live. Why do I do that? I said that I think it’s necessary to have people out on the edge calling back to us about what’s coming. There were times when I was a young writer when I thought things would be so much easier for me if I lived in New York and had the networking going instead of being out here, but because I was out here, I saw things that I never would have seen living at the cultural center of New York or Chicago or Toronto or Sydney or whatever.
It’s on my mind that the way in which I can be useful as a writer is changing rapidly right now, and my speculation about it is that I’ll write more fiction now than nonfiction. I’m not really comfortable with this notion of a public intellectual, but I also understand that that’s a term that’s applied to me. And I’m wary of it because it’s the first step to setting yourself up as an important person, and I don’t think you write well when you think you’re indispensable or important. But after fifty years of writing largely what other people think about situations, I’ve had fifty years of exposure to those situations, so it does make some sense to me that it’s alright to be a bit more autobiographical in the work than I have been. And this book that I’m working on is far and away the most autobiographical work that I’ve ever done.
If you take Bill McKibben at his word on climate change, and I do, we’re past the point where we can stop what’s coming. How do you write or engage with hope when there is that knowledge looming over us? We can’t fix it anymore, if we ever could.
Comfort. If you can understand what I mean when I say that when I speak in public, I feel this obligation to elevate, I’m beginning to feel a parallel obligation to comfort. What in the world are we going to do? We’re going to do the same thing we’ve done from time immemorial, and that’s take care of each other.
So for you, or for me, we each have to address that question — alright, take care of each other — but what does that look like in my life? So you’re determined to create a manifestation, in the form of a magazine, that three men are sitting here agreeing absolutely, this is worthy work. I think this an invaluable insight for all of us. It’s like we’re tending a campfire and our determination is to keep the fire burning until they kill us.
I think you have to find ways to comfort people that they can believe in. My feeling when I speak is that, when I was young, I just would work from a few notes, but now I don’t stand up and speak in public without knowing what every word is going to be. I want to be very careful; I want to understand how far I can go without overstating the presence of darkness. I like to be right, right at the edge, and one extra sentence will kill it. What I want to see in an audience is people coming in in the state of confusion that all of us are in, and the state of hope that there’ll be an evening well spent. And when the curtain goes back and the proscenium is cleared, something starts to happen. You’re hearing your language used well; that’s elevating. You’re feeling, I hope, that I know you’re there, and that I’m not talking to myself or about myself, but trying to make something with you. I’m pouring this out, and I’ve crafted it, and I hope you’re moving into it and having your own thoughts at the same time. If people get up out of those seats and walk out, I can tell by body language that there is a sense of self-worth that is there that might not have been there. A person who has that sense of self-worth is capable of imagining things that are good for that person’s family, and basically good for the world. That’s that elevating thing. I think if the story or the talk in front of a group of people is structured properly, people will recall what it is they mean by their lives, and if they do that then they’re prepared to take that next step in their own imaginations.
For somebody like Rebecca Solnit who has a very real sense of anger in her work, what resonates most with me is when she goes to those places of hope at the heart of disaster. You may not be able to fix what’s wrong with the world — of which there is so much — but you can find the points of humanity and see those small moments of resistance or small moments of construction. As a species, there’s still hope there.
Absolutely. When you consider again this notion of a community, consider these three people sitting on a deck, we’re all earnest about doing good work in the world, so we feel a camaraderie. I feel that camaraderie, you know, with Pico [Iyer] for example, or with Jon Krakauer, or with Quammen — people that by now are mostly friends. And I like to think that if I don’t know what to do as a writer, Rebecca knows what she’s good at and she’s doing it. William Merwin, the poet, said to me once, “People are always talking about the writers who influenced us, and rarely are they right.” The people that most influence you are hardly ever noticed by critics, because the influence is you read somebody, and you see how they take their topic and their characters and their narrative skills and use them to create an effect, and you say to yourself, with my materials and my language, I want to do it as well as that person does what they’re doing. So the fact that Rebecca’s focused on what people can do in a disaster, I’ve had that feeling. I had that feeling in Banda Aceh, a complete disaster, and yet I met capable people everywhere I went. They weren’t government people, they weren’t even a lot of the time NGO people — although, I do think NGOs are the best model at the moment for what it is we’re trying to do to improve social organization and administer justice and the rest of it. Groups like Mercy Corps, that’s about the best we can do at the moment. But if you don’t consider yourself indispensable, you can go through periods when you are just not quite sure how to manage what you do in a world that is changing so rapidly. You can’t have the same response to the world as a writer today that you might have had in the middle of the nineteenth century. There’s too much changing too quickly.
