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Lopez looks at 'drama of human life unfolding in nature'

Posted: June 7, 2012 - 9:32am
Barry Lopez, left, and Debra Gwartney, right.
Barry Lopez, left, and Debra Gwartney, right.

Here's a Zen koan.

If a writer has traveled the world from dense human cities to remote Arctic wilderness, and written about the people, animals and places he's encountered, is he a nature writer?

Use the phrase "nature writer" in a conversation with Barry Lopez, and the answer will be met with a discussion of the role of nature in American literature, why science matters and the very essence of knowing. Like the answer to a Buddhist parable crafted to inspire enlightenment, a simple question inspires a complicated answer.

Lopez and his wife Debra Gwartney -- a partner in art as well as life -- visit Homer for the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference running Friday to Tuesday at Land's End Resort. Lopez, the keynote speaker, speaks at an attendee-only banquet Friday night. Gwartney, a critically acclaimed memoirist, also teaches at the conference. Although the conference sold out weeks ago, the public can hear both writers read in a festival of readings this weekend. Lopez reads at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Mariner Theatre and Gwartney at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Land's End Resort. (For readings by other writers, see box, this page.)

"Arguably the nation's premier nature writer," the San Francisco Chronicle calls Lopez.

There's that phrase again.

"I think for a writer like me, you shrug your shoulders and talk about nature writing," Lopez said in a phone interview last month from his home in western Oregon. "It's the commercial box and where it fits."

The author of "Arctic Dreams," a National Book Award winner, and "Of Wolves and Men," Lopez also has written several works of fiction, including "Field Notes," "Winter Count," "Crow and Weasel" and a collection of short stories, "Light Action in the Caribbean." With Gwartney he edited "Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape."

In his writing, Lopez takes the perspective of American writers like Herman Melville, Willa Cather and John Steinbeck. The tensions of characters with a natural setting could be as strong as between characters -- and equally revelatory.

As a young man growing up in southern California and exploring the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Mojave Desert, Lopez said he found nature could help him answer questions like "Who are we? Where am I going?"

"The way I got at those issues was through these deeply emotional experiences with the world outside the man-made world," he said.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when the national environmental movement grew as a political and social force, Lopez found himself writing about environmental issues.

"I took on those stories because they were in the air. I liked them. I got my sea legs," he said. "What I was really interested in was this drama of human life unfolding in landscapes."

Lopez said he's more interested in the moral center of a subject.

"The focus for me is 'What is the nature of prejudice? How is that structured when we relate to the world?'" he said.

In "Of Wolves and Men," for example, Lopez wanted to understand the prejudice against wolves.

"What I wanted to do was bury myself in the biology and psychology of canis lupis," he said. "What is the relationship  we have with the natural world as it relates to wolves?"

His writing goes further, Lopez said.

"At a little bit deeper level it's an examination of the scientific imagination. How does the rational mind approach reality?" he said.

A writer who grew up in the pre-Sputnik age where humanities majors weren't expected to study science, Lopez found himself drawn to science anyway.

"I became attracted to physics and chemistry because they offered a kind of scenario in the ways they examined the meaning of life that were attractive to me as a writer," he said.

With the biologist E.O. Wilson, Lopez created a program of study at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, that combined science and humanities -- an idea they called "comparative epistemology" -- that is, looking at different ways of how we know the world.

"What would happen if students were emerged in more than one way of knowing?" he asked.

Gwartney, Lopez's wife of five years and partner for 15, looks at another way of knowin. A memoirist, she asks the question "How do we know ourselves?" Her best-known book, "Live Through This: A Mother's Memoir," comes from the years when her two teenage daughters disappeared into the adolescent wilderness of Eugene, Ore., homeless teen culture. Gwartney met Lopez during that time and he's part of the book.

Memoir writing isn't navel gazing, Gwartney said.

"If written well, the idea is for the person, I, the narrator -- I'm going to look at the past, stop time," she said.

"Memoir is not about what you remember, but why you remember it that way," Gwartney added. "That's a much more difficult prospect."

At the conference, Gwartney will talk about one approach to memoirs: writing about trauma.

"It's so easy to fall into self-pity, even though you think you aren't," she said.

Her advice? Avoid self-pity.

"Just get to the nitty-gritty of the story," Gwartney said. "It's hard, because it's your life."

How does it work living with another writer?

"It's good. It's tricky reading each other's work," Gwartney said. "We just come at it as people who are trying to write."

With his experience and encyclopedic knowledge, Lopez has been a great resource to her, Gwartney said.

"He's a fount of information. He can find these little details that really matter," she said.

Though Lopez has traveled all over Alaska, this will be his first visit to the Kenai Peninsula and Homer, and Gwartney's second trip to the state.

"Alaska is so huge, you can see a lot of it and still have a lot to see," Lopez said. "There's always more of it to see."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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