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Wisdom in the wilderness

24 September 2021

In Creationtide, Ian Tattum celebrates the work of Barry Lopez, who died last year

Daniel Mirlea/Alamy

Musk oxen in snow

Musk oxen in snow

IN HER book Practical Mysticism, published in 1915, Evelyn Underhill writes of the possibility of an engagement with the non-human world which is immediate and transcends our accumulated habits of control and labelling. She describes an encounter in which we can experience “a communion with life: where the scents of the ceasing rain, the voices of trees . . . the acrid touch of sorrel on the tongue” arouse “a response in our souls”.

Such sentiments might bring to mind P. G. Wodehouse’s Madeline Bassett, with her insistence that the stars are God’s daisy chain; but a spirit of immersion and wonder has not only become a staple of contemporary nature writing, but has been shown to have physical and psychological benefits, which enter the marginal terrain between wel-lbeing and “the spiritual”.

Lucy Jones’s Losing Eden is particularly good on this, but, for many admirers of nature writing, the most influential and inspiring figure is the late Barry Lopez, whose Arctic Dreams (first published in 1986) is referred to by Robert Macfarlane as the book that turned him into a writer.

Lopez died last Christmas Day, shortly after the publication of Horizon, his final “autobiographical reflection”. While Macfarlane has written approvingly of Lopez’s “graceful spiritualism”, others have recoiled because they are uneasy about his zeal. The travel writer Jonathan Raban declared himself an agnostic in Lopez’s “church”, “unable to genuflect in the right places”.

Reading Lopez, it is impossible not to notice the wonder, immediacy, and intense attention that he brings to his subjects; but — in contrast to Underhill — he rallies details and data to his aid. His description of musk oxen in Arctic Dreams, for example, doesn’t scrimp on the biology. The remarkable structure of their fur, their complex co-operative defensive strategies against predators, and the fact that they are not oxen at all but distant kin of the chamois — these magnify their remarkable “otherness” and complement the aesthetic description of the steam of their breath in the freezing air. For Lopez, what is known always stands on a cliff edge of the unknown.

He never travels out of mere curiosity, to report on the wonders that he comes face to face with in nature or landscape, but, rather, as a fulfilment of a vocation to find and share wisdom. He is in search of something that is precious on its own terms but also potentially beneficial for Western societies as they respond to a range of challenges, from environmental destruction to the legacies of colonialism.


WHEN I discovered that Lopez freely acknowledged the influence of Thomas Merton — saying, in one interview, that he only eventually decided against joining Merton’s Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky because he feared that he would be too comfortable with the secluded communal life — I immediately had a sense of recognition, of Merton-shaped ways of seeing and communicating.

Lopez always expressed appreciation of his Jesuit schooling for instilling in him a sense of transcendence communicated through a combination of the liturgy and intellectual curiosity; but the influence of Merton was particularly deeply rooted. In Horizon, he mentions Merton three times: once, in recalling his own rejection of the monastic vocation; again, to applaud Merton’s assessment (in The Wisdom of the Desert) of “the moral obtuseness of the conquistadores”; and, finally, to suggest that what humanity might need in the current ecological crisis is more (interior) journeys like Merton’s and fewer like those of Alexander the Great.

In Contemplative Prayer (1968), Merton describes the monk’s chief service to the world as sharing the insights garnered through contemplation: “this silence, this listening, this questioning, this humble and courageous exposure to what the world ignores about itself — both good and evil”. In Contemplation in a World of Action, he praises the Franciscan eremitic movement for seeking solitude as a means not of separating itself from the world, but, rather, of gaining critical distance to see more clearly, in a way that is both open to the world and Evangelical. Here, Merton was, as so often, partly talking about himself, as he increasingly saw his hermitage as a vantage-point from which to bring a Christian perspective to bear on everything from contemporary literature to the Cold War.

Lopez’s chosen vocation was to travel into “wildernesses”, either alone or with groups of people undertaking a common task. There — with field biologists, or indigenous peoples — he sought to listen, attend to, and learn, so he could share the knowledge he accrued, both good and bad.

In Horizon, he writes that his personal beliefs have developed, not in a way that replaces religion but augments it. In the same passage, he praises the numinous quality of inanimate objects with their own meaning, which can only be caught by “a certain kind of welcoming stillness”.

Just like Merton’s, his contemplative spirit was matched by a prophetic one. In Horizons, he describes a kind of secular reliquary: a collection of mementoes from his travels which, together, remind him of what he calls “the deeper truth of life”; its wonder, but also its peril. The collection Includes shells of a particular mollusc, each one unique and telling of the incalculable diversity and randomness of living things; a thin sheet of volcanic rock, more than four billion years old; and a spent cartridge, picked up at a decommissioned whaling station on South Georgia.

Lopez refers to them as being like pages of a psalter, as they, too, speak of the heights and depths, not only of creation, but of human nature: our reasons for lament and our causes to hope — because, as he writes, “We are the darkness, as we are, too, the light.”

The Revd Ian Tattum is the Area Dean of Wandsworth, in the diocese of Southwark.

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