On Christmas Day one of the global luminaries of literature, Barry Lopez, died. His Arctic Dreams is surely one of the most extraordinary literary achievements of the twentieth century, and for many years excerpts from this remarkable book were on the syllabi of the units I taught at UTAS, along with his equally remarkable short fictional pieces. ‘Drought’, published in River Notes in 1979, remains one of my handful of standout pieces of writing, both for the grace with which Barry wrote, and what it has to say.
And he deserves recognition on this site because, a self-declared ’writer who travels’, he was here in 1996, a guest at the last of the island’s sadly unsustainable blockbuster writers’ festivals. He stayed on, and in that time we formed a friendship that post-dated his departure. He was interested in evil as a phenomenon, and was keen to visit Port Arthur. At first the sweetly manicured lawns and avenues of roses disappointed, but all this was to change once we entered the Model Prison with its chilling technologies of surveillance. Now Barry felt the immediacy of all that is raw in the human psyche, and when we re-emerged onto the larger site he brought with him a different sensibility.
But this trip was remarkable for another reason. While I took myself off for a slash Barry rested against a mustard-coloured Volvo with a surfboard on top in the Broad Arrow carpark. Yes, Martin Bryant’s car, and yes, this was a mere week before Martin Bryant committed his deeds of infamy. With his extraordinary powers of observation Barry was able to convince the investigative task force that Bryant had been on site that day (this wasn’t yet known). Who knows, Bryant may have been planning to let fly that very day, only to opt, for some reason, for a brief postponement.
At the 2015 conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, held in Moscow, Idaho, I was privileged to sit on a panel dedicated to Barry’s legacy, and there I recounted the Port Arthur incident at length as the largest component within an account of Barry’s time in Tasmania, and of the impact that Tasmania had upon him. He even published locally – a brilliant short essay, ‘Natural Grief’, was published in Famous Reporter in 1996.
Barry has suffered from prostate cancer for several years – even so, his death came as a shock. Wildfires that tore through the Oregon woods in the last northern Fall destroyed his home and his treasured archive. No doubt this tragedy hastened Barry’s end. And here’s how ‘Natural Grief’ ends:
I want to say to the bear, They want your home, you know. Hold out as long as you can. Eat my table leavings if you must. A lot of us will be going down the river with you.
The last unyielding days will be beautiful, I believe. I do not think the bear will ever honor the request to dance.
Barry Lopez’s voice has been taken from us, and we need it. I honour him. I will dance.