This episode is dedicated to writer Barry Lopez, author of numerous books on travel, landscape, animals, and humanity and a longtime Oregon resident. Lopez passed away in December 2020, just three months after losing a significant portion of his property on the McKenzie River to the Holiday Farm Fire. We’ll listen to a conversation with Lopez from 2015 and hear from Debra Gwartney, Lopez’s wife, reading from her essay “Fire and Ice,” originally published in Granta, about Lopez’s life and final days.
Barry Lopez wrote many books, including Arctic Dreams, Of Wolves and Men, and Horizon, along with many short stories and essays. Essays mentioned in this program are "Sliver of Sky" (Harper's, 2013) and "A Dark Light in the West" (The Georgia Review, 2010).
Full recordings of our 2015 conversation with Lopez are available at Soundcloud and YouTube.
Debra Gwartney is author of the memoirs Live Through This and I Am a Stranger Here Myself. She and Lopez edited the collection Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape. Her essay "Fire and Ice" was published in Granta in July 2021.
Adam Davis: You're listening to The Detour, a show about people and ideas from Oregon Humanities. I'm Adam Davis.
Today on the show, we remember Barry Lopez who left us a year ago on Christmas Day, 2020. Barry was an author and essayist known for documenting his travels to remote places and for his attention to the landscapes and people he encountered wherever he was. Barry's writing career spanned over half a century, taking him to all corners of the earth, where he explored the relationship between justice and the natural world.
Barry won the 1986 National Book Award for Arctic Dreams, an exploration of the Arctic North, which, for many, transformed a vast, apparently monolithic place into a manifold and vibrant landscape. In 2019, Barry released Horizons, a continent- spanning autobiography told through his travels and interactions with local land and culture.
I remember reading Barry's writing when I was a seasonal trail worker for the US Forest Service in the 1990s. I remember thinking about his words and the worlds they opened up while hiking through the Tongas, Okanagan, Bridger-Teton, and Mount Hood forests. And it was an incredible honor and pleasure years later to meet and get to know Barry personally, through his partnership with Oregon Humanities. Barry lived on the upper McKenzie River in Finn Rock, Oregon, for over fifty years.
He joined us as part of our Consider This series in October 2015.
I think what I'd like to do is start our conversation with a fairly mundane question. And it's related to- on the one hand, thinking about justice- but especially when you write about justice and you talk about justice, it's often tied to a sense of place and a very specific place. And so I just wanted to ask you, as you came up today from Finn Rock and drove up to Portland, what it felt like. What does it feel like to drive up from where you live up here to Portland?
Barry Lopez: Well, at first, if I may, I want to thank everybody for coming this evening, and we're both hopeful that you will feel when you leave that your time was well spent.
The other thing I need to say is so much of what we'll talk about this evening is something that are things that I've learned from somebody else. And, um, so I want to thank my teachers, some of who are here this evening, uh, for the patience over the years, with me trying to learn outside - outside my culture, I guess.
I've been in the same house there on the upper McKenzie River for forty-five years now. And, um, it's a type of ground zero for me. Um, there is a way that I was—I just gravitated toward this place on the upper McKenzie River. And it has fed me ever since, and I try to pay attention there every day. And the longer I've been there, the more intricate and magnificent this place is.
And that's been a great life lesson that, uh, all places, if you just have an attitude of reverence or curiosity or respect, open up. So when I leave a well-known ground where I'm very, very comfortable spiritually, psychologically, intellectually, and come to Portland, even though I come up here, you know, ten times a year or something, Portland is exotic.
Barry Lopez: No, it truly is, you know, when Debra and I were driving over here tonight, we were looking at some trees and. It's so instructive to see that everything was built without regard, uh, for their needs. And, you know, you're just a millimeter from what happened to Native people in North America, that we built this civilization without regard for 500 epistemologies, ways of knowing, that we decided it was okay to throw them away, and now we're in desperate need of them. So we find ourselves going back to cultures that we thought were inferior and understanding that- another miracle -uh, elders are still around and are articulate, and doing the work they've always done, which is to take care of their people.
So when I see those trees, I'm reminded of ethical situations and American history and—
Adam Davis: Yeah, I mean, it's interesting, even while you were talking, it made me remember in your essay "Apologia", you're in the car for most of that essay, which it must be why it went off in my head. And you're, uh, it's a short essay, but it's about stopping to remove—the crude word would be roadkill—from the road.
