Barry Lopez is one of America’s pre-eminent writers. As an author and essayist of more than a dozen books and numerous magazine articles, Lopez examines the relationship between the physical landscape and human culture, exploring both humanitarian and environmental issues. Winner of some of the most prestigious awards in American letters, Lopez lives near Finn Rock, Oregon, along the McKenzie River. The following is an adaptation of a talk he gave on the Notre Dame campus on March 9, 2017.
I have had the good fortune over the last 30 years to have been asked to speak as an American writer at a number of universities and other venues, but I must say that standing here before you this afternoon has presented me with a kind of anxiety and conflict that’s not easy to resolve. I’m not talking about some sort of nostalgia because I received two degrees here, half a century ago, or taught here 28 years ago, either of which might induce me to say something insincere, out of a sense of shared affection for Notre Dame — for example, that “I’ve sat where you are sitting today.”
First, this building was not here when I was a student. Second, anyone my age who believes he has special insight into what it means to be in his or her late teens or early 20s today is kidding himself. Your world is completely different from the world I knew when I was your age. In short, I have only a glimmer of what is in your heads — about politics, about global climate change, about globalization, about the inutility of war. I could say that in our formative years you and I shared similar circumstances, a similar setting here. But after that, we are unknown to each other — except for this insistent conviction I have, and feel, that you are my brothers and sisters, that there is a question of allegiance here for me, and of concern for your fate.
For me, then, you are no ordinary audience. In some complex way I feel an ethical responsibility to you. I want, then, to step out from behind whatever professional standing I might have with you — the books I’ve written, the fellowships and awards, the honorary degrees — and say that I care what happens to you. And that is why I am here this afternoon.
When I entered Notre Dame at the age of 17, I naïvely declared a major in aeronautical engineering, a conviction I was soon able to get over with a grade point penalty that made me, four years later, a cum laude graduate, not a magna cum laude graduate, by one-tenth of a point. (A “staggering” humiliation I somehow outgrew.)
I was someone who went to Mass and communion three or four times a week, who went down to the Grotto to pray in the middle of the night, not for favors but for enlightenment, about the absurdity of life as it seemed to me then, about the extent of human cruelty. I did not have the confidence I felt I needed to make my way through the moral confusion of the Vietnam War, for example, to navigate in that ethical fog in order to reach a place where I could take a confident stand. A group of us who opposed the war, and who were recognizable by our Carnaby Street clothes and long hair, were the objects of ridicule and jeering — and worse — from other students for that ethical stance.
Eventually, however, I came to understand that I was not a conscientious objector, that this ethical stance was true in my head — a reasonable conclusion — but not in my heart. So one cold, snowy morning in December of my senior year, I went off to Chicago to take my military physical. If you did that, at the time, voluntarily, then when you were drafted, as you very likely would be, you could choose both the branch of the military you would serve in and the job you would do. I chose the Army, and to be a medic. I failed the physical because of some injuries that hadn’t healed and, weirdly, was never drafted.
I offer you this long story of a troubled and confused boy only to say that I do understand what it means to be young and torn about how to conduct yourself in the world of your own time.
In the spring of my senior year I was playing baseball out there in an open field (which now lies beneath several buildings) and facing a pitcher who wanted more of the plate than I was willing to give him. He threw a high inside pitch, I pulled my hands close to my chest but did not step back, and the ball shattered the stone in my senior ring. The vacancy in the ring unsettled me. I wanted to get a new stone right away, but I didn’t. I left it that way for a year, finally taking it off when I entered graduate school here. Later I found another stone, and I am wearing that ring this afternoon, out of this sense of allegiance I feel with you.
There was a lesson in that unstoned ring, something that took me more than a few months to understand. I want to tread carefully here, so as not to be misunderstood, but what it came to mean for me was that there was something missing in my education at Notre Dame. I needed to find out what that was and then attend to it. One of the things I learned at Notre Dame as an undergraduate was that at a certain point in university you have to develop an understanding that you’re responsible for your own education. If what you are looking for in your studies is not offered, it is your responsibility, not the faculty’s, to find out what that missing piece is and to address it.
Let me give you a little perspective. I entered a Jesuit prep school in New York City — Loyola, on East 83rd Street — in the seventh grade. I got an excellent education there. If you asked me what the most important subject I took was, and we were okay with the idea that this really is a ridiculously reductive question, I would say Latin, my four years of exposure to that so-called dead language. Through it, I absorbed an understanding of grammar and of syntax and vocabulary that served me well, and continues to serve me well as a writer. I learned European history. I was exposed to classical literature, like the Aeneid, the first book of which we translated as a class in my senior year.
