From interviews with BL
Vol. 44, No. 2 2006
by William Tydeman
William Tydeman: You’ve written about wildlife photography and about the photographers whose work you admire, but you’ve also raised some important questions about the choice of subject and where authority rests in the photographic process.
Barry Lopez: When I was photographing, I used to ask other landscape photographers to consider that the Sierra Club and Audubon calendars they were shooting for were not all that different from the Playboy calendars these photographers would never associate themselves with. They were consciously trying to create gorgeous, overwhelming images. They created them in response to an ideal about the beauty of landscape that was, qualitatively I think, no different from men choosing certain types of bodies and arranging them in certain kinds of poses to mirror a set of expectations that American men associate with erotic feminine beauty. Some people were outraged by the suggestion, but I would make it anyway. My argument was, “You say that you want to see landscapes preserved, but what you’re photographing are the voluptuous landscapes, so I’m having trouble believing this if there are no photographs of the beauty inherent in an ordinary landscape.” This is one of the ways advertising and public relations have compromised art and writing, you know, in the twentieth century. Advertising has become a force for corruption, in my mind, as far as language and imagery are concerned. As time goes by, it’s an industry I’ve come to have little respect for, although I have known people working in advertising whom I still hold in some regard. I’ve worked in it myself. It’s just become so compromised.
WT: To complete the circle, you are concerned about zoos and animals as they are caged and kept confined for presumably educational purposes.
BL: John Berger has an essay about zoos, “Why Look at Animals?,” that was a seminal piece for me. One thought at its center is that zoos are the last vestige of colonialism. I was so struck by that, by his own ethical stance. He put into words what had become over the years more and more distressing for me about zoos. Like most American kids, I went to zoos when I was young, and I liked being there I guess—I don’t remember. But as I grew older, I didn’t want to be anywhere near them. The argument that zoos introduce children to wild animals has virtually no credibility for me because children today are introduced to so many things through special effects, through carefully edited and manipulative television programs, that the living animal standing there in a box doesn’t have as much authority as it once did. The reasons most often given for zoos to exist are specious to me. The idea that they function as gene pools is misleading. Very few species in any given ecosystem can survive in captivity and produce animals capable of going back and repopulating an area. Most ethologists subscribe to the idea that an animal learns its behavior by growing up in a certain environment. An animal isn’t a car, fine-turned in a garage somewhere, that you then put out on the street. That’s not how animals work. So the two major arguments for the existence of zoos—that they educate and that they’re a bulwark against loss of diversity—neither of those seems good to me. If you banned zoos, it would force people who really want these animals to survive to face the fact that we’re going to have to leave them be in the places where they live and go to whatever length is required to visit them. And that has to mean limited visitation. I think what would happen, though, if you banned zoos, is that wild animals on their native ground would be forgotten. The strongest argument for zoos is that they’re the one place civilization provides where animals can come to sing for their supper. Until we achieve another sort of Enlightenment, they are going to have to do this to survive. I have to ask you to excuse me on this. I’m barely rational when it comes to zoos.
Michigan Quarterly Review
Vol. XLIV, No. 4 Fall 2005
by Michael Shapiro
Michael Shapiro: What has drawn you to connect with indigenous and aboriginal people, and what have been the most important things that you’ve learned from them?
Barry Lopez: I’ve gained a more acceptable—to me—understanding of the responsibilities of the storyteller. I’ve learned to exist comfortably in the world of comparative ways of knowing, without trying to say that one is superior to another. I’ve learned to watch animals with less judgment and presupposition than I would have brought to the field if I’d had no experience with native peoples. I’ve learned about the importance of elders, about where elders fit in society and about why groups of people survive over thousands of years. By developing a sense of respect for them, I’ve learned how to develop a sense of respect for everything alive. I’ve learned to tell myself the world knows way more than I do.
MS: That things are more complex than we ever thought?
BL: Absolutely. I’ve learned the shortcomings of my own education. I’ve been exposed to many Western ideas. I love and respect that knowledge, but native people helped me understand it as a way of knowing. It’s internally consistent, it’s engaging, but it’s not the whole truth. No one can tell the whole truth.
MS: When you mentioned you’ve [lived] here for thirty-three years, I thought of a report in this morning’s Eugene [Oregon] newspaper saying that in the latter half of the last decade, about half the people in the United States had moved.
BL: My goodness.
MS: We are a society in constant motion. I wonder what you’ve gained by choosing a place and committing to it.
BL: I’m comfortable here, and the things I think I need to know I get from here. A habit of permanent location in a time of dislocation is also an opportunity to learn about something we’re abandoning. I’m concerned about the rootlessness of so much activity in American culture. My allegiance to this place offers me something I can’t explain, which one day I may or may not write about.