As you drive by, if you see two raccoons, you pull your car over, you stop, and you find a better resting place. It felt like that essay is both about literally moving animals that have been killed off the road. And it felt like other kinds of damage that we do and drive right past.
Barry Lopez: Right. That's interesting. You know, there's such an obsession in this country with the importance of the individual, that we've allowed the capacity that we have to understand what a community really is to atrophy. And I remember that trip I took was in 1989 and I was driving from Oregon to South Bend, Indiana to spend a semester teaching in the American Studies department at Notre Dame.
And it has been my practice for a long time to get animals that have been killed by vehicles off the road and into, as you said, a better resting place. Um, and you know, when somebody says, why do you do that? I have to think—who is this person? And what of my interior am I going to reveal by saying, by offering an answer.
But one answer that I have had is that that animal that is dead in the road could have been an elder in his own culture. And this is a tragedy more deep because what that animal knew is now not available to the others, because it was killed by a truck or something like that. Now, there are several ways to understand that idea, but you know, that's the heart of literature, which is to involve yourself in the so-called real world and see what real depth is, and to see that the world that surrounds you, if you just become open to it and don't have that sense that you know, but that the world knows. You know, I remember saying to somebody once that I was so impatient with this idea of individual genius, where we see genius in an individual woman or an individual man, but really it belongs to the community. It's just manifest in that person. And so it's a good frame of mind to have that. The possibilities for holiness, if you will, exist all around us, you know, we're not- we don't have some kind of special gift that allows us to see the light. That the light is coming from all of these different directions, and it's good just to be grateful for it. And by taking those animals off the road and giving them a better place, you're just reminding yourself of the need to be ethically responsible in your own world. Because if you're not, too many doors will close, and you'll end up at the end of your life ignorant.
Adam Davis: And in that essay, you talk about a technique of attention.
Barry Lopez: Yeah. A technique of awareness.
Adam Davis: The technique of awareness. In a way, what is interesting about that is technique sounds like it can be learned.
Barry Lopez: Yeah. Or practiced.
Adam Davis: Practiced, hopefully. Maybe not learned, maybe practiced. And then I guess the other thing that really comes out of there for me that I guess I wanted to ask a little bit about is, uh, that's overwhelming. How it's- even your own car as you drove in is picking up birds and all sorts of animals. And that's true for all of us, our car, and all sorts of other things. And so let's say we do practice that technique of awareness: how to practice that without being overwhelmed by it?
Barry Lopez: You open up as much as you can, you know. Your parents die and you're filled with grief, and it's not easy to be open to the world. You lose a child or you get cancer or, you know, whatever it is that tragedy that visits a person, and it closes you down. And then in a moment like that, you understand why you live in a community. Because when you go down, the community keeps the world open, keeps those things flowing through you, and you can heal. That idea of a technique of awareness, and I would say yes, a technique of awareness for me. I'm not asking anybody else to participate, but the way that I remind myself of my responsibilities as a human being is, you know, maybe to get animals off the road. But where that phrase comes from, the history of it in my mind, is that it would make me so impatient to hear that, uh, a culture that you condescended to was full of superstition.
I've spent a lot of time trying to pay attention in contexts that were defined by people outside my own culture. We were traveling together, you know, traveling in the Arctic with Eskimos or traveling with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory or, you know, Kamba people in Africa - whatever it was, I was the odd person out. And I knew the only way I'd ever learn anything was to shut up and, and imagine something greater than what I could comprehend and just leave it be, and just leave it be. So, you know, to just pick an example out of thousands: I was hunting once with Yupik Eskimo people in the Northern Bering Sea, hunting walrus. A great big animal for somebody like me. It's kind of really hard to see an animal that big die, how much blood, and the end of a very big life. But when we were butchering a walrus on an ice floe, I saw an older man cut a little piece of meat, and he was on his knees, uh, working and he put that little piece of meat in his hand, and then he just lowered it like that into the water. You didn't have to have a university education to understand that you're in the presence of the sacred in a moment like that. But I can imagine many people in my own culture saying, "Oh, well, that's just a superstition, he's doing that to say thank you to the sea because the sea gave him—".
