Rediscovering Barry Lopez

Looking through old sketchbooks in the studio this afternoon, I spent some time with one from 2009 that had come with me on a family summer road trip through Canada and Alaska.

Sketchbook page from 2009. Haines, Alaska.

Sketchbook page from 2009. Haines, Alaska.



That spring, as a junior in college, I’d gotten a rare C on an essay I wrote for my Cognitive Neuroscience class for taking too many narrative liberties and not adhering to writing guidelines specified by the American Psychological Association. With time I see that there were certain professional skills (and writing styles) that young scientists needed to learn, but all the same I felt lost and frustrated. It felt impossibly unfair that, even at a liberal arts college, I could feel so trapped by the seemingly rigid cultures os science and art. I don’t recall how I came to be reading, Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, on that summer trip, but I do remember being in the backseat of our minivan, rolling past giant pine trees and having my heart burst with gratitude for this passage:

“Of the sciences today, quantum physics alone seems to have found its way back to an equitable relationship with metaphors, those fundamental tools of the imagination. The other sciences are occasionally so bound by rational analysis, or so wary of metaphor, that they recognize and denounce anthropomorphism as a kind of intellectual cancer, instead of employing it as a tool of comparative inquiry, which is perhaps the only way the mind works, that parallelism we finally call narrative.”

Returning to school, that passage was a touchstone as as a ground out precise summaries of studies and played by the rules to pass my exams. Although lately, I don’t think of my work as narrative or specifically metaphorical, his words on the necessity of narrative and metaphor served for many years as a key permission slip in my thinking about why I drew, and what drawings were for.

I didn’t recall that I’d also copied down this paragraph, but reading it, and thinking of myself, at 21, carefully copying it down, it went straight to my heart. It’s weird how much it can feel like I’ve changed, but it’s things like this that remind me that so much of what drives me today has been essential to me since the start.

There is a word from the time of the cathedrals: agape, an expression of intense spiritual affinity with the mystery that is ‘to be sharing life with other life.’ Agape is love, and it can mean ‘the love of another for the sake of God.’ Or, more broadly and essentially, it is a a humble, impassioned embrace of something outside of the self, in the name of that which we refer to as God, but also includes the self and is God. We are clearly indebted as a species to the play of our intelligence; we trust our future to it; but we do not know whether our intelligence is reason or whether intelligence is this desire to embrace and be embraced in the pattern that both theologians and physicists call God. Whether intelligence, in other words, is love.

Sketchbook page from 2009. Passages from Barry Lopez’s  Arctic Dreams

Sketchbook page from 2009. Passages from Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams