A conversation with Barry Lopez, America's foremost writer on the natural world

Barry Lopez, 69, is considered one of the United States’ foremost writers on the natural world. 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. It won the National Book Award.

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. In this condensed transcript, he talks to Life! about the writing life and some of his adventures.

Q: Are you going to be exploring Singapore and perhaps a bit of the region while you’re here? Or are you just flying in and out for the festival?

A: I want to come in and get my sea legs, as it were – I love to wander in new places, and get the right kinds of directions and companionship and just take a look around. I’ve never been to Singapore – it’s a city-state and I’ve not had that experience. I’m interested in spending time there, I don’t want to come and go – who needs that? (chuckles) It’s very disrespectful.

Q: I wonder if you might be able to describe to me what your immediate natural surroundings are - what surrounds your house (in Oregon)?

A: Where I live is where what we’d call rural – there’s no local town or settlement or anything, it’s just a house in the woods. There’s about 36 acres (14.5 ha) 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, it’s about 300 feet (91.4 m) across. It’s a part of the world that Europeans didn’t enter until the 19th century, so my house is the only house that’s ever been built here, and when you walk out the door, you could probably go 30 miles (50km) before you reach a public highway.

Let's see... living right around the woods around the house are black bears and mountain lions. It’s not unexpected to run into them, and this past spring, we’ve had a lot of mountain lions. I don’t know why. It’s one of those mysterious cycles where there are just a lot of lions around. The circumstances are different in every encounter. They’re really not going to bother you. They don’t stalk people. I think probably the only big animal that stalks people is the polar bear. Polar bears, at least in my experience, see you in your sleeping bag on the sea ice, and they just see you as a seal. So – you don’t want to do that. (laughs)

I’m comfortable here. It’s very quiet, except for the sound of the river. I hear it at night, when I sleep. Occasionally we hear an animal crashing through the woods, an elk or a bear or something that’s very close to the house. It was built in 1946, and it was just a serviceable wooden house and I’ve been in it a long time and have slowly put in hardwood floors, and just worked over the years to make it the place that it is. There’s thousands of books in the house. It’s a bit idyllic, I think, to be in the woods and right here on the river in a house full of books.

Q: On the topic of books – I think we’ve become accustomed to ‘communing’ with nature through photographs, film or TV. What do you think that the written word provides in terms of a connection to nature that these other mediums cannot?

A: 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.

I guess the nature of the relationship I want with a reader is one of companionship rather than authority. I think in non-fiction I’ve got to make every effort to be authoritative by doing my homework, interviewing people, and going out to a place and reading a lot about it. If you’re going to ask for a reader’s time, then you owe the reader really good, basic, fundamental research and thoroughness and elegance of language, as well as you can manage that. But the relationship that I want when I’m writing about a place, I want to become intimate with a place and I want to become intimate with the language that develops through several drafts, and I want to create that experience of intimacy with and for the reader.

Q: Have you had many of those moments, when you enter a space, or on your travels, where you see something that leaves you speechless? Can you tell me about any of those moments?

A: Oh goodness. I have a whole life of them. I’ve been in some really remarkable places, I’ve spent a lot of time in the interior of Antarctica – I’ve been to places where we know that no other human beings have never been, really faraway places... I was in Fez (in Morocco) recently, and I just couldn’t get enough of being in the old part of town. I got completely lost without my guide, but I’d wanted to cheer for what human beings had been doing there for hundreds of years, and it was still going on, and it transcended everything that you were going to read the next day in the paper about what was wrong in the world. Here was a testament of what it meant to make something useful and to put food on the table and play with a child. It was really good for the heart. In moments like that, I’m speechless too.

I’ve felt that way in some really godawful places – in Bandar Aceh, after the Boxing Day tsunami (2004), to feel how undramatic was all of that courage. People just got on with it. And I remember many years ago in the Caprivi Strip of Namibia along the Angolan border, just heartbreaking – children wounded from the civil war in Angola and also from the illegal occupation of Namibia by South African troops.

But I’ve also had that feeling in cities. I can think of times in Tokyo or Sydney or Cape Town or Rome, where I was actually writing the other day about something that happened when I was 17 years old, and I walked out of the Uffizi Museum in Florence, and I was disoriented, I was so overwhelmed by the power of what was hanging on the walls and standing on pedestals that I had to go out of a side door of the museum and just walk over to the river and watch the water and try to recover a sense of balance.

Q: When you travel, how do you decide where to go?

