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Pushcart Prize winner Barry Lopez is an influential American writer on natural history, who focuses on the relationship of human beings to the land and its inhabitants. Lopez’s works often defy easy classification—he describes himself simply as ”a writer who travels”—but in his works of fiction and nonfiction, Lopez has clearly established a reputation as a masterful and important writer about place and humanity. His writing reveals that our ideas are deeply rooted in humanity’s relationship to the environment and that where people live, work, and travel has everything to do with how they treat others.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Landscape of Youth
Barry Holstun Lopez was born on January 6, 1945, in Port Chester, New York, a town located just east of the Connecticut border. They had a second son, Dennis, in 1948, and a short time later the family moved to southern California. Lopez’s parents divorced in 1950, and his mother and the two boys moved to a small house in the California town of Reseda.
Many of Lopez’s earliest memories are of adventures that he and his brother had exploring the orchards, fields, and farms of the area. On weekends, his mother would often take the boys to the Mojave Desert, to the nearby beaches, or to the San Bernardino Mountains. These experiences were all instrumental in fostering a love of nature and outdoor life that later infused his writings. In 1955, Lopez’s mother married Adrian Bernard Lopez, and the following year the family moved to an apartment in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan, where Barry lived until he entered college. The transition from California to New York City was a jarring one. During his first summer in New York, Lopez and his brother went to a summer camp on the North Fork of Long Island, where they bunked with John Steinbeck’s two sons. Feeling a kinship with Steinbeck, another displaced Californian, Lopez read all of Steinbeck’s books in the next few years, which had a profound influence on many of Lopez’s works. The summer following his graduation from high school, Lopez traveled to Europe, and visited Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, West Germany, Portugal, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, England, and Ireland.
In the fall of 1962, Lopez entered the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, intending to major in aeronautical engineering. During his studies at Notre Dame his love of literature grew, and he later credited such authors as Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, Willa Cather, and Ernest Hemingway as being particularly important influences. During this period, Lopez began to write stories of his own, developing an interest in language and narrative that, among other things, helped convince him to change his major to communication arts. During his undergraduate years Lopez also traveled widely throughout the United States and worked on a ranch in Wyoming for two summers. In 1966, he graduated from Notre Dame and briefly considered monastic life. In 1967, he married artist Sandra Landers. The following year, with the vague goal to teach prep school, he enrolled in the master’s program in teaching at Notre Dame, and received his teaching degree in 1968.
Lopez developed his love for the land as a child, and his interest in the environment was reflected on a larger scale as the modern environmental movement took shape in America in the 1960s and throughout the 1970s. In 1962, Rachel Carson published her influential work, Silent Spring, a book that described the dangers of pesticides to humans and the environment. She also explored the attitudes people have to the land and environment, and her conclusions were a wake-up call to many Americans. The modern environmental movement was concerned with issues of pollution, population, conservation, and the development of a more harmonious relationship with the natural world.
Native American Influences
After he realized that his primary interest was writing, not teaching, Lopez entered the University of Oregon’s MFA program in creative writing in 1968. Although he soon withdrew from the program, he met Barre Toelken, a professor in the English department of the University of Oregon, who introduced Lopez to the narratives of Native American peoples. Lopez found the beliefs and narratives of these cultures, particularly their link between the sacred and the landscape, to have a great deal in common with his own developing beliefs. During this period, he began an intense study of Native American narrative and folklore. In 1970, Lopez and his wife moved to a house in the Cascade Mountains east of Eugene, Oregon, and he launched a career as an independent journalist, contributing articles and photographs to various newspapers and periodicals.
In 1976, Lopez published a collection of short fiction titled Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven. The sense of landscape, and of the place of humans within that landscape, is central to the twelve stories in the collection, which are written in an unconventional style that breaks free from traditional ideas of characterization and plot. In contrast to most works of short fiction, these stories focus on their setting—the desert, in this case—over plot or characterization.
In his second published work, Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter: Coyote Builds North America (1978), Lopez drew on his studies of Native American narratives to retell a series of stories about Coyote, the trickster-hero who appears in many guises in Native American folklore. The book includes more than sixty tales, most of which are no more than two or three pages in length, that are drawn from more than forty different tribes. Coyote, as portrayed in these stories, is a hero, villain, thief, magician, creator, and fool, often playing more than one of these roles in any given story. In contrast to earlier, sanitized versions of Coyote stories intended for mainstream audiences, Lopez’s Coyote tales include references to taboo topics, often told for comic effect.
