I wrote a review of “Resistance” by Barry Lopez for the Winnipeg Free Press, which was published on Sunday July 4, 2004. This post is a longer version of the same review.
Barry Lopez was honoured for his nature writing with an American National Book Award for “Arctic Dreams” in 1986 and a nomination for “Of Wolves and Men”. His talent and power are undisputable. He captures nature scenes with visual and sensory precision, and sheer beauty. His essays, collected in books like “About This Life,” explore the beauty and complexity of living in the natural world.
He takes nature writing very seriously. In an online essay at http://www.lopezbooks.com/articles/lopez.html he wrote that nature writing is the “… strain of American literature that, more than others now, is pursuing the ancient discourse on human fate”.
A Google search brings up articles in which deep ecologists claim Lopez as a living saint of their movement. In published interviews, he suggests that he does not see himself as a Green evangelist, and explains his abiding belief in the power of story – narrative and imagination – to communicate the meaning of living, as a thinking and spiritual person, in the natural world.
He writes with a conscience, examining the impact nature on human life, and the impact of human activity on wilderness. He also drifts into a kind of dreamy post-modern mysticism. There is a definite philosophical slant towards the natural and the primitive in his writing, accompanied by post-modernist snobbery against American culture.
While some people take that kind of thing seriously, I find it to be elitist and condescending.
“Resistance” is presented as a work of fiction, in nine short stories. In the first story, titled “Resistance”, the narrator Owen Daniels is a curator and writer, part of a loose international group of writers, artists, and scholars. They receive letter from an agency called the Office of Inland Security denouncing for terrorizing the imaginations of their fellow citizens. While Lopez doesn’t mention Senator Joe McCarthy, he invokes an atmosphere of cultural war by American corporate interests against art, nature, history, and indigenous cultures, in the name of safety, profit, and progress.
The members of the group all decide to disappear before they are arrested. Each leaves behind an autobiographical story to explain what led them to resist the conventional and the comfortable. The eight stories that follow “Resistance” are polished meditations on interesting lives, in strange and wonderful places, filled with a a sense of mission and purpose, written with erudition and elegance.
The idea that naturalists, nature writers, artisans, architects, culture critics would be considered as subversives or terrorists – seems more bizarre than many SF premises. It’s hard to say if Lopez believes that free speech and personal freedom are seriously threatened by America’s war on terrorism. He is however clearly upset by fact that his vision of nature and reality is a minority vision, and perhaps a marginal vision.
Each story an argument for the values that Lopez and other post-modern culture critics and nature writers take seriously. There is no story or plot. The narrative voices of the characters are indistinguishable from one another. All the characters are introspective, self-centered, self-righteous and bitter.
The members of Lopez’s fictional band of Rainbow warriors opted out of the conventional life, and led the lives they wanted, but are upset that they aren’t being applauded for it. As lead narrator Owen Daniels explains, he and his friends “cannot tell our people a story that sticks.” He attributes the indifference of America to his kind of story to a mass addiction to mediated entertainments and pop culture. Lopez inadvertently illustrates the ponderous self-importance of the American New Left, its contempt for the good judgment of ordinary people, and its well-founded frustration at being on the margins of real life.
“Resistance” is worthwhile. Lopez is a wonderful writer, He challenges his readers, and while he may not have made his point decisively, he presented it gracefully.
At the same time, I would say that writers like Wendell Berry and Barbara Kingsolver have also made the same points gracefully, and in a more constructive and realistic way.