For 40 years, Barry Lopez has been at the center of the national and international conversation about social justice, and the fate of humanity and the Earth.
In Conversations With Barry Lopez, the National Book Award-winning writer’s thought, precision and intelligence are brought gracefully to the page in three candid personal interviews with his longtime friend, William E. Tydeman, a writer and archivist at Texas Tech University’s Southwest Collections/Special Collections Library. The book also features an introduction to Lopez’s life and work, 19 black-and-white photographs and a comprehensive bibliography.
Tydeman’s close relationship with Lopez allows the two men to travel through the kind of conversational territory that begins in restraint and formality, and leads into the heart. If Lopez’s manner appears rehearsed, it also lacks pretense; rather, it reflects his careful and heartfelt consideration of his art and of the world in which we all live. Lopez and Tydeman take on a wide range of topics with clarity and eloquence: the writing life, the social responsibility of the artist, the future of our planet, justice, animals, love and beauty, and photography.
In his introduction, Tydeman explores Lopez’s ideas about “individual genius.” Facing what he calls “the disquieting dimensions of (his) own ego,” Lopez strongly believes that “humanity has more often benefited from the genius of the community than from the genius of the individual.” Anyone praised for great work in any field, Lopez attests, must admit that achievement is not possible without the community’s support.
Lopez goes on to speak about the environmental and social challenges of our age, which he calls “a singular time of concern.” In America today, we talk a lot about finding and destroying the enemy, whatever it is. Lopez says bluntly: “I don’t believe there is an enemy. … If you spend your energy trying to identify an enemy, and you track down this putative enemy, and you kill him, he will rise again in another quarter, in another costume.” The War on Drugs and the War on Terror are prime examples. “The thing to do,” says Lopez, “is to make the enemy irrelevant.” Lopez doesn’t explain how an individual or nation can accomplish this, but he believes that such an approach to the problems of the 21st century may help lead us out of the darkness.
One of the most engaging sections of the book is poet and archivist Diane Warner’s 43-page list of Lopez’s published works. It features notes by both Lopez and Warner that offer a deeper understanding of the writer’s path and development. For example, a 1969 essay, “Gull in the Rocks,” mentioned as “an early example of (Lopez’s) concern for the lives of animals, the state of the environment, and ethical human behavior,” informs the 1989 publication of “Apologia,” which addresses the disquieting deaths of animals on America’s highways. Charles Hobson turned that essay, illustrated with original woodcuts by Robin Eschner, into a limited edition book for his Pacific Editions press; it was then published as a trade book in 1998 by the University of Georgia Press. What began as Lopez responding to a single event (the death of a gull) rises into a lifelong exploration of the way human beings treat other living creatures and how we treat each other. Lopez’s books Of Wolves and Men (1978) and Arctic Dreams (1986) are seminal works on this theme.
A longtime editor and friend once said of him: If there is anyone in America writing better than Barry Lopez, I don’t know who it could be. There is wisdom in this little book, Conversations With Barry Lopez, because there is so much wisdom in the man—in fact, in these two men, who open the door for each other to think and feel, and invite the reader in to join them.
The book encourages all of us to ask the same question Lopez asks himself: “Do I help make the world safe and beautiful by what I do?”
This review originally appeared in High Country News.
Conversations With Barry Lopez: Walking the Path of Imagination
William E. Tydeman
University of Oklahoma Press
208 pages, $19.95