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Barry Lopez (source of photo)

Barry Lopez (source of photo)

Barry Lopez is one of the writers who has ‘accompanied’ me on most of my adult journey as an artist. (See my post Barry Lopez, A literature of hope ). He is a nature writer, but that short description doesn’t do him justice. He is also a poet who feels the pain of the Earth deeply. And, he is an artist who understands and exemplifies what art is for, especially in these times.

I love these artists and role models,who have sustained their passion and honed their craft over the years. They are gradually turning into our present day Elders. Hearing Gary Snyder or Barry Lopez speak unfailingly reunites me with the best in myself.

This morning I looked at an almost completed draft of my book so far and couldn’t relate to it. I’d momentarily lost my sense of True North, and wondered how I would finish it with this late-stage failing of nerve. Unable to write, I decided to do some research for a later chapter on ‘art and wounded places’, and watched several of Lopez’s talks. And one of them showed the way out of of my impasse. It gave me a new lens for looking at my work and lifted me out of the familiar contradictions I usually get caught in when stuck.

He spoke about story telling. He’d had a conversation with a traditional man,( I sense he meant someone indigenous), and asked if this man’s people made a distinction between fiction and non-fiction like we do in Western society. The man answered, ‘For us, the difference isn’t between fiction and non-fiction, but between an authentic and inauthentic story.

Lopez asked him the difference and he said, ‘An authentic story is about us.’

‘Yes?’, Lopez asked.

‘And an inauthentic story is about you’, replied the man.

Lopez had a crucial insight as a result of this conversation. He realised that the story you tell as a story teller is not worth our listening to if it is just about you. He said,’We don’t need to know about you, we need to know about us’. I think what he is saying here, is that a writer needs to delve down beyond the purely personal until he strikes something universal in human experience which will illuminate all our lives. Also, adding my own note here, if an artist is working with rage or pain, she has a responsibility to transform it before it hits the page. We all know how bad life can be, we have the mass media to tell us all about that.

It is the artist alchemist’s task to harness that personal negativity and transcend it, and to use it as raw material to craft images of hope.

Lopez says that an authentic story needs to do two things; first of all it has to help. And secondly it has to be about ‘us’.

I want everything I write to end with this note:’Here is what I saw, what do you think?’. Instead of saying, ‘Here is what I saw and this is what you should believe’. -B.Lopez

The writers, artists and musicians I’ve respected most and who have inspired me in my life so far, are growing older along with me. Like Barry Lopez, time and experience distil their youthful passion to a focused potency. I feel enormous wisdom radiating from these people. But even more than the understanding they have gained through living and practising their calling, they embody compassion.

Lopez said,’

I want more than anything to see people do well. I want to see people thrive. And the system I see in place all over the world is killing people. I feel that as a physical pain, as grief every day when I get up in the morning. What drives me is – if you’re going to tell a story, tell a story that helps. If you’re going to collaborate with directors, filmmakers, artists et , make common cause with people whose desire is to help.

Not to direct the show or tell somebody else what to think, but to behave in a helpful manner for the benefit of everybody.

(See the 3 minute clip of this talk here )

 

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3 barns (watercolour sticks)

3 barns (watercolour sticks)

From the wood I turned south and began walking out along the sea wall. Swallows scudded overhead in twos and threes, moving with fast wing flicks…Inland were vast fields, on which three or four black barns sailed like barges. To the seaward of the wall were the marshes, tinged purple.
-Robert MacFarlane, ‘The Wild Places’.

It has been awhile since I was this moved by a non-fiction writer. Moved in the way the best art moves us: to quote Lewis Hyde, from ‘The Gift’: A work of art that enters us to feed the soul lets us experience a gifted state, and depending on our own abilities, we respond by creating new work (it doesn’t have to be art,  but inspired by the artist we may find we can suddenly make sense of our own experience). The greatest art offers us fresh images that light up our imaginations and open up alternatives for our own lives.

The last time this happened I was in the middle of my career as an artist and calligrapher, and for years, I calligraphed one quote of Barry Lopez’s continually.  Here is a straightforward handling of this particular quote-

Inner landscape  (pen and ink and mono print)

Interior landscape (pen and ink and mono print)

But I also used the text as a starting point for work dominated more by imagery than by letters.