But this is not superstition. This is that man's technique of awareness to remind himself, even in his fifties, that this was not here for the taking; this animal gave itself, and by saying thank you in that way, he put himself back in a set of relationships that would preserve his own spiritual health, and not incidentally, his own physical health.
Adam Davis: At the beginning of that comment, you talked about, uh, being impatient with seeing condescension. What I want to ask about is that technique of awareness, noticing all the wrongs that we ourselves do and that others do, it seems to me it can lead to many different emotions, all of them strong. And I wonder what you most feel when you're aware of these things, and what you think we most should feel.
Barry Lopez: I don't know what people should feel, other than alive. Joseph Campbell said once that we all talk about-we all say that we want to go to heaven, but, he said, what we really want is to live fully. And I would, I would say as a writer, um, and just as another person walking around in the world and meeting people, I want to see everybody come fully to life. And the things that stifle a person's life- condescension, racism, all of the tentacles of that dark animal injustice—I want to cut those arms off, you know, of that animal, like an octopus or something. I'm going off in a bad place, myself, here.
Adam Davis: [Laughter] But I mean, in a way that's part of my—seeing wrong, for me, often I get angry. Sometimes when I see wrong and I know that I'm complicit in doing it, I feel resigned. When it's really bad, I feel despair. Anger can feel relatively good. That's why I'm trying to get a sense of–seeing all that, being aware of all that—
Barry Lopez: You know, you can't tell anger never to show up. So it's going to be there. What you have to do, I think, is turn it inside out. And you have to be smart and patient with yourself and strong and say, the easiest thing to do here is to condemn or to judge. Okay. Then what? How are you going to get to the next step? If you walked out in the audience here and ask any person out there, they could tell you a story that would break your heart. And you would think to yourself when you walked away, how did this woman ever get up onto her feet again? So I think you have to approach people, who are just spitting bigotry or who are profoundly ignorant, and violent, you just have to find a way to work with it, because you know, this, uh, situation that we're in, the political situation that we're in, in the United States with democracy pretty much unraveled. And this, you know, you just lie awake at night and think, what would you do if you were a Kurd? You know, you've got three different groups of people around you, all of whom want you to bleed to death.
So all of that is going on all the time, and you have to meet it in a strong way. You have to measure your own strengths. You can't go up against something that's going to tear you apart. But you have to learn how to take these things like being angry, and shift them, give them—you know, I said to somebody once, when you're young, you want to find the enemy, and kill the enemy. And what you have to learn is that the thing that you want to do is not that, but to make the enemy irrelevant.
And the way to do that is to understand that all of the energy that you put into identifying the enemy and hunting the enemy down and killing the enemy is exhausting. And it's all energy given away that could have been spent on making something beautiful. And if you—whatever it is that you make beautiful, a child or a short story, or whatever it is that you make in your life—you're trying to make beauty, and by doing that, you give the things that you identify as the enemy, less and less and less space to stand in.
Adam Davis: So in terms of sort of understanding what's going on here, the state we're in—and I'm going to ask you to generalize, which is probably already a dangerous road to go down because who knows how to—
Barry Lopez: Let's go.
Adam Davis: Let’s go. Thank you. I mean, right at the end of your comment, you talked about things that people don't understand. And I guess I wonder in a couple of different places in your writing, especially Dark Light in the West, on racism and reconciliation in the West, you talk about ways that Oregonians misunderstand their own history to some extent. I guess I want to ask if you think that is still true now? Do you think that there are things about us that we don't pay sufficient attention to?
Barry Lopez: Oh, of course. I mean, I would say sojourning in different countries and traveling with people and listening to what they have to say…what do I want to say? When you go to, you know, when I was in Afghanistan, I got into the habit, in villages, of interviewing people about what it is that they wanted. What, at that time, did they want a Karzai government, or did they want NATO? Do they want American troops; do they want Taliban? What is it that they want, and in the answers that I got, with the help of a translator, what I saw was that they do something similar to what I do or you do, or people here do, which is to rearrange the past in order to be able to bear the present, in order to bear up with the present condition, then you do this thing that I call colonizing the past. And you know, that's happened in Oregon.
