Nature writer Barry Lopez: Nature writer says zoo's like mental hospital

Barry Lopez. -- PHOTO: DAVID LIITTSCHWAGER
Barry Lopez. -- PHOTO: DAVID LIITTSCHWAGER

Barry Lopez is describing his home in western Oregon, where he has lived in the crook of a sprawling forest for the past 44 years.

"It's just a house in the woods," the 69-year-old American writer says modestly. He shares the cozy space with his wife, a writer and teacher.

"There's about 36 acres around the house that the animals still own - that's one way to put it. The house sits on a riverbank of a big river. When you walk out the door, you could probably go 30 miles before you reach a public highway."

He casually mentions that in addition to the sightings of black bears, he has spotted "a lot of mountain lions" around the house this past spring.

"They're not going to bother you. The only big animal that stalks people is probably the polar bear. Polar bears, at least in my experience, see you in your sleeping bag on the sea ice and they see you as a seal. So you don't want to do that." He chuckles in a rich baritone.

He would know. He is considered one of the United States' foremost writers on the natural world and one of his best known works of non-fiction is Arctic Dreams (1986), a dizzying, reverential ode to one of the most remote corners of the globe, where he goes from the devastating Arctic whale hunts of the 1800s to observing the Yup'ik people hunt walrus in the Bering Sea.

His other well-known work, Of Wolves And Men (1978), makes you feel like you are looking at one of these majestic animals in the eye.

He has written numerous essays, fiction works and travelogues - he has been to about 80 countries and counting.

He is fuelled by a combination of insatiable curiosity and an infectious child-like wonder as to how the world works. He spent 68 days on an ice-breaking vessel that travelled from the United States to the Weddell Sea, above Antarctica, and "crawled into every space that would admit a human body in that ship. I just wanted to turn it inside out".

He also spent an entire month travelling on air freight planes - a total of 195,000km, which works out to about 6,437km a day, to find out "what happens when... your body has absolutely no idea of the 'when', let alone the 'where'."

But the one place he will never, ever set foot in is a zoo. He chokes up slightly at the thought: "I just can't bear it. It's like walking through a mental hospital - the same brokenheartedness I feel in a situation like that."

He pours these observations, whether of the deeply beautiful or horrifically ugly, into his writing. It is difficult to reconcile a man of so much empathy and hopefulness with a terrified child who was brutally sexually abused by a psychopathic former boyfriend of his late mother.

From the ages of seven to 11, Lopez was routinely raped by a man who had charmed his way into the family, claiming to be a doctor. He was not.

He mentioned this terrible violation in several essays, but it was not till last year that he wrote a full-length one detailing his childhood horrors in Harper's Magazine. He is candid about his past: "I can tell you straight up. I had no idea how I came out on the other side of my childhood. In some ways, I thought I was left catatonic. But apparently, I wasn't."

After years of silence, he chose to confront his trauma directly and went through many years of therapy to ensure that "long-term sexual abuse no longer organised the meaning of my life".

He wrote that his mother, when told by his stepfather about the abuse, became hysterical and had to be sent to the hospital. She never brought it up again till her dying day.

Today, Lopez keeps a watchful eye over his two grandchildren, whom he is very close to, his radar alert for any suspicious adult who is a little too keen on spending one-on-one time with children.

Lopez, who has four stepdaughters, talks excitedly about how he hopes to take his 11-year-old grandson on a trip to Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, in June, where he will be a guest lecturer on a ship-based tour. Polar bears will abound and he is sure his grandson will be thrilled.

He still travels frequently and is looking forward to spending some time exploring a bit of Singapore as he has never been in a city-state such as this before. And as always, his goal is to offer, in his writing and his observations, what the more modern developments of film and television might not.

He says: "I think other media can overwhelm. The tendency is to have a kind of pyrotechnic presentation, you know, the whole special-effects business.

"What I find with writing is that it's a quieter and subtler engagement of the reader's imagination. For me as a writer, I'm really interested in what happens in an intimate encounter."

To Lopez, his reader will always be at the heart of it all. He says, with deep feeling: "I want to find something that leaves me speechless and then find the language for it and then give it to somebody. And then I want them to come to life."

Corrie Tan