But wasn’t there always too much changing too quickly?
I don’t think so. You could be in a cosmopolitan environment hundreds of years ago and not really have to deal much with what was going on in other countries. Or there was economic upheaval, the black plague, or social disruption. I don’t know enough history to know, but I don’t think there was an endgame in play. And we’re talking about an endgame, and trouble we brought on ourselves.
And as human beings engaged in the world, with the information we now have at our disposal, there’s little we can say we aren’t able to know about what’s happening if we choose to know it.
When you talk about going to Jordan and Israel, and post-conflict spaces, do you feel that a more overt politics has made its way into your work or your thinking, or has it been there all along?
I think the politics has been there all along, such as it is. My book Resistance was certainly triggered by the darkness that came with the Bush administration. But I think for me as a writer, it’s not a forte. I wouldn’t deliberately try to have a political edge to what I was saying, because I don’t know that I’d be any good at it, and I know other ways to go about suggesting a politics that seem to work better, that are less polarizing. The amazing thing about McKibben is that he doesn’t alienate people; he manages to talk about something, a topic that polarizes, in such a way that people aren’t polarized. It’s a gift of his.
Ultimately I just want to continue to be of some kind of use. Working with the San Francisco MOMA and the National Museum of Wildlife Art, working with students and faculty and administration at Texas Tech, making sure that my papers get into the collection so scholars can see all of the people that influenced me, and how we all influenced each other and where these ideas came from, and writing prefaces for younger people whose work I think is important. They seem to me to be opening up the possibility for political discussion. I don’t think I could do that, but I want to support what they’re doing, because we’re all the same tribe of people all over the world; we’re earnest in our belief that it is possible to create a just world. Somehow we see or imagine the evidence for it, and that keeps us going, just to know that somebody else is working like you are.
I said to a friend the other day — it’s one of those things where you say something quickly, it was that question of, What are we supposed to be doing? — and what I said was, “To comfort the wounded and undermine the strategies of the selfish.” There is a group of people that are fundamentally selfish, What’s in it for me, me, me, me, the whole me thing. More money for them is more heartbreak for Third World people. I want to undermine that. Not destroy it or burn people at the stake, just unhinge it. I know capitalism is such a whipping boy, but at the stage at which it is practiced in the modern world, it’s lethal.
When writing about indigenous communities throughout the world as the privileged western writer, even with the trust and invitation of those communities, how do you go about it so as not to be imposing or condescending or imperialist?
I think I’m fully aware that it’s not possible for me to understand what it is that I’m describing, and that I’ll make mistakes. I’m too naive about systems of economy and I don’t have the specificity in anthropological terms to hold myself or present myself as any kind of expert. But I’m not trying to do that. What I’m trying to do is to say, Remember these people? Don’t forget them. You’ve written them off, but many of them know way more than you do. Ask them. And that’s about as far as I’m going.
If somebody in a village says, “Oh I remember that white fella was here, and he wrote about us and he got a couple of things wrong,” that’s okay with me. I’m doing the best that I can. When you begin reading a book of nonfiction, I think you make a decision at some point: can I trust this person? If you write in a condescending way toward the reader, that’s less than good, because eventually the reader will resist. You’ve got to get past a level of skepticism that allows the reader to say, “Well I actually know about this and that is wrong.” But the tone of voice here and the general evidence of conscientious and thorough research is sufficient for me to say, “Ah, too bad you got that little mistake there, but on you go.” Whereas if you discover somebody’s gotten something wrong and their voice is condescending and imperial, I’ll tell you about indigenous people, you’re not going to read two pages of it. I can’t explain one group of people to another group of people; that notion is absurd. But I can create an interest or abet an interest that people might have in things different from themselves. We’re at a stage now where we’ve got to have a lot of different people at the table making these decisions, more than just the ones that say the chairs belong to them. We’ve been there too long and the price now is too high.
What have you found most difficult to write about?
My childhood. Technically difficult, it’s my childhood. I did a piece a couple of years ago which was about four-and-a-half years of traumatic sexual abuse. The only reason I really wanted to write about it was to make common cause with people who had been through that, or people who loved somebody who had been through that, to open it up. I didn’t see it as being about me — I was the subject of the essay but I was also the person writing the essay, and what I found difficult was I would always seem to get too close, too far, too close, too far, too close. I couldn’t set that point of distance or put forward perspective. I usually take a manuscript through five or six drafts, and there it was about eleven drafts.
With that piece, did you find yourself more concerned about readership and audience than you would be with anything less connected to you?
No, not really I don’t think. I write for the same audience all the time. It’s the people who take their lives seriously and aren’t afraid of going deep, and who believe there’s something more to existence than self-entertainment and your job.
