On April 12, 2011, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Barry Lopez on the campus of Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. The following morning I ate breakfast with Barry, along with several other faculty and students, and continued the discussion begun at his lecture. Barry Lopez, for those of you unfamiliar with his work, is among the most talented and versatile writers in the United States—at least that's what the flyer for his presentation says. I think he's among the best in the world. He has written fiction and nonfiction (you may be familiar with his National Book Award winning piece, Arctic Dreams), sat down with policymakers and peasants, camped on the ice in the arctic, developed curriculum with E. O. Wilson for a program in Natural History and the Humanities at Texas Tech University, and generally engaged in his world in a manner which helps others of us understand our own lives. His thoughts on what writing is—what storytelling should be—and what it means to be an engaged citizen need to be shared. Through this discussion I hope to help refine my own thinking on what it means to be a professional communicator, and perhaps offer you new ways to explore your own world.
I want an autograph!
To start, I must be perfectly honest. Somehow I missed the memo that Barry would be giving a lecture at my own university, so when I received an email about three weeks prior to his visit asking if I would be interested in having breakfast with him (and could I bring some students along), I was beside myself. Barry Lopez—on my campus! Of course I'd go! I sent in my acceptance, and, while the digital signal was still parsing, popped over to Amazon.com to rush-order a clean copy of his book Arctic Dreams. No way was I going to miss an opportunity to get this book signed by the author in his presence.
Over the next few weeks I devoured the book.
That last statement is a lie. Over the next few weeks I did what all assistant professors do, and taught classes, read course material, worked on articles and speeches, networked, conferenced, and slowly, so very slowly, read my way through as much of Arctic Dreams as I could before Barry arrived. Please don't misunderstand. I grew up with the writings of Barry Lopez, E. O. Wilson, Farley Mowat, Annie Dillard, Rachel Carson, insert-your-favorite-environment-related-author-here, but I'd never read Arctic Dreams, and was determined to read this book before his lecture. I didn't get it all done, but Barry gave me a few things to think about for the next time I stop running around long enough to contemplate my world.
Barry Lopez and the Giant Lecture Hall
Barry Lopez spoke as the featured speaker in Auburn University's Littleton-Franklin Lecture Series, which is designed, according to the description on the website, to "address the pervasive problem of retaining our humanity and ideas in a rapidly developing technological society." It is attended by students and faculty from all over campus, and, as these things go, is required participation for certain programs or classes.
The lecture was due to start at 4:00 in the afternoon, and, as I had never been to the Science Center Auditorium (and I wanted to be able to pick out a good seat), I headed over at 3:30. Twenty minutes early to the show, I watched students trudge in, wave to friends, engage the world-at-large with their smartphones, study, and chat casually as the auditorium filled. By 4:00 the place was packed, with students and professors alike sitting in the aisles. We were cautioned to find seats, as in the case of an emergency such seating would be a problem, but as soon as one wave cleared out, more sat down. Barry was introduced, and the lecture began.
Barry began by setting the stage with a poem by the former Poet Laureate of Alaska, John Haines. His introduction was a eulogy—a mourning of voices lost, of insights and fire no longer available to us. His rich, rolling, timbrous voice called out in deep yet hopeful melancholy the invocation of a hunter luring a moose, and in doing so lured us into his own world:
I went to the edge of the wood
in the color of the evening,
and rubbed with a piece of horn
against a tree,
believing the great, dark moose
would come, his eyes
On fire with the moon.
Students fell silent, rapt. The specimen on my left even blessedly stopped jittering his leg and put down his Kindle, raised his exhausted eyes to the stage, and succumbed to the poetry of Barry's Story. Barry told us of his pilgrimage to nearby Waverly, Alabama, his journey to his mother's grave, her life, his history, the story of Barry and how he is shaped by his mother's desire to escape life as a young girl trapped in a small town and see the world, eventually coming back to rest on the farm she'd reconstructed piece by piece over the course of her life. The story is best told by the owner, and I can only share the intensity with which he spoke. How she lived only long enough for his first book to be placed in her hands while she lay dying of cancer, the way she turned the book over and over in her hands as an object, how she told him that now he'd be all right.
