Barry Lopez in Ashland

“Wisdom doesn’t belong to a person, it belongs to a community.”

Barry Lopez

Barry Lopez didn’t discuss wolves but he did talk about the need for people to grow up, to consider the health, spiritual, and psychological welfare of others and not just their own selfish desires. If they can’t grow up, they should get out of public office, he said. My personal extrapolation on this topic is that if more would heed this teaching and truly strive to become mature individuals, we would no longer have problems with wolves, because the issues with wolves aren’t about them, it’s about us, our fears, prejudices, and inability to behave altruistically.

Lopez read to us, always an enjoyable experience. His propensity for description is incredible. He talked about how he enjoyed living on the “periphery,” distant, little traveled places where he can view from the edge both humans and the environment. And he shared his wisdom with writers, suggested we think of the reader as a companion, not as a subject we are instructing. Authentic story is not about “you,” it’s about “us,” he said.

One of my favorite parts was his idea of inviting elders to the table when political, environmental and social issues arise, rather than “officials” who are given the freedom to make decisions simply because of their status, education, or wealth. An elder, according to Lopez, is not just someone who is older, but a fully grown up human being, “…one who takes life seriously.” Too often, these are the very people who have no say. In his words, “The best of us have become marginalized.”

Certain folks came to my mind when he said this, those I know who are open-minded, knowledgeable, who engage in conversation about many facets of existence, not just money and prestige. I recalled reading, probably in Peter Matthiesson’s work, of an incident between Crazy Horse and his people and the European-American’s. The settlers demanded that the tribe send forth their spokesman and were appalled when a leader did not instantly appear. The Sioux took pause at this request because there was equality among them, individuals were not normally singled out to rule or to speak for others.

My years on the Navajo reservation showed this as well. There was a sense of equilibrium among the Dine, or Navajo, rather than an impetus to compete, achieve and become a leader. This worked well for them on many levels. One Navajo teacher told me that the only problem with the Dine children was that they were just too happy.

Perhaps a true leader is one who does not feel compelled to lead, but is respectful of other’s point of view, listens to them, and to the needs of the environment as well. Lopez fits this bill. His writings show the influence of many cultures, individuals, animals, as well as nature. He does not dictate, he learns and then shares his impressions.

Lopez stood behind a podium in front of a packed auditorium that evening. Yet, as has been the case each time I’ve heard him speak, he did not feel separate from those seated before him. He engaged his audience, he actually seemed to absorb feelings and thoughts from them. Speaking is not a passive act for Barry Lopez. By the end of the evening, he looked worn out. He wiped his forehead, put his hands together in prayer fashion and leaned forward in a slight bow. The rest of us stood and applauded.


Praise for Barry Lopez:

“Arguably the nation’s premier nature writer.”

– San Francisco Chronicle

“Mr. Lopez’s tone is intimate, inviting, as if his words shared the air with the snap and hiss of a campfire.”
– The New York Times Book Review






3 thoughts on “Barry Lopez in Ashland

  1. Wow, terrific essay Beckie, very moving and revealing and had me welling up at the end, I had the picture of the final scene in my mind very clearly. Mr. Lopez truly is a beacon in a sometimes dark world. Incidentally, there is a group of esteemed people called ‘The Elders’, which includes Jimmy Carter, who are active in trying to influence to the good around the world. They have a web site. I wrote them recently and suggested they should have a category within their framework under the wildlife section, referencing the plight of the wolves and the recent terrible slaughter of elephants for ivory and the disconnection of nature from Man. Not received a reply yet…they’re obviously thinking about it.
    ‘Growing up’ is spot on, I watched a programme on Wolves on the BBC TV recently, it was balanced in its views and who they interviewed, including talking to cattle owners. One in particular ranted on about how he hates the wolf and what he does to those poor cattle and such, tearing them apart etc. and I am thinking, how juvenile, for a man who raises and slaughters cattle and has seen nature at work, there truly is some inbuilt hatred that harks back to the 1800’s or beyond, a world of superstition with explanation. It’s not uncommon, that recent article where a wolf was killed by The Mollies is disturbing in one sense, to know and realise one wolf or a number attacked and killed another does go to the heart of our ‘civilised’ souls and we have ‘feelings’ about it, yet we have to accept it as ‘life’ and death. It is, if we accept it, the way we arose, cat’s toy with and kill mice, big cats will bring live animals for their cubs to learn to kill, it doesn’t make pleasant viewing, but perhaps that says more about our disconnection from real life and our attitude towards wildlife. And yet I read that 70 million (70 million, it’s unbelievable) sharks are killed every year, often for sharks fin soup, their fins often cut off then they are thrown back in the water. The shark, like the wolf, is an apex predator, and we disturb greatly the balance of life in doing this.
    I believe that we need a huge change of consciousness towards all wildlife in the same way as we abolished slavery (ongoing still), emancipated women (still ongoing too), origin of the species (still argued) in order to live with the systems of life. It seems to me that we have become what I would call a ‘linear’ animal, as opposed to the wolf or shark, who live within ‘the revolution of their days’ and every stage of our living needs to be answerable to a code of ethics that complies with the future sustaining of the planet for future generations. We have risen up, but forgotten our place within the scheme of things, become an apex animal, yet know not how to be a responsible one.
    Regarding leaders, and I am sure you know this story, about an Iroquois tribe, whose council decide to move to another area to hunt, without realising it was inhabited by wolves. The wolves attacked them. They had a choice, move on or kill the wolves. If they killed them, they would become the sort of people they did not want to become. And so they moved on. In all future council meetings, to avoid a repetition of their mistake, they decided someone should be appointed to represent the wolf. And at each meeting the question would always arise, “Who speaks for the wolf?”
    Guess that’s what they call wisdom.
    ‘a loan-translation of L. dentes sapientiæ, itself a loan-transl. of Gk. sophronisteres (used by Hippocrates, from sophron “prudent, self-controlled”), so called because they usually appear ages 17-25, when a person reaches adulthood.’
    I hope Mr Lopez is around for many years to come.


  2. Thanks, I am hoping my time at my writing course will help me clarify much that I want to write. Like you, if only the day job would vanish!!
    If you get chance, please have a listen and a read of that Wendell Berry speech, its absolutely wonderful, it goes right to the heart of so many of our trials and tribulations. Truly a wise man. So now with Mr Lopez and Mr Berry we have two wise men, one more and a star in the east to go!


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