Servant of Memory

An interview with Barry Lopez
This story is included in these collections
Barry Lopez (David Liittschwager)

Barry Lopez, winner of the National Book Award for Arctic Dreams (1986), a nonfiction account of his five years spent living with the Inuit people in the Canadian High Arctic, and author of numerous other books about nature and indigenous peoples, including Of Wolves and Men (1978), Crow and Weasel (1990), and Light Action in the Caribbean (2000), died on December 25, 2020. He spoke with assistant editor Griffin Oleynick for the Commonweal Podcast in August 2019 about his final book, Horizon (2019). This interview is adapted from their conversation.

Griffin Oleynick: Horizon is a magisterial work. It’s both a record of many decades of travel all across the globe—to places as remote as the Galápagos Islands, the Kenyan Desert, and Antarctica—as well as a reflection on your encounters with indigenous cultures. It also feels like your swan song. Why did you write it, and what do you want it to communicate?

Barry Lopez: The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, who passed away a few years ago, defined the writer as the “servant of memory.” I once asked him whether he understood the writer as the servant of his or her own memory, or the memory of his or her people? And he said, “Well Barry, it’s both!”

In Horizon I’m trying to remember the harm that has been caused by human beings and bring it to the foreground. Each day we listen to the news and think, “My goodness, are we never done with this?” If we don’t learn how to have a truly international conversation about global climate change, ocean acidification, and methane gas pouring out of the tundra, we’re a sunk ship. The trouble facing us is much larger than we’re willing to publicly discuss. It’s not just global climate change, but also the failure of democracy to defend itself against incursions by people whose primary goal is the accumulation of material wealth. That’s going to collapse, and then where will we be?

The only answer is that we will have to learn to help each other. I think the disaster that is coming will be overwhelming, and lots of people will not make it. But if we can find some way to encourage each other, to offer mutual assistance, a lot more of us will be able to figure out how to get through it. I’m nobody special, but I’ve been immersed in this stuff for a long time, and I wanted to articulate a sense of possibility, something in which people can place their hope. I don’t mean that as a Pollyannaish thing, but as a legitimate way of saying, “This, too, is us.”

GO: You highlight the key role played by the creative arts, especially music, in this project of cultural healing, of reassembling a broken world. And you write movingly about one instance in which a work of art helped you overcome a personal failure. Tell us about that.

BL: A number of years ago, I was working on an archaeological site in the Canadian High Arctic. We were excavating the former homes of people known as the Thule, who lived eight or nine hundred years ago. They’re the ancestors of modern Eskimos and Inuits.

One night, I decided to bring my Walkman to the site and play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which for me is one of the most beautiful pieces of music anyone in Western culture has ever produced. I thought of it as a way of conversing with the ghosts of the Thule, explaining to them what we in the West are like, what our culture had achieved, and then asking, “Well, what about you?”

But I walked into a trap of my own making. I quickly realized that this was one of the most despicable, racist things I had ever done in my life. I felt a tremendous sense of shame, and after the first movement I shut the thing down, apologized, and left. This brought about a serious crisis of self-confidence. I lost faith in myself; I thought I was a fraud. I got stuck in a very bad place.

And then I heard a short piece of music, Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten,” just six or seven minutes long. It’s a kind of stand-your-hair-on-end tribute, and somewhere in those six or seven minutes I understood both the nature of my trespass and the tragedy of my failure. I can’t today explain how the piece of music helped me put things back together inside myself, but some years later, when I had the chance to meet the composer, I expressed my gratitude.

Love can come brilliantly to life in the non-human world, in nature, and that speaks to the fact that we’re all in this together.

One of the things that’s difficult to live with in America is the emphasis we put on the self and on the achievements of the self. This is counterproductive. In order to make a more just world, it’s necessary to cooperate. That’s something that’s struck me very forcefully among native peoples that I traveled with. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I do not want to be something other than what I am. I don’t want to join some other culture. But I do want to learn from other cultures, especially about the nature of God and the divine.

Theologians talk about agape, the love of the divine in another human being. I have been steeped for many years in some kind of intercourse with a non-human world, and for me it too is characterized by this love, by agape—the sense of a world larger than the self. Love can come brilliantly to life in the non-human world, in nature, and that speaks to the fact that we’re all in this together.

When I travel, it has also been my habit to ask native peoples about their use of the word “storyteller.” What does the word mean? What kind of a person is a storyteller? What is their function? In the Inuktitut language, the word is isumataq. In English, it means something like “the person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself.”