The art we cherish most is that which helps us make sense of ourselves as individuals
Barry spoke of storytelling and nature, of loss and desire, of the power that comes from being passionate about one's work. He condensed, for me at least, some of the ideas I've been trying to get my head around for years. It is the artist's goal, he told us, to create meaningful arrangements. We strive to find the meaning in our world, to help others see our own vision, to help others understand our experiences, and, to do this, we have to create patterns. "The most you can hope for," he said, "is to make sense."
Why do we write? I ask this in all seriousness. WHY? Barry asked this question of us, of himself, and answered with, among others, the voice of poet Czeslaw Milosz, Polish Poet Laureate and Nobel Prize winner. "I have to write," the oft-quoted poet speaks, "to save myself from disintegration." In Barry's world of patterning and sensemaking, "disintegration" becomes not some apocalyptic popsci reference to obliteration, but the much more disturbing idea of falling apart. Completely. Totally. Apart. "Disintegration"—to literally dis-integrate. The story, Barry told us, should respect the reader's desire to go on living. It should accommodate the reader, help them see an emptiness where their lives intersect with the writer's message, help the audience integrate their lives with an overarching narrative. To extend, a good story keeps us together by helping us find the passion and drive to take on our world.
The writer, he told us, is not exempt from their topic. When we write we have fear, doubt, anxiety, passion, we put our souls on the line, whether it be a poem about a moose, or the story of the Inuit people, or results of an experiment on climate change, or our work on how communication mediation shapes narratives and alters the world. We are not exempt from our own work.
"Each place is itself only, and nowhere repeated. Miss it and it is gone."
There is a danger, Barry told us, of becoming complacent in our world. We travel, some, like him, extensively, and when we do, we come across the problem of a globalized society. We see the same T-shirts and jeans, the same handbags, the same shoes, in almost every major city of the world, and when we see these things we think that the world is a small place, that we're all the same. We are not all the same, and these superficial coverings hide different cultures and languages, different ways of knowing. My town is different from yours, and while it is tempting to think that proverbial small-town USA—or small-town anywhere—is alike, we do ourselves and others an injustice. Each person, each place, each local policy fight, each local happenstance, is unique to a particular place and town. "Miss it, and it is gone."
Take Auburn, Alabama, for example. A small college town, anywhere USA. But the hubbub and drive in this community! A new Indian restaurant opens, and we flock to the buffet. Along the way we begin to engage in multicultural-driven discourse about food and what it means to eat in our culture (and what that green stuff might be, a question that resolves into perspectives on appearance, multimodalities, flavor across cultures, and, of course, what is that green stuff again?). We win the BSC National Championship, and the Toomer's Oaks, representative living icons of Auburn's culture and heritage, are poisoned in retribution. Take that! In a moment, hundreds of years of history (and toilet paper, a story worth looking up) becomes a battle cry, a cause, a celebration, and, sometimes in the dead of night or on a balmy afternoon, a tearful reimagining of a world without these particular trees and the sights they've seen. "To ignore difference," Barry told us, "does not make things better."
Barry's formal lecture ended with a discussion of difference, with an admonition to get out of town and explore our world. We should explore difference, celebrate difference, poke difference with a stick and see what turns up. We should champion diversity in our world, in our lives, in our culture, because "to eliminate diversity would be like eliminating Carbon and expecting life to go on."
What should I do, who should I be?
As Barry closed, the silence taut absent his deep, mellifluous voice, students at the show only for class credit packed up their bags and whisked away, perhaps taking with them some great insight, perhaps only happy to get out into the warm afternoon. Two students chatted about how, for their courses, they had to put up with shenanigans like this, apparently viewing these events as impositions on their time. I really can't blame them. How often I myself have skipped moments in time that will never come again—sleeping through a meteor shower, ignoring a visiting professor's lecture to grade papers, wondering how I can fit it all in to a too-short day. You can't blame them for wanting to get away. I'm just glad they came at all. Some stayed, however, and Barry answered each question in his way, by looking past the simple question and trying to get to the heart of the matter. From these we learned about his thoughts on writing, his muses (anyone who does their work well and with passion), and, perhaps most importantly, what we should strive to be in order to make a difference.