Oregonians believe that there's less racism in Oregon than there might be in, say, Alabama. And I would say no. There are so few people of color here that the issues of racism that have to be dealt with have remained unspoken. Nobody, nobody really talks about them, and you're living in a country—we don't, we won't talk about… Jefferson had this remarkable idea about a democracy that derived from all these enlightenment philosophers that he read. And the only thing missing for Jefferson was a continent. He needed a continent in order to implement all of these ideas and build this idealized society.
So in order to do that, we killed everybody who lived here. And we don't, we really don’t want to come to grips with that. And we don't want to come to grips with the fact that… we don't want to come to grips with slavery. And so when you travel in a place like Afghanistan, and you go into a little village, and you ask them what they want, you can feel people saying, “Please. Don't come from a country as racist as yours was and is, and from a country that killed almost all of the people that were living here in order to make what you think of as an ideal life, don't come in here and don't tell me that you are—that that didn't happen, or you can't face it. You are in the same dilemma that we are in. We're all in a state of suffering.
Adam Davis: Yeah. I mean, so even if we leave all the other countries that we don't know, and even the other countries that we couldn't know as well as we know our own, if we just think about our own country or even our own state, and we think about the—I think to say problems would be to understate the actual phenomenon–so the crimes would be a way to say, or stronger than crimes. You're talking about the possession of the continent and then the racism built in to this state, let's say, the history of this state. Even listening to you now, it can sound, it can sound overwhelming. It can certainly feel overwhelming. And I guess I would ask concretely, what does it look like to start working toward reconciliation, so that if we go back to at least the metaphorical take on the raccoon that is removed from the road, when we ourselves are driving to get somewhere quickly, that raccoon—okay, solid resting place. But now we're not talking about things that we're looking for a resting place, we're talking about going forward. We're trying to improve the situation. How can we not be overwhelmed by it? And how can we take meaningful steps toward the kind of reconciliation you're talking about?
Barry Lopez: Well, the answer to not being overwhelmed is to recognize that you're in the community. We see—we have these images. This profound love that a mother has for a child, this capacity to be concerned about the fate of another, that's staggering. It’s staggering to behold. But that a piece of some larger piece of fabric. And that's the way we relate to each other. And if we don't do that, we can't face the things that overwhelm us. Nobody's in this alone. Nobody is in this alone. We are in this, for better or worse, with each other. It doesn't mean that, you know… a lot of traditional societies support a group within the group that are deferred to as people who are carrying, they're carrying two histories, at least. The history of their people and the history of themselves. And the quality that they have that everybody depends on is they're not in it for themselves. I've listened to a lot of elders speaks. And you hardly ever hear them speak about themselves. You don't hear that first person pronoun. It’s just, I don't know. It's a way of speaking that you realize, what's being talked about all the time is us.
Adam Davis: Oregon Humanities tries to make a case that getting people to talk together is actually a serious response to serious problems. And there are a couple of places in your writing where you talk about the antidote of conversation, even at the end of “Apologia,” you, if I remember right, you're going to see a friend, and there are two dogs whose tails are wagging at the door, and then you walk in and that's what's there, is the antidote of conversation. And I had not heard that phrase before, and I wonder what you mean, and what is it an antidote for, and how does it work?
Barry Lopez: I don't know. You know, most things don't have an answer.
It's the conversation, you know. Conversation with another person that's founded on mutual courtesy and respect is informing in ways that cannot be imagined at the beginning of the conversation, and what you're doing in some ways, I think, is reassuring each other that you will not die miserably.
You're saying nobody can figure this out, but we will not quit. Or, you're finding some elaborate and, I think, quite beautiful way of saying, “How are you doing?” I have like everybody here, you know, I can imagine, you saw a movement, saw an animal make a movement, or you saw the way that your grandmother reached out to you as a grandchild—you saw something that was so beautiful that it left you breathless. And for me among those things are the Beethoven ninth. And the reason for it is in the fourth movement of the Beethoven ninth. These tonal values that are coming from the strings and horns are all of a sudden language. And the thing that is abstract and non-representational is all of a sudden real, and a real thing is named, and real emotions are called by their names, “The Ode to Joy” and the Schiller poem. And when that moment comes, in the fourth movement, when what we call music becomes language.
