While Barry Lopez might not exactly be a household name in Charleston, he’s regarded by many to be one of the finest living writers on the topic of nature and human interaction. Based on his dozen-plus visits to Canada’s far north, his 1986 book Arctic Dreams painted a picture of a world very few have ever seen, a frozen world filled with beluga whales and polar bears. The tome won him the National Book Award. Crossing Open Ground about his travels in Alaska and the American Southwest and The Rediscovery of America secured his place as a socially conscious writer.
Now Lopez comes to Charleston to talk about birds. His message? “You can’t micromanage nature,” Lopez says.
“The idea that you’re going to do this and this, and the world is going to be better for birds, this is not going to happen,” he adds. “What I want to look at is, why do we do it? Why do we have such regard for people who do conservation work?
Lopez thinks one reason we do is because conservationists are acting out for the rest of us what it means to be compassionate in the modern world. “The question of whether or not you ‘save the birds’ is not really the question,” he says. “The question is, ‘How can we heal? How can humanity heal itself?’ We’re a source of abuse for the rest of the world now. How can we change that?”
The irony of Lopez’s career lies in the titles he’s been given. He’s been called a naturalist and an environmentalist, but the truth is he never even took a biology class. “Not even in high school,” he says. Instead, the writer grew up in Southern California before his family moved to New York City. That abrupt shift was the early catalyst for his interest in the natural world.
“That visceral exposure to the non-human world and un-investigated landscape were big things for me when I was young,” he says. “And then my family suddenly moved to New York City, so I was immersed in an urban environment, and within a high-powered prep school, and I got a lot of intellectual stimulation. All of which generated historical perspective around issues of social justice. But the material I kept going back to were the emotional and psychological experiences of being in the so-called natural world.”
Trying to work out the puzzle of living a manufactured existence, Lopez turned to words. “Since I didn’t major in history or physics, but English, language was the way I began to figure this out or addressed these large-scale issues of social justice,” he says. For Lopez, his interest in social justice naturally intersected with the other elements of his life, and the larger world around him. Such was the case with his breakout nonfiction book, Of Wolves and Men, published in 1979. In the book Lopez argued for the need of wolves in the world and launched his ecology-focused writing career.
“I want to look at the human community,” Lopez says, “and talk about what is this relationship between this group of us, Homo sapiens, living in a modern time and living in isolation from a lot of the people that I apprenticed myself to, Eskimos and aboriginal people in Australia and tribal people in Africa. Here’s an organism, Homo sapiens, and the question might be, ‘Will this organism survive?'”
But Lopez promises he’s not pushing his own agenda at his Charleston Museum talk. “What I’m trying to do,” Lopez says, “is enter those places where people speak in an insightful and responsible way about big issues, listen to what they have to say, and prepare it in such a way that’s accessible, and hand it to a reader and say, ‘Well, what do you think?'”
That’s a big reason why Jim Elliott, Avian Conservation Center’s executive director, asked Lopez to come speak. “The first thing I ever read by Barry Lopez was Of Wolves and Men,” Elliott says. “It comes from an experience. He’s in it, he’s seeing it, he’s doing it. He takes the natural history component, the science, and the social and humanitarian aspects.”
Elliott thinks Lopez’s appeal extends well beyond literature buffs and environmentalists. “I’ve had several people ask me to describe Barry Lopez,” he says, “He’s so multi-dimensional I have a hard time seizing on something that would explain it well enough. He’s a writer, he’s a thinker, he’s a philosopher.”
Like any good philosopher, Lopez stresses the point is to persuade not just pontificate.
“When I walk out of a room or off an auditorium stage,” Lopez says, “whether people remember me or my name or a book is not nearly as important as whether they walk out of there with a deeper sense of what they mean by their lives and a sense of how important it is that they live their lives fully and not go back into a state of paralysis, or a state of irony, of distancing themselves from the problems the world is facing.”