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, Lopez 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.

And then there’s Horizon. Published this year, decades after Arctic Dreams, it has the import of a life’s work. (Lopez is battling advanced prostate cancer.) Its last few pages floored me, echoing in my mind for months—they read like agnostic scripture, like an elder’s last words, like an encounter on the road to some secular Emmaus.

In Patagonia, Lopez has been discussing milagros: small chapels where believers assemble altars to help cope with the challenges of life. He drives out of town, and crosses paths with a man walking alone—a man who, seeming to struggle with some mental illness, regards the landscape with confusion and agitation.

Lopez writes:

Whenever I recall this man, I imagine him as a small figure under the Magellanic sky and picture him wearing a white shirt, though it is there in my notebook that it was a dark shirt. I see him in that plein air panorama with all its bold colors, the high sky of cumulonimbus and the distant landscape of Tierra del Fuego, the crêpe de chine surface of the water. I see the shock of white hair and the improbable rainbow and know that, for me, this was a portal, one that I did not enter. For now, it remains an inscrutable memory. I hold it against the day when something will cause the scene to suddenly open.

I think of him on the road to Puerto del Hambre, mad though he might have been, as no different from most of us, doing what we all do when the scaffolding of the certainties we carry with us, and by which we navigate, collapses, when indisputable truth suddenly reassembles itself in front of us, like images in a kaleidoscope. We go on professing confidently what we know, armed with a secular faith in all that is reasonable, even though we sense that mystery is the real condition in which we live, not certainty. We forge ahead, stating what we know, watching for, hoping for, those who believe as we do, and trying to keep peace with those who see it differently. And even as the tension mounts, above all this the blue sky towers, masking, during our waking hours, the dark voids of space beyond, as we are accustomed to think of them. The sky, with its anomalous waist and that horizontal line, where what we take to be real—the ocean, the land, the ice—encounters what we regard as only speculation.

Cook, at sea aboard HMS Endeavour, writing up his thoughts on the Maori; the mestizo traveler and historical footnote Ranald MacDonald, carefully pronouncing his English words in the court of the shogun; the young Darwin, picking his way through Cordia lutea thickets on Isla Isabela, searching for a finch. The pioneering of those few who have altered the way we see is known. The pioneering of others remains unknown to us, or barely noted. What we say we know for sure changes every day, but no one can miss now the alarm in the air. Our question is, What is it out there, just beyond the end of the road, out beyond language and fervent belief, beyond whatever gods we’ve chosen to give our allegiance to? Are we waiting for travelers to return, to tell us what they saw beyond that line? Or are we now to turn our heads, in order to hear better the call coming to us from that other country? It arrives as a cantus, tying the faraway place to the thing living deep inside us, a canticle that releases us from the painstaking assembly of our milagros, year after year, and from a faith only in miracles.