Syntax of the River: The Pattern Which Connects
- By Barry Lopez and Julia Martin
- Trinity University Press
- 136 pp.
- Reviewed by Christopher Lancette
- March 10, 2023
A late master leaves us this gorgeous ode to the natural world.
When a sensational writer delivers another outstanding work, it is a gift to all of us. When he manages to do so from beyond the grave, it’s another thing entirely.
That’s exactly what Barry Lopez gives us with Syntax of the River. On its surface, the book is simply the transcript of a 2010 conversation between writer-professor Julia Martin and Lopez, an outdoorsman — he told Martin he wasn’t a “naturalist” — and master of multiple genres of writing. Yet it brings to life mental images of something most of us have never seen: Oregon’s McKinzie River, Lopez’s sacred place.
He couldn’t have known it at the time the interview took place, a decade before his death, but he was speaking into existence a sort of last will and testament — bequeathing us a petite yet deceptively powerful book whose beauty extends well beyond its pages. It’s more of a two-pronged pact than a legal document, actually: In it, Lopez implores us to find greater happiness and purpose by engaging the natural world more deeply and by overcoming the things we allow to hold us back.
How do we find the most majestic spot to meet nature? “I think for any writer, the place itself is not all that important,” Lopez answers. “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.”
Getting intimate with one place launches a process that leads to richer understanding, he explains:
“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.”
Lopez later elaborates that we can simply “pick a place and become an apprentice.” Look for patterns in the natural world. Ask questions about why something is happening in front of us. Then “scale up out of them” to gain the greater understanding of the interconnectedness of the world around us. That’s how he approached his work as a writer.
It is on this subject — writing — that the book reaches the transcendent, something we can all call on when life is beating us down and we lack the strength to stagger back to our feet.
Lopez launches the discussion about his craft from a humble perspective. “I write in order to help,” he says. “The way I help in the world is by writing.”
He viewed writing not as an occupation but a way of life, referencing the Greek word praxis — the behavior associated with maintaining a relationship with the divine. Lopez concurs with interviewer Martin when she asks whether, for him, writing was “a practice, a prayer, a lighting of the candles.”
When Lopez is doing what he feels is his best work, he’s issuing a clarion call for us to wake up — to radically put our lives back on a path we wandered away from too long ago, the detour that led to our unhappiness. He tells Martin, “I want to make a pattern in a story that allows a person to say, ‘I remember what I forgot about what I meant my life to be. And I’m going to go do that now.’”
Lopez then opens a vein and shares extraordinary vulnerability and self-doubt — and what he does to fight through it:
“I mean, you can look into my notebooks and see, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing.’ I write things like that to myself. ‘I’m in so far over my head…’ And now at sixty-five, I know, even though it’s still very scary, that if I’m in over my head, that’s where I’m supposed to be. And feeling lost and breaking down, actually breaking down into tears, because I’m feeling the depth of my own stupidity. Maybe it won’t work this time…But, you know, I’ve gotten through it before, and you just have to keep going, push through the fear.”
These hobgoblins come not from an eighth-grader penning his first article for the school newspaper but from a man who reached the top of the writing mountain. Lopez’s Arctic Dreams won the National Book Award; Of Wolves and Men was a finalist for it. The New York Times named another of his works, Horizon, a best book of 2019. He also authored countless legendary essays, including “The Naturalist,” and a mindboggling array of short stories unrelated to the natural world.
Nevertheless, he shares, “I do feel every day that I have not lived up to my own expectations. I feel every day the failure to…create what I’m trying to create…You know, when I say to a student, ‘I can teach you all these things, but I can’t teach you hunger and I can’t teach you discipline,’ I could say to myself at many points: ‘Insufficient hunger and insufficient discipline.’ That’s what I think.”
A man like that admitting to his own demons empowers the rest of us to fight ours, whether we write for a living, repair car engines, or do something else. It’s comforting to learn that Lopez, despite all his success, faced the same inner turmoil we all do.
His candor also makes it easier to trust him when he urges us to do whatever it takes to keep going despite dangerous waters in the river ahead:
“Every life has these kinds of disturbances, and you can’t stop and say…‘things are going to be fine.’ And then panic when you hit a rapid. When you hit a rapid, just move through it and be assured that laminar flow will occur again. Coherence after incoherence. Coherence, incoherence. That is the reality.”
Christopher Lancette is a Maryland-based freelance writer focused on nature and the environment. He has written for some 50 national and local publications, from DC Theater Arts to Salon. He publishes a passion project at EyeOnSligoCreek.com. Follow him on Twitter at @chrislancette.