The Call of Nature
During the late 1970s, Lopez went on a series of extended trips to Alaska to study wolves, a project that resulted in his breakthrough work, Of Wolves and Men (1978). Lopez’s first extended work of nonfiction, Of Wolves and Men combines the work of scientists, direct observation, interviews, and literary and cultural analysis to create a fascinating portrait of the wolf and its place in the human imagination. Although it is often considered a work of natural history, Lopez’s approach to the genre is an inspired one that succeeds not only in describing the subject, but in also calling into question the cultural assumptions behind the attitudes of Western civilization toward the wolf and the natural environment. The book was both a bestseller and a critical success, and it won the prestigious John Burroughs Medal for the best work of natural history published in 1978.
Lopez returned to fiction with his next publications, including a collection of short stories, River Notes: The Dance of Herons (1979), the second in a trilogy of short fiction. As in Desert Notes, landscape is central to the stories and is a place of spiritual power, but in River Notes the presence of humans and their connection to the land is more pronounced. The acute sense of loss that also pervades many of the stories in this collection stemmed from Lopez’s mother’s death in 1976. Lopez also explored the potential for a spiritual link between humans and the landscape in the nine stories included in Winter Count (1981). As in Lopez’s earlier collections, these stories often reflect a strong Native American influence, particularly in the spiritual power of the earth and animals and the importance of storytelling. After the publication of Winter Count, Lopez was increasingly recognized as a gifted writer not simply of natural history but also of short fiction, and he was awarded the Distinguished Recognition Award from the Friends of American Writers in 1982.
During much of the early 1980s, Lopez traveled extensively throughout the Arctic, studying the land, the wildlife, and the people of the region. The resulting book, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (1986), was an enormous critical and popular success. The book won several prizes, including a National Book Award, and cemented Lopez’s reputation as one of the most original and significant contemporary nature writers. In Arctic Dreams, Lopez takes his readers on an engaging odyssey through the far North, with chapters on the mega fauna of the region, such as the polar bear, narwhal, and musk ox; the rhythms of life in the Arctic landscape; the lifestyles of the native peoples of the region; and the history, often misguided and tragic, of European exploration in the Arctic. At the heart of Arctic Dreams is Lopez’s conviction that members of Western civilization must learn to approach relations with the land with compassion and dignity rather than a conqueror’s mentality.
A Distinguished, Diverse Writer
In addition to his full-length works, Lopez has been a longtime contributor to many magazines, including Harper’s, Audubon, and Sierra. Fourteen of his natural history essays were collected and published in Crossing Open Ground in 1988. Many of the essays in this work reflect Lopez’s deep and abiding interest in non-Western cultures, the importance of narrative, and the need for creating and maintaining an ethical relationship with the land and its inhabitants.
Lopez published Crow and Weasel, a Parents’s Choice Award-winning fable for young adults, in 1990. The novel follows two young men from a northern plains tribe as they leave their village on a quest to travel farther north than anyone in their village has ever traveled before. Lopez followed Crow and Weasel with Field Notes: The Grace Note of the Canyon Wren in 1994. This collection completes the trilogy of “Notes” stories he had begun nearly twenty years earlier. In 1998, he published a collection of essays, About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, documenting his extensive travels and his inner journeys. The autobiographical stories that Lopez tells in About This Life reveal the formative influences on his life and career; his family and upbringing; and his beliefs about the importance of rediscovering one’s connection to the land. Lopez followed this autobiographical work with Light Action in the Caribbean (2000) and Resistance (2004). He co-edited Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape (2006), a dictionary that compiles and explains regional terms for geographic features. Lopez continues to live and work in western Oregon.
Works in Literary Context
The Literature of Place
Although Lopez discourages using the term ”nature writing” to describe his work, his output doubtlessly belongs to the American literary prose genre that focuses on the relationship between the natural landscape and culture. Nature writing became popular among writers in many genres during the nineteenth-century American Renaissance, including Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and continued throughout the twentieth century with writers such as Wendell Berry, Peter Matthiessen, and Gary Snyder. In Lopez’s works, the fate of nature and humanity are inseparable, and among his central concerns is the desire to cultivate an ethical, responsible relationship to the natural environment.