A: It’s all instinct. It really is. I’ll get something in my head, and two months later I’ll be there – or 30 years later I’ll be there.I’ve always wanted to go to a place called Svalbard, which is a Norwegian archipelago, at the latitutde of northern Greenland. A really remote place. One thing I like to do is to serve as a guide and a kind of companion for people on journeys, so I’m going to work with one of the ship tour companies in June, and we’ll take people for 11 days around Svalbard, they’ll see a lot of polar bears and it’ll be amazing. I love to see people bewildered and excited, the way they reach out and touch each other, they can’t believe that they’re seeing something like that – I just enjoy it so much.

Q: I get a sense that there’s always a reverence when you write, for your surroundings – and when you travel, what are some of your habits? What do you consciously tell yourself to do, or how long do you feel you ought to stay to get a good sense of your environment and to feel that you can write about a place?

A: I remember when I was on St Lawrence Island on the Bering Sea, and it was during walrus-hunting time. The Eskimos who live there don’t like outside people around when they’re hunting, because they’re just used to the criticism. But I happened to be there, it was okay, and I wrote a story about my experience there during walrus-hunting time. When it came out I sent about 20 to 30 copies of the magazine to the village. I don’t know if anyone read it, I doubt it, but it was - it’s just out of respect. And they notice that, that you sent something back and said, here’s what I did.

I think it was Joan Didion who once said - someone asked her how could she go to this country and spend only three weeks there and then come home and write about it with any authority? The person went on to say, ‘I’ve lived here all my life, you’ve been here only three weeks.’ And she responded by saying, ‘Yes, but you haven’t been paying attention.’ I think that’s very true. When we go into a place, we’re all feelers. We’re taking in smells and colour and the inflections of language. We’re taking in the way light moves across buildings in a 24-hour period. We’re taking in all of this stuff.

Q: How long are you going to spend in Singapore?

A: Five or six days. And then I’m going to turn around and come back – I’ve got a couple of deadline pieces in front of me now. The thing that’s really in front of me is a book – I’m halfway through the third draft with it. A big book, like Arctic Dreams.

Q: Do you usually go through so many drafts in creating something?

A: I do. What I find is that I have to do the whole draft in order to get things... the order of things doesn’t change, what changes consistently is language – the music is wrong, or it feels turgid. A really difficult thing, especially in non-fiction, is to get the page to not have any weight. So you can move through it and you’re exposed to a lot, but you don’t feel like you’re drowning.

I know by shortening, shortening and shortening, in a period of time of deep involvement with the manuscript, I get closer and closer and closer to what the reader is going to experience and how memory is going to work. A lot of the way I try to work is to open something up and then let it slide away, and then come later and pick it up and bring it forward, like a certain kind of stitch. But I really don’t know how to do that until later drafts where I’ve gotten rid of more and more scaffolding and gotten the words that are just placeholders out of the way, and begun to understand the music.

Q: Out of curiosity - what is the model of typewriter you use?

A: I use an IBM Selectric III, And I have three of them, and they are all somewhere between 20 and 40 years old.

Q: And still going strong?

A: Well, they’re going weak. (laughs) I wish they were going strong. I drive 150 miles to the only typewriter repair person within 500 miles. I bring my typewriters to him and he keeps them running. He’s told me the last time I met him that we have to go into them and, completely from the ground up, start rebuilding these three typewriters. But they’re workhorses and I like working with them. I’m just not drawn to that (computer) keyboard, you know? I like the sound of it and I’m just used to the rhythm. Somebody said, well, (with a computer) you can move paragraphs around! I don’t move paragraphs around, by the time I get to a typewriter, the paragraphs are in order somehow in my head. (laughs)

I’m very grateful for whatever the accident was (that let me travel) – I try to think of myself as a polite person, conscious of trespassing into someone else’s world when I’m travelling. But if I look at myself from the outside, I think, god, I must really push to get where I want to get. I’m probably rude without realising. But it’s just a hunger – I remember this from the time I was three years old. I just wanted to see, I just wanted to go, and to see – and bring a story back, and give it to somebody, and watch them light up. That’s all I wanted, to see a person come to life, and just disappear and go back and poke around in some other part of the world.

Book it

LECTURE: NATURE AND HUMAN NATUREWhere: National Museum of Singapore, Gallery TheatreWhen: Nov 9, 11.30amAdmission: $15 from Sistic

PANEL DISCUSSION: CENTS AND SUSTAINABILITYWhere: Singapore Management University Campus Green, Makeover TentWhere: Nov 9, 2.30pmAdmission: With a festival pass, $20 from Sistic