Just Imagine

In a recent visit to Spokane, author Barry Lopez gazed into an apocalypse, and left his audience speechless.

By Beatrice Lackaff

A man at a podium, in the temperate zone of a blue planet, pivoting around Polaris, asks us to make a cultural inquiry: Who are we? Where are we headed? What have we forgotten? What circumstances will our children be born into?

Thus began writer, geographer, and deep thinker Barry Lopez.

He is a prize-winning author, including a finalist for the National Book Award in 1978 for Of Wolves and Men, and winner of this award in 1986 for Arctic Dreams.  

It was November 21, 2013 at Spokane Community College Lair Auditorium, and Lopez had been invited to give the  President’s Speaker Series Lecture.  He took his audience on a word journey through a landscape sometimes dire, but also celebratory.  Glimmers of phosphorescence illuminated a trail through the darkness.

First, Lopez referenced the common fate of humankind, and hence, our Common Cause.  Then he gave a modern interpretation of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, first with contemporary examples of the Horsemen of Pestilence and War.  Famine (poverty), said this observant world traveler, are very real and present, though not well seen by most Americans.  As for Death, the final Horseman, he said that in our culture many respond with denial, and we also do this with other facts, such as climate change.

The audience seemed stunned by the lecture, and sat silent with no questions or comments. Those who stayed afterwards for a personal chat and autograph found him warm, gentle, and very present. 

He explained that we can indulge in this denial because we are not really offered the real news. Too often we aren’t presented with what matters, but with what sells.  So, we think we can see our threats, and kill our enemies; that it is all about winning.  But this isn’t so.  If there is to be any future for humanity – it must be based on reconciliation, not upon blame and war.  There can be no more war – for the survival of our children, and their imaginations.  It is by the use of our collective imaginations, “in the way our people had once done” that humanity can save itself from the Four Horsemen.

Lopez spoke gently and thoughtfully, with little ego; but this reviewer found it hard work to stay with him.  As if in explanation, he commented that as a guest, he wanted to make himself useful for the precious time we had given him; it would serve no purpose for him to tell jokes!  But introducing the imagination as antidote for the baleful woes of mankind was to me at least, as curious and startling as a joke.

He concluded that we must have diversity and change.

Our human road must branch and be random, leading to
“an eternal nowhere.”  There must be many different roads because so many will go nowhere; the more possibilities we
imagine, the better our chances of successful survival. When we are told there is no hope – it is the imagination that
counts! Imagination will help us to learn that we are all in this together. Imagination can teach us to not try to fight and
kill our enemies, but rather to create something beautiful, and so make our enemies irrelevant.

Climate change, then, is a gift!  It is here, and now we will really find out if human beings are creatures of Imagination!

The audience seemed stunned by the lecture, and sat silent with no questions or comments. Those who stayed afterwards for a personal chat and autograph found him warm, gentle, and very present.

Lopez visits many diverse communities around the world, including ours.  He comes not as a dignitary, but more as a humble guest and traveler. He finds each person has an important point of view, and asks as many of us as he can: “So, what do YOU think?”

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