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Remembering Nature Writer Barry Lopez

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, in for Terry Gross. Today we're remembering nature writer Barry Lopez, who died of prostate cancer Christmas Day at age 75. He won the National Book Award for nonfiction for his 1986 book "Arctic Dreams" and wrote other nonfiction books about nature and travel, including 1978's "Of Wolves And Men," a study of wolves and their powerful influence on the human imagination. That book was based on his travels through Alaska, but he actually raised two hybrid red wolves at his home in the Oregon woods. Although it was an extraordinary experience, he concluded that wolves don't belong living with people.

Barry Lopez also wrote fiction, taught at Columbia University and was a contributing editor for Harper's Magazine. The New York Times said of his nature writing, quote, "Lopez takes readers not only out of themselves to another place but into themselves as well," unquote. He was born in Port Chester, N.Y., in 1945 and spent his early childhood in Reseda, Calif., where his mother took him on trips to the Mojave Desert and the Grand Canyon. At age 11, his family moved to Manhattan, but he always loved the wilderness, including years spent in the Arctic.

Terry Gross spoke with Barry Lopez in 1989. She talked with him then about his essays chronicling his travels through North America. She asked him to read the conclusion of one called "Gone Back Into The Earth."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BARRY LOPEZ: I had just come out of the Grand Canyon with Paul Winter, a musician, and the musicians that play with Paul and another small group of musicians who had traveled along with us and several friends and whatnot. And we had had a very deep emotional experience, the group of us together, and then we all went our separate ways. And I was making my last connection to get home, sitting there in the airport in San Francisco and wondering what really was it that had happened. What is the reverberation of all of this experience that we'd had together making music in the bottom of the Grand Canyon? And what I wrote was this.

(Reading) I do not know, really, how we will survive without places like the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon to visit. Once in a lifetime even is enough to feel the stripping down and ebb of the press of conventional time, a radical change of proportion, an unspoken respect for others that elicits keen emotional pleasure, a quick, intimate pounding of the heart. Some parts of the trip will emerge one day on an album. Others will be found in a gesture of friendship to some stranger in an airport, in a letter of outrage to a planner of dams, in a note of gratitude to a nameless face in the Park Service, in wondering at the relatives of the ubiquitous canyon wren, in the belief, passed on in whatever fashion, a photograph, a chord, a sketch, that nature can heal. The living of life, any life, involves great and private pain, much of which we share with no one. In such places as the Inner Gorge, the pain trails away from you. It is not so quiet there or so removed that you can hear yourself think, that you would even wish to. That comes later. You can hear your heartbeat. That comes first.

TERRY GROSS: Do you think that descriptions of what it's like to be, for instance, in the Grand Canyon...

LOPEZ: Yes.

GROSS: ...Are really good reminders for readers who are sitting at home, maybe in the city or maybe in the country but far away from things of such natural wonder?

LOPEZ: Well, you hope, as a writer, that they're good reminders. I - the only way I can really answer a question like that is to think about my own responsibilities or what I feel when I'm in the places that I'm really privileged to travel. I've chosen a kind of life that allows me to go to these places, and when I'm there, I think a great deal about the reader who, for reasons of timing or having to take care of children or all sorts of obligations that impinge on all our lives, can't be there. So I hope it's not just a reminder, but that, in some real sense, as a writer, I am there paying attention for the reader.

In other words, I'm looking at things that are not only just of interest to me, but of interest to my - what I think of as a community. So I would hope to do more than remind. I would hope that - in what I see and in the way I'm able to put it together - to give the reader some sense of his or her own participation in that place, that it's not some distant geographic location to which they have no connection at all, a kind of an amusement or something at a distance, but something in which they have a personal stake.

GROSS: One thing that that emerges over and over again in your latest collection of essays, "Crossing Open Ground," is your willingness to challenge sanctimony and self-righteousness and to take on moral ambiguities, and one essay I'm thinking about is about a trip that you went on sailing with biologists who were killing seals for research, for important ecological research. Why don't you describe the research they were doing?

LOPEZ: It was necessary to unravel, if you will, the food web in this area in the Chukchi Sea, along the coast of Alaska, and, having done that, to see how animals related to each other there, how the food chains operated so that the information could be used to develop a plan for oil drilling, oil exploration and drilling. So you had this irony where you had to take the lives of animals in order to protect the lives, ultimately, protect the lives of animals.

GROSS: Did you have your mind made up before joining these researchers about whether or not this was justified killing?

