Appreciation: Pam Houston on “Horizon” creator Barry Lopez
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“We are model builders,” said Barry Lopez, “and when our patterns are beautiful and graceful, they can bring someone for whom the world is broken and disorganized back to life from their knees.”
Or at least that’s what I heard one July afternoon in the periodic table room on the wall at Pacific University during a 10-day summer residence where I and others, including Barry’s wife Debra Gwartney and sometimes even Barry himself, taught young writers about their craft. I put his words in my pocket that day and took them with me. I quote them – probably inaccurately – every time I stress the importance of form and structure to the writers I work with to convince them that language is much more than just the pickup truck on which you convey the meaning of yours History, this form, conveying and language in combination make the meaning, as the forms in nature make the earth.
In the course of our lives Barry and I shared only a handful of dinners and conversations, a handful of classrooms and car trips, but two things allowed us to know each other deeply and well, even though we never discussed them directly. Like Barry, I was serially sexually abused as a child, and like him, I understood at this tender age that it was the natural world that made this healing possible, as far as I could be healed of these brutalities. A few decades and a continent apart, Barry and I came to understand that if we had spent enough time learning the earth, if we had spent enough time learning the earth, she and I would give it back to us and, very importantly, she would give us back what it was learn to let it be taken from us (and these are Barry’s words): the ability to articulate our meaning in the world.
Since Barry’s death on Christmas Day, I have mainly thought about the example he set for those of us trying to write about our relationship with the earth. He traveled to the Arctic, the Galapagos Islands, Kenya, the Grand Canyon, Antarctica, Namibia and the Australian Nullarbor Plain, not to see them, but to learn. He knew so much, but I think what I admired most about him was that he also knew what he didn’t know. He often said that allowing yourself mysteries in your life to admit what you do not know is an extraordinary freedom. One of the goals of his travels, of his writing, was to deepen this mystery.
He knew how to listen, to walk into a room and be quiet and wait. He spent his whole life listening – to the country, of course, and especially to the people who have cared for the country sustainably for 5,000, 10,000 or 20,000 years. He recognized and respected their deep history on land, knew they were better attuned to nuances in their surrounding landscapes, admired the way they lived “in a kind of ethical unity with a place” where “their ties to the earths are as great morally as they are biologically. “He called their way of life” a basic human defense against loneliness “.
For decades, Barry had been desperate over the collapse of the climate and the fate of the planet. He had also been deeply curious about the conversations we might have in the face of a disaster unlike any other human race. In fact, he had pretty much insisted that we have these conversations. His most recent book “Horizon”, a glorious and devastating climax of his life’s work and learning, gently and tenaciously leads us into the reality that we are unlikely to arrest or survive the coming climate collapse and hence how we deal with it Meanwhile, how we tell the story of the earth is far more important (no less) than we ever imagined. “All that holds us together,” he said, “are stories and compassion.”
That evening, Barry said we were pattern makers. After the workshops, dinners, and readings, I gathered part of the faculty for a nightly run in my red rented Mustang convertible (an accident) the Milk Queen, who was sitting on the freeway about 10 or 12 miles away. From the gathering, I remember Barry being particularly excited about the possibility of a peanut buster parfait. Most of the others were just excited to get off campus for a minute. It was midsummer in Oregon’s Tualatin Valley, the crickets were singing in the irrigated fields, and as we emerged from the ranks of the redwoods on campus, we saw the moon risen fat and full over the grapes and strawberries and mustard. Debra said, “Look at the moon, Barry,” which begs the question: Could the rest of us in the car even see the moon the way we did? But of course he had already seen it, already studied it, how he did everything, how he did each of us.
In Arctic Dreams, Barry wrote: “For some people, what they imagine doesn’t end where the skin meets the world. It continues with the reach of your senses into the land. If the country in which they live is unceremoniously disfigured or reorganized by industrial development, it causes psychological pain. “He wrote about the Inuit he met in the Arctic, and I also believe he described himself, me, and everyone else who necessarily mothered the earth into adulthood.
In truth, none of us could see the moon the way Barry had seen it that night, because none of us had practiced seeing as long or as hard as he did. But a number of writers who were briefly discharged from an MFA residence knew enough to be calm, study the moon, and wait for her to tell us her story. Finally, Barry was right next to us showing us how.
Houston is the author of Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the Highlands.