Robert A. Rees: The passing wisdom of Barry Lopez

Lopez called us to repent of our destruction and devastation of the earth.

This March 24, 2003 courtesy photo released by Natural History photographer David Liittschwager, shows writer Barry Lopez near Blue River, Oregon. Barry Lopez, an award-winning writer who tried to tighten the bonds between people and place by describing the landscapes he saw in 50 years of travel, has died. He was 75. His family said Lopez died in Eugene, Oregon, on Friday, Dec. 25, 2020, after a years-long struggle with prostate cancer. An author of nearly 20 books on natural history studies, along with an essay and short story collections, Lopez was awarded the National Book Award in 1986 for "Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape." It was the result of almost five years of traveling the Arctic. (David Liittschwager via AP)

“If I were asked what I want to accomplish as a writer, I would say it’s to contribute to the literature of hope.”

— Barry Lopez, “About This Life”

I was saddened to learn that my friend Barry Lopez passed away on Christmas Day.

Barry was not just a gifted writer, he was also someone who exemplified those virtues William Faulkner described in his Nobel acceptance speech as “eternal verities” — ”the old verities and truths of the heart ... love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

More than this, Lopez’s was one of the most intelligent, informed and urgent voices over the past 40 years calling us to repent of our destruction and devastation of the earth, an impassioned, poetic plea for us to come to our senses.

I first met Lopez during the 1980s when, along with my UCLA colleague, Norman Cousins, we organized a series of exchanges between American and Chinese writers, two of which were held in China and two in the United States. The exchanges, which included, among others, Arthur Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, took place during an island of time between China’s brutal, repressive past under Mao and what began as a more open, hopeful future under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping.

What had led me to invite Lopez for the second trip to China was reading his “Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape,” which won the 1986 National Book Award for nonfiction. A hauntingly beautiful exploration and celebration of that northern frozen landscape, “Arctic Dreams,” as one reviewer observed, is “a timeless mediation on the ability of the landscape to shape our dreams and to haunt our imaginations.”

That haunting Lopez described as “pectate mundi, the sins of the world.”

My favorite of Lopez’s many powerful essays is “The Passing Wisdom of Birds,” from “Crossing Open Ground.” In the essay, Lopez writes about Hernando Cortez’s destruction of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec Byzantium known today as Mexico City, which Charles V called “the most beautiful city in the world.”

Having been driven out of the city a year earlier by Montezuma, Cortez returned with a larger army and, with vindictive violence, as Lopez reports, “laid siege to the city. Canal by canal, garden by garden, home by home.” In an ultimate act of barbarity, Cortez set fire to the great aviaries and to the nests of wild birds found throughout the city.

Lopez writes, “The image I carry of Cortez setting fire to the aviaries in Mexico City that June day in 1521 is an image I cannot rid myself of. It stands, in my mind, for a fundamental lapse of wisdom ... an underlying trouble in which political conquest, personal greed, revenge, and national pride outweigh what is innocent, beautiful, serene and defenseless — the birds. ... Indeed, one could argue, the same oblivious irreverence is still with us, among those who would ravage and poison the earth to sustain the economic growth of Western societies.”

The question before humanity today is the one posed by Lopez at the end of his essay: Is it “possible to move beyond a moment in the Valley of Mexico when we behaved as though we were insane”? Lopez’s answer can be found in “Arctic Dreams”: “Staring down pecatta mundi that day on the tundra, my image of God was this effort to love in spite of everything that contradicts that impulse. When I think of the phrase ‘the love of God,’ I think of this great and beautiful complexity we hold within us, this pattern of light and emotion we call God, and that the rare, pure ferocity of our love sent anywhere in that direction is worth all the mistakes we endure to practice it.”

In his last letter to me, sent in early December, Lopez speaks of his life as having “developed a Jobian cast,” no doubt a reference to his having lost much of his property and his 50-year personal archive of all his writings in one of the fires that swept Oregon this fall. And yet, typical of his optimistic nature, he wrote that he and his wife Deborah were “rebuilding, repairing, and replanting.”

Lopez is gone but his writing, his hopeful spirit and his wisdom remain to bless us.

Robert A. Rees, Ph.D. Visiting Professor & Director of Mormon Studies Graduate Theological Union Berkeley, Calif.

Robert A. Rees, Ph.D., is visiting professor and director of Mormon studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, Calif.