R.I.P. Barry Lopez
Updated: Jan 18
Madre De Dios - An amazing essay from a mind that will be missed
This week I was scanning one of the countless newsletters that I subscribe to in order to expose myself to material that might might make it into WesRecs and I saw an item telling me that the author, essayist, & nature writer Barry Lopez had died. I am largely ignorant of Lopez's work. I have never read one of his books, or heard a lecture of his or checked out an interview. Still, as soon as I read the news of his passing my mind immediately flashed to the memory of experiencing the one thing of his that I have read, an essay about his religious life and two experiences he had with the Virgin Mary. It was profound. Something like 12 years ago I was reading one of those Best American Essays collections that I'd loaned from the library and Lopez's Madre de Dios was included and I was rocked his steady, open, un-flashy, but deeply resonant prose. Not only did I love his style and vulnerability but what he relates is both amazing and devastating: literally miraculous encounters combined with a gut-punch of trauma of the worst kind, all in that steady voice. As far as any creative work I've ever made or will make I'm not sure I need to hope for anything more than the scanning of my stumbled-upon obituary triggering an instant rush of recognition, remembrance, and appreciation in someone who read one thing by me a decade before. RIP.
"Once the Beagle III was anchored in the cove, Orlando and a crewman lowered a motor-powered, fourteen-foot panga into the water and, with four other tourists traveling aboard the Beagle, we approached the sea lions. Some of them were trussed so tightly in the net’s green twine that their eyeballs bulged from their heads. To get a short breath one animal, closely bound to three or four others in a knot, might have to force the others underwater, only then to be driven underwater itself by another animal struggling to breathe. The high-pitched whistles and explosive bellows of animals gasping for air rent the atmosphere in the cove again and again. Their desperation and sheer size made an approach in the small panga dangerous, but we had no choice now. Orlando and I braced ourselves to work on the port side. Two people leaned out on the starboard side, to balance the boat. The crewman kept the lunging jaws of the sea lions away from us with an oar blade, and Orlando and I went after the net with our knives."
Back aboard the Beagle, everyone save Orlando and me stepped into the main cabin for a late dinner. The two of us sat on the open deck in silence, barefoot, our t-shirts and shorts soaked. Orlando, a young Argentine, was not a man particularly reverent about anything, certainly not mystical. In the deck lights we could see that our shins were turning black-and-blue, that the small cuts on our hands and arms were swelling shut from the salt water.
I said, “Did you see what happened with the knife?”
“La Madre de Dios,” he said, staring into the night.
Later that evening, unrolling my sleeping pad on the Beagle’s deck, I recalled a single one of her many appellations: Mediatrix of Graces.