MS: Does your commitment to this place help you understand the world when you travel?
BL: As a certain kind of place-anchored writer, yes. Other writers are more purposefully peripatetic. They don’t feel that they live anywhere; they live in a time of wandering and refugees. Pico Iyer is an example, like Salman Rushdie, of someone writing penetratingly about the life of rootlessness. My way is another way. I miss my home when I’m gone. I miss my place, and in some way my place misses me. I’m integral here in some way. I feel wanted here.
(We take a break and Lopez shows me some of the artwork in the house: paintings by Rick Bartow, a mask by Lillian Pitt, pottery by Alyce Flitcraft, and some prints by Alan Magee.)
BL: Most everything here was made by friends. When you talk about being tied to a place, I look around at these decades of gifts and feel a sense of community. I’ve grouped the books of several friends in each room, so when I walk into a room there’s all of David Quammen’s work, or all of Wendell Berry’s work, or Annie Proulx’s work. When I go through periods of self doubt, feeling my work is no good, I’m borne out of that preoccupation with myself by looking at all this other work.
The Georgia Review
Vol. LX, No. 1 Spring 2006
by Christian Martin
Christian Martin: A skepticism of regimes and institutions certainly threads through the stories in Resistance.
Barry Lopez: In “Traveling with Bo Ling,” Harvey Flemming, returning from Vietnam, says to his father—he doesn’t want to insult him, his father fought in the Second World War and so he can’t attack him in a way he otherwise might—he says, “Dad, what is the lesson of war?” And his father says, “To be vigilant.” That’s part of the undercountry of the book, what emerges from all the stories. To be vigilant. To be aware that life is chaotic, and that totalitarianism, far from being the visible enemy, is almost always visiting us with an attractive plan to diminish that chaos.
You know the story of Christ in the desert for forty days? Have you read Quarantine, Jim Crace’s novel? It’s about those days Christ spent in the desert, but Crace keeps Christ in the background somewhere. He concentrates instead on other people praying in the desert during those forty days of quarantine. If you bring a reductive mind to that story, you’ll use the expression “the Devil” to characterize the attractiveness of a certain temptation to a starving man. The problem with evil, however, is that it rarely presents itself in so readable a form as “the Devil.” Evil is so attractive that you almost always accommodate yourself to it. It’s not until you’re deeply entwined that you realize what you’ve gotten yourself into. It’s not until you try to get out of the trouble you’ve gotten into. That’s why a life of resistance is a life of wariness about everything that’s attractive.
We ask ourselves, “How could the German people not have known what was going on, long before the Panzer divisions moved into Poland in September of 1939? How could they not have known about Bergen-Belsen?” Well, a system to administer evil without interference is usually firmly entrenched before anyone notices—you don’t get the opportunity to see it coming. As Mussolini intuited, if you just make the trains run on time, people will be happy. So, if you’re simply getting on with life—paying your taxes, changing diapers, wondering how you’re going to make the car payment next month—you’re not really paying attention to what having the trains run on time might mean.
We pride ourselves in this country on having the greatest democracy in the world, but it’s still an experiment. And—snap!—just like that—we could be living under a totalitarian regime. We’re primed for it to happen. The enemy we must defeat at all costs—terrorism—has been evoked, and government is asking for the suspension of laws and rights that have long ensured a democratic existence for us. So in this situation resistance becomes a set of questions. What is the nature of this enemy? What exactly is the threat? Could you explain why the suspension of these laws is necessary?
CM: Well, why would that mother who is busy changing diapers and just wants the train to be on time, or the businessman who works sixty hours a week and is happy if the satellite TV and the SUV and cellphone are all working—why would those who think everything seems comfortable enough recognize vigilance, caution, and resistance as important?
BL: Maybe they’re not important. Ours is an age of narcolepsy, I think. The cost of paying attention is just too high for most of us. What’s really necessary is that the community be vigilant. It’s impossible for every human being to take on that responsibility. It’s cruel to even ask. The genius of community is that it allows any of us to be in the breakdown lane periodically and still feel that everything will be covered. In every traditional village I’ve been in, when there’s tension, say, between husband and wife, the kids are free to live with an uncle or aunt or grandparent for a while. Nobody looks at it as failure on the part of the parents. They look on it as just another rough stretch of water in the ocean of the community. Nobody bears any stigma.
You can’t come up to a person shouting, “Pay attention! You have to be responsible.” It’s presumptuous and arrogant. We can’t live like that. We must create time for everybody to consider what their actions will be and try to take some of the collective burden off of other people’s shoulders.