You can feel in an auditorium, you can feel people come right up, straight up through their spines, and they're fully awake and filled. They're flooded with what Schiller was talking about, and what Beethoven was trying to represent, which is the attitude of joy. And you turn to the person next to you, who is a total stranger, and, you know, in this curious way, it’s a moment that passes, of course, but you think: I would do anything for this person sitting next to me. I don't know their history or their aspirations, but in this moment, I see them as I see myself, as part of something magnificent. And that's what that music is.
[Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven plays]
I remember once, when I was a very young man, going to lunch with Peter Matheson, a very kind fellow, uh, took me to lunch, you know, and was—but I said to him, look, how can you, you know, travel with George Schuyler in Himalaya and look for snow leopards and write this remarkable book and hear in your ear all the time what an extraordinary writer you are and all of the praise that goes with that, and then do the most essential thing, which is to walk out the door and know that you do not know anything. You're not—nobody needs you. Someone needs a story, but they don't need the storyteller. What people really need is this pattern that you make as a writer, that you observe the world and you create a pattern in language that has this, that grows out of the complexity of human life and human interaction with the world. You try to make this pattern, and ideally, what happens is a reader comes to the pattern, and the pattern is set up in such a way that there's a lot of room for them and their personal history and their emotions and their fears and their aspirations in the pattern that you've made. So ideally, they immerse themselves in the story and forget you. You as the storyteller are not what's needed, not what is essential.
What's essential is the story. What is essential is the Beethoven ninth or whatever it is that makes you spiritually articulate, or raises up inside you the desire to come to life. So making these things is just the thing that you do in the community. But I think for a reader reading about global climate change or whatever it is, if you're asking that reader to open herself up to some sense of responsibility about all of this, and you imply that you're not implicated—that's the end of it. You know, the reader has to believe that you are in a position similar to the one that he or she is in, that is, bewildered, looking for some kind of order in a bad storm, and that you've made this thing, and perhaps it will help them organize their own ideas. So, you know, somebody who's developing policy in government, for example, if they read a piece of fiction of yours, and then the way the mind operates, you know, it just rotates inside their heads at night, and then the next day, they see the solution to this thing that has been styming them that's on their desk, that has to do with racism or whatever it is. That's how story works.
Adam Davis: I think the last question I'll ask, and then we can open it up, I want to ask how to hold these two things together—the awareness, the attention. And the hope.
Barry Lopez: How can you look at the kinds of things that we're facing, you know, for example, in the United States, the unraveling of democratic society, under the forcing pressure of turbocharged capitalism. If you're looking at that, where, where are you to become hopeful? How are you to become hopeful? You just look at the person that you married, or you look at your children, or you look at the women and men that you feel represents something that you represent too, but you are not articulate about what it is. So the capacity to manage the trauma and the difficulty and the nightmare comes from an awareness of the capacity of others to do well in terrible situations. And that's where your hope comes from. And I think it's forever been like that. I mean, we have this idea in the west about progress, and next year year's car will be better, or whatever. But it won't be. We will still be in the same place, struggling with our own ignorance and our own innocence. And the best we're going to be able to do is really to take care of each other.
Adam Davis: So, what I want to do is I want to—
Barry Lopez: [cuts in] I get to that, don’t I?
Adam Davis: You do, yeah. Bring it.
[00:33:13] So when I, last night, when I was lying awake in bed, I thought, what is that—what is it that line that I read in this, in a letter that Emily Dickinson wrote in 1861? And I tried to say it to myself, and I thought, oh for crying out loud, stop trying to remember it, go look it up. So I'm in my workroom, thinking where the hell is it? So I found it, but Debra, my wife, was saying from the bed, what are you doing? [Laughter] Ms. Dickinson is regarded as a naïve by many people, and a person unfamiliar with a passionate world that many of us would like to live in, forgetting that she called making love “rowing in Eden.” I think Emily knew a lot more than we gave her credit for, but this is this lovely line in a letter to a friend that she wrote in 1861: “This world, it's 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.” And now we can [inaudible].
Adam Davis: Barry lived with prostate cancer from 2013. On Christmas day, 2020, Barry passed away, surrounded by his four daughters and his wife, Debra Gwartney.
