(Still) reading Barry Lopez

Stories…offer patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives…As long as it took for me to see that a writer’s voice had to grow out of his own knowledge and desire, that it could not rise legitimately out of the privilege of race or gender or social rank, so did it take time to grasp the depth of cruelty inflicted upon all of us the moment voices are silenced, when for prejudicial reasons people are told their stories are not valuable, not useful. Barry Lopez

About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez

Here is my third and final reposting of my Barry Lopez Books Can Save a Life writings, in honor of his passing on December 25, 2020:

In the introduction to his essay collection About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez tells of meeting a man on a plane who asked what words of advice he could pass on to his teen-age daughter, who wanted to be a writer. This is what Lopez said:

She must read, and her choices should be whatever she is drawn to.

She should read the classics, too, but she’ll have to work harder to find stories of heroism, love, and our noblest values that are written by women.

Second, she must “become someone” and “speak to us from within those beliefs.”

Third, he advised that she “separate herself from the familiar.” After exploring other places and meeting a diversity of people, she`ll know why she loves the familiar and share this knowledge through her writing.

Early on, Lopez felt he was noticed, accepted, and rewarded as a writer in part because he was white, male, privileged and well educated. If you read his work, you’ll find he is keenly sensitive to the fact that many voices haven’t been heard because they are different or not within traditional circles of power. He thrives on traveling to the far corners of the earth and seeking these people out –  artists, artisans, farmers, naturalists, explorers who live close to the land, indigenous peoples, and others.

I was mesmerized by an essay in About This Life, “Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire.”  An Oregon potter and builder of a unique anagama kiln invites clay artists from around the world to fire their work. Jack doesn’t care about marketing or commercial success; he’s totally immersed in the process of making pottery out of materials from nature. Every three or four months, up to twenty artists bring their work to be fired in the Dragon Kiln.  Families, friends, even pets tag along. The firing goes around the clock for several days. Building the tremendous fire that heats the kiln is an art in and of itself. Different kinds of wood – black locust, maple, cherry, Lombardy poplar, red cedar – make different kinds of fires, and keeping the fire properly stoked is a community effort of like-minded artists who put aside their egos for the benefit of the group.

Lopez says you must become someone to write. I think he would agree the kiln designer and the clay artists are “becoming” through their life’s work, just as their clay pieces are forged in the fire. It’s a process that never ends. Even the clay pot continues to change, subtly, after the firing.

Crow and Weasel book cover

Over and over, Lopez celebrates journeys into the unknown, strangers who become friends, coming home again, and the writing of the story. You see this in About This Life and in his fable, Crow and Weasel.

Recently, Lopez published a revelatory personal essay that has received a lot of attention, “Sliver of Sky,”  in Harper’s Magazine, about a period of sexual abuse he endured as a child. That Lopez waited until his seventies to write about this suggests how deeply confounding and wounding it was. The trauma and years of silence may explain in part Lopez’s empathy and compassion for others who were silenced for one reason or another. And no doubt it has contributed to his sense of mission as a writer.

I’ve written about years of being silent and feeling silenced by others because of my mother’s mental illness. I think that is partly why I didn’t make the commitment to becoming a writer when I was younger. How can you mature as a human being and as a writer when you can’t work with the very material that is woven into your identity?

If we’re silenced, we’re blocked. We don’t become our fullest selves. Diminished in what we are able to offer the world, the world will be diminished, too. It is in our best interests to see that no one among us is silenced.

So I find reading Lopez to be a rare and important form of encouragement.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Lopez says he’s viewed as a nature writer but, actually, he is writing about humanity.

“Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story, in the end, is social. Whatever a writer sets down can harm or help the community of which he or she is a part.”

10 responses

  1. Beautiful! Thanks so much for sharing this. I think we live in lucky times when we are able to write and share our stories on our blogs, and not be silenced that way. Even if never published the way I’d hoped, I feel my voice has been heard and the things that move me have been shared. And it really feels good to be able to do that. And also to learn and be inspired by other bloggers, to learn what moves them and let the things they share move me as well, as this post has, and Barry’s quotes here. Thank you for being part of that.

  2. This is so beautiful Val. So many thoughts and feelings occurred to me when I read your words. I thought about our friendship and how much I value it even though we have met. I thought about the ways in which I have silenced myself and avoided telling my story, and I thought about how much I have always wanted to become someone. Hopefully, I am on my way to becoming someone who is fully formed. It’s never too late to find yourself, as they say.

    • Margaret, these are such wonderful sentiments, thank you. I was really blown away when I heard Lopez’s interview about a year ago with Idaho PBS – he talked about finally writing the essay about what happened to him when he was 7 – 11 and publishing it – he was in his late 60s/early 70s. He couldn’t write about it before then. And what he most wanted to do, he said, was to validate others who had similar experiences, and say to them….This happened to me. I’m survived, I’m OK, and I think you can survive, too, and have a full life….intriguing, he also said he had a second part to the story he hadn’t written yet but wanted to, very personal….I wonder if he ever got a chance to write about it….maybe it will be published posthumously…..

  3. Powerful, Val, thank you for sharing. I look forward to hearing in detail from you, especially about your eco-certification. And guess what? I’ve signed up for Laurie Doctor’s art class, starting tomorrow. I discovered her through you!

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