Barry Lopez and ‘The Tree’


At Work

Barry Lopez by the McKenzie River near his home. Photograph by David Liittschwager.

“Art and nature are siblings, branches of the one tree.” —John Fowles

Barry Lopez often explores the relationship between landscape and culture in his nonfiction. He wrote the introduction to the The Tree, just published by Ecco Books. Lopez spoke with me from his home in western Oregon.

The way that you described having to put the book down and walk away from it, “its thought was as stimulating as I could stand”—I had that exact experience as I read The Tree.

Well that’s wonderful. I think John was so strongly perceived by people as a literary figure, relatively few wondered where his pattern of thought came from. A somewhat ramulose—do you know what I mean by ramulose? If you look at a tangle of rosebushes and you try to trace with your eye, pick a rose, and go backwards, trying to find where it came from? Well, he had a ramulose mind, and he was captivated psychologically, emotionally, and in a literary way by these kinds of natural complexities. They endlessly entertained him.

Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman is one of my favorite novels. I think of it as a book that is both a romance between humans and a romance between humans and nature.

I think you’re absolutely right.

It sticks with me in this intense way. I connect both love and romance and sex in that book to actual, physical landscapes. I can’t think of another novel like that. But I had never heard of The Tree until recently. It was a revelation to me.

To me too. I’m sitting on the same couch now, in the same room I read that book in thirty years ago, remembering it.

What has changed in those thirty years, both for you—and I know this is too big a question—and in terms of your experience of reading the book?

Well, I guess I’d back up a ways. I grew up in Southern California in an agricultural region. My father walked out, so it was just my mother and my brother and I, and where I felt comforted and elevated was in the landscape away from the house—the sound of wind in eucalyptus trees, the feeling of sun on my skin, and just walking in what was mostly an irrigated landscape in the San Fernando Valley. Then my mother got married again and we all moved to New York and I entered a Jesuit prep school on 83rd Street. I brought with me at the age of eleven this huge experience of what I would now call the numinous from landscapes in Southern California, the Mojave Desert and the Grand Canyon and so on, and suddenly I was among a group of people who had no experience with those kinds of landscapes. Everything was about getting a liberal-arts education. I was all the time in the Metropolitan or at the Frick Collection or going to the theater. I was immersed in a completely different world. When I left to go to university, when I was seventeen, that combination of things was a tremendous, unsettled hunger in me, to be present to the complexities of the natural world in the same way that John has spoken about being present in places in Devon and Dorset, and at the same time being intellectually fascinated with the world that a liberal-arts education opens for you. Putting those two things together—an intellectual curiosity (a grounding in the history of ideas in Western culture) and this terrific longing to be immersed in the complexities of the natural world—made a certain kind of writer out of me, which I wasn’t conscious of, of course. When a book I wrote about wolves called Of Wolves and Men came out in 1978, my editor at Scribner said she was going to send it to Fowles, and I said, “You’ve got to be out of your mind. Why would he ever be interested in what I have to say about wolves?” She said, “Look, you just write, let me be the publisher.” He sent a lovely letter back about how much he liked the book.

Oh, how wonderful that must have been.

I was flabbergasted. I’m sure my ears were red with self-consciousness and chagrin that someone like me—you know, you think, “Who am I to go knock on somebody’s door, figuratively, to go knock on John Fowles’s door?” He wrote a very nice encomium for the book, and that’s the only quote on the back of the hardback edition of Of Wolves and Men. I’d sent him a long thank-you note about how much I admired his work, but I was very shy about it, and then The Tree was published in 1979. I got a call about reviewing the book for Sierra magazine, and I thought, “I must do this, it’s ethically imperative that I do this and read the essay very carefully.” And then John and I went back and forth—a letter here, a letter there. My introduction to this new edition of The Tree is a massive reworking of that original review.

It felt to me very much that you were writing this introduction now.

