Afterword from Outside
by Barry Lopez
Early in my writing life I discovered a remote, desolate landscape in southeastern Oregon called the Alvord Desert. I began to visit this dry lake bed regularly, a glaring expanse of white flanked by barren mountain ranges. Being there prompted new thinking for me about the relationship between physical landscapes and descriptive language, and about the way physical setting might reinforce certain themes in a fictional narrative.
The initial story to emerge from my emotional and intellectual experience with this landscape was “Desert Notes,” which I wrote when I was about twenty-four. Other stories soon followed, generally inspired by the layered geography of the Alvord and other alkali deserts in the American West. Together, these stories, which formed a kind of mosaic about such places, came to comprise Desert Notes: Reflections in the Eye of a Raven.
In 1974, Jim Andrews, at the time the president of Universal Press Syndicate in Kansas City, Kansas, read Desert Notes and said he wanted to publish the manuscript under his newly-established imprint, Sheed, Andrews, & McMeel. (Earlier, in 1966, as an editor at Ave Maria magazine, he had published some of my first short stories.) One winter afternoon, planning to review arrangements in a contract for this book, Jim and I went for a walk in Loose Park, on the Missouri side of Kansas City. He was concerned, he told me, about my trying to make my living writing for magazines. Instead of a single-book contract for Desert Notes, therefore, he wanted to offer me an advance on a three-book contract. Go back to Oregon, he said, and decide what you want the other two books to be. Dumbfounded, I accepted his offer. He pulled from his overcoat pocket a letter of agreement that he had already prepared and a small check. We each signed a copy of the letter, on the gleaming hood of his black Town Car, and he handed me the check which, in that moment, loomed very large.
A month later I wrote Jim, telling him I intended to follow up on the broad themes and general organization of Desert Notes with a book called River Notes, later subtitled The Dance of the Herons. Its stories, I told him, would be set in a temperate-zone rain forest, on the banks of a white-water river in western Oregon. In keeping with our agreement I said I was also planning the third book, to be called Animal Notes, though I would need to figure out later how its stories would dovetail with stories in the first two books, in order to form a unified trilogy.
I had no inkling then that I would never write Animal Notes. The strong, if still vague, impulse behind such a book—a desire to probe the ways in which wild animals are woven into the fabric of human society—eventually became another book entirely, a work of nonfiction called Of Wolves and Men. In 1976, in order to fulfill the terms of our letter-of-agreement, I offered Jim an outline for that book, along with some photographs and page layouts.
Jim published Desert Notes in June 1976. I finished River Notes a year after Desert Notes appeared, and it came out in the fall of 1979. A year later, in September 1980, Jim died, suddenly and unexpectedly. He was 44 and, as far as I knew, had been in excellent health. (Around the time of the book’s publication Jim had asked me, eerily, to read a particular story in River Notes, “The Falls,” at his funeral. I couldn’t manage it on the day of the funeral, but did read the story aloud a few months later at his graveside.)
After Jim had read the outline for Of Wolves and Men and looked at the art and layouts, he told me he didn’t have the expertise to publish the book the way he thought it should be done. He urged me to take the book to a more capable publishing house and said he considered my contractual obligation to him fulfilled. With his support and good will I submitted the book to several publishers, and in October 1978, Charles Scribner’s Sons brought out Of Wolves and Men.
In 1980 I finished a third collection of short fiction, Winter Count. By then I was aware that certain of my short stories, isolated from the others, occasionally struck some readers as an experimental form of essay writing. I can understand why a reader might think this. (My stories are rarely based on events in my own life, nor are they based on people I know. They’re often set, though, in landscapes I’ve resided in or traveled through.)
I believe, in writing fiction, that I’ve always been sensitive to the peculiar authority that a presentation of fact has in our culture, of how detailed, plausible descriptions of remote geographies, for example, can create an aura of authenticity. I want that aura. Also, more than plot, I’m bent on the discovery of a pattern of association between a character and a particular place; and, more than establishing plot elements, I want to delineate some kind of shift in the life of a central character. Finally, I can understand that certain of my stories—again, isolated from the other stories in a collection—might be taken as autobiographical, because of the factual detail I offer about a particular place or because I so often use first-person narrators.
Not all the stories I’ve written fit neatly inside the framework I’ve just outlined. Some are character-driven, others do have a minimal plot. What I’m primarily interested in, in short fiction, is what happens to people when something outside the self—a desert landscape, an urban neighborhood, a character the narrator encounters, weather passing through—comes into play. (On occasion I have wondered whether what I have actually been pursuing all these years, put simply, isn’t the nature of some buried set of profound ethical relationships between a person and various components of the physical landscapes in which that person finds himself or herself.)
On that winter afternoon in Loose Park, Jim Andrews made it possible for me to follow a path that otherwise would have been much more difficult to navigate. In the 1980s and ‘90s, while other books were coming along—Arctic Dreams, Crossing Open Ground, Crow and Weasel—I continued to feel an unfulfilled obligation to Jim—and to myself—to write a third book of stories that would complete the fictional trilogy we had originally agreed to.
Following a long stretch of writing essays, I returned to writing short fiction in the early 1990s. In 1993 I chose a few stories from those I’d already completed, wrote several more in a related vein, and arranged them together in a collection of twelve (to match the number I’d established in the other two books), including again, for the third time, a story entitled “Introduction.” In September 1994 Knopf published Field Notes: The Grace Note of the Canyon Wren, what I considered the final volume in the trilogy. The stories in the first two books had been unified by their particular geographical settings; the stories in Field Notes were related, instead, by the numinous nature of the landscapes in which they were set.
As I see it, the same handful of questions I possessed about the meaning of human life when I was a young writer have remained with me. These concerns, about personal identity for example, or the ethereal dimensions of reality, are now, I hope, simply more nuanced, more informed.
When I write a story, I am not trying to make a point or demonstrate any particular proficiency as a writer. I am trying to make the patterns of American cultural life more apparent, patterns any individual reader might be able to take further, metaphorically, than I am able to, patterns that I hope will serve the reader’s own search for meaning. In the creation of the story, it is the reader’s welfare, not the life of the writer, that is finally central.