The first thing I want to do this afternoon is express my gratitude for the invitation to speak with you today. I feel honored, knowing you’ve read work of mine and decided I had a place in this moment, the moment when you look back over your shoulders but also look ahead to the road you’re about to embark on, or maybe to the open water south and east of here that you intend to sail—a road less safe, and a waterway trickier than those you’ve known here.

I want to ask you to travel a little with me this afternoon. At your age I secretly wished to become a writer, but I had no clear image of what I would do as a writer. The topics I hoped to address were too broad, and the life of a writer, as I understood it then, too problematic. So I matriculated in graduate school. Hiding out might be a better term for what I was doing. What I did know was that I didn’t know; and instinct told me the way out of this innocence and ignorance was to travel. To put this succinctly, I needed another, different epistemology than the one I’d gotten in my years of formal education, another way of knowing the world than the one I had been taught was the right one. I wanted to see the great Earth—the Shiretoko Peninsula, on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan, the last redoubt of remnant Ainu people; the Strait of Magellan, the country, once, of Selk’nam, Yamana, and Kawésqar people—peoples from the edge of the world. Like so many, they would fall victim to the predatory instincts of Western civilization, and in the process be disparaged as dim-minded and atavistic by nearly every Western historian who followed after Magellan. I wanted to see the interior of Antarctica, a landscape no people, no human culture, had ever occupied. I wanted to float the Yangtze; stand on the north shore of Tahiti in French Polynesia at Point Venus, as Cook had; travel with Warlpiri people in the Tanami Desert, in Australia’s Northern Territory. I wanted to see wolves and polar bears and orcas on their own ground. I wanted to see it, see the varied Earth and meet those living in it and on it.

As it’s turned out, I was able to do all of this. I can’t tell you how. I can only say I wanted it. I desired it. When I was your age, I wrote Louis Leakey, the great paleoanthropologist, sending him my shallow and inadequate resumé and saying I wanted to come to Olduvai Gorge and work for him there in Tanzania, to do whatever camp chores were required in his and his wife, Mary’s, search for the origins of man. To my utter surprise, he sent back a welcoming letter; but we could not arrange our logistics in time, and then I was on to other things. My desire to witness this search for the fossilized bones of our deep ancestors, however, burned on in me. Twenty-five years later I flew in to Nariokotome on the western shore of Lake Turkana, in northern Kenya, to search with Louis’s son Richard’s “hominid gang” for further hard evidence of hominin evolution.

What I’m saying here, of course, is to follow your instinct now, as you walk out of here. Where your hunger is concerned—for social justice, for scientific inquiry, for protecting the Earth, for education, for economic reform, for writing or for painting—be tenacious. Do not quit when it becomes too much, too daunting, too lonely. Be like wolverines.

So that one thought: Hold on to your desire. Feed it. And know that your rational mind will periodically offer you no support at all. Don’t let it have the final say every time.

A few moments ago I asked you if you would please travel a little bit with me. I had in mind places of adumbration, places where you might sense the larger outlines of your own life, events and moments you might go back to again and again, because they prefigure, in some vaporous or symbolic way, what is coming for you, and, if you are someone with a sense of social responsibility, what is coming for your people.

Many years ago I was on the upper Yukon River just south of the Arctic Circle, about forty miles west of Alaska’s border with the Yukon Territory in Canada. I was traveling with my friend Bob Stephenson, a wolf biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It was midday, and for some reason we became aware of what seemed like an inviting spot on the south bank of the river. We tied the canoe off on the roots of a fallen spruce tree, climbed the cutbank and walked off into a clearing. We didn’t know what we were looking for, we just felt drawn to the place. After a few moments we both ­halted suddenly and looked at each other. Uneasy now. Wary. Without exchanging a word we moved to leave. On the way back to the canoe Bob stopped abruptly ahead of me and pointed with his chin. There in the brush, not thirty feet away, was a fresh caribou carcass. The left haunch was ripped open. It glistened with blood. The animal’s twisted neck was broken. Our flesh hummed with the knowledge that a bear was certainly very close. We choked down panic.

It’s like that now. Out there in the real world. Quite dangerous. A world threatening eruption everywhere, in the same moment that we’re idling along, most days, confident that things are going to work out, somehow, believing the danger is far away, in Syria, say. In North Korea. On Wall Street.

