A Conversation with David James Duncan

A conversation with about 'Going to See,' Barry Lopez and the connections between writers and people

You wrote one of the essays in Going to See, essays on Barry Lopez’s influence on the writers’ work. He died in the months after the devastating 2020 wildfires. As much loss as those fires created — some of Lopez’s papers for example — is there also a lesson to take from wildfires in terms of loss and regrowth? 

Barry was an exceptionally precise and organized man. In somewhat the manner of 18th and 19th century explorers, but completely at odds with their militant, racist, colonizing motives, Barry kept detailed journals without pause for half a century. He also collected memorabilia from his travels, and was given innumerable gifts by a host of friends. Every one of those priceless journals and gifts were in the archive building obliterated by the 2020 fires, leaving Barry feeling, in his own words, that he’d been erased. 

Given those losses, the book Going to See — comprised as it is of 30 writers portraying the countless ways in which Barry has not been erased — could not be more timely. In the Bill McKibben “definition of Barry” that opens the book, he rightly contends that Barry defies the notion that loving the living planet like the Mother she is imprisons a person in a solitary world of wounds. Barry, despite his wounds, cultivated and sustained an extraordinary circle of friends, and Going to See teems with that circle’s clear memories and love for one of our country’s most invaluable and unforgettable men. 

Going to See illuminates how the stories Lopez shared with us were like stones in a pond. How do you see — or would you like to see — your own work ripple? 

I see my own work ripple almost every day of my life, in part because I don’t text or use any social media. Instead, lifelong, I’ve written thousands of letters, or emails that are essentially paperless letters. A lot of my women and men friends are contemplatives, poets, artists, activists, fly fishers, biologists, musicians, craft-persons, who share my enthusiasm for the way years of correspondence deepen a relationship. 

My circle consists of people from all over the U.S. and a few expats in Europe, and a publisher in France. Many became friends after reading my work, or seeing me speak in public, or writing to thank me for what I do, now and then stimulating a lasting correspondence.

In the last two days my work rippled enough to being in mail from: 

• Two friends suffering from ALS with remarkable courage, one of whom lives close enough to me to stop by of an evening for a single malt scotch;

• A lifelong friend in New Mexico describing the reappearance of birds and hibernators announcing Spring in the Rio Chama Valley in New Mexico;

• An Italian publisher interested in translating my novel The Brothers K;

• A letter from a traditional Tsimshian Nation storyteller of the Raven Clan, telling me how nuts the mother and father of The River Why‘s hero are;

• A letter from a Mormon literary scholar and writer I got to know while teaching a writing workshop on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, currently inviting me to Brigham Young University for a four day speaking and teaching gig, followed by some fishing in a river not to be named;

• A kind note from my publicist, a fine friend whose other clients are all musicians in the Nashville scene, but she made an exception to work with me; it’s surprising how much a literary gig and a musical gig have in common;

• A personal exchange with Joe Moll of the McKenzie River Trust, who is becoming a friend in addition to hosting me at The Shedd in April;

• A note of thanks from a lifelong New Yorker who has written a novel I agreed to read and blurb because, for better or worse, NYC fascinates me;

And more…

Why the McKenzie River Trust? For readers perhaps new to their work, what brings you, your work and novels, and MRT together?

What brought us together was love for the McKenzie River and the life and work of Barry Lopez. Barry and I shared many concerns and many mutual friends. The MRT has turned Barry and Debra Gwartney’s former house into a writing retreat I plan to visit in April, to see whether I can sense enough of Barry’s long presence there to perhaps complete some task he might like me to address.

Your most recent novel, Sun House, “explores the American search for meaning and love” that The River Why and The Brothers K began, can you talk a little about your fiction writing in the context of the work you have done for the environment? — I am thinking of Heart of the Monster and your advocacy for rivers. 

I did a lot of nonfiction activist writing and gave scores of activist talks when my daughters were young, because my novels demand obsession, and I didn’t want to expose my girls to the parenting of an obsessed writer. 

The greatest accomplishments of my activist years were three:

1. Breaking the story on a gigantic cyanide heap leach gold mine funded by a Canadian corporation on The Big Blackfoot River. My essay, “The War for Norman’s River,” definitely helped raise a ruckus that not only blocked the mine, it caused cyanide heap leach technology to be banned in Montana;

2. The desperation activist book that Rick Bass and I wrote in seven weeks, The Heart of the Monster, again raised a ruckus, this time against Exxon Mobil’s attempt to turn the Columbia, Snake, Clearwater, Bitterroot and Big Blackfoot River corridors into a tentacle connecting the Alberta Tar Sands to the industrial countries of the western Pacific Rim. 

The Tar Sands continue to create carcinogenic snow that is killing First Nations children, in addition to cooking the planet. The success of our effort cost Exxon and their Canadian affiliate, Imperial Oil, a bundle — a language the “Corporate Person” actually speaks. 

3. Writing about these things entertainingly enough to win the Western States Book Award and be a National Book Award finalist for My Story as Told by Water.

Upstream seeks to “inspire conversation about the complex and interdependent relationship between humans and the natural world” what kinds of conversations should we be having when it comes to the rivers and waterways of the Pacific Northwest?

Starting a movement to do away with the 1872 Mining Law that allows global corporations to rape American lands and rivers at the American tax payer’s expense would be a worthy project. 

To remove the lower Snake River dams driving the Interior West’s steelhead and salmon and Puget Sound orcas to extinction is another movement that’s making headway, given fresh energy due to the current dam removal projects on the Klamath River, and the great success of the dam removals of the White Salmon, Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams in Washington State. 

Not many people know that 80 percent of the world’s rivers are now dammed — an environmental, cultural, political and species-destroying disaster largely for the benefit of petty dictators and corrupt bureaucracies. I can hardly believe how quickly four out of every five rivers, globally, became a piss warm greenhouse-gas-spewing captive to human greed.

Dams can be unbuilt more easily than they were built. But I ache for my high-stepping grandson, given the world he’s inheriting. 


(This photo’s from three days ago. I miss his little hand!)