Mike Matz: Wilderness Storytelling

Barry Lopez came to town last month and delivered a talk entitled “The Writer and Social Responsibility,” which was as positively delightful as it was intellectually provocative. Those of you familiar with his work—books ranging from his nonfiction “Of Wolves and Men” and “Arctic Dreams” to fictional “Field Notes,” “River Notes,” and “Desert Notes”—know that his is both authoritative and companionable literature. We learn about places we've never been as if we had been there with a friend.

Not only a world-class writer, Barry is also a wonderful lecturer. He clearly strives to make certain that it's worth the time, for the reader and the listener. This is the writer's ethical responsibility, he humbly asserted. Writers must deploy their gift of forming patterns of language to resonate with the perceptions and ideas of the audience.

He certainly succeeded that Friday evening in April. Barry's talk gave rise to pictures in our mind that made us nod in assent at various points. We see what he's seeing. More than that, you agree with what he's saying because it's what we feel inside yet cannot find as lyrical a way to express those shared sentiments.

When he talked of searching out the real edges of the world, as he did in telling a story of climbing down from an icebreaker and walking away onto the Antarctic icepack over the Weddell Sea, with the hum of the ship's diesel engines fainter and fainter until they are too far away to be heard, you wish you could have been one of his two companions. You'd see the stars in the brilliant sky the way he described. You'd feel the same uncomfortable sense of being too far out there at the same time his friends did and turn back with him toward the distant lights of the icebreaker. In a way, because of his gripping description, we were there with him, though we never left the edges of the folding chairs in the library auditorium. We were mesmerized by the strength of his words and the embracing tone in which they wafted over us.

Barry confesses to be more aware of and invigorated by his surroundings in these moments at the edge than when he's in the middle of sophisticated urbanity where the majority tend to gravitate. I have to agree. Senses are more attuned. Patience is put at a premium. In places such as these, you must alertly wait for what may appear around you. The sounds at first are merely the ringing in your ears until the birds become comfortable again in your presence and resume their chattering. It's a gift of serenity to be in a spot such as this—away from the hustle and bustle that mainly lies elsewhere.

Often we forget. Or we forget how deeply ingrained our appreciation is for these areas and the moments we can steal away in them. Development is coming closer to the edges, the remote extremes are moderated, the wild is increasingly tamed. Some may never see a sky brimming with stars and stretching from horizon to horizon, such as can be witnessed on the expanse of the icepack or desert.

In times of societal stress, when we experience a disaster or face a loss, we turn to our storytellers. It is their role—responsibility, Barry avows—to reassure us. It always has been, even before written words. Storytellers let us know how those who preceded us dealt with cultural distress, said the author. In this, again he succeeded.

I walked away buoyant that evening after Barry's presentation. I was reminded why it is we need the wild and that there are people like you who care. Together, we will share our stories of working to safeguard some wild places for those who will follow. We will leave them the opportunity to see a night sky brimming with stars.