Was that a piece you felt you had to write for a long time, or did it present itself as needing to be written?
It really did just present itself. I was out on the coast with Debra and her father and his wife, and we were waiting in line for coffee at a coffee place like a Starbucks or something. And the first sentence of that essay just went right through my head and I thought, Oh my god, where did that come from? It was so powerful I reached around and got a pen off the cash register and wrote it out on a napkin and stuck it in my pocket. It was more to memorialize the moment than that I would forget the sentence. And I thought, Well, whatever this is, I know what it’s about, and here it is. I guess within a couple of years I wrote the piece, and thought it was fine. I brought it through four or five drafts, and I sent it to a magazine, and they said they wanted to publish it, and just before it went into galleys, I wrote them and said, “I’ve reread this piece, it’s terrible, and I have to withdraw it.” I knew it was wrong but I didn’t know why it was wrong, so I put it in a folder, and then over the next couple of years, I would have an insight and I would write it out on a piece of paper and stick it in that manuscript envelope.
Then I had an invitation to go to Penland, arguably the foremost arts and crafts school in the United States. Everybody who’s there is putting work in museums, you know; they’re really amazing. They’re working in metal and wood and glass and clay and painting and photography, so they established a writer-in-residence program and invited me to inaugurate that, and they gave me a house for two weeks so Debra could come. And they said, Look, you can do whatever you want, we just want you to be here for two weeks. So I took a class in metalwork to work at a coal furnace, with metal. I went around to all of the studios and I sat and posed for a drawing, and I made an effort to become involved and talk to people. There were electric conversations at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The place ran twenty-four hours a day. There were a lot of people who just worked at night. It was so stimulating that toward the end, I got that manuscript out and went to work on it. I probably took it through another three drafts, and then I gave it to Debra, who teaches memoir, and expected to get a kind of pat on the back I guess — because it’s a risky piece — and I thought it worked okay. And she finished reading it, and I came downstairs, and she said, “You’re going to have to go a lot deeper.” In the moment I was incensed, but I knew she was right. So I sat down and took a page and a half of notes and went back to work on the piece and then sent it to Chris [Cox] at Harper’s. More happened than I wrote in that piece, and some of it was in the draft that I gave to Chris. We were talking about it, and I said, “You know what, I’m going to write another piece, about the rest of it, let’s take that out, and I’ll finish the piece in a different way and then I’ll write a second piece.” So that’s where I am now. But I think without more outside help than I’ve had in the past, I wouldn’t have understood how to write the piece. A lot of people know about the abuse — that piece ended up in Best American Essays and Best American Magazine Writing, and it appeared in Irish Pages, in a German magazine in translation, in Italy in translation, so it got out a lot. I guess what I expected was a superficial reaction from some people saying, Well how can you write about polar bears and then write about this stuff? But I didn’t get that. I actually got people saying that they suspected something like that. I don’t know why. I did a show with Terry Gross, Fresh Air, and she asked, “What do we not want to talk about, what is going to make you uncomfortable with the subject?” And I said, “Oh, you know, we’re both professional people, let’s go where you think you want to go with your audience.” The only thing I’d ask you is let’s not have any ‘Poor Barry.’ As long as we don’t go there, I can manage.” I’ve never listened to that show but I remember doing it and I know that the show had a major impact. I’d like to follow it up with another piece. The stuff I took out would be the culmination of the second piece.
Have you ever felt typecast as a writer?
Oh my God yes. I have to read that ridiculous “nature writer” term all the time, which is just, you know, it’s like black writer, woman writer, all the adjective writers. Everybody who’s categorized with an adjective is resentful about it because it diminishes what writing means. They don’t call John Updike a suburban writer. It’s insulting. It happened in my life that this kind of place was always safe for me, and I got to know it, and it stayed with me, and when I’m writing about things I often set them in situations like this because I know how to develop an emotional structure for what I’m trying to talk about. How to find my path. But when that term first came around, I remember people getting so exercised about whether this person is a travel writer or a nature writer.
They need to know which section to put it in the bookstore.
Yeah. That’s part of it. People mean it in a complimentary way, but when I’m going to go some place and speak and they’re going to put a poster up, that’s one thing I ask them to do: don’t use the term nature writer, use the term writer. Is a black writer a person who can only write about race? Or whose subject is race all the time?
You’re working on an essay about entropy and aging. You were telling me earlier about stopping at a fallen log on the road and pulling out the chainsaw to clear it. With both your knee injury and your cancer diagnosis, when I think about the physical labor it must take to exist in this kind of space and how bound up in it you have been for so long, beginning to lose that ability must hurt as much as losing one’s cognitive faculties.
