My Day with Robert Macfarlane
The writer Barry Lopez has been on my mind a lot lately. A new book of interviews with Barry, called “Syntax of the River” has just been published by Trinity University Press, and the publisher recently hosted a conversation with Julia Martin, who conducted these interviews. This has me thinking about the immense impact Barry has had on other writers, and of the last time I saw him.
On the day in question, the extraordinary British writer Robert Macfarlane was visiting the United States for a very rare, whirlwind tour to promote his new book “Underland,” and he made a special stop in Portland for a joint appearance, and first-time meeting, with his all-time literary hero, Barry Lopez.
Out of the nine days that Robert jetted across the country with nonstop events, the only open slot in his schedule was the day he flew into Portland, so we agreed to meet up and spend the day hiking together.
Robert and I had never met or talked, but we had been corresponding about our shared love of language ever since he published “Landmarks,” his musings on British nature words, and I’d published “Language Making Nature,” my handbook on creating new nature words, so we were eager to meet each other.
I didn’t know what to expect when I picked Robert up at the Portland Airport, but the instant he walked out of the terminal with a huge grin on his face and spotted snow-covered Mt Hood towering on the eastern horizon he instantly proclaimed “I need to go there!” And so our day started with a grand flourish.
After stopping for trail food and last-minute hiking supplies, we paused at the Salmon River, where cold, clear waters run out of mountain snowmelt, so Robert could strip down and dunk in the river to wash off the accumulated grime of cities and travel and reenter the spirit of connecting with the land again.
Thinking ahead to his evening reading with Barry, we chose a lengthy, but doable, ascent up a nearby mountain and set off on a brisk pace that still allowed for a jovial meandering conversation as we wandered upward through a mix of old forests, talus fields, stream crossings, and sporadic viewpoints between trees.
You could tell this was Robert’s first time in the Pacific Northwest from his endless curiosity and exuberant questions as he soaked up new trees, new views, and new mountain landscapes. Talking with Robert was an extraordinary experience and I have never met someone who is so genuinely warm, intelligent, and considerate as we talked about an astounding range of topics from deeply personal to global in scope.
Just as we began to doubt the distance we’d chosen, we spotted the trail's summit and agreed to make a final push to the top. Clambering out of forest onto an open knoll of boulders, we were promptly greeted by the immensity of Mt Hood right in our face along with sweeping views of endless forest and a long line of Cascade stratovolcanoes.
It was the perfect cap to our outing, and the perfect moment for Robert to breathe in mountain air and shake off the heavy burdens of travel.
But that was just one highlight out of many in an incredible day, because from that point we swiftly turned back towards Portland to meet up with Barry for the evening’s crowning event: Barry Lopez and Robert Macfarlane in conversation at Powell’s Bookstore.
I pushed for recording this conversation because any meeting of the minds between Robert, on one of the only trips in his life to the United States, and Barry, moving towards the end of a hard battle with cancer, was destined to be a rare event. I know that everyone in the audience, including long term friends, colleagues, and admirers of both writers, felt both the joy and weight of this historic moment. I found myself recalling the fullness of my day with Robert, walking trails and landscapes together, alongside the fullness of another journey I had taken years earlier spending months studying Barry’s archived papers at Texas Tech University and tracing his life as a writer.
Watching this video now, I’m filled with sadness at the passing of one of our greatest writers, while also feeling humbled by Barry’s tremendous gesture of goodwill and respect for Robert’s work as he fought through pain and physical exhaustion to bring his full attention and inquiry to this remarkable event. The best part of this video is feeling the shared respect and admiration of two great writers in casual conversation, and that kind of human goodwill might be the greatest gift of all.