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Crucibles of Mystery

May 17, 2019

After years of hearing Barry Lopez mentioned alongside some of my favorite writers—Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold—I finally began to read him this spring. I was not disappointed. When most of us look at nature, we see it in terms of science; Lopez (though no slouch as a scientist) sees it in terms of philosophy.

In Arctic Dreams, he writes, of nature’s lessons in paradox:

One of our long-lived cultural differences with the Eskimo has been over whether to accept the land as it is or to exert the will to change it into something else. The great task of life for the traditional Eskimo is still to achieve congruence with a reality that is already given. The given reality, the real landscape, is “horror within magnificence, absurdity within intelligibility, suffering within joy,” in the words of Albert Schweitzer. We do not esteem as highly these lessons in paradox. We hold in higher regard the land’s tractability, its alterability. We believe the conditions of the earth can be changed to ensure human happiness, to provide jobs and to create material wealth and ease. Each culture, then, finds a different sort of apotheosis, of ephiphany, and comfort in the land.

Any latent wisdom there might be in the Eskimo position is overwhelmed for us by our ability to alter the land. The long pattern of purely biological evolution, however, strongly suggests that a profound collision of human will with immutable aspects of the natural order is inevitable. This, by itself, seems reason enough to inquire among aboriginal cultures concerning the nature of time and space and other (invented) dichotomies; the relationship between hope and exercise of will; the role of dreams and myths in human life; and the therapeutic aspects of long-term intimacy with a landscape.

…The challenge to us, when we address the land, is to join with cosmologists and their ideas of continuous creation, and with physicists with their ideas of spatial and temporal paradox, to see the subtle grace and mutability of the different landscapes. They are crucibles of mystery, precisely like the smaller ones they contain—the arctic fox, the dwarf birch, the pi-meson; and the larger ones that contain them, side by side with such seemingly immutable objects as the Horsehead Nebula in Orion. These are not solely arenas for human invention. To have no elevated conversation with the land, no sense of reciprocity with it, to rein it in or to disparage conditions not to our liking, shows a certain lack of courage, too strong a preference for human devising.

Elsewhere in Arctic Dreams, he writes of nature’s harshness as a reflection of the severity of the arbitrary universe:

Eskimos do not maintain this intimacy with nature without paying a certain price. When I have thought about the ways in which they differ from people in my own culture, I have realized they are more afraid than we are. On a day-to-day basis, they have more fear. Not of being dumped into cold water from an umiak, not a debilitating fear. They are afraid because they accept fully what is violent and tragic in nature. It is a fear tied to their knowledge that sudden, cataclysmic events are as much a part of life, of really living, as are the moments when one pauses to look at something beautiful.

And in Horizon, he writes of nature’s lessons in unknowability:

One can never, even by paying the strictest attention at multiple levels, entirely comprehend a single place, no matter how many times one might travel there. This is not only because the place itself is constantly changing but because the deep nature of every place is not transparency. It’s obscurity.

Part of what’s interesting about nature is that it’s not only strange, beautiful, and mysterious—it’s also our immediate context, our setting, where we live. And yet, despite its proximity, it is of a piece with the broader cosmos. Its specific strangeness and beauty mirror the more abstract strangeness and beauty of our circumstances in time, metaphysics, mortality.