LOPEZ: I never had my mind made up. Life is too unfathomable and too complicated for any individual to stand up and say that he or she has it all figured out. In my - what I look at as my responsibility is to go into the face of things that, on the surface, seem wrong and horrible and deranged and say, well, yes, of course they are. And it is heartbreaking that these animals are going to be killed, as we say, for science, but what is really going on here? If I can't determine that, as a writer, if I can't expose what's really going on, then it makes it even more difficult for people who are not there to use that information to clarify these issues in a court of law or wherever it is that they wish to go.

I don't think a reader comes to a writer in order to know what is right or wrong. I think the reader comes to the writer in order to learn what happened. My job is to say, I went to a place, and I tried to pay attention to what was going on in all its detail, and this is what I saw, and then turn to the reader as a member of the community in which I live and say, is this what we want? Is this how we want our world to be?

GROSS: In this recent collection of essays, you also write about watching the beached whales back in 1979...

LOPEZ: Yes.

GROSS: ...Off the Oregon coast. And there were so many different kinds of people who had come to see the whales, and you write that there were ethical problems that beset the scientists, mystical considerations that occupied a lot of onlookers. But for the Parks Department, they had a real practical problem. How were they going to dispose of the dead whales?

LOPEZ: Yes.

GROSS: And the solution was they burned the whales, and you describe a little bit of what that was like. And then you say that no novelists, no historians, no moral philosophers, no Melville scholars, no painters were there. Should they have been? I mean...

LOPEZ: Yes.

GROSS: ...Would you have liked for people like that to have been invited to witness the burning of the whales?

LOPEZ: Absolutely. Absolutely.

GROSS: Why?

LOPEZ: I think that all of the momentous events of our lives should be observed closely by a wide range of people. It is no longer sufficient for us just to send representatives of law enforcement agencies and journalists to - or the State Department of government or whatever it is to witness these things. I am deeply suspicious of a government that cuts off - cuts its artists, for example, its dancers and its painters, as well as its intellectuals, its scholars, off from these kinds of experience.

Now, on the other hand, I'd have to say that here you have a situation where 41 sperm whales have washed up on the coast of Oregon. They are - in the beginning, they're dying, and after several days, they're all dead. There's a health hazard here. There are all sorts of practical things that have to be solved. And the police really have no choice. They've got to limit the number of people that have access to the animals because we are also - there are also fools and drunkards and irresponsible people among us who would - who delight in torturing animals that are dying.

And so you've got to keep those people away. But it seems to me that we should at least think about, in the context of these extraordinary events - the eruption of a volcano, the waging of war - that society ultimately benefits from a full range of minds addressing an issue like this, something that is this emotionally complicated.

BIANCULLI: Author Barry Lopez speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBINO'S "AZAMANE (MY BROTHERS UNITED)")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1989 interview with Barry Lopez, who wrote fiction and nonfiction books and stories about nature. He died last month at age 75.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Barry, I'd like to ask you to read what I think is a very provocative paragraph from your epilogue of "Arctic Dreams."

LOPEZ: Yes. This comes in a passage in which I have been dealing with a problem that was very difficult for me, and that is trying to understand the hunting behavior of my host, these men I was traveling with from St. Lawrence Island. We were hunting walrus. And this is a kind of conclusion to some of those troubling thoughts that I had.

(Reading) No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind, how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror, inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one's own culture, but within oneself. If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once, life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great persistent questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.

GROSS: You know, I think that - one of the things, in a way, you're getting at there is an argument to a simplistic notion that once ecology is restored, you know, nature is good, people are good, and things are simple and just. And your encounters with nature aren't like that at all. I mean, there are terrible paradoxes and really dark things that you encounter. And I guess what I'm interested in finding out is if your confrontations with the natural world have led from dark things that you recognized in yourself or if you started to recognize those things in yourself more through your encounters with nature.

LOPEZ: I'd be hard pressed to answer the question, really, Terry. I don't - I think what happens, or what has happened to me, is that when I was a child, I spent a lot of time around animals and in the woods. And something I could never have articulated or even understood as a child was my sense that it was all right to feel that you fit there, that these things weren't exotic, they weren't the things of childhood, and that you dropped them, and then became an adult. And as I grew older and as I guess I became, in a formal sense, a writer, I - that distance between myself as an individual and what we call the natural world - it never widened.

And so when I stood in front of something that was terrifying or I stood in front of something that was beautiful, there was no separation in my mind about what human beings are. I recognized, in the natural world, the quintessence of human life. They weren't separated.

GROSS: You've written that freedom from dogma gives meaning to the world's celebration of life, that you don't want to impose on wolves your impression of what wolves should be like. They'll teach you what they're really like, and you will learn from that. Were you ever attached to dogma, though, when you started writing about nature?

LOPEZ: Oh, I would think certainly. I mean, the disabuse of dogma is part of what your whole life is about. You know, I think part of the social function of the writer in - you know, in this country, certainly, and probably in other countries as well, is to undermine that complacency that comes with dogma, with the notion that it's all been figured out. It is an enormously difficult thing to do, to lead a human life. This is a terrifically difficult thing to do. And to lead a life with any kind of grace and the trouble that people have in their lives to strive to be worthy in their own eyes and in the eyes of their community - this is an incredibly difficult thing to do. And sooner or later you realize that this dogmatic notion that this is - everything is black and white is just - it just doesn't work.

GROSS: You've talked about the difficulty everybody has of living with any grace. And you live in the woods yourself. And I was wondering if that has made it easier for you to live with that sense of grace.

LOPEZ: I don't think so. In fact, I think it's been more troubling for me, really. I - like many writers, I lived in a relatively quiet existence for a long time, and I had an intimacy with the landscape in Oregon, where I live. And I came and went there on a regular basis, and I knew a great deal about the woods around my home. And then as I was drawn away, I went up north for long periods of time to work on a book which I eventually became "Arctic Dreams." And at the moment, most of the time, I'm very far away from here in Antarctica, for example, or in northern Kenya.

So I don't spend very much time at home, and that's begun to trouble me. And I've begun to wonder about exactly where I'm rooted. And I think of my life, actually, as somewhat less graceful than I would like it to be because I am such an itinerant at the moment. This is a period of time that has something to do with a book and will go on for several more years. But I don't feel that I move very gracefully in the world at the moment because I'm away from my community. I'm away from home for long periods of time.

GROSS: When you're traveling, for instance, with Eskimos, as you've done a lot over the years, do they ever say to you or convey to you that you think too much...

LOPEZ: Oh, yes. Oh, sure.

GROSS: ...That you're too moody?

LOPEZ: Not that I'm moody. I remember one time this man put his arm around my shoulder, and he says to me, you, you're always thinking.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LOPEZ: And it wasn't a compliment. What he was saying to me was, your mind is so actively engaged on a rational and analytic plane that you miss a lot of what is going on because you're too busy thinking about it. And that man taught me to just, in a sense, put my notebook down and become fully immersed in the place. You need - he said, Barry, you're always talking about how necessary it is to pay attention, and you've got to pay even more attention than you think if you're going to see what's going on.

GROSS: When you're out on a long trip and things are getting very physically uncomfortable - you're very cold, or you don't have enough food or the kind of food that you'd really like, and maybe you were wishing you were actually home - does that discomfort ever distract you from your larger goals, the ideas that you've been telling us about...

LOPEZ: Oh, yes.

GROSS: ...Or are you always able to keep in touch with the larger meaning that you're looking for?

LOPEZ: (Laughter) Oh, no. You know, I'm just as human as anyone else. And I - you know, I have - you know, there's nights when the mosquitoes are tearing you apart and you can't sleep, or there are nights when it's so bloody cold you can't sleep, and you get very tired, exhausted, and there's nothing to do but go on. I mean, I've been in situations where it's so cold that no one - everyone has thought the same thought - I hope nobody brought a thermometer - because if we knew how cold it was, it would be so depressing. It would be even more difficult to do what we're trying to do.

But I guess during the day sometime I try to - you know, as a matter of ritual, in the same way you keep a journal, I try to focus every day on my responsibilities and, even if I just get a few shreds out of it, to overcome the discomforts. I would also add that, you know, these - what we're talking about are really abstract notions, and the reader, in the end, doesn't care about, I think, these abstract notions of the other and ideas about - that have certain political overtones or are about environmental problems. The reader only wants one thing - the reader wants a wonderful story. And if you can't tell the reader a wonderful story, then you're not writing.

So when I'm traveling, what I'm thinking about, primarily, 99% of the time, is the elements of a story. How can I make a story come out of this? And then if there's anything worth listening to on my mind, you know, as just another man or woman walking down the street, if there's anything that's really worth listening to, I won't be able to get it out of the story. It'll be buried in there. And that's the magic of that wild animal that we call the language.

But when I'm in a state of discomfort when I'm traveling, I'm thinking that the thing I must do above all else is pay attention to the simple particulars of daily life - the temperature, the movement of air, the color of stones, the tone of voice when you hear one man speaking Swahili and another man speaking Turkana and how they interact with each other and what are the smells of these particular leaves and how hot does the sand feel on the back of your wrist and what is the color of that mountain that disappears into the same color of sky and where is the line of differentiation?

