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[In Memoriam]

The Story He Will Never Write

Remembering Barry Lopez

“Remember this one thing, said Badger. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them.
If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed.”
—Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel

Barry Lopez devoted his life to the gift of stories. With fierce intellect and deep compassion, in luminous prose, he gave us stories of wolves and men, of traveling with and learning from indigenous people, stories of narwhals, polar bears, and vanishing sea ice, stories of the larger, older world that, in our dangerously alienated culture, we call “nature.” Like Thoreau before him, Barry turned to nature not to escape from humanity, but to engage more passionately with the question of what it means to be fully human.

Barry and I worked together on several projects during almost forty years of friendship. With the Sundance Institute and the Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis, we brought his children’s book Crow and Weasel to the stage. In the book and the play, the wise woman Badger gives the young men Crow and Weasel food and shelter. She tells them a few stories, and then instructs them: “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves.”

Two summers in a row, Barry and I and our collaborators convened in the mountains of Utah for intensive workshops on the production. I arrived for the second summer directly from recording sessions, bearing the rough mix of a new piece. In Dream in White on White, I had aspired to leave imagery and narrative behind, to create music that would evoke the feeling of being in a place without painting a picture or telling a story about any particular place. I was eager for Barry to hear this music, and he was eager to listen. I handed him a CD, and he disappeared.

A couple of hours later, we convened in the sauna of the house where we were staying. We settled onto the benches, breathed in the heat, and exhaled deeply.

“It’s beautiful, John,” Barry said. “It reminds me of being on the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta in early spring, when the world is still white, but flooded with new light.”

I burst out laughing. “Dammit, Barry! That’s exactly where it comes from!”

Barry knew that landscape well, and what I’d imagined was my own secret narrative, he had heard loud and clear. So much for leaving the story behind.

It would have been understandable for a writer of Barry’s stature to be skeptical of the modest literary efforts of his composer friend. Yet with typical generosity, Barry always encouraged me to write. “You have stories to tell,” he would say. “And the words to tell them.” Most of those stories come from Alaska; I might never have discovered my life’s work if I hadn’t made my home for forty years in the boreal forest. Barry made his home in a very different forest, far to the south.

Barry belonged to the rainforest of the McKenzie River, on the west slopes of the Cascades, in Oregon. It was there that he wrote most of Arctic Dreams, Of Wolves and Men, and many other books, essays and stories. It was there, over the course of thirty years, that he completed his last, most urgent and visionary book, Horizon. My wife, Cynthia, and I made several memorable visits to Barry’s home, where we enjoyed long, rambling conversations and forest walks, and where Barry and I once donned hip waders and walked the whitewater of the river together.

Fifty years ago, Barry and his wife had set out for the desert, where they imagined they would make a life together. But as they traveled up the McKenzie River valley, they heard the bright music of the river and felt the comforting embrace of the forest. And when they learned that an especially beautiful stand of fir and hemlock was slated to be clear-cut, they resolved to protect those trees. They arranged to purchase forty acres and settled in. In time, they told themselves, they would move on. Barry never left, until last summer.

Still, Barry told me not long ago that he had come to understand that Alaska was the place where he too had discovered the full dimensions of his work. Barry began writing Arctic Dreams in a little guest cabin owned by the wildlife biologists Kathy Frost and Lloyd Lowry, neighbors of ours in the hills north of Fairbanks. He visited us a number of times over the years. He joined my friends and me for a convocation of the Ace Lake Sauna Society. One snowy afternoon, as we hiked up the mountain above our house in the crepuscular winter light, Barry told me at length about his idea for a sprawling book that would somehow encompass the whole earth with the same intensity and specificity as Arctic Dreams. A few years later, while he was working on Horizon, Barry decided that he needed to become more deeply acquainted with the symphonies of Beethoven. So he flew up to Fairbanks, and we spent several days in my wood-burning cabin studio listening to the nine symphonies, studying their scores, and discussing them in depth.

Between our times together, Barry and I exchanged letters, and frequently phone calls. Now and then, he would read me a passage he was working on, anything that had to do with music or sound. I remember a long conversation about the subtitle for his book Field Notes: The Grace Note of the Canyon Wren. It always felt good to be of some small help to my friend, and we both relished exploring and discovering the equivalences between our work. Barry and I drew encouragement from each other, and from the feeling that we were doing the same work, in different ways. Barry’s work as a writer, like mine as a composer, was solitary. Just knowing that he was working in his studio two-thousand miles away made my own studio feel a little less lonely.

Several years ago, Barry was diagnosed with advanced metastatic cancer. Just as he always bristled at being called a nature writer, he resolved that he would not allow himself to be defined by his illness. He didn’t speak or write much about it. Instead, he pushed ahead with his life and work, completing Horizon and seeing it through to publication. Again and again, Barry beat the odds. And when it became clear that he didn’t have much longer to live, he faced death with the same unflinching courage and attentiveness with which he lived.

Not long ago, Barry’s heart stopped, briefly. Calling me from his bed in the intensive care unit, he reported the details of his brush with death in dispassionate detail, the way he might’ve talked about observing a polar bear hunting or diving beneath the Antarctic ice. Then he said, quietly: “We will all pass away. It’s the earth that is precious.”

Last summer, Barry got a call in the middle of the night. The voice on the other end told him that one of the largest wildfires in Oregon was roaring downslope, directly toward his place. The frontline firefighters were on their way, but he and his wife needed to evacuate immediately. Barry and Debra grabbed the house cat, threw a few things into the car, and fled downriver. In the days that followed, they waited in a motel room in Eugene for whatever news they could glean. They learned that the nearby village and the houses closest to theirs had been destroyed. One fatality was uncovered, and body-sniffing dogs were searching for others. When they were finally permitted to return to the charred forest, they discovered that the small cabin that housed Barry’s archives was gone. Miraculously, the house and guest cabin were still standing, although they were too badly damaged to be inhabitable.

It is cruelly ironic that the forest where Barry settled to protect the trees has now been logged to salvage their charred remains. And it is nothing less than tragic that this man who was such a strong, clear voice of warning about the threat of global warming died as a climate refugee.

In our last conversation, I could no longer deny the brittleness, the fragility that I heard in his voice. Unnerved, I found myself stammering to say something coherent. Clearly, Barry heard this, too. He told me that he and Debra were creating a quiet space where he could pass his final days, and that the assignment he’d set himself for the coming day was to listen to Become River, Become Desert, and Become Ocean.

“Your music now is the shape of my refuge,” he said. And I felt released. Here I was, struggling for something meaningful to say, while Barry understood that it was time to move beyond words.

The troubling horizon that Barry surveys in his last book is no longer distant. It is directly ahead, and roaring toward us. In the weeks after the wildfire swept down his valley, Barry told me that he’d begun making notes under the title “The Story I Will Never Write.” Yet even though he cannot write it, Barry’s story must be told, as must so many similar stories from all over the earth. This is how we will care for ourselves now, and in the dark times that lie ahead. We need to put these stories into each other’s memories, to listen as deeply as we can. Then we must face the terrifying visions that loom on the horizon. If we turn away, if we choose not to listen, the consequences may be more horrific than we can imagine. We need these stories to stay alive.

Read Barry Lopez’s contributions to Harper’s Magazine.

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