I got something else from Latin — the sense that every language was bunkered by thousands of idiomatic expressions that, by themselves, conveyed the complexity, the precision and the insight of that language. For example, in the colloquial Latin of Roman soldiers, the penumbral area around a camp fire that was neither fully lit nor entirely in shadow was referred to as “inter canum et lupum,” the region between the dog and the wolf, between the domestic and the wild.
And then it was, because of those years of studying Latin, that I glimpsed for the first time what it was — a bit grandiose, this, of course — that I wanted to do with my life.
In my sophomore year the translator Robert Fitzgerald visited the campus here to read from his recent translation of the Odyssey. He was to read in the basement of the law library at 2:30 on a Tuesday, as I recall. Unfortunately, I had a sociology class at the time. I didn’t think I could miss the class. It would be disrespectful. Up until then I don’t believe I’d ever cut a class to attend to something else I was greatly interested in. On the way to class that day I was going through the doors into O’Shaughnessy when I saw a poster announcing the Fitzgerald reading. My God, I thought, don’t be a fool. And I turned around and headed for the law library.
What Fitzgerald did on the stage there that afternoon transfixed me. He read beautifully. His translation was felicitous, unlabored, deft. His demeanor was deferential, and the experience itself was lyrical, at least to me. What most impressed me was how rapt the audience was, how fulfilled the faces around me seemed. Fitzgerald managed to almost eliminate himself from the reading, to place Homer’s mind, his meter and language, in the foreground. It was, for me, an astonishing thing. We in the audience all felt, Yes! That was us! Long ago.
This is what I mean by saying how important the study of Latin was to me in prep school. It wasn’t about erudition; it was about education. And, of course, passion.
If I look back on my undergraduate years at Notre Dame, and am asked the same question, what were the most important subjects for you, I would say it was the requirement back then for all Arts & Letters students to take four years of philosophy and four years of theology. Again, the importance of this coursework, although I did not see it until many years later, was not erudition, to be able to instruct someone about Hegelian dialectics or Søren Kierkegaard’s leap of faith. It was instruction in how to navigate in the world. It was the foundation for what, on reflection, seemed to be the most important things anyone in college learns, no matter what their major is, which is to be discerning and to be discriminating.
'This unheralded revolution is now unfolding without the sanctions of government or the business community, the two most powerful forces shaping modern cultures.'
So when I came to feel, over time, that there was something missing in my education at Notre Dame, I tried to determine what it was. It took a long time — years actually; but each step in the right direction took me closer to the thing I was trying to understand. What was missing was that I had only studied with and learned from people who were just like me — male (there were no women at Notre Dame in the ’60s), Catholic, middle-class, white, all of us unconsciously sharing the same epistemology. I had missed talking about approaching the limit in calculus with women (though Kierkegaard’s leap of faith was helpful here); I had missed discussing economics with black kids from the South Side of Chicago; I didn’t have the opportunity to hear from Samoans in my anthropology course, where we took up the meaning of Samoan lives.
I’m speaking as if I knew what I was doing in trying to remedy this deficiency, as I saw it, in my education; but I was probably well into my 40s before it became clear to me what I was trying to do. I was trying to get outside my own culture, to see the world in a different way. I was trying to sojourn with people completely different from myself. I was trying to find the God different from my God. I was trying to make my way in environments utterly different than the ones I had grown up in in southern California, in New York City, and northern Indiana and southern Michigan.
So my life became traveling — in the high Arctic with Eskimos, with Aboriginal people in the Tanami Desert in Australia, with Kamba people in Kenya. I became a listener instead of a speaker. I apprenticed myself to Nunamiut people in the Brooks Range in Alaska, to Pitjantjatjara people in the Northern Territory. I apprenticed myself to landscapes — the interior of Antarctica, the West Greenlandic coast, the pelagic Pacific, the Namib Desert, the Okavango Delta.
Writing about these places and their denizens (using the framework I learned here), about the epistemological differences of different people, about aesthetics, about metaphysics and logic, became my way in the world. It became my life.
In the early ’70s, my old headmaster at Loyola came to visit me at my home in western Oregon, a house I have lived in for the past 47 years. The house sits on a bench of land above a whitewater river on the western slope of the Cascades. It’s situated in what is called mixed old-growth, meaning that in the 1930s loggers felled a few trees here, the very big ones, and left the rest standing. A creek runs through it. Salmon spawn in front of the house. Black bear, mountain lion and elk move regularly through the woods around us.
