Barry Lopez had no illusions about the seriousness of our global crisis, yet he also felt a deep conviction about the power of hope and the sources of renewal in the living world. Syntax of the River
is an extended conversation spanning three days between Lopez and Julia Martin in which he explores what this juxtaposition means for him as a writer.
On the first day Lopez reflects on years watching the McKenzie River near his home in Oregon. He describes the quality of attention he learned from intimacy with the place itself: a very fine distinction between silence and stillness, the rich complexities of the present moment, and the syntax of interrelationships between living things. The second day is concerned with craft: the work of making sentences and books. Lopez shares his practical strategies for writing and revising a manuscript and goes on to speak about vulnerability. He says he often experienced a deep sense of doubt about his capacity to achieve whatever he was trying to do in a particular project. Over time, though, this characteristic experience of not-knowing became a kind of fuel for his work, and even a weapon at times.
On the final day, Lopez ponders the idea of writing as a praxis, a way of life, even a prayer for the earth, while concurrently being terrified by the portents of its destruction. Here, the experience of being an attentive participant emerges as his core teaching. Over the decades he developed a practice of attention that was endlessly curious and enthralled by the living world, what he calls its pattern or syntax. Despite acclaim as a celebrated writer, throughout his career Lopez humbly tasked himself with making a combination of wonder and horror work together to effectively communicate a life journey of contemplation, exploration, and discovery.
About the Author
Julia Martin is a South African writer and a professor of English at the University of the Western Cape. In addition to academic work in ecocriticism, she writes creative nonfiction with a particular interest in metaphors of interconnectedness and the representation of place. She is the author of Syntax of the River: The Pattern Which Connects with Barry Lopez, A Millimetre of Dust: Visiting Ancestral Sites and The Blackridge House: A Memoir, and she collaborated with Gary Snyder on Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places, a collection of three decades of their letters and interviews. She and her family live in Cape Town, South Africa.