In Praise of Barry Lopez (and Salt)
By John Proctor
By a fortuitous mix of timing and lunch table placement, Anna Maria Johnson and I were able to have lunch with Barry Lopez immediately after he arrived in Montpelier for the winter residency. I think the first thing I noticed about him, which has become perhaps his defining characteristic for me, was the fact that he doesn’t give short answers, to any question. One of us asked him how his trip was, and he kindly told us not only about his pleasant trip here but his travel plans for afterward – leaving for Alaskan icebergs, debating whether to take his 8-year-old grandson which led to a lengthy discussion of the balance between parental duties and the duty writers have to our craft, which led to a broader discussion of writing as duty, which then segued into a mutually elegiac bemoaning of the loss of any sense of duty – to our environment, to our children – in today’s corporate culture…And just like that, it was 3:00, the NECI attendants were pushing us out, and I’d missed dg’s afternoon lecture.
Before December I hadn’t read more of Lopez’s work than an anthologized essay or two, but by the end of residency last week I felt almost like he was a long-lost grandfather. Besides sharing in his first lunch in Vermont, I read his first published work, Desert Notes / River Notes, over Christmas, listened to his reading at the chapel, attended his lecture, and was fortunate enough to be in his generative writing workshop. I’m still not entirely sure he would remember me if we met again, but I’ll remember him.
I listened raptly at his reading of a short essay detailing his own struggles with racism and a fictional piece about a dramatic meeting between a local landowner and a biologist studying insect life in the water on her land, but I loved even more the personal interactions I had with Lopez at lunch, at the workshop, and slightly less intensely at his aptly titled lecture “How Can a Writer Establish Authority with the Reader?” I was surprised to hear that he doesn’t do these “teaching gigs” often, as I thought he seemed most comfortable speaking directly with his audience, engaging mostly in a mixture of aphorism and digression, mysticism and directed evidence.
So I’d like to spend the rest of this post talking about the time I and nine other students spent in workshop with him. Barry started the two-day workshop by handing out a 10-point handout, but it was from his many digressions from topic – he would probably call them “fractals” – that I think I learned the most. He spoke of the purpose of the storyteller; using sound, rhythm, and empty space to create patterns in writing; and the writer’s perhaps quixotic job of 1) finding the language to reflect the drama of life, and 2) creating a three-dimensional environment for the reader on a two-dimensional page. At one point he stopped mid-sentence, as if to prove a point, and quoted Borges (who I found later was quoting Hume): “Irrefutable…but unconvincing.”
The generative part of the workshop was simple, and really complex. Barry wanted us to go on a walk, then write about it. Keep it short and spare – just one paragraph. Balance between general (the walk) and specific (what I saw, from my own point of view). Move with the scene, rather than watching the scene. Leave the ordered, angular interior world to go outside and observe, giving interior monologue through exterior description. Reflect the emotions by the words chosen to describe the physical objects.
The next day we all came in and read our pieces. One piece, by a certain NC contributor who shares initials with a certain “One Day at a Time” support group, followed his conversation with a white cedar, which he initially confused with a red cedar until his research revealed that not only was it a white cedar, but that the white cedar is also known as Arborvitae, or Tree of Life. Said party tells me he’s now revising and expanding that piece , with “tree of life” as a central trope, including flashbacks to his tribulations n college botany class and walks with his 3-year-old son, who already corrects him when he misnames a tree or plant. Another workshop member began her journey by taking inventory of the contents of her dorm room, which led to an inventory she’s separating of the apartment she shares with her estranged husband, who will be moving out soon. Her journey never left the space of her dorm room, and it didn’t need to; it was devastating. I hope she continues with the piece.
My piece wasn’t perhaps as emotionally engaging as these two, but the adherence to the formal dictates of the exercise did allow me to make some connections I would have never thought about otherwise while walking downhill on College Street in the snow. I can’t say I’ll do much with this little paragraph, but I thought I’d share it for the folks who’s made the same journey in the snow, and also to give some props to the wonderful restaurant that’s now where the equally wonderful Kismet used to be (Kismet hasn’t closed, by the way – they have a bigger location now in downtown Montpelier). I’m calling the piece “Salt.”
I walk out of Stone Hall, and it’s the first day of snow since I arrived in Vermont eight days ago. Ostensibly I hate snow, and winter, and when I left Brooklyn I had to walk to my subway stop through tunnels dug in five-foot snowdrifts. But now, after five straight days with high temperatures above freezing, I want Vermont to be Vermont. It’s still a light snow, and the sky already looks to be clearing. There’s just enough snow below me to make every step a little unsteady as I walk lightly toward College Street. As I arrive, a street salter throws hail-like chunks indiscriminately around itself, giving the street a moist black shine. A few stray pieces land on the sidewalk, burning holes through the white snow. I turn and walk downhill, on what I’ve heard is the steepest slope in this town of hills. I should probably walk in the street, but I decide to play a game. All the way down the hill, I will walk only on the salt pieces. I appreciate these stray bits, away from their designated area but trying to perform their job, to fulfill their destiny. These chunks, without the collected weight of the millions of other chunks, will never clear the sidewalk the way their cohorts do to the street. But they’re more beautiful than the myriad peons on the street blacktop – they shine like pearls on the sidewalk, pulsing in the black rings they’ve made in the snow. I skip from salt chunk to salt chunk down this slick, steep incline, not slowing down, balancing my own momentum with the traction my little cohorts provide below me. By all rights, I should go down. I should roll down the hill, or turn an ankle, or at the very least fall on my ass. But I don’t, and when I reach the bottom of the hill, turning the corner at Barre Street, I look in the window of Kismet, a restaurant I used to know. Only now it’s a different restaurant with a different name, shining from a warmly lit window – Salt. Sometimes the destination is the journey.