During this visit I took Father Haskins through the woods to show him the creek, the wildflowers in bloom, and to pick wild ginger and blackberries with him. He said to me, “Do you have any idea how fortunate you are?” I said, “To be living in a place like this?” He said, “No. You’re the only one in your class who’s actually done what he wanted to do. The others are lawyers and tax accountants or working in advertising, but those are not really the things they most wanted to do.”
I don’t mean this to sound self-congratulatory. And I need to point out that the house I was renting and the 36 acres of land it sat on cost me 80 dollars a month in rent, about as much as I could afford at the time. What I want to emphasize here is that it’s possible for you to do the same thing, to take the extraordinary education you are getting here and shape the life you really want, the life in which you feel you can make a contribution. You do not have to be unusually prescient or learned to see what is coming for us all, not only for us in the United States but for those in every other country. Not only are we not in Kansas anymore, we’re on the verge of global upheaval, in the way democracies function, in the way economies work, in the way countries cope with unprecedented numbers of refugees, people running from civil war in Syria, from desertification in sub-Saharan Africa, from war lords in Somalia, from drought on what was once the coast of the Aral Sea.
Consider the fate of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, a growing bone of contention between China, the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries as that fishery teeters on the edge of collapse. Or the loss of languages, which leaves grandparents unable to describe for their grandchildren the dreams they have had, because the children know only English or Portuguese or Hindi or Urdu. Or consider the armed guards in Africa, in China or Madagascar, protecting the last animals from daily visits by ecotourists, from ivory merchants, poachers and the purveyors of bushmeat. Once wild animals, they are no longer free animals.
'All that was left of his home was a concrete floor, painted in pastel shades, blue and pink and yellow, standing in a vast landscape in which no tree or fence or building remained. He and the other men, however, were clearly not finished with their lives.'
Something is coming. We don’t know what it is, but we can guess it doesn’t mean any of us any good, as the young Bob Dylan put it when I was a student here. We also know, however, and please do not let go of this, that we have an unprecedented opportunity as graduates of this university, with our education and our social networks and our embedded sense of what constitutes ethical behavior, to make a difference, the kind of difference that changes the direction of culture not by dramatic confrontation but by small, thoughtfully deliberated alterations which spread, now, widely and quickly around the world because of electronic communication (as distinct from social networking). This unheralded revolution is now unfolding without the sanctions of government or the business community, the two most powerful forces shaping modern cultures.
What I am urging you to do is what I did that day in 1964 when I cut the class to go hear Robert Fitzgerald. Instead of striving to become the sort of leaders who say to the rest of us “Follow me! I know!”, to become the sort of leaders who say, in counsel with their peers, “No one left behind.” Not the brown-skinned Mexican, not the Islamic carpenter, not the hapless denizen of Djibouti City, not the woman sleeping in a car, not the transgendered or the gay, not the anchorite, not the billionaire, not the alcoholic or the addict. No one left behind. Because if whatever we find on the other side of democracy or capitalism does not serve us all, it will end up serving no one.
After the Boxing Day tsunami struck northern Sumatra in 2004, killing more than 230,000 people, I visited Indonesia. At the time I was trying to understand “plight,” the human condition of great suffering. I had been, in the weeks before this, to Beirut and to southern Lebanon, to Tajikistan, the most impoverished of the former Soviet republics, and to Afghanistan, to Kabul and Jalalabad, also to Bamiyan to see the two buddhas that Taliban extremists destroyed with explosives and shelling with tanks.
In northern Sumatra, in the province of Aceh, I met people who had, quite literally, lost everything. One night I had dinner with six fishermen who had been at sea when the tsunami hit, at about 8:30 on a Sunday morning. With the help of a translator I went around the table asking each man to tell me his story. One man had lost 22 people in his immediate family: his wife and children, his parents and aunts and uncles, his in-laws. All that was left of his home was a concrete floor, painted in pastel shades, blue and pink and yellow, standing in a vast landscape in which no tree or fence or building remained. He and the other men, however, were clearly not finished with their lives. They were inventing new lives. They were, physically and emotionally, enterprising people. Life-affirming.
When I was boarding my plane in Jakarta for the flight back to the United States, I called my wife and said — a kind of summary of my experiences during those days — that I had more faith in humanity now than I had had when I got off the plane in Beirut.