Native American Cultural Influences
Lopez’s interest in Native American experience and culture influenced many of his works. Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter: Coyote Builds North America (1978) includes sixty-eight tales of Coyote’s adventures drawn from many different Native American tribes. His 1981 collection Winter Count is a set of nine stories organized around the Native American practice of marking the passage of one year to the next. Two stories in that collection, ”Buffalo” and ”The Location of the River,” portray the rupture between myth time and storytelling of northern plains tribes with the rational view of natural history and Western scholarship. Many of Lopez’s other works include elements drawn from Native American spiritual and cultural traditions as well.
Works in Critical Context
Lopez is widely regarded as an accomplished writer in genres as diverse as natural history, personal essay, and fiction. He is often praised for his thoughtful, meditative approach to subjects and his technique of blending several sources of information. However, some critics have taken issue with his use and appropriation of Native American characters and cultural tradition in his works.
Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter: Coyote Builds North America
In this ambitious collection of stories, Lopez re-imagines Native American folk tales about the character of Coyote. While critics generally praised Lopez’s use of voice and imaginative scenarios, the book received mixed reviews based on Lopez’s interpretation of Coyote. There was a disparity between critics those who found these retellings uplifting and others who perceived them as insulting to Native Americans. Lopez’s mentor, Barre Toelken, reflected on the potential for misunderstanding Lopez’s intentions with the work and concluded in the foreword to the collection that the
stories are retold in a way that is both faithful to native concepts of Coyote and how his stories should go, and phrased for an audience which reads without listening, for whom literature is studied and reflected upon, for whom Coyote is an imaginary but interesting protagonist.
Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape
Lopez’s longest, most ambitious work, Arctic Dreams explores the relationship between the physical details that characterize the Far North and the human perception of it. This book sealed his reputation as one of the most important contemporary natural history writers, and Lopez won the National Book Award for nonfiction the same year the book was published. Lauded as an epic work, critics note the way that Lopez blends natural history with cultural history and personal experience along with scholarship. The book bears both his poetic sensibilities and his scholarly tendencies, including notes, maps, and appendixes, along with a References:: and index to assist the reader in navigating the geographic and scientific information. Critic John Tallmadge summarizes his assessment of Arctic Dreams. ”Like all epics it unfolds on a grand scale, moralizing the landscape, detailing feats of heroism, engaging the deepest spiritual, political, and historical questions, and propounding a view of the noblest possibilities for human life.”
- Paul, Sherman. ”Making the Turn. Rereading Barry Lopez.” For Love of the World: Essays on Nature Writers. Iowa City, Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 1992,pp. 67-107.
- Rueckert, William H. ”Barry Lopez and the Search for a Dignified and Honorable Relationship with Nature.” Earthly Words: Essays on Contemporary American Nature and Environmental Writers. Ann Arbor, Mich.. University of Michigan Press, 1994, pp. 137-164.
- Slovic, Scott. SeekingAwareness in American Nature Writing: Henry Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez. Salt Lake City, Utah. University of Utah Press, 1992.
- Tallmadge, John. ”Barry Lopez.” American Nature Writers, Vol. 1. New York. Scribners, 1996, pp. 549-568.
- Wild, Peter. ”Barry Lopez.” Western Writers Series, No. 64. Boise, Idaho. Boise State University, 1984.
- Anton, Jim. ”An Interview with Barry Lopez.” Western American Literature 21 (Spring 1986). 3-17.
- Bonetti, Kay. ”An Interview with Barry Lopez.” Missouri Review 11 (1988). 59-77.
- Evans, Alice. ”Leaning Into the Light. An Interview with Barry Lopez.” Poets and Writers 22 (March/April 1994). 62-79.
- Sumner, David. ”Nature Writing, American Literature, and the Idea of Community—A Conversation with Barry Lopez.” Weber Studies 18 (Spring 2001). 2-26.
- Todd, Trish. ”Barry Lopez Recalls His Arctic Dreams.” Publishers Weekly 288 (October 11, 1985). 35-36.
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