It does. I actually woke up this morning and thought, I wonder if I’m depressed. Because I can feel that I’m not as active and enthusiastic at the moment as I usually am, and I think I’m just worn out with this knee. When you get older, it takes so much longer for something to heal, and I’m trying to make my peace with it and I’m not doing very well. I thought that whole period of abuse as a child was also a teaching experience. I mean, that’s a cliché, but it took a long while to work its way through. I was exposed to something and can say at a distance that, yes, it was awful but it was also a teacher.
So when I got the cancer diagnosis I thought, Well, this has got to be a teacher, and I’m going to have to figure out how to respond to it in that same way. So it’s too early now, just two years. I don’t know enough; I’ve not been depressed about it, I don’t think I’ve had a “Why Me?” thought. I’m of an age when this is what happens, and it just happens to be bad in my case, but it’s something I’m going to try to turn inside out. I haven’t gone anywhere with it yet, but in this piece I’m writing about deterioration, cancer’s not going to turn up there, because it’s too big. When you’re talking about the breakdown of your knees, that kind of thing, it doesn’t create the opportunity for people to feel sorry for you, but cancer’s a different deal, so I’m not going to mention it. It’ll disrupt the way the piece will work. They’ll be thinking, Oh too bad for him, or something like that.
Another part, which is so obvious I don’t think I want to go near it, is that we have this cliché that humanity is a cancer on the earth. There’s some kind of potential there to understand what that accusation is all about once you have that cancer inside you. So I do want to write about it, but I expect that one day I’ll be having coffee some place — well I don’t have coffee anymore — I’ll be having tea some place and maybe a line will go through my head and I’ll say, Oh yeah, I remember this, and hope there’s a napkin and a pen there to write it down.
I want to learn from it, and I want to have enough time to get everything done that’s on the drawing board. It’s all the things that are on that list. Maybe I make that list up just to tell myself, There’s work to be done, don’t let this get to you.
Do you feel the cancer is at that stage where you actively have to fight within yourself to hold it off?
What I have is prostate cancer. One out of six men gets prostate cancer as they age, something like ninety-five percent get a benign prostate cancer. There’s a protocol for it; it’s called wait and watch, don’t do anything and just watch the PSA. And then for about five percent, there are a set of really aggressive prostate cancers. That’s what I have. When they discovered it, it had already metastasized into my bones and lymph system, so then it’s called metastatic prostate cancer. It’s a highly aggressive cancer that’s already gone, it’s already in the body.
When I met the oncologist she said, “Look, there’s no cure for this, but we can manage it.” And all of these locutions about battling cancer, defeating it, and surviving: I never have related to it, and now that I have cancer I relate to it even less, if that’s possible.
If I look at my childhood, people talk about being a survivor of child abuse, and I want to say, what are you talking about? Nobody survives. Something is taken from you that is forever gone. You don’t get it back. You don’t survive. But you manage. And where cancer is concerned, we all have cancerous tissue, that’s just the way it is. And for some, for reasons that nobody really understands, the cancer runs. In my situation, there was nothing and then there was everything. Within about eight days, we found out I had cancer, that it was extremely aggressive, that the prostate gland was completely riddled. So… You go from zero, don’t know don’t care, to uh-oh.
I think a lot of it is a part of the health bill for the industrial revolution, if it’s alright to put it that way. We never knew what was coming when we began burning things and putting so much carbon in the air, and developing pharmaceuticals and dumping them into groundwater. We just didn’t know what we were doing. To me, this is part of the health bill for this revolution. We’re going to make it better and it’ll be great, we’ll work it out. Okay.
When you face death, it’s like, okay, there’s a clock now. Does it change the way you look at what you’ve done or what you still need to do? Does it reframe things for you?
A little bit, but I don’t know if I really understand how. And I can’t separate it from being seventy. Maybe this is a period when you look back and say, well I did this work and there’s more work to be done, but I don’t know whether I would be feeling that if cancer weren’t part of the picture. Because I’ve been forced to slow down, I can’t help but think, well this is cancer, and I’m looking at a short horizon. But I know when I finish a piece sometimes, I think I’ll never write anything that good ever again. And when I finished Arctic Dreams, I thought, I’ll never manage a set of ideas this complex again; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And then, you go on, and that sense that you had about a book fades away, and then you go to work on something bigger.