Debra is also a writer and her books include, I Am a Stranger Here Myself, Live Through This, and Home Ground. We spoke to Debra in October, 2021.
Adam Davis: I'm Adam Davis and I'm here with Debra Gwartney. Debra is the author of two books, the winner of a 2020 Pushcart Prize. Her recent essay, “Fire and Ice”, was published in Granta. And Debra has lived in Oregon for a long time. Debra, thanks so much for being here and talking with me.
Debra Gwartney: Thank you for inviting me.
Adam Davis: Yeah. In reading, “Fire and Ice”—first of all, thank you for writing it. It's powerful and vivid and sad, and really brings Barry to life as well, and the life you two had together.
Debra Gwartney: Thank you.
Adam Davis: You write in that, that Barry needed to be at home. That home is what fed him, and I just wanted to ask sort of what fed him specifically— what was it there, in the life you shared there, in that place that fed him?
Debra Gwartney: Yeah, that's a great question that, you know, Barry had—and I feel like I can talk about this because he writes about it so extensively in collections of essays, especially one called “Sliver of Sky” that was published in Harpers. He had an extremely traumatic childhood he had to deal with his whole life and as an adult. And I think, you know, what he writes about is, he learned to turn to the woods, to the animals, to the light, and the air there, to bring him a sense of profound peace and meaning. He could go step into the woods and create a context for his own thinking. He was erudite, as you know, Adam, and, lived in his head almost all the time, but he was completely drawn to the natural world. And not in a way that he was fascinated with the name of every, you know—he was very particular about those things, but mostly it kept telling him who he was, and he needed that desperately. So I know, he moved into the house at Finn Rock when he was in graduate school, and he told me that he paid eighty bucks a month for this rambling 1939 house on the river and slowly started to fix it up. And then over the years, as his books were being published, he started buying land. A little land, then a little more land, then a little more land. And his commitment, as he bought it, was that the trees would not be cut except for necessary thinning maybe, and to bring down dead trees and things like that. Because he wanted someplace for animals to be undisturbed. And he had a tremendous commitment to that, and it fed him in that way that he knew he was doing the work he was called to do, for that place.
Adam Davis: Seeing how Barry saw the natural world, how did that affect how you see and feel the natural world?
Debra Gwartney: Well, that's a generous question. I realized that, you know, I grew up in Idaho, and I grew up also in forested lands next to a huge river, called the Salmon River. I realized when I met Barry that nobody had ever taught me the names of things. I didn't know what that bird was called, or what this part of the landscape was called. I didn't know the difference between the cedar tree and a pine tree and a Douglas fir tree. And, you know, to recognize the sound of a kingfisher and an osprey, and he really awakened me to that idea, that to truly know something, you have to recognize it for its individual power and identity, again. And it's just made that place so much more real for me over time.
Adam Davis: So that makes me think of maybe one of the last questions I want to ask. And that is, you say in “Fire and Ice” that he was more interested in questions than answers. And I wanted to ask if you have a sense of what Barry's big abiding questions were. Do you feel like there were a couple of questions that kept popping up for him or that stayed for him?
Debra Gwartney: Yes, of course. I think, you know, in a million years, I could never be as articulate as Barry about, especially about his own way of living in the world, but just from living with him and being with him, I believe his, maybe his central question was Darwin’s central question, which is—when are we going to stop thinking that the world revolves around us and realize that we are just one piece of a—again—very complicated web of extremely complex systems? And, if we could put ourselves into that kind of context, we would take better care of our place. And I do think that so much of his work is about that resituating us, in a way, that is more humble and, you know, to get out of this idea that we are more than, better than. I think he kept reminding all of us, didn't he, through his books, that the world had something big to teach us, and that it didn't need us to teach it a thing.
Davis: That's good. Maybe the last question is just another version of the question I just asked, but it's a question for you. And that is that as you think about Barry, is there a question that’s sort open for you, with Barry in mind, the question that you feel yourself carrying?
Debra Gwartney: Barry as a writer? Barry, as a husband, Barry, as—
Adam Davis: Wherever you feel comfortable.
