The book cover for Syntax of the River, which features a man standing in a river, in set over a blue and green swirled background

What the River Teaches Me: Thoughts from Barry Lopez

When you're young, you want to learn the names of everything. But it’s the syntax that you really are after.

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. The following thoughts from him are an excerpt from Syntax of the River: The Pattern Which Connects (Trinity University Press), a book documenting an extended conversation between Lopez and Julia Martin in which he explores what this juxtaposition means for him as a writer.

WHEN I MOVED HERE IN 1970, I was very active as a landscape photographer as well as a writer. I was out probably every day photographing. And that meant the line and the color and the volumes of space were things that drew my attention all the time. I guess the aesthetic question was, How are these related? And how are these related in time? Now, by watching the river and the trees over forty years, I can look at the river from the house and tell whether it’s raining or what the season is. The water has a slightly different color during the four seasons, depending on how much snow and glacial melt is in it. And the parts of the river that are not visible in the summer are visible in the winter, because of the loss of leaves of deciduous trees.

One thing I did for a while would be to pick out a certain rock, like that one down there, and photograph it at two-thousandths of a second. That would give me an image that is not apparent to my eye but which for another eye, able to absorb information discretely in much shorter units of time, would be apparent. And then I would come back during a full moon and photograph from exactly the same position on a bank. In a twenty-minute time exposure, the film would fail. I would have reciprocity failure, meaning that the colors were false—the film would fail to register colors in approximately the way we see them. But it would also eliminate all the random—or what we would call random—movement in the water, and you would see something not usually apparent to you. That would be what a chaos philosopher might call a deeper attractor, or an organizing principle underneath what seemed to be chaotic. It showed you there was a here. It was just impossible for you to pick up.

Read more from Barry Lopez here.

That was one of the ways I came to understand the river as a kind of animal. It is a convenience of Western culture that we divide the world into plants and animals and minerals. But . . . just to pick somebody, a British explorer named Ralph Bagnold wrote a book in the 1930s called Libyan Sands about his experiences in the Libyan desert. He had become very interested in sand dunes, and he monitored them. At one place he watched two sand dunes converge and separate and continue on their paths. But they left a small sand dune in their wake. So, he asks a question in that book which prompted the question for me. He says, “Was I watching a biological or a geological phenomenon?”

Part of what distinguishes the river from other animals is that its entire life history, its ontogeny if you will, is apparent in the moment. We could walk twenty miles up the river to the source of the river, or twenty miles, thirty miles, down the river, and we would see its beginning and its end. All of its life is available in the moment, except those parts of its life that are seasonally specific. If you watch the water—you’re here now in the fall—you will see that there are leaves floating on the water that are falling out of the alders and the ashes and the maples. But there are also leaves that are sodden; they are riding in the river below the surface, and the water is clear so you can see them. When you compare the speeds with which they are moving, it tells you that the water on the surface of the river is moving more slowly than the water just below the surface because there is no coefficient of friction from the air. And if you really study the water, then you will see that on the bottom there are leaves just sitting there. This is why small animals can wander around on the bottom of rivers that are moving very swiftly because the water at the bottom is moving in a series of back eddies that create a lot of still water at the very bottom.


The book cover for Syntax of the river. The left edge is dark green, but the rest of the cover is gray with white writing. The center of the cover has an image of a man standing in a river shaded by green trees.
You can purchase Syntax of the River here.

The more you watch the river, the more you understand what it means to apply the adjective “alive.” And it’s in those ways, just with regard to the river, the birds, or other components of the place that we separate out and name, that you begin to get an understanding of what . . . of what this place is. I think for any writer, the place itself is not all that important. It’s your intimacy with the place that’s really important. You can learn about God anywhere is what it comes down to. You just have to pay attention.

Many years ago in Alaska—I think it was in a village called Savoonga on Saint Lawrence Island in the northern Bering Sea—I was talking with a Yupik Eskimo man about his ability to hunt in the pack ice, in the moving ice. I asked him whether he’d get disorientated when a big floe of ice was rotating. You see, there is no flux to the light there. You can’t tell by looking at the sky where the sun is because there is no sense of rays of light coming from one direction instead of another. So, it’s very easy not to know north from south because it all looks the same, the ice and the overcast sky. And he said, “Well, you know, it’s just now,” he might have been in his fifties, “it’s just now that I think I begin to understand the ice.” And he’d been living there all his life. Then he said, “And now I’m really too old to hunt.”

And I held onto that remark, not knowing why. But I know what he meant, now. I’ve been here for forty years, and I think I know . . . a little bit about the surface. I’ve wished I could speak with people who were older than me. And that I had the opportunity to speak with people who are younger than me, so that what this place gave to this animal, this human being, wouldn’t be lost.

But the thing I would underscore, I guess, is that . . . you know, I’m not a naturalist, but I’m intensely interested in, and I would go so far as to say enthralled with, all the forms of life that are around me. I’m elevated when I see them animated. I’m elevated when I’m standing in the woods and I can understand the difference between silence and stillness, for example. Sometimes it’s still but it’s not quiet. And sometimes it’s silent but it’s not still.

When you parse the experience like that, it trains you to approach ideas in the same way. What I would like to underscore is that being intimate with a place helps you understand the pathways to become intimate with complex ideas.

You know, I’ve got to think that the story, storytelling, came about in part because it served the desire that people had to clarify what it is that they were feeling or imagining. And they would, I have to think, make reference to something outside the self, as an equivalent to what they were feeling. They would pause and look, sweep a hand across the play of light in a tree that was upwelling in a storm, and say, “Well, I . . . that’s how I feel now.” In that way, people understood that there is a connection here that is not biological, or not solely biological.