In the austral fall of 2012, I was traveling in the Pilbara, in the northern reaches of the state of Western Australia. A painter, a landscape photographer, two American writers, an Australian writer, and our guides. We were looking at how iron-ore mining was changing the countryside, and had changed the lives of the Aboriginal people living there. I’ll skip to the end of this complex trip and say that when we came in off the desert and saw Port Headland, the harbor from which much of the ore was being shipped, the town looked like Mordor to us. The sky orange from iron ore dust; the nearly incomprehensible sprawl of an automated operation loading the faceless ships; the seething noise of dry ore being poured into cavernous holds. On the wall in my hotel room was a placard warning me not to drink the tap water, and to shower only briefly, and not more than twice a week. The air in the town’s bars was rancid with cigarette smoke, the air combusting in them like lit fuses in a dynamite bunker. The rooms themselves shook from the jackhammer music roaring on, unnoticed by men with thousand-yard stares, making $200,000 a year driving ore trucks up out of the pits.

Out in the country beyond, an Aboriginal man, a traditional man, speaking of his poverty and describing the unraveling village in which he used to live, answered my question about what had happened here. “Natural resource extraction happened to us,” he said.

The ore ships were headed to China, nearly every one of them—a country not sending troops to the Middle East, or to Nigeria to fight Boko Haram, or anywhere else, but gathering the last major deposits of iron ore in Western Australia, and of copper in Afghanistan

Do I need to add anything about sociopathic speculators in our own country trying to secure the last large reservoirs of fresh water in South America, or sex trafficking in the fracking camps of North Dakota, or rogue fishing fleets in the Pacific?

Last week I was in Occupied Palestine, traveling with several other writers to cities in the West Bank to read and present. I had arrived in the Middle East a few days earlier and was staying in Amman before our tour began. One day I took a chair with me and sat by myself on the barren edge of a bluff that fell down to the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side. This sea lies in the lowest part of a visible geological feature called the Jordan Rift. The Jordan River, which flows into the Dead Sea, drains the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Tiberius as the Palestinians have it, which itself takes flash flood waters from a series of wadis in southwestern Syria, south of Damascus. The Jordan Rift continues on south of the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba, the eastern spur at the northern end of the Red Sea, the western spur being the Gulf of Suez. This geological fault continues south, past Jeddah, the port for Mecca, until at the Gate of Tears, at the southern end of the Red Sea, this line, which marks the tectonic boundary between the Saudi Arabian plate and the African plate, turns southwest, bisecting Djibouti and the Omo River Valley of Ethiopia, where the fossilized skeletons of “Lucy” and other australopithecines ancestral to us have been found. The fault continues through Lake Turkana, in Kenya, where paleoanthropologists are looking, right now, as we’re gathered here in Maine, for hominin and hominid fossils. It then follows straight on to Lake Malawi, passing through Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania along the way. This particular section of the fault lines that run from Damascus in the Middle East to Lake Malawi in Africa is called the Great Rift Valley of East Africa.

I’ve been staring at this line for a while now, at these several landscapes of our human origins: in northern Kenya at a paleoanthropological dig that gave us the nearly complete skeleton of a Homo erectus youth in 1989; near Djibouti, at a landscape of predatory drones setting their Hellfire missiles loose over Yemen; and near Bethlehem, at refugee camps where third-generation Palestinians continue to hope for intervention.

I would like to offer you something coherent and insightful about all this, including the refugee camps in southern Ethiopia and South Sudan, and along the Jordanian border with Syria, northeast of Amman. But I am still reeling from what I saw two weeks ago. I have nothing to offer you this afternoon but the fact that everywhere people are running, running hard, like they were running out of that ticket lobby in Brussels a few months ago, running from war and drought, from military occupation and corrupt governments, from desertification and extreme poverty. For them, the illusion of safety has been completely shattered. They’re all running from Hellfire missiles of one sort or another.

In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s enduring 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, a man who cannot bring reality and the wishful dreamscapes of his own aspirations together, in order to create and maintain an informed—you might also add ethical—life, this salesman hallucinates at one point about a visit from his entrepreneurial brother Ben, who is just back from a successful venture of some kind in Africa. Ben, a sort of Cecil Rhodes, scolds his younger brother, urges him to get out there in the world, get out there and make a killing. The play works, in part, because Miller, who was incisive about the type of folklore that fed American lives, understood that we are eager to hear from men who are financially successful, eager to know the secret of financial success. But of course there is no secret. What eludes us, really, is the secret, if you want to call it that, of leading morally successful lives, ones that do not leave injury and mayhem in their wake, and which create inner peace.

I saw the play on Broadway once, fifty years ago, and I remember being transfixed by the figure of Ben. In my adolescent mind he embodied the will to break free of the fear of failure. It was years before I understood what Miller was really saying was that delusions of one kind sometimes feed delusions of another kind, to the point of tragedy, to suicide in Willy Loman’s case. To be successful, it is necessary to confront one’s cherished delusions and dismantle them.

I think of this indictment here today because I have just returned from a distant shore, and feel responsible to offer you some kind of wisdom that grew out of what I saw; but all I have, at the moment, are painful memories, paradox, and threats to my sense of hope, which, God willing, I will write my way out of in the months ahead. And if I cannot find a language that will serve as a foundation for hope in Palestine, I will not write a story, out of respect for those whose vision for peace there continues undisturbed.

Also, I think there is no Ben to offer us advice. No one is coming over the horizon to tell us what to do. What we need to do we will discover only in deep and sustained conversation with each other.

I want to tell you about one more place, a place that gave me a kind of blueprint for dealing with our modern problems, many of which seem intractable, and which are too often addressed in public by people with pedestrian ideas and selfish motives, by people who offer us, in place of leadership, a personality disorder, in place of ethics, venality and cowardice.

In 1981 or so I was traveling with Inuit hunters in northern Baffin Island. We were out on the sea ice in Admiralty Inlet, hunting at the ice edge, when a light wind that had been blowing from the north came around to the south. We broke camp quickly and headed south as fast as we could move. Admiralty Inlet is about the size of Chesapeake Bay. Where we were camped, the inlet was perhaps twenty miles across, and we were about forty miles north of a peninsula where the hunters’ families were camped. To get to the camp we had to cross three transverse cracks that ran east and west through the sea ice. When the wind was coming out of the north it kept these cracks closed. Coming out of the south now, the wind was slowly widening these cracks, creating leads of open water. If the leads widened too much, we’d be trapped on the massive ice floes we were racing across, and possibly swept out into the open waters of Lancaster Sound, where we would be in real trouble.

We crossed the first two of these traverse cracks, which were only three or four feet wide, without incident. When we reached the third crack we were looking at ten feet of open water. Instead of some dominant personality emerging, stepping forward to say what we should do, as might happen in our culture, each one of about twelve men spoke about what he had done in the past in a similar situation. He offered us detailed information about the weather, the sea ice conditions, and the size and nature of his komatik, his sled, and said whether he had been traveling with dogs or by snow machine. After all the men had spoken, each person decided which was the best choice for him, and went ahead with his plan. Everyone did something a little different. All but one of us got across the lead of open water successfully, through a set of deft but dicey procedures. The one we almost lost, we rescued.

This incident has stayed with me for many years, because the successful solution did not lie with the opinions of a strong personality but with each man saying what he knew, everything he knew, and not more than what he knew.

The idea was to get everyone safely across. The authority for a successful crossing lay with the sharing of knowledge, not with following any single charismatic personality’s institution or dictate about what to do. This was not Follow me but Let’s not leave anyone behind.

I would offer you this strategy, to leave no one behind, at a time when too much of what is important for us as a people is being decided by those who say Follow me. Instead of proposing their views, they seek to impose them. This is yet one more expression of the “cult of personality,” of which America is so greatly enamored. This is not a helpful approach in my mind, when you consider what we’re facing. So, I’m urging you not to strive, when addressing those issues that lie out there on the road for you, not to strive to be noticed or seem interesting to others. Strive instead to understand, to let others speak, and to listen. Generally, in my experience, successful communities are composed of people willing to let others speak for them because they know these other people are good listeners. You are not depending then on the narrow quest of an individual ego but dealing with the reality of a common fate, which, like global climate change, is indifferent to the desire of any one individual to be proven right.

So, where from here for you? You can sense the bear in that clearing on the upper Yukon, whatever you might name it: ocean acidification, methane gas pouring out of the tundra this summer, volatile national economies, anomalous drought and wildfire, the coming fight over fish in the territorial waters of the Sprately Islands in the South China Sea, plans in the winds now in some countries for mining and drilling in Antarctica, despite the existence of the Antarctic Treaty which prohibits such development. You can see the Four Horsemen out there. You can already articulate your desire to play a role in finding ways for humanity to successfully meet these threats. You got that here, many of you, the knowledge about what to do, the confidence to step into the work that is calling you into the future, the preparation to understand what has gone wrong in Syria, or Kashmir, or America, if I may say that.

Most of you arrived here, as I look at it, with two questions; and you have discovered here, I hope, two skills. The questions that define a college education, for me, are these: What do I mean by my life? And, How can I say what I mean? Shall I say it as a humanitarian aid worker, as a physician, as a computer programmer, as a sculptor, as an educator, as a parent? If you know at this point what you mean by your life, what you want your life to stand for, ethically and spiritually, and if you can discern the general outline of how you will conduct yourself as you walk out the door here, then you have accomplished something hard already, and we here are fortunate, because we, the ones who are older, share a fate with you.

