On serving the story
On inspiration, madness, and art

On listening to stories other than our own

Woods

From Barry Lopez's new book Horizon (which is breathtakingly good):

"I read daily about the many threats to human life -- chemical, political, biological, and economic. Much of this trouble, I believe, has been caused by the determination of some to define a human cultural world apart from the nonhuman world, or by people's attempts to overrun, streamline, or dismiss the world as simply a warehouse for materials, or mere scenery.

"It is here, with these attempts to separate the fate of the human world from that of the nonhuman world that we come face-to-face with a biological reality that halts us in our tracks: nature will be fine without us. Our question is no longer how to exploit the natural world for human comfort and gain, but how we can cooperate with one another to ensure we will someday have a fitting, not a dominating, place in it.

"What cataclysm, I often wonder, or better, what act of imagination will it finally require, for us to be able to speak meaningfully with one another about our cutural fate and about our shared biological fate?

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"As time grows short, the necessity to listen attentively to foundational stories other than our own becomes imperative. As I've encountered other human cultures over time, especially those radically different from my own, each one has seemed to me both deep and difficult to comprehend, not 'exotic' or 'primitive.' Many cultures are still distinguished today by wisdoms not associated with modern technologies but grounded, instead, in an acute awareness of human foibles, of the traps people tend to set for themselves as the enter the ancient labyrinth of hubris or blindly pursue the appeasement of their appetities.

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"It is nearly impossible for wise people in any culture to plumb the depths of their own metaphysical assumptions, out of which they have fashioned a world view. It is also difficult to listen closely while some other people's guiding stories unfold, or to separate successfully the literal from the figurative in those stories, the fact from the metaphor. And yet if we persist in believing that we alone, living in whatever culture we're from, are right, and that we therefore have no need to listen to anyone else's stories, stories that we often can't quite understand and so are unwilling to discuss, we endanger ourselves. If we remain fearful of human diversity, our potential to evolve into the very thing we most fear -- to become our own fatal nemisis -- only increases.

"The desire to known ourselves better, to understand especially the source and the nature of our dread, looms before us now like a specter in a half-lit world, a weird dawn breaking over a half-lit scene of carnage: unbreathable air, human diasporas, the Sixth Extinction, ungovernable political mobs.

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"In the wisdom of the desert, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, considering the moral obtuseness of the conquistadores, writes, 'In subjugating primitive worlds they only imposed on them, with the force of cannons, their own confusion and their own alienation.' If this colonizing impulse in our heritage is still with us, a need to dominate, must we continue to support it? Must we go on to deferring to tyrants, oligarchs, and sociopathic narcissists? The French poet, diplomat, and Nobel laureate Alexis Léger, in his epic poem Anabase, asks where the troubled world is to find its real protectors, warriors so dedicated to protecting the welfare of their communities that they can be depended upon 'to watch the rivers for the approach of their enemies, even on their wedding nights.'

"Where, today, can the voices of such guardians be heard over the raucous din in support of economic growth?

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"In her poem 'Kindness,' the Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes that to learn the kindness required to ameliorate cruelty and injustice the real world presents us with,

Leafyou must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans...

"In which national parliaments and legislatures today can we find deliberations characterized by such a measure of humility? In which congresses might questions of ethical responsibility be successfully raised for discussion? In which Western nations does a determination to address the mental, spiritual, and physical health of children override indifference to their fate? Or are these questions now thought to be anachronistic, questions no longer relevant to our situation?

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"...Most anyone today can imagine the biblical horseman of the Apocalyse deployed on the horizon, pick out one and characterize him. Anyone, too, facing this frightening horizon, might opt to turn away, decide instead to become lost in beauty, or choose to remain walled off from the world in electronic distractions, or select catatonic isolation within the fortress of the self. But one can choose, as well, to step into the treacherous void between oneself and the confounding world, and there be staggered by the breadth, the intricacy, the possibilities of that world, accepting its requirement for death but working to lessen the degree of cruelty and to increase the reach of justice in every corner.

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"For many years this kind of heroic effort -- essential to learn to cooperate with strangers -- has been calling to modern people. I've wondered, watching economically powerful nations scrambling in the world's remote corners for the last large deposits of copper, iron, bauxite, and other ores, or reading about the failure of the once-dependable ocean fisheries, or about cynical corporate maneuvering to secure the last reservoirs of potable water, whether an unprecedented openness to other ways of understanding this disaster is not, today, humanity's only lifeline. Whether cooperation with strangers is not now our Grail."

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Horizon by Barry Lopez

Words: The passages quoted above are from Horizon by Barry Lopez (Knopf and The Bodley Head, 2019). The  poem in the picture captions, "Kindness" by Yusef Komunyakaa, is from Poetry 181, No. 5 (March 2003). All rights reserved by the authors. In addition to Horizon, which is a wonderful read, I recommend my friend Alan Weisman's fine book The World Without Us

Related reading (Barry Lopez): The art of hope Bowing to the birds, Children in the woods, and Three Writers on Aging.

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