Rooting for Humanity

Conversation: Barry Lopez

Barry Lopez is an explorer, a master storyteller, and a wizard with words. At age 74, he follows his acclaimed books Arctic Dreams and Of Wolves and Men with a new masterwork, Horizon. In six chapters from all corners of our world, Barry considers evolution, aboriginal cultures, the beauty of birds, and ecological collapse. He looks the monster in the eye yet still offers hope. Perhaps only a man who has weathered childhood sexual abuse and been managing metastatic cancer for six years could reach these depths and then diagnose our cultural and environmental dilemma with such eloquence and compassion.

Barry weaves solutions throughout Horizon: an economy based on conservation not profit, more relevant politics, values and worldviews of Indigenous people and wise elders who prioritize community stability over individual rights; and he has the imagination to find a new way forward — a creative blend of what we have not thought of yet with ancient wisdom of our ancestors.

In the four decades I’ve known him, I have always been struck by Barry’s generosity of spirit, the praise and support he offers so freely. By recognizing and supporting others, he lifts us all up, practices what he preaches (love), and demonstrates a kind of “self care” that embraces all beings.

You chronicle the problems our world is facing, from species extinction, to genocide of Indigenous peoples, to corrupt governments and corporations. I notice climate change is not overblown in your exploration. You seem to be saying climate disruption is part of a systemic and historic problem we face?

Right. I wanted to be careful about describing climate change and setting off the five-alarm fire drill. Because, frighteningly, the book might cause part of the audience who reads it to freeze up. So, all the way through I try to keep a calm voice. I do make some very strong points about despots and the trouble we’re in because my effort is to communicate the nature of the disaster and suggest that it’s all interlocked. There’s a lot out there that deals with atmospheric chemistry and timetables and models for when it’s really going to get bad. I don’t need to add to that. My whole effort in the book is to say, “How are we going to think about this? How are we going to manage this?”

You write about the development and emergence of new technologies without regard to their long-term consequences. Where did that failure to consider long-term consequences come from in us?

I think it comes from addiction. If you approach a drug addict on the street and try to make an ethical point, it goes in one ear and out the other. The only thing that person is interested in is the next spoonful of heroin and a needle. And that’s the culture we have now. We have a consumer culture in which people are desperate, not to do real work, but to produce more stuff that might attract more people. It’s a junkie culture. Imagine going up to the same addict on that sidewalk and saying, “Are you considering the long-term consequences?” That would get a great big Wha?

It’s psychotic. And a lot of us have been saying that forever. It’s not like we didn’t know. Our problem has always been, we can’t get people to listen because the manufacturers who make toys, clothes, and Ferraris have got their ear.

If you listen to television advertising, which says, “Hey, do this. Do this right away, you’ll feel great. It won’t cost you anything. First few samples are free.” It’s all junkie talk. So, the answer to why weren’t we waking up to the long-term consequences is that we didn’t want to know about them.

I noted your celebration of birds everywhere you go. They give you hope. But your assessment of Darwin’s conclusion, that humans are not the apex of evolution, and that we could easily go extinct, was an eye-opener for me. It made me think that, deep down, you’re either rooting for the birds or betting that birds have a better chance than humans to make it through.

(Laughs) I’m rooting for humanity. The way I think about this is that there’s Nature and then a subdivision of that is Human Nature. What I wanted to set up in Horizon is, let’s look at this place in the Canadian High Arctic where some awfully tough people, these Thule people, made a good living 800 years ago. They should serve as an example for us. And then here in Galapagos, we’re going to see biological diversity alongside the ugly face of commercialization and the corrupt business in Quito of selling licenses to bring even more boatloads of people there, without regard to the damage they’re doing. And then, there are these people who have made the long haul in Australia — 30, 40, 50,000 years. They didn’t burn it up like we did. And interestingly, they’re still here. Wow. And then in northern Kenya ... I’m saying, let’s go back deep into human history and see what we come up with.

I am hoping that the book is full of quiet contradictions for all the reasons people give about why we can’t do something. We can do something. What we’re having difficulty doing is distancing ourselves from people who are in this game to profit, who don’t understand the goal is stability.

Let’s go deeper into your insight about what happens when people are wedded to land, how geography creates behavior, and social arrangements. What is it about Indigenous people that is so different from us, and so important ecologically?

