“I, SNOW LEOPARD is both a lyric and an elegy. It is easy to imagine its lines being loudly hailed in whatever country the poem finds itself in. It’s publication comes at a time when people everywhere have begun to wonder what a voice like this, suppressed for centuries, wishes to say now, in this moment when the Snow Leopard’s human brothers and sisters find themselves side by side with him. Imperiled.” Barry Lopez
Happy New Year, everyone! In honor of Barry’ Lopez’s passing on Christmas Day, I’m reposting my previous Books Can Save a Life writings about him. I wrote the following post on April 16, 2016, after Lopez visited Rochester, NY:
Barry Lopez came to Rochester this week to receive “The Art of Fact” award for literary nonfiction presented by The College at Brockport Writers Forum and M&T Bank.
If you’ve been following my blog, you know that Barry Lopez is one of my heroes, not quite at the level of Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, but close. (See my blog’s header quote.)
Lopez is one of the very best nature writers, and if you love animals and wildlife, you’ll love his nonfiction books, essays, and short stories. He has travelled to 90 countries and has a tremendous respect for the animal world and the many indigenous peoples he’s come to know.
I wasn’t familiar with either the poet or the poem, but Lopez said that when he found out “I, Snow Leopard” had been published in Asia and Europe, but not in the United States, he had to set things right.
He felt that it was vitally important that the American people hear the words of the snow leopard in this poem. So he saw to its publication here, and wrote the foreword to the English edition.
Jidi Majia, a member of the indigenous Nuosu (Yi) people who live in the mountains of southwestern China, has won numerous literary awards. As far as I could tell from what I found online, few of his poems have been translated into English.
Majia’s poem is written in the words of a snow leopard, which is viewed by the Nuosu as a wisdom keeper, a being with “biological authority,” according to Lopez.
He told us that when he first began traveling the world and exploring, in his thirties, he viewed wild animals in an amateur, superficial, childlike way, until he learned to embrace the much more refined view held by native peoples.
A poem is a door anyone can walk through, Lopez said, and this poem is the mysterious and elusive snow leopard’s expression of grief and a warning to human kind: “Do not hunt me any longer.” Human violence toward animals puts everyone in peril, animals and humanity alike.
Before Lopez began, he said he wasn’t worthy to read “I, Snow Leopard,” but he’d try. He said that, as far as he knew, we’d be the very first American audience to hear the poem.
We listened to this exclusive reading in the soaring space that is the chapel in Rochester’s Temple B’rith Kodesh. “I, Snow Leopard” is beautiful, haunting, simply expressed and accessible even to listeners not accustomed to hearing poetry.
After the reading Lopez answered questions and spoke informally and earnestly. As we listened, the audience seemed to be hanging on his words. Here are some direct quotes I managed to scribble in my notebook:
“Each soul is essential to the warp and weft of the universe.”
“I want to see people come alive.”
“We know what to do and we have to do it now.”
Fixing our world “will take people of great courage. People like you. Because Washington is not doing it.”
“We should be holding hands.”
“The only thing that really matters is to be in love.”
I wrote down the following words, too, but I don’t recall if they are from the poem or if they are Barry Lopez’s words. I believe they are both:
“There is no other place for any of us to go.”
“I, Snow Leopard” is available on Amazon. Barry Lopez told me it is also to be published in a future issue of Orion Magazine.
If you’d like to read Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams, his nonfiction work about the Far North that won the National Book Award, is a great book to start with. I haven’t yet read Of Wolves and Men, but when I saw the mesmerizing cover photo of a wolf on display at the reading, I added it to my to-read list.
Lopez writes fiction, too. I especially liked his subversive collection of short stories, Resistance, which he wrote shortly after 9/11, about surveillance and “parties of interest” to the government.
If you want to know more about the fascinating snow leopard, Peter Matthiessen’s memoir, The Snow Leopard, is a great read.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with Ben Stiller and Sean Penn, is one of my favorite movies. Watch it. You might spot a snow leopard.