When I read the review again I thought, well, this is OK, but it felt dated, not in the sense that its points were naive or out of fashion, but it lacked an immediacy that connected that essay to our time. John was talking presciently about a theme, a fault line, in modern Western culture, the root cause of a lot of our political problems, a lot of problems having to do with social organization and the environment.

Many of us have had the experience of reading something when we were young and then coming to read it again thirty years later and realizing that it just doesn’t have the same impact you remember it having. It’s different with this piece. It was relevant in its time and it’s relevant now, because I don’t think John’s work is so topical that it’s isolated in the period in which it was written.

I consider The French Lieutenant’s Woman to be a contemporary novel.

And I consider that to be the case with The Tree. What he’s urging there is not some “going back to the land” philosophy; he’s recognizing that the human mind or the human heart intertwined with the insoluble mystery of life, as it is expressed in the natural world, in the unmanipulated world, is a source of rejuvenation. If you are living in a time of despair—in cultural despair, as we are now, or in personal despair after a tragedy—and you’re filled with grief, this essay opens up a kind of thinking that is to me, one of the ways, if not the oldest way, we have of thinking clearly about ourselves and our relationship to the world.

As I read The Tree, I kept repeating “yes, yes, yes, exactly!”

John was a man who understood what he was writing about in The Tree. He understood how things are held together, and that kind of sensibility is one I’m deeply attracted to. When you really immerse yourself in the natural world, no matter how many bird guides or explanations you’ve got about what it is you’re seeing, you’re going to be overwhelmed. And the message is, step into it. Don’t try to define nature. It is not definable or controllable. One of life’s great ecstasies is to step into it. So much theater unfolds like this. When the curtains on a proscenium stage open up, you can feel your heart moving toward the stage. What is it? I want to be in it. I want to be caught up in the tidal waves of whatever the play is.

That is our relationship to art, too, the best art—just like the natural world.

Absolutely. John had that same thing. He had this sense that there was more to be gained than ever could be understood by having a profound relationship with the numinous dimensions of landscape. It’s been confusing, personally, for me since I was a child, these terms like “nature writing.” This always seemed bizarre to me—that you would put the metaphor before the literature. It’s either literary or it’s not—I could see making that kind of judgment—but Fowles was saying, look, nature has been our stuff since the Magdalenian phase of Cro-Magnon time, at least. We know that the firestorm and hurricanes of the imagination cannot be given language until we create simile and metaphor, and the most obvious material for us to share is what our senses bring to us. So you and I look together into this big canyon or at this grove of trees or something, and I can turn to you and say, “You know, I feel like that.” And you would know exactly what I mean.

Because this huge, numinous thing would be connecting even two humans—

And then you’re not alone. Then you’re not cut off and alone, knowing that no matter how you try to play your cards you’re going to end up a dog dead by the side of the road, forgotten by everybody. I think this feeling is so widespread in American society. So many people feel that even though they’ve created an atmosphere of accomplishment around themselves that the moment they’re gone, they will be forgotten. It’s like the moment you lose your life jacket after the ship goes down, and you sink, no one will notice that you sank, no one will notice that you’re missing. Part of the great personal work of the twenty-first century is to create a place in the world where you’re not constantly threatened by the idea that you’re expendable, that you could be done away with and no one would care.

The grandeur of nature makes you still feel that way too, and yet you don’t mind.

No, because you step into it. You know you’re included, necessary. In fact, you’re loved. I remember this woman once—I was traveling up north in a village and I was morose one day in this small village—this older woman said to me, “Barry, what’s making you sad?” And I said, “I think I’m just homesick.” She looked at me and said, “Don’t you understand? When you miss your place, your place is missing you, and this is how you feel it.” She took the reciprocity for granted.

What a beautiful perspective to have.

Absolutely. Isn’t it?

Right, the idea is that when you are pining for a missed connection, you imagine you are alone in feeling it.

You do. And that’s because you always imagine yourself talking to the world and that no one can hear you. Then you realize that there is that connection, and you renew it by walking out the way John describes his taking a walk at the end of The Tree. It’s an exercise in sanity.