Barry Lopez: Love in a
Time of Terror
On Natural Landscapes, Metaphorical Living, and Warlpiri Identity
This world is just a little place, just the red in the sky, before the sun rises, so let us keep fast hold of hands, that when the birds begin, none of us be missing.
–Emily Dickinson, in a letter, 1860
Some years before things went bad, I arrived in an Aboriginal settlement called Willowra, in Australia’s Northern Territory. A small village, it’s haphazardly situated on the east bank of the Lander River, a dry watercourse. (I’d driven into the area several days before with a small team of restoration biologists. They were intent on reintroducing a small marsupial in the vicinity, the rufous hare-wallaby (Lagorchestes hirsutus or mala in the local language). The animal had been eliminated locally by feral house cats, domestic pets left behind decades before by white settlers.) When I arrived in Willowra, I was introduced to several Warlpiri people by a friend of mine, an anthropologist named Petronella Vaarzon-Morel. She’d been working for some years around Willowra and when the biologists dropped me off—that work now completed—she helped move me into a residence in the settlement, a guesthouse where she had been living. Petra then returned to her home in Alice Springs and I was on my own.
Before she left, Petra had pointed out numerous places in the countryside nearby that I should neither approach nor show any interest in. These were mostly innocuous-looking spots to my eye—rocks, trees, small sand hills—but they were important elements in the Dreamtime narratives that form the foundation of Warlpiri identity. Many of these sites were close to the Lander.
When I asked my hosts, then, if I might walk out into the desert a few miles, in the direction that I was indicating, and then return along roughly the same track, the man I was speaking to pointed in a slightly different direction and said simply, “Maybe better.”
I set off that afternoon on a walk north and west of the village, across a rolling spinifex plain that stretched away to hills on the horizon in almost every direction. The flow of the bland, uniform colors of the countryside was only broken up by an occasional tree or a copse of trees.
This universe of traditional Warlpiri land was completely new to me. I had no anxiety, however, about getting lost out there. At a distance of several miles, the settlement and the Lander, with its tall gallery forest of gum trees growing along its banks, remained prominent, in a land that displayed to my cultural eyes no other real prominences.
It was midday when I left so if I happened to walk too far to the west (on what would soon be a moonless night in June) darkness might conceivably force me to lie down and wait for dawn. (I could easily have strayed unawares into some broad, shallow depression on that plain, from which all horizons would appear identical.) But getting lost seemed most unlikely. Starlight alone, in this sparsely populated country lying on the southern border of another, much more stark, challenging, and enormous desert, the Tanami, would be enough to guide me home.
My goal that day was intimacy—the tactile, olfactory, visual, and sonic details of what, to most people in my culture, would appear to be a wasteland. This simple technique of awareness had long been my way to open a conversation with any unfamiliar landscape. Who are you? I would ask. How do I say your name? May I sit down?
Should I go now? Over the years I’d found this way of approaching whatever was new to me consistently useful: establish mutual trust, become vulnerable to the place, then hope for some reciprocity and perhaps even intimacy. You might choose to handle an encounter with a stranger you wanted to get to know better in the same way. Each person, I think, finds their own way into an unknown world like this spinifex plain; we’re all by definition naive about the new, but unless you intend to end up alone in your life, it seems to me you must find some way in a new place—or with a new person—to break free of the notion that you can be certain of what or whom you’ve actually encountered. You must, at the very least, establish a truce with realities not your own, whether you’re speaking about the innate truth and aura of a landscape or a person.
I’ve felt for a long time that the great political questions of our time—about violent prejudice, global climate change, venal greed, fear of the Other—could be addressed in illuminating ways by considering models in the natural world. Some consider it unsophisticated to explore the nonhuman world for clues to solving human dilemmas, and wisdom’s oldest tool, metaphor, is often regarded with wariness, or even suspicion in my culture. But abandoning metaphor entirely only paves the way to the rigidity of fundamentalism. To my way of thinking, to prefer to live a metaphorical life—that is, to think abstract problems through on several planes at the same time, to stay alert for symbolic and allegorical meanings, to appreciate the utility of nuance—as opposed to living a literal life, where most things mean in only one way, is the norm among traditional people like the Warlpiri, in my experience. In listening to negotiations, for example, between representatives of industrialized societies and representatives of traditional societies, it has always seemed to me that the latter presentation is meant to be more open to interpretation (in order not to become trapped in literalness), while the former presentation too often defaults to logic and “impressive” data sets, but, again, perhaps this is only me.
The goal in these conversations, from a traditional point of view, is to put off for a good while arriving at any conclusion, to continue to follow, instead, several avenues of approach until a door no one had initially seen suddenly opens. My own culture—I don’t mean to be overly critical here—tends to assume that while such conversations should remain respectful, the outcome had to conform to what my culture considers “reality.”
My point here is that walking off into what was for me anonymous territory, one winter afternoon in north-central Australia, was not so much an exercise in trying to improve myself as a naturalist as it was an effort to divest myself of the familiar categories and hierarchies that otherwise might guide my thoughts and impressions of the place.