That’s what I mean about colonizing the past — you go back and think it was a certain way, but actually you were not feeling good at all about finishing that book, and what was left for you to do. And I realized as I was growing older — it became a reality once there was a cancer diagnosis — it made more sense for me to say that, maybe, I had nothing to say anymore. And so without realizing it I began to think, I’ll finish this book and then that’ll be it for me. And a while later, I realized that was a very bad frame of mind to have, so an idea has developed over the last year for another big book. I feel now that if I don’t make it, then I won’t make it, but I’m going to plan for that until I can’t, until the pain becomes unbearable and I can’t get around. That’s what’s going to come, but until then I want to be at work. I don’t want to capitulate until I must, until I have to.
Next April, it’ll be fifty years of published work. I remember the day that I turned seventy and looked in the mirror and thought, Really? I didn’t think this was what seventy was going to look like when I was twenty. It seems to be better than being an old seventy-year-old guy!
It’s so reassuring to have friends who are working hard like you are. They go down like you do — divorces and parents with Alzheimer’s — and you talk to each other on the phone and you can feel the levels of defeat and depression, and then they get back on their feet. When there’s a group of you and you’re falling apart… that’s why I think a writer interviewing another writer can be a great conversation. You know there’s a group of people out there who idolize what you are, or what they think you are, and the other guy sitting across from you knows like you do that you’re lucky to be alive, that you can’t explain why the work is so well received, and how that’s not what’s making you tick anyway. When you interview each other, the questions are presented with the knowledge that the other person is not only not a superhero of some sort, but is fragile.
I’ve never met a genuinely great writer who wasn’t in some way fragile.
I think it goes with the territory. You’re always trying to rekindle your sense of amazement at the qualities of the world, in a conversation with the reader. Even if you never speak to the reader. But when somebody says, “I just write for myself,” I think this is the most concise definition of solipsism I’ve ever heard. Only a conversation with yourself, you know? No. You’re writing to complete yourself in other people; that’s your work.
Debra and I spent a week at a cancer help program in Bolinas, California called Commonweal. You’re sitting with other cancer patients, and you can talk in a language that you can’t talk with other people because you’re facing similar things; you can have conversations about hospice and other things that, in mixed company, nobody wants to hear. But the insights that came for me were along a very familiar line: how can we find the alternatives that break down the polarizing effect of most everything that comes up? Global climate change being a prime example. And I said, well, as is my way, I want to tell a story about something that happened many years ago on Admiralty Inlet, way up north off Baffin Island.
We were hunting out at the ice edge, and a storm came up; the wind that had started coming out of the north was coming out of the south. Big transverse cracks in the ice were opening up, so we had to break camp and cross forty miles of ice to get back to land really fast. We came to an open lead and it was a lot of water. We were just on snow machines, we didn’t have anything that would float along with us. The approach these guys took was, everybody stood at the ice edge, and everybody said what they knew about this situation, and then everybody did whatever they wanted. There was no consensus, there was no spokesperson that said, “Here’s what we’re going to do.” Everybody was left to behave autonomously. Which is very much a part of the way traditional societies behave. They’re able to combine community and autonomy in a way we just don’t seem to be able to manage; we end up with these grotesque expressions of personal autonomy and these phony communities. So when I told that story in the group, this woman said, that’s so interesting because we’re trained with this idea of fight or flight. She said there’s a third alternative, and that’s gather. And I thought, right. You get together, and talk it through, but don’t make any joint decisions. Everybody does what they’re going to do.
As the day turns to late afternoon, our conversation meanders from here for some time yet. Debra brings us the first strawberries of the season, reminding him of their plans to go kayaking. We ask him for advice on where to hike in his forest, and where the good trailheads hide. Unfolding an old map for us, he sends us in the direction of Three Fingered Jack, a Pleistocene volcano that the mountain bikers haven’t found yet.
Months down the line, I call Barry on the phone to check some facts and check how he’s doing. “We talked about so many things,” he tells me. I still have the typewritten list he gave me, his list of projects for the year. I walk him through it, holding him to account. Some of them he’s done, some he had to let slide. The work, though, remains relentless.
“The way I describe the situation that I’m in,” he tells me, “it’s what happens when you lead a horse into a pasture. The first thing the horse notices is that there’s a fence, and the gate is locked. So you’re in there, but the fences seem to be very far away, and the pasture is lush, and maybe it might be okay to be here. After a while, the horse notices that the fences are a bit closer. That’s the reality. There’s nothing particularly terrifying going on at the moment, but the fences grow closer every day. I am aware that there’s a stop sign at the end of the road here, and I can almost see it, but I want to get a lot done before that happens.”
Art by Phillip Hua
Subscribe to Buckslip
Most Sunday afternoons (Toronto time), we’ll appear in your inbox with our links and what we think of them. Otherwise we’ll leave you alone.