Debra Gwartney: Well, you know, Barry had a marriage, before our marriage of course, and they, for whatever reason, didn't have children, and I don't think Barry ever thought of himself as someone who would resonate, particularly, with a house full of children. And so why in the world he married somebody with four children, I guess, well that's for him to answer it. But he loved them so much, and they loved him. And I think they awakened something in him that was—had been long—still. Maybe not stagnant, but just was very protected in him because of that childhood abuse and because he lived in his head, all those things. Children mess things up, you know. They really mess things up, and he kinda let them mess it up, let them do that.
And then when we started having grandchildren, as I said in the essay, they literally cracked him open and well, they figuratively cracked him open. He just couldn't believe what these tiny little people made him feel and think, in a way that he hadn't before. And I was thinking about this the other day, because every single year on September 17, for all the years Barry lived there, he would go down to the front of the house, to the banks of the river, and every single year, there would be salmon spawning on that date. They never failed to show up. Sometimes only two showed up, sometimes a hundred showed up. So after the kids were old enough, the little kids were old enough, we started taking them to see the salmon spawn, and it became this ritual that made us all feel very close. We didn't talk that much about it. He didn't lecture to them about what was happening. All they saw were these giant falling apart fish doing this thing in the shallow waters that is so incredibly magical. So this September 17th, my daughter, Stephanie, and I went down. It was raining, and we sat on the banks. And we, we saw nine fish, which, I couldn't believe it, because I thought after the fire, there's no way they'd be back. And they were back! There was one female and eight males and, and that was, you know, there they were, these big Chinook salmon. They're just, they're so mighty, but they're of course dying right in front of you. So we went back to the house, and we got a little cup of his ashes and took them down and sprinkled them on top of where they were spawning, because Barry was so drawn to go out and come back. And I think when the children became part of his life that the coming back had a new richness for him, that I really believe that he took with him. I mean, the four daughters and I were with him when he died, we were holding him, and we were playing some birdsong that his dear friend Richard Nelson had recorded in Alaska. So the house was full of the sound of birds. It was Christmas Day. It was very dark outside. And the sounds of all these birds, and I tell you, no one could have been more loved at the moment of his death.
Adam Davis: And now, “Fire and Ice,” by Debra Gwartney, published in Granta.
Debra Gwartney: I went back to the bedroom now and saw that Barry was beginning to stir. I pulled away the covers and got into bed with this man I’d loved for twenty-some years, who helped me raise daughters, and who was cracked open by grandchildren in a way he couldn’t imagine he was capable of. I could feel his heat, hear his breath, but I made myself accept that he might already be gone, that I had let him leave without a proper farewell, without speaking in the language of our long intimacy. Maybe Barry was on the ice now, leading his ideal expedition. With sled dogs straining at the bit, fat mittens on his hands and goggles protecting his eyes, his exhalations frosting the air around his mouth. He was journeying across the wide sweep of the Arctic and, like the scientists aboard the Polarstern, eager to take in whatever the land and sea deigned to offer him. Barry was not one to invest in answers. It was the questions that pulsed in his body and propelled him forward no matter where he traveled in the world.
But me – I had questions and I did want answers. How was I to make peace with my husband’s disappearance before he had actually disappeared? How was I to give up on a last chance to express what we meant to each other? I rolled toward him, careful to stay clear of ribs that exploded in pain with the slightest brush. He opened his eyes. He turned to look at me.
‘Barry, do you know who I am?’ I said.
He reached over to put his palm on my face. He said my name. He said, ‘Debra,’ and an ease filled me like honey. In the middle of lonely nights now, I try to remember the warmth of it in my arms and legs, the way it opened up in my belly. He wouldn’t say my name again; I wasn’t sure he would recognize me again. It was the last time we would be alone. I would learn to live with that, because I had this memory now. For a beat of a few seconds, there was no one but us, the two of us undisturbed in our marriage bed, floating on our distant sea.
Adam Davis: You can find a link to Debra's full essay in our show notes, where you'll also find some of our favorite books and essays by Barry.
The Detour is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. You can support this show by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Adam Davis, our producer is Keiren Bond. Our editor and engineer is Dave Friedlander. A special thanks to Debra Gwartney. And to Ben Waterhouse, Alexandra Bugden-Powell, and Karina Briski for all their work.
Our theme music is "Coming Up" by Sarah Clark and the Vintage Twin. Our featured music is "Space Choir" by Ketsa. Thanks for being with us, and see you next time.