I wanted to open myself up as fully as I could to the possibility of loving this place, in some way; but to approach that goal, I had first to come to know it. As is sometimes the case with other types of aquaintanceships, to suddenly love without really knowing is to opt for romance, not commitment and obligation.
The evening before I went off to explore the desert around Willowra, I finished a book called The Last of the Nomads by William John Peasley, published in 1983. Peasley recounts here a journey he made into the Gibson Desert in Western Australia with four other white men in the winter of 1977. They were accompanied by an Aboriginal man named Mudjon. The group was looking for two Mandildjara people believed to be the last of the Mandildjara living in the bush. Mudjon, a Mandildjara elder living at the time in a settlement on the western edge of the Gibson called Wiluna, had known for decades both of the people they were searching for—a hunter, Warri Kyango, and his wife, Yatungka Kyango. These two had refused to “come in” to Wiluna with the last of the Mandildjara people during a prolonged drought in the seventies. Mudjon respected their effort to continue living a traditional life under these very formidable circumstances but he feared that at their ages—Warri was 69, Yatungka 61—they were getting too old to make their way successfully in the outback without the help of other, younger people.
The search for this couple, across hundreds of square miles of parched, trackless country, interrupted in various places by areas of barren sand hills, culminated with the party’s finding the couple, together with their dingos, at a place called Ngarinarri. (The dingos helped them hunt and huddled up close with them on cold nights to share their warmth.) A few palmfuls of muddy water every day from a seep, and a small store of fruit from a nearby stand of quandong trees, was all that was sustaining them. Warri was injured and sick, and they were both emaciated.
An argument later ensued in Wiluna and then spread far and wide about the insistence of the rescue party that the couple travel with them back to Wiluna instead of leaving them there to die at Ngarinarri, which it seemed they preferred to “civilized” life in Wiluna.
I wasn’t party to this, of course, so can offer no judgment, but this is an old story, characterizing many encounters over the years between “civilized” and traditional styles of living in the Australian bush. Like many readers, I brooded over the fate of these people for days after reading the book. (They both passed away within a year of their arrival in Wiluna, despite the availability there of food, water, and medical treatment.) This is a story of injustice, of course, and, too, a tragedy that virtually anyone can understand. What really stuck in my mind, though, was how love dramatized this narrative, a narrative as profound in its way as the other narrative, the one about colonial indifference and enduring harm.
Because Warri and Yatungka were both born into the same moiety among the Mandildjara, they were prevented by social custom from marrying. When they defied this custom and married anyway, their lives from then on, after their formal banishment, became far more difficult. They knew if they attempted to return to the society of their own people, they risked being physically punished. So they chose a life on their own. Even when they learned, years later, that they had been forgiven, and that their Mandildjara culture was unraveling further in the face of colonial intrusion, and even though they learned that a terrible period of widespread drought had brought most all of the “desert tribes” into white settlements like Wiluna, they continued to choose their marriage and their intimately known traditional country.
Warri and Yatungka looked after each other over all that time, and they took care of their beloved country according to the prescriptions and proscriptions in the Dreamtime stories, observing their obligations to it. They also knew, I have to think, that the watering places their people had traditionally depended on for generations had now withered and dried up or, in the case of the animals they regularly hunted, their food had simply departed the country. And yet they refused to succumb, even at what you might call the point of their natural end. It would be arrogant and certainly perilous to subscribe to any theory of what the two of them might have been thinking at the end, at Ngarinarri. What stood out for me as obvious, however, was their fierce allegiance—to their Mandildjara country and to each other. Death in this case was not for them tragic but inevitable, onerous but acceptable; and death in this place was preferable to lives lived out in Wiluna.
But, of course, again, this is not for me to determine.
The day I walked out into the desert in the direction I was pointed I was intent on immersing myself in the vastness of something I didn’t know. I carried in my backpack a few books about recognizing and preparing “bush tucker,” the desert plants and small creatures that could sustain Aboriginal people; a dependable bird book; and some notes about marsupials and poisonous snakes. In terms of what governed the line of my footsteps, my many changes of direction, my pauses, my squattings down, it was primarily my desire to pursue immersion—letting the place overwhelm me.
Drifting through my mind all the while, however, was the story of Warri and Yatungka, or at least the version of it that was written up and that I had read.
At some point late that day, I came upon several dozen acres of land more truly empty than the desert landscape I’d been walking through for hours. It consisted of an expanse of bare ground and coarse sand with shattered bits of dark volcanic rock scattered about. I walked as carefully here as I might have through an abandoned cemetery. Silence rose from every corner of the place, and the utter lack of life here drew heavily on my heart. As I walked on, I saw no track of any animal, no windblown leaf from a mulga tree, no dormant seed waiting for rain. Other images of bleakness came to mind: bomb-shattered rubble that buried the streets of Kabul; a small island in Cumberland Sound, a part of Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada, where dozens of large whale skeletons lay inert in acres of tawny sea grass rolling in the wind like horses’ manes; the remains of a 19th-century whaling station; tiers of empty sleeping platforms, each bunk designed to hold four men, rising to the ceiling in a derelict barracks at Birkenau, where every night exhausted men lay in darkness, waiting to be carted off in wheelbarrows to the nearby ovens and burned on the day they could no longer wield their tools.