Well, they’re the embodiment of that old tired line, “You pick up something and it’s connected to something else.” Traditional people understand the strangeness of one person acting on their own. They don’t make as much room as we do in social organization for the rights of individuals. It was an idea that looked good for a while. But now, it looks like a nightmare — the privileging of the individual over the integrity or stability of the community.

We’ve had these experiences, both of us, with cultures that have led us to understand that all people are different from all other people, but there are threads that go through that feel very much the same. One of those threads is the authority of elders, and the sense that you are not alone, that you are tied to the place you occupy, and you have to ensure that your relationship with the place works at a high level of social responsibility. Otherwise, it will kill you if you just keep pulling up stakes and moving someplace else, if you’re just a person on the run. There’s something powerful and hugely beneficial for humanity in the social organization and psychology of traditional people.

The missing piece in Western thinking, of course, is good relations with everything. Good relations with the water. Good relations with the enemy. Good relations with the Earth itself. But we don’t want an elder who tells us that. We’ll throw him or her right out. So, in the book, I didn’t want to have that edge and I hope I don’t. I just want to lay things out and leave people to see that there’s not only got to be another way, but if we don’t find another way, we’re dead. We’re finished. I can see it coming. I see breakdown in every place in my daily life.

I’m not an activist. I’m not a crusader. I’m not somebody who’s going to testify before Congress. I don’t have the information or the authority to do that. But I know how to write a book, and I know how to bring problems that face us all into an emotional present. And if I can do that and you can shoot film and the rest of us can do whatever it is that we’re trying to do, I keep thinking we’ll be okay.

Let’s go to the wisdom of the elders. What are the characteristics of elders and why is that so important right now?

If you look at social dynamics in the United States now, you would say it’s pretty much chaos from border to border. There are some well-dressed people with smiles on their faces, but they’re just as lost as everybody else. If you tore off the masks, you’d find everybody’s in mild panic about what’s coming.

How do you reach people like that? By showing that you’re not judgmental and you’re profoundly empathetic. And that as an elder you are a carrier of wisdom that is not your own. It belongs to us, not to one person. It’s all the things you think of after you spend ten minutes with an elder like Oren Lyons, the Onondaga faithkeeper.

Over the years my impression is that elders take life more seriously. They are able to relate to just about anybody. They’re fully present with a five-year-old kid who’s found a rock that he thinks looks like a cloud or something. They’re right there for him and they’re communicating to that child, “You’re important. We love you, and you’re integral to our success as a people.” So, the child walks away thinking, “One of the main people said I was pretty good.” And that builds social cohesion.

Elders are patient listeners. They listen more than they speak. They’re not out telling everybody what to do. I don’t think of elders as people who ever raise their voices. We lack those elders because people with too much money and power don’t want individuals like that around. Our culture has found ways to silence, marginalize, or in some cases, kill the people who could have saved us from this disaster.

What is your personal experience with handling grief, sharing it, dealing with it. What’s your advice on that?

When grief makes a claim on your time, you can easily slide into despair. You draw the strength to resist from the quality of your love for everything around you.

I don’t know how many times Oren said to me when I would tell him I was worn out, or ask him where was I going to go to regain my sense of hope, “The only thing you can do wrong is to destroy somebody’s sense of hope. And if you think that they are uninformed, or not bright, or prone to panic, or that there’s something wrong with them, you cannot let that judgment enter into your behavior. You must be kind, empathetic, and supportive. And if you are, they will have the strength to find their way into the problem and realize that they had it all wrong.”

I think one of the great lessons of love that has emerged since the 60s for all of us is that if we can’t take care of each other, there’s really nothing to take care of. I mean yes, we want to control the amount of CO2 in the air. Yes, we want to dismantle dams. Yes, we want to get plastic out of the ocean. Yes, we want recycling. But there’s no point in doing all that unless we take care of each other at the same time.

There’s a kind of charismatic poison in our culture, the idea that we have to wait around for some great woman or man to carry the flag, and we’ll follow them. No, we have to find a way to love each other and care for each other so that when any one of us goes down, we will either have the strength to get back up and shake it off, or others, who are our friends, will lift us back up.

One of the great needs of our time is reconciliation between cultures, and with the land. What are your thoughts about a pathway forward for reconciliation and healing?

I would start by saying the task is incomprehensibly large and difficult. And it requires several things from us if we want to go down that road. One is, we have to operate as though we don’t have a leader. We can’t have one person making the decisions. The decisions have to be made by a small group of people. (It’s not one elder that speaks, it’s “the elders.”) And the rest of us just have to do the crucial physical and logistical labor and be content with that.

So the task is to find the elders in this moment. Who are the people who can navigate? Who are the people qualified to be navigators on our journey? You’ve got to choose people who’ve gotten over themselves, who can negotiate for us without bringing their own needs and agenda into the arena.

We need the type of leadership that’s been provided historically in small social units by elders. And we need an enhanced sense of empathy, reverence, courtesy — the things that prevent fights. We have to find some way to get over fighting. If people want to fight, then they’ve got to go to some other room and shout while the rest of us take the steps needed to bring peace and ensure justice.

Something else we have to think about is, metaphorically or figuratively, if our challenge is to find a new navigator — not a James Cook type, but a new type of navigator — then we also have to ask ourselves: “What is the vessel? What is going to be the figurative boat we will be navigating? What’s going to be stored in the hold? What kind of rigging?”

I spent a lot time in Horizon talking about boats, and planes, and going across Australia in a train — all of these examples of how humans organize their energy and their materials to create conveyance to another, safer place.

You talk about imagination being what we need. And, you write beautifully about music, and patterns in nature, and the creativity of artists and scientists. How might a person take it on themselves to refigure the way they do their work, or their art, or their environmentalism, in terms of imagination being the key to finding a new way forward?

Good talk about imagination becomes elusive after a while. What I’m saying is, all of this has to be dreamed again.

Somewhere, 60,000 years ago, probably in the Horn of Africa, we developed full-blown imaginations, and became “behaviorally modern Homo sapiens.” And those imaginations literally changed the world. What we’re going to see in the decades ahead is whether the development of an imagination like this was maladaptive. We may see that it was a change that came about and was embraced, but like millions of other creatures in the history of Earth, it turned out not to be a good change.

When I’m saying we must be more imaginative in our approach to solving these problems, I’m asking for something we have not yet seen, which is an imagination that can stand above everything that has accumulated and which now threatens us, and work well.

Many people have said that the key to understanding art is to understand resistance — that all artists resist the status quo. The status quo gives too much space to our complacency and not enough space to our efforts to make changes. So, what the imagination can do is to ask: What does resistance look like?

We talk about resistance as if it occurred primarily in the streets, raising our fists in anger and unison — as in our opposition to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. But resistance can take many forms. Artists look at this all the time, saying, “I am not a participant. Here’s the Trump government. Here’s the company that manufactures Roundup. I am not a participant. I will not use that carcinogenic material and I will not support this government.”

The expression of resistance that connects the art world with the environmental world has got to be nurtured, it’s got to be fed. What we’re going to encounter soon is coming toward us at an incredible speed. You’re standing in the surf, you see a breaker coming, you make sure your feet are set and your body is braced to take the impact. That might be all we’re doing, but it will hopefully be enough to keep us from being completely knocked down by the enormous tsunami that’s coming.

So, the two big things for me are: if we’re going to hit the brakes here on the status quo and go in another direction that’s kinder to people and the land, we need to say, okay, who’s going to be the navigator on this new road, and, metaphorically, what means of conveyance are we going to use? In a nutshell, that’s the whole issue.

We’ve both sought out native elders to share their stories. We’ve also worked together to convene gatherings of elders to provide time and space for them to share and strategize. Why is that important?

There are so many native people, social justice organizations, artists and environmentalists working on these problems. All that’s missing is some kind of “overhead.” Do you know that word, overhead, in wild land firefighting? You’ve got a huge, raging, hundred-thousand-acre fire and you’ve got small crews spread out all over on the fire lines. Some of them are starting backfires, some are shoveling their hearts out to build fire breaks to stop the flames in certain places. So, all this has to be coordinated. Everybody’s on the radio, “Are you doing this or that? Which way is the wind blowing? I have an equipment breakdown. What’s soil moisture look like there?” All of this has to be coordinated. The coordinators are called “the overhead.” These people are working in a tent somewhere with a bunch of radios, cell phones, and weather faxes.

So, what I’m arguing for is an overhead that, number one, has nobody from the government involved, and two, has no businesses or anybody with an economic stake in the outcome involved. And it’s composed of people like Oren Lyons.