I have seen some truly horrible things in my life, not just the devastation of war but the perpetuation of suffering needlessly inflicted on people. In Hebron in Occupied Palestine, in the hounding of the homeless in American cities, in the barricaded neighborhoods of lawless barrios in South America. But I have also met patient, compassionate, calm and wise people who see to it that in these circumstances what little can be done to alleviate suffering gets done. These are the elders. They are not older people but people who are secure enough in their own skin to minister constantly to those who are not, those who are afraid or paralyzed or living in despair. And I need to say, explicitly, that there are some here in this audience who are headed that way. They have the seriousness of purpose, the capacity to listen, the grasp of history, the stamina to be effective leaders. In Roman Catholic tradition these elders are called saints. It is always a gift to be in their presence, whatever the culture.
In closing, I have a few things to say about sustainability, as I was asked to address that topic today.
I have been a long time in getting to this. In doing so, I hope I have contextualized the issue, so that we will not be thinking about how much damage to Earth, or how many species can go extinct, or how much ocean acidification we can tolerate before the biological system collapses. If you can imagine striving for a “sustainable marriage,” then you’ll be able to undertand that policies for sustainability are an early step, a first step in a process, the process of learning how to take care of ourselves in an era of global climate disturbance and dwindling natural resources, in an age when the medical bill for the Industrial Revolution is coming due.
What is it we wish to sustain? Is it levels of consumption? Is it the populations of diverse organisms that keep the worldwide network of biochemical exchange and protein manufacture viable enough to ensure human life, or even all life? Is it a particular economy that we wish to sustain, by addressing levels of consumption? Is it forms of government that we wish to sustain by addressing problems of faulty infrastructure, of corruption and the policies that serve special interest groups?
We could go on, of course, but for the most part all these approaches compare with the sailing of ships without rudders. What is the rudder that guides the design of strategies for sustainability, whatever the goal might be? It is ethical behavior (I’m making a distinction here between moral behavior, where the right thing to do is spelled out in the great religious texts of various civilizations — the Hindu vedas, the Bible, the Koran, the Buddhist sutras — and ethical behavior), where what is right is determined by considering the particular situation, comparable situations, and the social cost of technically moral but, in practice, destructive solutions.
Once, when I was visiting with students at Rice, a young woman told me she had gotten a terrific education as a civil engineer at Rice but she hadn’t learned anything about “soft engineering.” When I asked her what soft engineering was, she answered, “If you ask me to build a bridge, I can build you a bridge. It will be beautiful and functional, and it will last a long time. But I do not even know how to frame the question, ‘Should I build the bridge?’” This would be where ethics comes in. Why it is that a course sequence in ethics is not a curriculum requirement in every university, for engineers, for political science majors, for business majors, for pre-med or pre-law, I don’t know.
Let me close then by trying to make this point. If you allow me the contention that with global climate change, the loss of species diversity, volatility in financial markets and with certain currencies and with unregulated experiments in large-scale financial ventures, with synthetic hormones saturating urban water tables, with the appeal of fascism in some First World countries, the failure of fisheries, we’re headed for great difficulty, then I would say that you, here in this room, are unusually qualified to do something about it. You not only understand the efficiency of electronic communication, but you’re smart, or you wouldn’t be here. You can raise spiritual, as opposed to religious, questions here without being cynically dismissed when speaking of large-scale human problems, like what to do about refugees. You have an opportunity at this university for a great, a formidable, education, and many of you grew up in a Christian tradition that at least informed you about the requirements for moral and ethical decisions. You can navigate in those waters, or, as a professor of American studies here told me 30 years ago, “The difference between most Notre Dame students and students at other high-powered schools is that Notre Dame students know what is right, even if they don’t act on it.”
You have the preparation to become exemplary people — not wealthy people or well-known people necessarily, but exemplary people, the people who inspire others to do the right things. You’ve come to a place for your education that can teach you how to do this.
A long time ago, when I was 16 or 17, I saw A Man for All Seasons on Broadway, the play about Sir Thomas More and his disagreements with Henry VIII, about the legitimacy of the Reformation. Henry had More executed, but there is a line in the play that pinned me in my seat when I heard it. (I later read the script of Robert Bolt’s play, but I could not find the line, which led me to believe that Paul Scofield, the famous British actor who played More when the play premiered in London and who then took on the role in New York, invented it during rehearsals.)
More is arguing the morality of his position in an exchange with those who have condemned him to die. He says, pleading for reason and for faith, “I beg you, in the bowels of Christ, to think that you may be wrong.”
It is too powerful a line to trifle with, to be cavalier about, so I will just reiterate the reason I am here this afternoon — out of respect for you and concern about how you will fare when you leave here. Out of a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood with you, and of affection for this university we share; and to say that I beg you, in the bowels of Christ, to do whatever you can to ensure a viable future for your people, for your generation, for my generation, and for your children’s generation.
For God’s sake, take care of each other.