The Function of a Story

Barry Lopez, 1945-2020

In honor of the passing of novelist and essayist and environmentalist Barry Lopez on Christmas 2020, his spiritual home, Orion magazine, asked nineteen of his friends and colleagues to offer remembrance. And I was deeply moved, not so much by their memories of a friend, but by their consistent memories of his purposes as a writer. Of his steadfast belief that he should be simultaneously honest and generous, that in fact those two commitments were paired and parallel.

I bring some of those thoughts to you today.

The last time I saw Barry was at the Berkeley Book Festival, in 2019, where he told a story about sitting in a strip mall in Alice Springs, Australia, with a Pintupi man. Barry was explaining to the man the distinction our culture makes between nonfiction and fiction, the factual truth versus the emotional one. The man listened carefully, thought for a moment, shook his head, and said, “that wouldn’t work for us.” Then he said, “the distinction we would make is between an authentic story and an inauthentic story. An authentic story is about all of us, all the people. An inauthentic story is only about the one who wrote it.”

I put this story in my pocket, with another I heard Barry tell about a word an Inuktitut speaker in Yellowknife shared with him: Isumatuq. Storyteller. The person who creates the atmosphere in which the wisdom reveals itself. And in that same pocket, I added something else Barry said when we were teaching together at Pacific University, that we are pattern makers, that if our patterns are beautiful and full of grace, they will have the power to bring a person for whom the world has become chaotic and disorganized up from their knees and back to life.

Triangulated, these three seem sufficient to construct a writer’s life.

Pam Houston

In my mind he was traveling widely, to forgotten places across the globe, with a searchlight, like some archaeologist of the inner landscape, hoping to remind us of what we could be. Working, in effect, to bring us back to our senses.

Pico Iyer

We were drawn to art that chastened and unsettled us, but also to those artists, writers, and musicians to whom we kept returning to be reminded of what was, for us, solid ground.

Barry has often said that his role as a writer is to help. He did that by offering us a vast landscape of experience to consider, and he showed us how to observe and attend to our own landscapes with tenacity and kindness.

Alan Magee

Barry’s respectful engagement gave me permission to notice small things, to see patterns, to connect them with their effects in a wider world, just as he had witnessed animals destroyed by our hurtling from one place to another too fast to notice.

Molly O’Halloran

Although his heart has stopped beating, after a long and dignified battle, Barry’s voice hasn’t been silenced. No. It abides in the books. They remind us that the world is vast and wonderful, that the heart and the curiosity of one Barry Lopez were vast and wonderful too, and that his character was keen and strong and benevolent. That’s the miracle of literature. We still have his voice, and it’s incomparable.

David Quammen

And the last words, from Lopez himself:

If I have a subject, it is justice. And the rediscovery of the manifold ways in which our lives can be shaped by the recovery of a sense of reverence for life.

If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.

Barry Lopez