The particular skills I hope you have learned here have little to do directly with your major area of academic interest, which, really, is just a matter of your intellectual comfort with a certain metaphor, like physics or history or design. The skills I’m thinking about have to do with navigation, how you will navigate from here to wherever you want to go with as little trouble as possible. One such skill would be the ability to be discreet. I’m not talking about steering clear of gossip, though that’s usually a good thing to do, or covering up for bad behavior, which we’re all prone to do because we’re human, but about another kind of discreetness. One time a senior person to me, an indigenous woman I met in Oregon, said to me, You know, Barry, we don’t tell all the stories to all the people. She meant you must be careful in what you say, so that you do not destroy someone’s sense of hope, or frighten them when they are already feeling afraid.

The particular skills I want to stress this afternoon however, as you look out the figurative door here to see what has your name written on it, are the ability to be discerning and the ability to discriminate. To be discerning is to be aware of the nuances in any given situation. It’s an ability to recognize both the small within the large (the tree in the forest) and the large within the small (the forest made of trees). It’s the ability simultaneously to accept multiple points of view and to accept the validity of the ones that differ from your own. In a way, to be discerning is to approach the world with an attitude opposite that of a fundamentalist’s, the polarizing attitude of someone who doesn’t or can’t see the world as nuanced, or who is frightened of change. To be discerning is to be comfortable in the world outside the known self, to go deep where art is concerned, and to be at ease when awe is the proper response to mystery, not analysis.

To be discriminating is something different. It is the ability to distinguish between two things that look, at first glance, as though they are the same. In order to be discriminating you have to pay close attention to whatever is unfolding before you, to distinguish between the authentic and the fraudulent. To be discriminating is, I suppose, simply the ability to know when someone is lying.

In your years here you have developed the scaffolding of your “philosophy of life,” which you will strengthen in the years ahead, and which will be your guide in both lay and spiritual matters. But these skills I’ve mentioned, to be discerning, to perceive the nuances, and to be discriminating, to recognize the authentic, will be useful at every turn. You will be misled less often, and you will move more quickly to the heart of what it is you are after.

So, now the road opens, and you are out of here, like Huck Finn lighting out for the territory where you will make your mark. I admire your bravery, your diligence in getting as far as you have. I also respect the desire in some of you to go no further just now, to wait until the road ahead seems less obscure. I hope some of you will choose to join the women and men of my generation, and those born in the fifty years separating us, to ferret out ways of life that are more just, less cruel, more compassionate, and more enlightened, considering what we are all facing.

On your way out the door, then, here are a few thoughts. Step away from the unconscious confines of your own culture. Learn what others are facing, and how they are coping. Think more often of what might work for everyone, instead of what will work for the chosen few, among whom you will no doubt count yourself. Read about the lives of those you admire—Thomas Merton, Rachel Carson, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, and take in the meaning of each one’s flaws. Be cautious if you feel an urge to become well known. Remember that sometimes reverence, not efficiency, is the way to a solution. And remember that it is more important sometimes to be in love—with the Earth, with each other—than to be in power.

In the years ahead you will find that it is extremely difficult to lead a good life. Every life, sooner or later, meets tragedy and despair, injury and injustice. Every life hears the seductive call of cynicism and detachment, offering you a way out. If you hear those calls, if you falter, go to those you’ve come to trust, and seek their counsel. Remember those Inuit men on the ice, who had to move quickly when the wind shifted. Listen, and then choose your way. If you do well out there, after the safe years in an academic community, all of us together here this afternoon—those with me on this stage, your parents, your teachers—will do well. We share a fate, and now we welcome you to the work that needs doing, from one end of the Earth to the other.

I have spent only a few hours in your company, and have come here from a faraway geography and a different human community altogether. But I am inspired by your vision, and impressed by your capability, and I have been revitalized by your energy and enthusiasm, and I should say by your daring.

You represent something magnificent. Now the real work begins. For God’s sake, take care of each other. Thank you.

Barry Lopez has been publishing short stories and essays for more than forty years. His volume Winter Count was read in the Human Ecology Core Course by the class of 2016 when they entered in 2012. Said Galen Hecht ’16 in introducing Barry during commencement, “We are honored to have with us someone whose true calling is as a storyteller and storywriter, who lets the poetry of the earth rise up through his shoes, a writer whose stories of this magnificent world are testament to the astonishing and trying reality that we are all here, alive, on this earth.” Barry Lopez now holds an honorary Master of Philosophy in Human Ecology.


Save & Share: