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Beyond Arctic Dreams: An Interview with Barry Lopez

We are aware of the precarious risk to our environment—and our species—as never before. How do we move forward?

Hailed as “one of our finest writers” by the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Barry Lopez discusses this with one of Canada’s most beloved authors and explorers, Wade Davis, on March 25.

In advance of this anticipated conversation, we spoke with Lopez about his most personal book to date: Horizon.

Your travels have spanned eight decades and 70 countries. How did you decide which of your adventures to include in Horizon?

I was looking for a simple, graceful gesture that might encircle Earth. I was not thinking too much about which places to include. Standing in front of a globe, I gestured with my hand toward the North, making that tensioning pause the conductor makes at the start of a piece and then I swung my imaginary baton once around the equator and, as I was physically inverting the globe, I made a final movement of my hand and brought the baton down gently on Antarctica. I had these particular six places in mind because connecting them reified that movement, and because I felt I could manage the larger themes of the book with just these six places.

In your Author’s Note, you mention “there was a long learning curve inherent in all this sojourning.” Can you tell us how this affected your approach to the book?

The learning curve was inevitable. In the original outline for the book, which I wrote in 1989, I acknowledged that I was too unseasoned a writer to write the book I was proposing. I needed to visit, again, some of the places I’d already visited. I needed to see new places, like the Middle East and Central Asia, and I had to expand my general awareness of Earth. I didn’t sit down to write the book until 15 years after I proposed it. But, as I worked my way through about ten drafts of the manuscript, I began to understand, better and better, what had happened to me. My approach then was to read each draft, to look for ways to improve it, and to trust that a reader would see how the narrator grew over the roughly 20 years of travel that are considered in Horizon.

As communities, and as a species, we’re increasingly talking about the effects of climate change—and what we must do to prevent further devastation. What do you think has been missing from the conversation about this to date?

I think what’s missing in the international discussion about adapting to global climate change is the advice of marginalized peoples, especially the elders in traditional groups. What is too present in these discussions, but neither needed nor wanted, are the voices of people who think largely in terms of economic loss and profit, and people who are fundamentally opposed to making those adjustments because they are continuing to profiting from the lack of those adjustments. In general, I would say that the discussants should not have a financial stake in any part of an international green plan, that they should not be beholden to any organized religion, form of governance, nation, or economic system, and that they should have as a guiding principle not “Follow me, I know the way,” but “No one left behind.”

How can writing, and descriptions of place, aid that sense of urgency—and protection?

Anything one can do to make more vivid the scale of environmental destruction and the scope of human injustice is good. People don’t want to be browbeaten about these things; they long for clarity, and for a reinforcement of their determination to succeed in searching out a livable place, for themselves, and for everyone else. Writing can help, especially if it takes into consideration the reader’s needs as distinct from the writer’s desire to inform. The Arts as a whole should recognize that this is the first time since the Arts were marginalized as truth-sayers by the Scientific Revolution that they have had an opportunity to demonstrate their irreplaceable contribution to the perpetuation of cultural life, their indispensible worth to society, which lies beyond entertainment.

The Alpine Review spoke of a moral obligation when writing about the wilds, in that you are making remote spaces—“safe” from humanity—known. Can you tell us about your sense of responsibility in this?

I’ve worried for many years that by writing provocatively about remote places, I was opening them up to some form of destructive tourism, and I must say that that has happened. I regret that some things I have written—Arctic Dreams comes most readily to mind—have brought visitors to places that were virtually untouched. I don’t know what to do about this. The world is now filled to bursting with people who can afford to go anywhere, so you can be sure that if you write about a place and make it sufficiently attractive, relatively large numbers of people will decide they have to go there, and they will. There are two ways around this. One is to disguise the location of the place you’re describing or to be deliberately inaccurate about how to get there. The second is to respect the place by not writing about it, to let it become, instead, a part of your general awareness of the world. I’ve done both in Horizon. It’s not as satisfying a way to work as writing whatever you want and depending on the fact that the place is too difficult or too expensive for people to reach to become a tourist attraction. But we no longer live in a world where it’s too expensive or too challenging to reach—for substantial numbers of people. As a writer I think you have to turn to fiction or look for the subterranean threads of places that are besieged by curious visitors, like the Greek Islands, the Great Barrier Reef, or Yellowstone.

In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, you explain how much settlers could have learned from Indigenous cultures if they asked for their wisdom rather than bringing violence. How do you think respecting, and listening to, Indigenous solutions can help us today?

It is startling to realize that many traditional peoples around the world who were brutally murdered and whose cultures were shredded by the first waves of Western settlement are still, in many cases, with us, still being guided by their elders through the gauntlet of suppression, economic poverty, marginalization, disenfranchisement, and ethnic and racial prejudice that threatens their survival. This means that we, too, might expect helpful insights about our predicament to come from this very special group of compassionate wisdom keepers.  We in the West are unconsciously constrained, I think, by a phalanx of prejudicial evaluations that keeps us from recognizing alternatives to our Western logic and metaphysics. We dwell too much on the authority of our own exceptionalism and turn our backs on whatever contradicts our intuition. This is not a successful way to survive.

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Zoe Grams