Of Wolverines and Writing

Barry Lopez, the famed nature writer, will speak tomorrow night at the Jackson Center for the Arts. Lopez’s Arctic Dreams is one of my favorite books. For a long time I’ve pondered why this work appeals to me so deeply, and why I’m frequently put off by the works of other nature writers. Arctic Dreams begins incredibly slowly, and explores its subject – the wildlife, human societies, and ecology of the high Arctic – with a level of meticulous detail that occasionally threatens to become overwhelming. Still, the work is written with unapologetic respect and celebration of the natural world. At some point near the beginning of the book, Lopez talks about being compelled to bow to a lark – or is it a blade of grass? – somewhere in the Arctic. Perhaps it is this frank admission of reverence that disarms me and draws me in.

The other thing about Lopez: he is not an advocate for positions. He is an advocate for nature in a broad sense, but not in the high-strung, frantic, flashy way of some other writers. As a writer and particularly as a blogger, this is something with which I struggle. It is so easy, in this mileu of constant instant opinion, to become argumentative and reactive in one’s work, to move constantly in the direction of a predetermined political agenda. Lopez does not do this. In an interview in the Jackson Hole News and Guide today, Lopez talks about his reasons and his process for writing. He says many things that resonate strongly with me as a writer, but in particular, he talks about the primacy of experience over expertise, of the individual moment over the distilled mythological Platonic ideal. Talking about traveling with native Alaskans, he says:

…I realized these guys never talked about what a species does. They wouldn’t come into Jackson Hole and watch the elk in the middle of the winter and say “This is what elk do.” They would say, “I saw this elk do this, this time.”

You collapse knowledge when you create these field-guide entries that tell you what a grizzly bear does. Nobody really knows what a grizzly bear does. You can ballpark it, but there’s always more to learn….When I write a story, the attitude I like to have is: I went to this place. I tried to look very carefully at what I saw. This is what I saw. What do you think?

I want to be a companion to the reader. I don’t have any interest in being an authority. You miss the mystery of the world and the profundity of the world if you think you can say, “This is all polar bears do.”

I laughed aloud in recognition of this sentiment when I read the paper this morning (my coworker across the room was patient with this; she only rolled her eyes once), but it also struck me as somewhat troubling. Before I picked up the paper, I’d been deeply absorbed in my book on occupancy modeling, which is the most recent attempt to refine our ecological research techniques to yield something that we may consider closer to an ultimate truth about the way the world works. Is the tension between being an artist and a scientist ultimately irreconcilable, or is there a way to walk this line – to maintain humility as a scientist, and necessary but unobtrusive authority as a writer – without driving myself crazy?

It may be my downfall.

In the meantime, of course, it’s necessary to mention that Lopez has written about wolverines. They weave through his work consistently. I should find the precise references – perhaps after his talk.

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