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


Curiosity

I like the way libraries smell. I like the way everything feels accessible, organized. I like to see the grids of books on shelves and grids of shelves on floors and to think about the weight of the floors on top of floors in a humming Rubik’s cube of information. Letters lined up in words, lined up on pages, tucked into covers. All the information feels present, possible, suspended—like quiet dark birds sitting up on telephone wires.  

Clara McClenon,    Treetops (McCarren Park),    2018, Charcoal pencil and gesso on paper, 5 x 7”

Clara McClenon, Treetops (McCarren Park), 2018, Charcoal pencil and gesso on paper, 5 x 7”


Growing up, I had a sense that I’d real all the books in the library one day. It just seemed inevitable. I’d check out towering loads at a time, hauling them home in bulging tote bags and stacking them on my bedside table. I figured I was on track. I got top grades. I liked all subjects. I read mountains of books. Devouring information, I felt assured that, by the time I was older, I’d have it all figured out.  

I’d thought that books were bricks. In reading, I thought I was building something I could climb, like a pyramid ascending to knowledge. It felt sturdier to build a wide base, so I read widely, pulling from biology and history, music and chemistry, literature and art. I read about dreams, cooking, magic, robots, etiquette, psychology, and economics and always felt eager for more.  

No one told me how much I’d forget.

It started with novels. College friends would ask for recommendations and titles would come to mind…. but I struggled to recall even basic plot points. Around the same time, I was struck by panic when I looked back at my Latin American History syllabus and realized I couldn’t remember what I’d written my midterm on (though I’d earned an A in the course).

As a student, learning about things meant having the answers for the next level. You memorized and took a test. You passed Pre-Cal and went on to Calculus. You rose from Freshman on to Sophomore. Learning was to get you past thresholds: final exams, semesters, grades, graduations. It all conveyed a sense of accumulation and ascent. But with a leaking brain, forgetting as fast as I was learning, I worried that I wasn’t qualified to level up. I secretly hoped there’d be a final exam before graduation. Shouldn’t there be a checkpoint to make sure I really knew everything?

There wasn’t. My GPA and course credits awarded me my degree without question. I sold my textbooks back to the bookstore, lugged my library books back to the library, and ripped my notes from their spiral bindings so I could lay them in the recycling bin.

I’d hoped learning meant reaching a high point where I could look out and understand everything at once, but my years of study hadn’t built me a pyramid and I certainly didn’t feel like I had anything figured out. Graduating, I felt disappointed, disillusioned, and a little bit lost. Not only was I no longer a student for the first time in 17+ years, but my whole sense of the purpose of my education felt shaky. It wasn’t just the forgetting that bothered me. I ached to know the world, but every step into a subject had only revealed the immensity of what there was to learn. More than ever, I felt the futility of accumulating knowledge from an infinite pool. What had been the point of my relentless curiosity?

A few months back I came across a study that sought to understand the impact of exposure to the humanities (music, visual arts, literature, theater, etc.) on medical students. Analysis of the study’s survey data revealed a significant correlation between exposure to the humanities and positive qualities like empathy, wisdom, and tolerance for ambiguity. The researchers noted that, of course, correlation is not causation. We can’t say that exposure to humanities made the students wiser. (Or visa versa.) In fact, the author suggested that there could be an underlying factor linking exposure to the humanities and the positive personal qualities they’d measured. One such factor they suggested? Curiosity-- the desire to know and learn.

I don’t always like curiosity. It’s sent me down strange paths to seemingly dead ends. It’s left me with dry, scratchy eyes from following too many links through too many articles on my phone. It’s led me in circles of indecision. But it’s a spark.

I sit in front of a tree and look up at its thousands of leaves, and the flicker of light, and the branches and twigs. It’s a library and I can’t read it all. Paper and pencil in hand, I’m saddened and humbled and awed-- overwhelmed, as ever, by the immensity of information.

But I begin. Line by line, mark by mark, look by look… and somewhere along the way I stop worrying about how I’ll ever get to the finish because I’m just in it. I’m beyond my intellect. In drawing, I’m reminded that the real fruit of curiosity isn’t accumulation, but presence.

I don’t think of learning as an ascent anymore. When I read, which I still do, hungrily and widely, it’s because I want to keep coming home to what it feels like to be here. And that’s a million contradictory things, and that’s too big to know, and it’s achingly familiar.  I keep learning (reading, looking, drawing, listening) because I yearn for not for mastery, but mystery. I keep learning because I love the world and I want to be close to it.