Arctic sunlight

Arctic sunlight (collage, and mixed media on paper) sold

And I also did a series of collages, I think from the same book by Lopez, ‘Crossing open ground’.

Black throated sparrow (collage, pen and ink)

Black throated sparrow (collage, pen and ink)

So anyway, what I’m getting at, is that for the first time in years, I feel inspired by MacFarlane’s writing and sensibility to start to combine letters with my imagery again.

Anyone who loves walking, nature, history of place, or good great writing should read this author. He sets out on these walks which take him and the reader to surprising places, both literally and internally. He’s exploring the theme of how landscape acts on us and we on it, and how outer landscape is formative for one’s inner psychic landscape. His experience resonates in a deep place with me, though I’m not drawn to emulating some of his other adventures – sleeping out on mountains and moors, by the sea and in dunes- sometimes in the winter!

I’ll leave you with some more of his words- here he is speaking about how being connected through technology has replaced and so robbed us of direct physical contact with the natural world:

We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world- its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits- as well as by genetic traits we inherit and ideologies we absorb. A constant and formidably defining exchange occurs between the physical forms of the world around us, and the cast of our inner world of imagination.

The feel of a hot dry wind on the face, the smell of distant rain carried as a scent stream in the air, the touch of a bird’s sharp foot on one’s outstretched palm: such encounters shape our beings and our imaginations in ways which are beyond analysis, but also beyond doubt.

There is something uncomplicatedly true in the sensation of laying hands upon sun warmed rock, or watching a dense mutating flock of birds , or seeing snow fall irrefutably upon one’s upturned palm.

 

 

Recently I’ve read a book which took me on a beautifully written journey, which seemed destined to end in healing and redemption. I was particularly interested in this book because it promised to take its place among the ‘new’ literature we so desperately need now- one that provides an alternative vision of the world -one full of hope,  where we are part of nature, where we are connected to one another, and our lives do have purpose and meaning.

The story:  3 unrelated people form their own relationship with a strip of green, a little park in an English town which borders on a neighbourhood in decline. Each person is, in a particular way, lost. A Polish man and a lonely boy find each other. They form a tentative friendship, and one starts to hope that the child will eventually find some stability outside of his home and the total neglect of his mother. The 3rd character is an elderly widow living on the edge of this park. She occasionally does some guerilla gardening there.

Each of these characters is on a journey to some kind of reconciliation or hope, and the nature in the park is a catalyst for the healing they start to find.

Then, a crisis in the last pages sees the man and the boy who have formed a totally innocent friendship, wrenched apart by a police raid.  The man’s beloved dog, with whom the boy was also bonding,  is dragged away by the neck and will probably be put down because she has Pit Bull blood. We leave him holding a duffel bag, waiting for a bus to take him away from the tender beginnings of home and community he had patiently started to build up. The old woman we last see alone in the hospital hooked up to wires and infusions.  And the boy is torn out of his familiar territory and sent to another part of the country to his father, whom we have been told is a violent man.

Every author has the freedom to choose how to end their story, granted. But I question the integrity of such an ending. ‘Shit happens’, yes, I am bombarded by this detritus of the ‘old story’ every minute through the media. But that is not what I am looking for when I reach for a book. Artists, writers, story tellers, have the chance to create a new story- one of hope. One which illuminates ways to connect, to find meaning in life, rise above circumstances, to treasure the small things, to bond with places and people, to thrive rather than just survive. I believe we have a responsibility to the material we put out there. Barry Lopez, words this beautifully:

If I were asked what  I want to accomplish as a writer, I would say it is to contribute to a literature of hope…I want to help create a body of stories in which men and women can discover trustworthy patterns.

Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story in the end is social. Whatever a writer sets down can help or harm the community of which he or she is a part.

Each of the little green shoots of healing were ground out at the end of this book, like so many cigarette stubs. I trustingly embarked on a journey with the writer and her characters and felt betrayed by what happened to them at the end. This kind of writing feeds the ‘old’ story of a hostile universe, a meaningless world without grace or miracles or healing.

Not that every story must have a happy ending, but when you deliberately annihilate hope, there has to be a good reason for it. As I see it, these decisions did not serve the story or any purpose at all. It is simply trendy to have a dark ending. It is a device.

And therefore meaningless.

 

 

The book is ‘Clay’ by Melissa Harrison. If you don’t mind the ending, I”d still recommend it for the gorgeous writing.