I guess that’s what I’ve been doing for forty years: trying to go to cities and look at art, talk to people in other cultures, and apprentice myself to people who can teach me how to do simple things their way. And then coming back here and just walking around in the woods, trying to sort it out and see the emergence of a pattern. I think when you’re young you want to learn the names of everything. This is a beaver, this is spring Chinook, this is a rainbow trout, this is osprey, elk over there. But it’s the syntax that you really are after. Anybody can develop the vocabulary. It’s the relationships that are important. And it’s the discerning of this three-dimensional set of relationships that awakens you to how complex this is at any one moment.

That was one of the ways I came to understand the river as a kind of animal. It is a convenience of Western culture that we divide the world into plants and animals and minerals.

Then, of course, the next thought is that there is not one moment. Five minutes ago the river was different from what it is now. If we were acutely aware, we would know that because the sonic landscape changes.

When I’m down at the river, I can tell stages of the river just by listening. Its voice is completely different when there’s two or three inches more, or two or three inches less water there, because it moves over the rocks in a different way. And what some would, I guess, call cacophony—and maybe it is—to somebody with a more sophisticated ear than I, it’s not cacophony. It’s, you know, maybe a version of arhythmic, atonal music. John Cage could sit here and say, “Oh, yeah, well,” and see some deep organizing principle in the sound of the water, the way you could see by shooting it in moonlight for twenty minutes. You could see the deep resolution of the laminar flow of water. Then it hits one of those rocks. And then it breaks up and goes around it. Heisenberg was famously asked, “If you get to heaven, what would you ask God?” And he said, “Well, I wouldn’t say to him, ‘Why relativity?’ I would say, ‘Why chaos?’” Meaning that chaos is more complex, it’s more difficult to wrap your mind around chaos than it is to wrap it around relativity. And this is the orchestra of chaos right here in front of us. And it’s so interesting to me always, that the world of commerce and vacations and going to town is, you know, fifty feet away.

Salmon came in here, this month. Chinook salmon.

They come across the Columbia River bar in February, which is the beginning of our spring, and they come up the Columbia River and up the Willamette River, and they make the turn into the McKenzie River here. And they seem to come in two pulses. They come up in May and June and hang out in some of these big, deep holes, twenty, thirty feet deep. They just hang out there for a couple of months. And then another pulse comes upriver in late August and early September, and they move right onto the gravel bars, right away, and the females start building their nests. Then they spawn and die.

I’ve noticed some time ago that they come like the swallows famous to Americans, the swallows of Capistrano. They come on the same day. So, if you measured twenty-four hours either side of noon on September 17, the salmon would be here. It’s been like that for forty years. And I become anxious, you know, on the evening of the seventeenth if they aren’t here. I’ve gone down in darkness, in total darkness, on the seventeenth. I’ve done it so often, I don’t really need to see. I just come down through the woods and navigate aurally, navigate by the sound. And when I’m standing next to the river, even though it’s like this, I can sort out the sound of a caudal fin moving in the water. And I know they are there. I can hear that they’re there. Then in the morning I’ll come down and I’ll see that they’re there. So, that awareness, I guess, that the landscape is open to us in ways that we wouldn’t immediately think of . . . I think that is an important part of the way we experience the world.

When you go to another country and you’re dealing with a language you don’t speak, and with customs around the consumption of food that you’re not familiar with, and hours for sleeping and being awake, you can find some other way than your accustomed way. And that kind of experience leads you to what I think is one of the most important parts of international politics now. That is the awareness of, and the accommodation of oneself to, the existence of profoundly different epistemologies that should not be changed. If you want everybody to have the same truth, or to believe in the same things, then you’re talking about the loss of tension and the collapse of the world.

Our trouble seems to be that, you know, our primate heritage, which is apparent in watching the behavior of chimpanzees and bonobos, is that we’re keenly interested in ourselves and opposed to others. That’s deep in our tissues. And with the kind of world we’ve built, that’s not going to work. So, those human beings who have the very strongest residue of the kind of patrolling behavior and violence that troops of chimpanzees have, those people would like the world to be, I think, arranged in a way that suits their habits and their desires. But a lot of people die that way. And we have created a chemical environment that is killing people left and right, quickly or slowly, through cancer, for example.

It just doesn’t make sense anymore to have these ideas about “me” and “mine” and the terrible burden that has been created by so-called advanced nations about the primacy of ownership, the ownership of food. Or, you know, the terrifying thing in the United States, this idea that nothing is exempt from the application of a kind of economics that’s meant for profit. I mean, how can you make the care of another, the professional care of another person’s body, be informed by a profit motive? Even a fifth-grade kid can see there is something that doesn’t really add up here.

So, for me as a writer, I live here and I’m informed by this place. And the way it informs me helps me understand a lot of the things my species does that are suicidal. It’s not up to me to say that they are suicidal, but I would feel like a traitor to my teachers here if I never said a thing, never mentioned it.


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Julia Martin is a professor of English at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. She is the author of A Millimetre of Dust: Visiting Ancestral Sites and The Blackridge House: A Memoir, and co-curator, with Gary Snyder, of Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places.

A longtime contributing editor and advisor to Orion, Barry Lopez was an award-winning essayist, author, and short-story writer who traveled extensively in both remote and populated parts of the world. His many books include Arctic Dreams, Horizon, and Of Wolves and Men.