Those are the things that I think about because if I don't have that, if I can't tell a reader what it was like, if I can't say to the reader, this is what happened, then the rest of it is just kind of philosophical speculation that doesn't fit anywhere in a real life.

BIANCULLI: Barry Lopez speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. After a break, we'll listen back to another, more recent conversation between Barry Lopez and Terry. Also, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new jazz quartet album by bass player Joshua Adams, and I'll talk about the TV coverage of Wednesday's assault on the U.S. Capitol. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Today, we're remembering writer Barry Lopez, who died last month from prostate cancer. He was 75 years old. Lopez is best known for his writing about the natural world. He won a National Book Award for his 1986 book "Arctic Dreams," one of his many award-winning books that contemplated the relationship between humans and nature.

But in 2013, he wrote about a painful and devastating chapter of his childhood, a trauma he needed to finally confront as an adult. In an essay for Harper's magazine, he wrote about being the victim of repeated sexual abuse for four years, beginning when he was 7. The pedophile who attacked Lopez was Harry Shier, a doctor who ran a sanitarium near the Lopez home and supervised the treatment of people with addiction problems. One of his patients was the cousin of Lopez's mother, which is how Shier entered Lopez's life. Lopez kept the abuse a secret until he was in his late teens and his mother remarried. He told his stepfather what had happened, but his stepfather decided not to press charges. Many, many years later, Lopez would learn that Shier's medical degree was fraudulent.

Barry Lopez returned to FRESH AIR in 2013 to discuss that chapter in his life. Here is an excerpt of that interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Barry Lopez, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's been a really long time. I'm glad for the chance to talk with you again.

LOPEZ: Well, me, too.

GROSS: I think we agree, you and I, that there's no need to drag you in this interview through a traumatic retelling of the details of what happened to you, so let's not go there. But there are a few things I think we agree our listeners should hear just about the context of what happened to you so we can...

LOPEZ: Yes.

GROSS: ...Understand how you were changed by that and how it's affected your understanding of child predators.

So, you know, like abusers who are priests or famous - a famous football coach or, you know, people like that, the man who abused you was an authority figure. He was a doctor who ran a sanitarium, who became friends with your mother, who helped her financially. Did that make it more confusing that you were being hurt by somebody who had great respect by the adults - from the adults that you knew?

LOPEZ: Well, that's part of the nightmare of something like this, I think, Terry. Often these figures have worked very hard to create a position in the society of which they're a part where they're perceived as loving and supportive and civic and beyond reproach. And I knew that when I saw these degrees from prestigious institutions, all of which were fraudulent, on his wall that I was in the hands of somebody that I knew the adult world respected. And that's the cover they need in order to get away in these gray areas where another adult might say - wait a minute, what are you doing? - they're just not questioned.

GROSS: Say your father had pressed charges on your behalf and that there was a trial and that you had been able to take the witness stand and tell what happened and that your abuser would have been prosecuted and probably convicted. What would that have given you? You can't know for sure because you didn't live it. You can only speculate. But I'm sure it's something you've speculated a lot about in your life.

LOPEZ: Well, your intuition about that is his right. I've basically been silent about this all of my adult life. And one of the things that precipitated my decision to write the story was that - this was before the Sandusky thing broke. In fact, this article - I wrote this piece before the Sandusky thing broke. So that - it wasn't the newspaper story that compelled me to do something. I had become impatient with the cast of newspaper articles that suggested that in the legal pursuit of pedophiles, what young men and women were most interested in was winning a financial judgment or in punishing, seeking vengeance. And it struck me that that was the last thing, really, you would be interested in as somebody who had been serially molested.

What had been taken from you was a sense of self-worth and dignity. And the only way you can get those things back is in open, unjudged relationships with other people. And then you can - you have a chance to develop, again, a sense of self-worth, a sense of place in society. So what you really want, in the simplest terms, is for somebody to believe what happened, to take you at face value and not to manipulate you in a courtroom, for example, in order to seek justice. What you really want is to stand up and be heard and believed. And once you can accomplish that, then you can go on and rebuild a life.

GROSS: You first started to research the story of Harry Shier, the man who abused you, in 1989.

LOPEZ: Yes.

GROSS: That happens to be the year we first - I first interviewed you. One of the things I often think about as an interviewer is everything that I don't know (laughter). I always think, like, there's so much I don't know about the person I'm interviewing.