About that: who we should be. A young woman, the first of the question-askers, asked what seemed to be a simple question. To paraphrase, it was a heartfelt, if somewhat generic, question about what we could do or be in order to make a difference in this world. I don't mean to cast dispersion, it's just a question we hear again and again, until the world echoes with the resounding cries of "But what do I do if I want to make a difference?" Barry answered her with gravity and respect, with a deep calling forth of what it means to be a part of this world. In his answer, he told her this: "If you use what you call a discipline or a major correctly, you'll illuminate everything around you." Don't be worried about trying to fix all the wrongs in the world—just find what it means to be you and explore it. Be passionate, and do whatever you do, be it astrophysics or architecture, writing, or scuba diving, well. Do it so well that you make a difference in your world, and, in doing so, the world will be a better place. Quite simply, "Discover who you are and what you mean and do it!"
The aftermath and sausages
Sketch by Derek Ross
I left the lecture, Facebooked my excitement at the jumble of thoughts I had running through my head (and a sketch drawn of Barry as he spoke), and slept on the ideas. At 7:30 the following morning I showed up at the designated room for Breakfast with Barry and jittered around while I waited for everyone else. Excitable as always, I was the first one there.
When Barry arrived we immediately struck up a conversation—others introduced themselves, but didn't initially seem to know what to say. I tried to remember that this was really for the students, so reluctantly relinquished Barry to the buffet after asking him a question that had been burning for quite a while: What did he think about Farley Mowat, infamous author of Never Cry Wolf?
Barry spoke eloquently in the few moments we had of the dangers of Mowat's writings, his rather infamous writing style that claims to "never let the facts get in the way of the truth." There is a danger here, he told me, in that such a method of storytelling confuses a public. When writers then want to draw attention to real crisis, as Rachel Carson did with Silent Spring, a skeptical public may discount the warnings as just more sky-is-falling alarmism. At the same time, there's a vibrancy and flair for adventure in such writing that serves a purpose: it can wake people up to their natural world and the beauty and savagery alive in the world. A repeated theme of Barry's world seems to be that the best and most truthful stories are those which are honest about their intentions. A good storyteller creates memorable patterns with deepness and complexity which enriches reader's lives—even romance novels, zombie novels, or books about giant whales can do this. The writer must just be honest, and enter into a real exploration of their world.
We ate, questions were asked, and Barry held forth on everything from storytelling to linguistics, from Desmond Tutu to technology. At the risk of being minimalist, I'll sum it up in but a few short paragraphs, though the import should be writ large upon the world.
"The story," he told us, "is a kind of prayer that you enter into with things that are fragile and ineffable." Language collapses reality into meaning—sometimes the complexity of a story is beyond the ken of even the story teller. The best stories are those that make meaning of our world, that have the familiar patterns which encourage us to hear them again and again, to go deeper and deeper into meaning and understanding. What you must do as a writer is make patterns from meaning, strive to create a narrative (even in your academic work), which lets readers follow the pathways of the mind and truly reach a better understanding of their world. Sometimes, however, a good storyteller is just a good storyteller. "You can teach technique," he said, "but you can't teach vision."
You can inspire vision though, I think. Perhaps as teachers and educators, as contributing members of the body politic we just need to remember that our actions and words influence others, that our passion can become palpable, that power isn't just conferred, it is embodied. Sometimes we just need to remember to let our love of craft come through, let others see how much enjoyment we get from designing a poster, or teaching a class, from hiking in the woods, or from writing a story. Sometimes we need to let people in, just a little bit, and in doing so help them find their own vision.