If you’re gathering an international group of senior women and men, you’re looking for certain qualities: They take life seriously. They relate well to people unlike themselves. They are the repositories of a history of what works and what doesn’t. And I would add to that, they are the most imaginative among us.

Can you tell me more about what you’ve learned from Oren Lyons?

Oren has an authority larger than himself because he represents something larger than himself, and he’s leading his life as though he were associated with something larger than himself. He’s from a tradition that has moral authority, substantial history, and that prioritizes the stability of the community and the integrity of the entire ecological system of which people are one part. He behaves in public like somebody you feel safe with, who makes you say, “Whatever this guy wants me to do, I will do that.”

You remember that moment in Berkeley when Oren stood up and identified the writer Richard Nelson and myself as his “runners?” I was stunned. I thought, “Well, a runner is like an assistant. That must be the way to understand it.” Then, many years later, I invited Oren to speak at Texas Tech University, and he identified himself from the stage as “a runner.” And that’s when I finally understood that a runner has the same responsibility when he takes on that role, when he’s offered that position, as he does when he is a chief — a head man or woman. Oren is obviously an elder. He’s also an Onondaga chief. But he identifies too, as a runner. What the runner does is to receive the story and move it on to the next village. You don’t change it. You don’t pretend to own it. You just get it to the next village. That’s your responsibility. Carry the wisdom to the next group.

Many people in our culture, when they reach a position where they stand up in front of an audience and tell a story, still think the moment is about them. It’s not about them, it’s about the story. Part of our creative struggle is to understand both the degree to which we’re important in the process, but that ultimately, we’re not important at all. That’s what Oren meant when he told me, “You’re going to go out there and put yourself in harm’s way with the forces that are trying to destroy us. And you’re going to die out there, and you will not be remembered. If you want to be remembered and celebrated, you need to do something else.” The point here is that stories contain collective wisdom. You are in service to that wisdom as a runner. You protect the integrity of the story and you don’t use the story to make yourself look important.

When you talk in the book about trying to play a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to the ghosts of the Thule people, and about your friend Lillian Pitt describing herself as “a project of my people,” it makes me feel like we were so brainwashed with the Joseph Campbell idea of the hero, the Western myth of the individual hero. So, I really admired that scene up in Thule country in the Arctic where you lay out how humbling it was to be slapped in the face by the spirit world there saying, “Check out what you’re doing.”

It would be of inestimable value to our younger colleagues to understand that both you and I have encountered situations in which we didn’t live up to our own expectations. Situations where we came face to face with our own ingrained ignorance.

All the time I was writing Horizon, I’d get to places where I just fell down, thinking, “How can somebody like you actually write this book? You don’t have the skill. You don’t have the intelligence. You don’t have the experience.” And I’d get up from my desk and I’d go down to the river and stand there. I’d stand right at the edge of the water and put myself in a prayerful way. I would focus on the bottom of the river and see beaver sticks there — alder sticks that had been stripped of their bark.

They might be a sixteenth-of-an-inch through or they might be four inches through and two feet long, massive, heavy objects. I know these were left by beaver living in the river bank in front of the house. And in my mind, the sign of fresh beaver sticks there in the water was a sign that what the beaver were saying to me was, “Just keep going. Just keep going.”

They’re not trying to commiserate with you, they’re just saying, “Keep going.” I would take those sticks up to my room, and eventually there were hundreds of beaver sticks in that room where I was writing the book.

The hand-edited manuscript sits now in my studio. It’s on a chair wrapped in a beaver pelt with the last two beaver sticks I found on the day I finished, lying side-by-side where the pelt folds over the manuscript. There it is, you know, some guy trying to learn a different way, and taking advantage of the way the imagination works.

When the book was finished, I couldn’t find a way to put the beaver in the Acknowledgments section. It’s difficult, I think, to get people to read something like that and not be cynical about it, or sentimental. You write an Acknowledgments section for a book to make it clear that you didn’t do all this work alone. I should have put the beaver in there.

Thank you for spending so much time with me.

Well, this is important. I’m trying to live up to the expectations of women and men I really admire and who opened trail ahead of us and who’ve passed on. And if we make it, I’ll be thrilled. If we don’t make it, I’m okay with that, too. I want everybody to be okay. To be able to take care of each other.

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