Last year, I was fortunate enough to see the author Barry Lopez speak in Eugene, Oregon. Not only was I moved by the messages he relayed, but also by the quality and selflessness of his words. They eloquently nudged us to remember and feel into the core of what matters. He spoke like he wrote – as clear and winding poems – and also never became the center of his stories. Lopez was a vessel for the wisdom and teachings of others such as indigenous elders and places who so deserve to be heard. There are many threads I could follow that would lead me back to what I feel I've learned from him over time: how hardship can become a portal into loving and protecting places that give us a sense of connection and safety that we so deeply need; how the relationship between people and place is revelatory, complex, varied, and multi-directional (in fact, his pointing to sense of place in 'The Rediscovery of North America' led me to the lens used in my master's research); how story and art embody the act of listening and truth-telling in a world where this is deficit.
I took notes during his talk, sloppily scribbled in a small notebook inside a darkened room. There were tears in my eyes because I was (and still am) in a state of searching and, often, disappointment. I've always known that my life's work was about love and connection to animate place and it's near-impossible to find the avenues to bring that work to fruition when the dominant paths toward environmental and social change are often reductionist. I am moved by those who find a way to persist and work on the edges, and sometimes even the center, in the realms of spirit, story, and art. Lopez has repeatedly reignited my trust in possibility. I also knew he had a terminal cancer diagnosis and what he was sharing was laced with death's proximity. What would a man who has heard so much choose to share at the end of this life? There was a particular certainty in his messages that he wanted to impart, and I'd like to share some of them. Lopez's ideas are underlined, as they are not direct quotations, while my own thoughts and interpretations follow.
One, that feels particularly relevant is that, in order to move forward, we must acknowledge where we are. To me, this means that truths must be entirely revealed – such as the truths (in the United States and elsewhere) of colonialism, white supremacy, and the stage of collapse that we're already living within. We must learn to fully see and say-out-loud the damage done, or else we operate in perpetuation of the same violence and ignorance. Nothing can authentically shift unless we know the reality in which we exist and choose to consciously change course. This is active and perpetual work that must occur in the self and in relationship. It is all-too easy to slip into our conditioning and begin to close our eyes in both small and significant ways. Lopez also said, the Achilles heel of consciousness is that we forget, and this is how we fall out of relationship. It is the role of stories to remind ourselves how to behave and maintain a stable society. How lost we are, in a culture of rugged individualism where one's desires often undermine the needs of the collective. We have few, if any, stories to guide us along our path of growth and development in the context of healthy community. Meanwhile, the stories that loop in our own minds often become dominate forces, leading us astray from our own hearts.
And speaking of community, the goal should not be progress, but rather, stability (he specifically credits indigenous elders for this theme). Capitalism teaches us that more is the answer while economic growth, competition, and power-over is the way to get there. The living world quickly becomes commodity and human relationships are used as a way to achieve the next level of progress. What is lost and who is abused in this process is a list too long to write; stability as well as reciprocity are among the missing in this system. Personally, I yearn for a stable community in a stable environment, free from such great loss and fragmentation; think of all that might emerge from such a place. When a solid foundation exists, anything beautiful is possible.
Take care of each other and recognize the people in a culture who have the capacity to see outside of themselves. It's important to acknowledge all the of the forces at play that keep us separate, exhausted, and in survival-mode, unable to truly engage and care for one another all the time. Yet, there are always small ways. Checking in on each other while we're all weathering storms makes such a profound difference; we are relational beings after all who need one another for well-being. Here is a list of mutual aid networks if you'd like to deepen relationships and support with your community.
There is something beyond reductionism and analysis; where are the artists and storytellers? If it isn't obvious, I am often pondering how change-for-the-better happens when it comes to realities such as, say, the climate crisis. This crisis in its myriad forms is often framed as one that will be understood and solved only through science and policy. It's true: these are absolutely necessary tools that we have available to understand and take action in such trying complexity. And, is it true that we solely need more data? Or do we already know enough about where we are and where we're headed? Do we only need to change our minds, or do we also need to change our hearts (or, rather, learn to tune into them)? Is the climate crisis a scientific and political issue or is it a spiritual and relational issue, too? Again, where are the stories that guide our collective decision-making and design ethical models? Who do we look to and trust to reflect reality? Who creates culture? How can we envision a new world without practicing imagination and dreaming about different futures? How might we prioritize and uplift the work of artists and storytellers in these times, particularly those of long-oppressed groups who often go unheard or who are systematically silenced? And, how might we tune into the artistry and storytelling told by places and non-human species themselves?
Thank you, Barry Lopez, for your work, dedication, and connection to place. It is heard and revered by many; I'll continue to carry these notes with me as paths toward remembering. They are pieces to a way home.
The McKenzie River in Oregon. Yes! She is that blue.