Barry reminded us that our brains and bodies are tied together, that our writing is embodied, not just cerebral. He told how, when writing non-fiction, his hands retreat from the typewriter (yes, typewriter) keys when he finishes, to fall, emptied, into his lap, or to reach up to his cheeks. They know the writing is done before he does. When writing fiction, however, the hands hover, uncertain, over the keys, as if asking, "Are we done?" The body should react in writing. We should write with ourselves, not just with our words.
The question was asked (which I fundamentally disagree with), on how much reflection we have lost because of technologies like Facebook and Twitter. I disagree, because I see these technologies as being on-the-fly reflections of our life. If the unexamined life is not worth living, we are now zestfully, richly, and abundantly alive: every moment of our lives is considered, and a passing smile or handshake, a bee buzzing around a water bottle, as happened during a recent lunch, becomes a public statement or comment, an action which, in the inscription, does require reflection.
But minor reflection, admittedly. Barry, however, told us a story which, again, I cannot do justice to in the essay, but which you should hear anyway. He told of hunting on the sea ice of Baffin Island, of roaring back to camp on their snowmobiles, of having to deal first with a broken machine, then a tent wildly flapping in the wind and preparing to blow away before the coming storm. While he and his companion fought with their tent, a native man stepped out of his own great canvas structure. Barry was sure he was coming down to help, but, instead, the man stood there in the door, proud, solid, gazing out across the horizon, slowly parsing his surroundings, appearing to examine every minute aspect of his world. Only after he understood what he saw did he walk down to help them. This man, you see, understood that what is most important is not a little tent blowing around in the wind, but what kind of weather is coming, and what needs to be done to prepare.
Against Fear: A Conclusion for communicators of all sorts
There IS an ecological storm coming, and we need to prepare. Some would argue that the storm is already here. Our world is changing rapidly, and with the advent of new and faster communication technologies, new ways to both engage and destroy our world, and new ways to hurt people—and to help them—we cannot afford to stand idly by. Barry reminded me that it doesn't matter what we do in this life, so long as we do it with passion, with respect for our fellow humans, and with respect for the planet that sustains us. Passion is powerful, and there's not really time to sit around and wait for more data, to sit still and let things keep happening until we know that something is going wrong. We need people, Elders, to step forward and press against the encroaching wall of disaster that sometimes threatens to engulf us, not for the glory, but just so that others can use the time provided to get things done. We need passionate scholars and involved students. We need people to care for each other, to care when things go wrong, to stop talking about what we might do one day and just do it. As Breakfast with Barry came to a close, he called us to action. "Don't be afraid," he said. "Find what you mean as a person, and find a way to say it." He concluded by adding, "Don't spend time identifying an enemy. Identify what is beautiful and do it."
I never did get my autograph. Somewhere along the way I forgot to worry about getting Barry Lopez's signature on the flyleaf of Arctic Dreams and started getting excited about the ideas floating around the room. Somewhere during that lecture, somewhere over runny eggs, excellent grits, and some rather strange looking sausages I realized that, as communicators, we have a real calling here. If we are technical communicators, risk communicators, journalists, creative writers, poets, or something else entirely, we need to remember that our lives revolve around sharing information with other humans. We need to be engaged in our world, passionate about what we do, and we need to remember that as we are telling our own stories an audience is out there listening. If we do it right, the audience gets excited and finds themselves in our work. This is how the world will change.
The Littleton-Franklin Lectures in Science and Humanities and the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University presented Barry Lopez as a featured speaker on Tuesday, April 12, 2011. His lecture, "Turning Darkness into Light—The Literature of Hope," took place at 4:00 PM in the Sciences Center Auditorium on the Auburn University Campus.
About the author: Derek G. Ross, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Technical and Professional Communication at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, USA. His current research interests include environment-related rhetoric in popular and modern culture, investigation of modern perceptions and use of commonplaces in environment-related rhetoric, and audience analysis techniques related to understanding perceptions of environment-related communication.
About Barry Lopez: See the Barry Lopez web site and the Wikipedia article about one of the best American writers at the intersection of human culture and the human habitat.