In other words, it’s not about the writer. It’s not about the artist. It is about the music, the photograph, the painting, the choreography, the novel, or whatever that thing is that makes the fundamental mystery of life clearer for its audience. It has to enhance our sense of our own self-worth, of being important, of not being marginalized, because we live in a world where many people are left behind, without the wherewithal to protect themselves.

GO: You mentioned theology, and that’s in part a reflection of your Catholic educational formation. How has that shaped your interests and career?

BL: I went to a Jesuit high school in New York City, and I went on to get two degrees at the University of Notre Dame. But when I finished my master’s degree, I thought, “I must have missed the whole thing!” I was “educated” in one sense, but I didn’t know very much about the world because I went to school with people just like me: male, middle-class, Catholic, etc.

So I scratched my head figuratively and said, “How in the world do you think you can call yourself an educated person, when everything you’ve been exposed to is all about you?” That’s what pushed me out of my middle-class comfort; I wanted to go and find out what was happening in the rest of the world.

I also began to believe that there was goodness and wisdom out in the world, and that the strictures that are sometimes rigidly enforced in a Christian education or upbringing can be short-sighted. I don’t think you can find wisdom the way the Desert Fathers did, isolating themselves from humanity and developing a pure relationship with the divine. For me the divine began to be that which is found only in the company of other people—and especially in people not like you!

I once considered becoming a monk. I knew about Gethsemane, where Thomas Merton was, so I went there to sort of get the lay of the land. And it was an elevating experience, to come down in the morning and see those muddy boots lined up outside the chapel and all of those men in immaculate white clothes, with their farm jackets hung on hooks.

At first I thought, “This is it for me”: physical labor, contemplation, seeking enlightened connection with the divine. But I got a very clear message that it wasn’t, that there was something else out there for me.

GO: You conclude Horizon with a meditation on a religious experience you had on a road outside a folk chapel at Punta Arenas, in far southern Chile, nearly thirty years ago. What happened that day, and what does it mean for you now?

I felt that a door had opened, and in that moment I chose not to go through it.

BL: That day was, and is, a mystery for me. I was driving slowly from Punta Arenas to Port Famine, and it was beautiful—broken skies, the kind of weather in which you would expect to see a rainbow. I just took it in, this panorama of the Tierra del Fuego, looking out from an altitude of eight hundred feet above the coastline.

I was in ecstasy, and I looked up on this dirt road and saw a man walking toward me. I was so riveted by him, I just took my foot off the accelerator, and let the vehicle roll to a stop. As he was walking toward me, determined, and not paying any attention to me a rainbow opened up above his head. I paused, wondering “What’s going to come now?”

I had that feeling that it was a holy thing. I felt that a door had opened, and in that moment I chose not to go through it. I understood the door as an invitation: to step into the wordless, to step into the evaporation of the self, to become one with what lies on the other side. It’s kind of a Bodhisattva thing: you refuse to go into the holy alone, because you want everyone to go in.

I went on from that encounter to the chapel, and I was overwhelmed with tenderness for the people there. They were desperate, in one way or another, asking the Blessed Mother for intercession. They were pinning up milagros, or miracle votives, which represent their plea for succor, for an easing of their burden.

What came up out of me were feelings of compassion and tenderness, the feeling that you would just embrace everyone there to say, “Don’t be afraid, we’re in this together. We will all be taking care of each other, and we are in the presence of the divine here”—as ordinary as that moment was, with simple benches in that little chapel, with people of no material means.

And it was out of that feeling of tenderness that I thought, “What is out there that is calling to us, what is the music that is coming from the far side of the horizon? What is it saying to us?” So I wanted to conclude Horizon with the reader asking themselves: “What am I to make of this?” The accumulation of material wealth, which was never a good idea, is over now. What we’re talking about is survival, and the elevation of the spirit, cooperation, and the cardinal virtues of justice and compassion.

That, for me, is my particular road into the divine: driving alongside a fence, where on every fourth or fifth fencepost was a caracara bird sitting and watching me. Everyone has the path for them to enter the numinous landscape of the divine. Throughout my life, mine happened to be provided by wild animals. That’s just what I knew, and in some way it’s all I knew.

But that’s not some kind of promotion of natural history. It’s just a metaphor that I understand well enough to be able to write about with some kind of insight. Somebody else can do the same thing in cities, by having a greater sensitivity to their numinous qualities than I do. In the end, Horizon is just one book, and one person wrote it. And God willing, there will be another book from somebody else. And that book will open up the numinous for people who don’t have any interest in reading what I have to say.

Published in the February 2021 issue: 

Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor at Commonweal.

Also by this author
None of Us Faces Judgment Alone
This story is included in these collections:

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