LOPEZ: Oh, of course.

GROSS: And even if the interview goes well, there's so much I'm just, like, never going to know.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

GROSS: I went back, and I listened to that 1989 interview.

LOPEZ: Oh, really?

GROSS: Yeah. You said a couple of things that seemed so germane to me in terms of who you are as a writer and what you've investigated in your life as a writer. And I just want to play an excerpt of something. This is actually an excerpt of a reading that you did. So you had just published a collection of essays. And I had - and the essays were about traveling around North America. And I'd asked you to do a reading from an essay called "Gone Back Into The Earth," which you had written after traveling with the musician Paul Winter, who likes to play, for instance, with wolves. He's recorded, like, with wolves. So he's very much, you know, how music connects to the natural world. And so here's a reading from your essay "Gone Back Into The Earth," which is about traveling with Paul Winter to the Grand Canyon.

(SOUNDBTIE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LOPEZ: (Reading) The living of life - any life - involves great and private pain, much of which we share with no one. In such places as the inner gorge, the pain trails away from you. It is not so quiet there or so removed that you can hear yourself think, that you would even wish to. That comes later. You can hear your heartbeat. That comes first.

GROSS: So that was Barry Lopez on FRESH AIR in 1989, reading from an essay written earlier in the '80s. And Barry Lopez, hearing that last night, after having read your essay about being abused - being sexually abused as a child, when you're speaking of the private pain we share with no one and needing to be in a place that is, you know, kind of vast and magnificent and not filled with other people, you know, where there's a sense of, you know, that you can hear the thoughts, but you can, more importantly or first, hear, like, your heartbeat...

LOPEZ: Right.

GROSS: And so - you know, you said that you wanted to take the darkness that you experienced and turn it inside out. And did writing about the natural world help you do that?

LOPEZ: I know this, that when I was so compromised as a child, that there was no zone of safety for me. No place was safe. And especially adults weren't safe for me. The thing that felt safe in the sense that I felt that surge toward lyricism - when I saw something outside myself, the world beyond the self, and I was - I felt the surge of lyrical pleasure in the way the wind sounded, for example, in eucalyptus trees, I knew that I could carry that with me. I could carry it as a memory, and I could carry it as a structure to help me build a safe place in the world.

So I had this strange insight. And that is that I hadn't - the end of it wasn't that I had been brutalized. The end of it, really, was that I'd been given a gift. And I now - as I grew into adulthood, I had to find some way to take this darkness and turn it inside out. My desire in my life - I mean, the great metaphors for me have been the metaphors of the natural world. And the natural world in Southern California was the only thing I think, really, that kept me sane as a child. I did not trust the adult world. It was of no help to me. But my embrace of elements of the natural world - the weather, the appearance of wild animals in the regions where I lived - that was all grace for me and kept me from falling further into that abyss.

So when I - you know, in my late teens and early 20s, when I really started writing with a purpose, my effort was to understand what it means to be tolerant. What is it that human beings mean when they speak of justice? And, you know, beyond Aristotle, if you will, what is beauty all about, and why do we crave it, and why do some of us destroy it? But you can't just talk about abstractions like that if you're not a philosopher, as a writer. You have to find a context that allows the reader to move into the landscape that you've created and say, oh, yes, I know that, or, oh, that's interesting.

And my effort, I think, as a writer, for all of my adult life, is, I have no interest in being the writer - or the reader's authority about anything. I hope, in nonfiction, to write in an authoritative way and to earn the trust and respect of a reader. But mostly what I'm interested in is being the reader's companion. I want a reader to feel that there is room for them, for their intellect and for their imagination, in the prose that I try to craft on a page.

And in the end, the only thing I can do - I, Barry, can do - I am not a therapist. I am not an activist. I'm just a writer. And the only thing I can do is what I did on these pages and in Harper's, which is to say, this happened to me. I know many of you have experienced this. Here's what I'd been thinking. What do you think?

BIANCULLI: Writer Barry Lopez speaking with Terry Gross in 2013. Lopez died last month on Christmas Day at the age of 75.

Let's end our tribute to Barry Lopez with another excerpt of the reading he did on FRESH AIR back in 1989 from his book "Arctic Dreams."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LOPEZ: (Reading) No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind, how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one's own culture, but within oneself. If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction because if all contradiction were eliminated, at once, life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great persistent questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.

BIANCULLI: Barry Lopez, from his book "Arctic Dreams." Coming up, music from bass player Joshua Adams (ph). Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOOKIE'S "SCRAPPY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.