I had halted with these images pushing through my mind and in the moment was toeing a stone the size of my fist when another thought burst in, that most of the trouble that afflicts human beings in their lives can be traced to the failure to love.
In the summer of 1979, I traveled to a Nunamiut village in the central Brooks Range in Alaska called Anaktuvuk Pass. My friend Bob Stephenson had a sod home in this settlement of 110 Nunamiut people, and in the days following our arrival we spent many hours listening to stories about local animals: wolverines and snowy owls, red foxes and caribou. The Nunamiut were enthusiastically interested in their lives, as were we. We spent a few days, too, hunting for active wolf dens in the upper reaches of the Anaktuvuk River. Then we flew several hundred miles west to the drainage of the Utukok River. Bob was a large-mammal biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the department maintained a temporary summer camp there on the middle Utukok, where field biologists could regularly observe tundra grizzlies, caribou, wolves, gyrfalcons, wolverines, and other creatures during the summer months. Bob and I stayed a few days with them and then helicoptered south to a place in the De Long Mountains farther up the Utukok called Ilignorak Ridge.
We camped there for a week, watching a wolf den across the river from us—five adults and five pups.
Whenever I’m asked what I love, I think of the aggregate of relationships in that place that summer. Twenty-four hours of sunshine every day at 68º northern latitude. Cloudless skies, save for fair-weather cumulus. Light breezes. No schedule for our work but our own. Large animals present to us at almost every moment of the day. And, this far north of the treeline, looking through a gin-clear atmosphere with 40-power spotting scopes, we enjoyed unobstructed views of their behavior, even when they were 2 or 3 miles away. I had daily conversations with Bob about the varied and unpredictable behavior of wild animals (or, as I later came to think of them, free animals, those still undisturbed by human interference). We reminisced about other trips we’d made together in the years before this, on the upper Yukon River and out to St. Lawrence Island, in the northern Bering Sea.
The mood in our camp was serene, unhurried. We were excited about being alive, about our growing friendship, about this opportunity to watch free animals in good weather, and about the timelessness of our simple daily existence. I loved the intensity of our vigil. Every day we watched what was for us—probably for anyone—the most spectacular things: wolves chasing caribou; a grizzly trying to break into the wolf den, being fought off by a single young wolf; 30 caribou galloping through shallow water in the Utukok, backed by the late evening sun, thousands of flung diamonds sparkling in the air around them; an arctic fox sitting its haunches ten yards from the tent, watching us intently for 20 minutes.
When we returned to base camp, we enjoyed meals with the other scientists and talked endlessly with them about incidents of intriguing behavior among the animals we all watched every day. One afternoon someone brought in a mammoth tusk she had dug out of a gravel bank close by. Somehow, we no longer felt we were living in the century from which we had arrived.
During those days we all resided at the heart of incomprehensible privilege.
Evidence of the failure to love is everywhere around us. To contemplate what it is to love today brings us up against reefs of darkness and walls of despair. If we are to manage the havoc—ocean acidification, corporate malfeasance and government corruption, endless war—we have to reimagine what it means to live lives that matter, or we will only continue to push on with the unwarranted hope that things will work out. We need to step into a deeper conversation about enchantment and agape, and to actively explore a greater capacity to love other humans. The old ideas—the crushing immorality of maintaining the nation-state, the life-destroying belief that to care for others is to be weak, and that to be generous is to be foolish—can have no future with us.
It is more important now to be in love than to be in power. It is more important to bring E. O. Wilson’s biophilia into our daily conversations than it is to remain compliant in a time of extinction, ethnic cleansing, and rising seas. It is more important to live for the possibilities that lie ahead than to die in despair over what has been lost.
Only an ignoramus can imagine now that pollinating insects, migratory birds, and pelagic fish can depart our company and that we will survive because we know how to make tools. Only the misled can insist that heaven awaits the righteous while they watch the fires on Earth consume the only heaven we have ever known.
The day of illumination I had in the spinifex plain west of Willowra, about a world generated by the failure to love, which was itself kindled by the story of the lovers Warri and Yatungka, grew out of my certain knowledge that, years before, I had experienced what it meant to love, on those summer days with friends in the Brooks Range. The experience delivered me into the central project of my adult life as a writer, which is to know and love what we have been given, and to urge others to do the same.
In this trembling moment, with light armor under several flags rolling across northern Syria, with civilians beaten to death in the streets of Occupied Palestine, with fires roaring across the vineyards of California, and forests being felled to ensure more space for development, with student loans from profiteers breaking the backs of the young, and with Niagaras of water falling into the oceans from every sector of Greenland, in this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness, and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?
Excerpted with permission from Orion Magazine. Copyright © 2020.