"I would ask you to remember only this one thing," said Badger. "The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other's memory. This is how people care for themselves. One day you will be good story-tellers. Never forget these obligations."
—From Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez
The San Francisco Chronicle calls Barry Lopez "arguably the nation's premier nature writer." The accolade is justified but falls short in capturing the breadth and depth of Lopez's work. With more than a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as numerous stories and essays in Harper's, Granta, National Geographic and others, Lopez ranges from the starkly original and whimsical vignettes in Desert Notes to the anthropological tome Arctic Dreams—for which he won the National Book Award—and from the novella-length fable Crow and Weasel to the dark stories in Light Action in the Caribbean.
Lopez, who reads April 17 at the Egyptian Theatre, is a writer of enormous curiosity and energy, exploring new forms and breaking new ground with each work. His eye for detail and landscape is borne out in a fascination with maps, which he admires and collects on his travels, often to remote parts of the world. Regarding one of his favorites, Erwin Raisz's hand-drawn "Landforms of the Northwestern States from the 1930s," Lopez writes that the map "suggests a novel" by "how neatly all the pieces come together, the almost eerie continuity of it all." The same, in reverse, can be said about Lopez's work. In all of his writings he is a careful cartographer, meticulously mapping both the physical and emotional landscape and his relation to it at each respective point in time.
Though he wrote it years before wolf reintroduction in Idaho and other western states splashed the politics surrounding wolves across front-page headlines, Lopez's landmark work, Of Wolves and Men, seems as fresh today as when it was first published in 1978. Written almost as a eulogy, the elegant account of man's fascination with and fear of wolves through the ages is a poignant reminder that wolf politics haven't changed much in the last two centuries. Of those pushing hardest for the extirpation of wolves from the lower 48 in the first go-round, Lopez writes, "They were few in number but their voices, screaming for the wolf's head, were often the loudest, the ones that set the tone at the grange meeting ... It was as though these men had broken down at some point in their lives and begun to fill with bile, and that bile had become an unreasoned hatred of many things. Of laws. Of governments. Of wolves. They hated wolves because—they would struggle to put it into words—because wolves seemed better off than they were. And that seemed perverse." The description it seems, and indeed the book, might just as well have been written yesterday. Of Wolves and Men received the John Burroughs medal for natural history writing, the Christopher medal and was a National Book Award finalist.
Boise readers will find affinity for another of Lopez's earlier works, River Notes: The Dance of Herons. Lopez lives next to Oregon's McKenzie River, and it's clear he draws inspiration from his immediate surroundings as rivers flow through much of his work. The center of a trilogy that begins with Desert Notes from 1976 and ends with 1994's Field Notes, the 12 short stories in River Notes border on mysticism and offer profound and stunning observations of life along a river. "I will tell you something," Lopez writes in the introduction. "It is to the thought of the river's banks that I most frequently return, their wordless emergence at a headwaters, the control they urge on the direction of the river, mile after mile, and their disappearance here on the beach as the river enters the ocean. It occurs to me that at the very end the river is suddenly abandoned, that just before it's finished the edges disappear completely, that in this moment a whole life is revealed."
Lopez has collaborated extensively with other artists and scientists on a wide range of projects. With cellist David Darling, he recorded selections from River Notes as an album. He has worked with composer John Luther Adams on several theater and concert productions, teamed with playwright Jim Leonard Jr. on a production of his illustrated fable, Crow and Weasel, and worked on a production of Coyote, a play based on his book Giving Birth to Thunder. In 2001, he and Harvard biologist and author E.O. Wilson designed a new undergraduate major for Texas Tech University combining the study of sciences and humanities into a single degree program, the B.A. in Natural History and the Humanities.
One of his most recent projects is Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, co-edited with Debra Gwartney. Lopez and Gwartney asked 45 writers and poets, all known for their intimate connection to a particular place, to define terms that describe America's land and water forms. Writers including Barbara Kingsolver, Terry Tempest Williams, Jon Krakauer and Bill McKibben offer personal definitions for words like hogback and midden, couloir and kiss tank. Much more than a reference guide—though as a reference, it's extraordinary—Home Ground is a celebration both of language and of the connection between landscape and culture.
It's to that connection between physical landscape and human culture, the way our sense of place shapes our individual and community identity, that Lopez returns again and again. Though his writings often confront injustice and prejudice, both toward the environment and to other cultures and people, Lopez sees his role as a writer as contributing to a literature of hope and of helping readers re-imagine our lives. "Every story," he writes in About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, "is an act of trust between writer and reader; each story, in the end, is social. Whatever a writer sets down can harm or help the community to which he or she is a part." In another passage, he adds, "It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us."
Lopez reads Tuesday, April 17, 7:30 p.m., $27 for Cabin members, $30 for nonmembers. Call 208-331-8000 for additional information. Egyptian Theatre, 700 W. Main St., 208-345-0454.