An Unprecedented Level of Imagination: A Call from Barry Lopez

…dramatic change in the near future seems to be in the offing, and if the species is to achieve its aspirations for justice, reduced suffering and transcendent life, and if it is to prevent the triumph of machinery that it so clearly fears, an unprecedented level of imagination is required.

Augury, January 5, 2022 from Horizon

Barry Lopez (January 6, 1945 – December 25, 2020) spent his life attending, honoring, learning lands, peoples and creatures. Some years ago, both of us realized we shared a connection in being profoundly influenced by Lopez as writer, mentor, and guide. We believe he has something to say to us from the other side about what it will take to meet these dire times.

Sharon S: Anytime I enter one of Lopez’ stories, a sense of well-being and expansiveness overtakes me. Some years ago, reading Crossing Open Ground (Lopez, 1989), I understood why. He says, “Who we become is intimately shaped by the exterior landscape: the interior landscape responds to the character and subtlety of the exterior landscape; the shape of the individual mind is (as) affected by land as it is by genes” (p.65). 

I grew up in Colorado in a sea of domestic violence and child abuse, amidst a backdrop of immense beauty—snow-covered mountain peaks, icy tumbling streams, and a grassy range as far as the eye could see—the closest place to God I knew, that hid gullies and gulches, diamond-backed rattlers and black Angus cattle. During times when nothing could stop the brutality that was raging in my home, I found comfort and protection in a towering cluster of blue spruce and Douglas fir that lived in our side-yard. Lopez was also a fellow traveler in the realms of violent childhood waters. Speaking of that on NPR in 2013, Lopez said that the “surge of lyrical pleasure” he found in nature helped him “build a safe place in the world.” A home. Barry Lopez takes us Home with his stories. Home in the largest sense of the word. Home with and in the natural world that shapes and protects us all. 

When I wrote to him in 2014, and 2017, he wrote of ”the many interwoven threads” between us, including violent childhoods. “I’m glad stories I have written have taken care of you, have provided some kind of refuge,” he wrote. “For me, this is the single most important reason to write—to take care of people…”

Sharon E: Reading Lopez marked a turning point in my life. I was in my late 30s, at a point of personal unraveling. As I read his essay, “The Stone Horse,” I felt that same sense of coming home. Lopez regarded the natural world and all its beings as sacred, and brought this sensibility to everything he wrote and how he lived every day. Here was  someone who moved through the world with the kind of tender attention, respect, knowledge and sensitivity that I wished to cultivate in myself and bring into my own writing. I cannot imagine being the person I am today without his influence.

Horizon was Lopez’ culminating work: it encompasses stories of a lifetime of sojourning to more than twenty countries, where he establishes intimate relations with the land and indigenous peoples and beings of those places. In the Prologue, he writes: “I want everyone to survive what is coming.” 

Sharon S: Lopez says to us that an unprecedented level of imagination will be required if we are to meet the changes that are coming and that are already evident. Those of us living in a Euro-Western-dominated culture are not practiced in communicating with our ancestors (the dead) and listening for their guidance as a way to live well, in right relationship to all. It is possible that we may need to first imagine we can communicate with our ancestors (until we learn the ways to do so), and in that imagining, that opening, that surrender, we might find a connection that will help us meet the unprecedented planetary and social breakdowns underway and impending. 

In my experience, the language of the Ancestors and spirits is not organized like our day-to-day communications. For many years I’ve been learning how to decipher what might be being said or asked. I have come to this: it is a matter of attention.  

In February 2021, a small group of people gathered in a Zoom Council. Our focus was: How do we meet the extremity of these times?  We first turned our attention to the sacred with drumming and rattling and voice, inviting the spirits and Ancestors and non-human beings to gather with us in Council. I closed my eyes.

A wind, a sweeping sound, a low cacophony, a murmuring around the edges of an ancient stone ruin commenced. Breath and voices rose and fell together. Vaporous beings like mist had arrived and were kneeling, so many of them, outside the cracked stone foundation of the crumbled ruin. Their effort to gain our attention through the crack in the foundation I experienced as urgent. The beings spoke in a jumble of sound through the crack, saying: “We are trying to reach you. We want to speak to you.” 

The Ancestors and spirits arrived—a true gift. Since that Council, I’ve intensified my own listening and attending, looking backward and around, gathering what I call “messages from the edge.”  

Sharon E: My journey to the Ancestors began with an archive of information. When my father passed in October 2020, I found a small trove among his belongings: envelopes of photocopied photos, notes, maps, clippings and forms shared with him by a deceased cousin whom I’d never heard of, who’d eagerly traced the English (formerly Inglis) family lineage and migration from Scotland to Canada. Such troves lie everywhere for family members to uncover, I suspect, left behind by those who feel compelled to be record-keepers. 

I sifted through the archive. Faces and names of dead kin, unremembered except in bundles of historical information like this; detached from the living, like the untended graves in fenced-off cemeteries everywhere, stones in groomed fields. Into the night I turned pages and felt seized. See us. Recognize us. How? Why? A map showed the land parcel granted to the first settler, not far by car from my current home. I felt compelled to go there. 

On New Year’s Day, 2021, I set out early for Waterdown, near Hamilton, ON. Historical maps don’t align with current road names and developments, so it had been a challenge to piece together the exact location; only a single photo, of my father standing in front of this property in the 1980s, showed a road number on a post. A large brick house had once stood there, appearing in several Victorian-era photos. A cherished home for a time, before the family scattered, as settlers tend to do. My mother said they’d seen it when she took that photo of my dad, but they heard later it was torn down. 

The post was gone, too. Yet I recognized the ridge, the large stone marking the track into the property. A wire fence ran along the boundary. I followed it to a padlocked gate marked with a sign; the land given to my ancestors was now a junkyard. Mounds of construction materials and dead equipment, snow-covered and spread out behind the staff shed where a security camera observed me. The symbolism of it all struck me with a kind of awe–so much was sacrificed to obtain that land—and profound sadness.  Here’s what we’d made of it.


Sharon English’s ancestral land now a junkyard

Back down the road, I entered a shallow ravine marked by animal trails, scrambled up a bank, wiggled under thickets and popped out in the silent yard. I wandered around. The day was grey. Behind the junkyard lay a frozen pond, woods, and in the trees I glimpsed an old stone structure. Walls. But not the house. A barn, then? I approached it slowly, my pulse racing, and circled. A complete foundation, trees growing inside, the ground covered with leaves. On one wall was a large stone fireplace, still intact. 

See us. This had been the original house, built when the family first arrived. Here, for me to find. I went inside and sank to my knees.


Sharon English inside the ruins of her family’s first home.

It was Lopez who taught me the right way to approach this encounter. I first discovered his work in a book of photographs by Mark Ruwedel called Written on the Land. Lopez’ essay “The Stone Horse,” reprinted in the book, describes visiting a horse intaglio made by Quechan people that lies in a remote California desert. First, Lopez traces the modern history of devastation wrought on the land by the culture of conquest and extraction. The intaglio is little known and difficult to find; he drives, then must go on foot. It’s like following the path of a labyrinth, crossing into sacred space, being dropped through time. When he arrives, he honours the sacred with his respectful devotion:

“I thought about the horse sitting out there on the unprotected plain. I enumerated its qualities in my mind until a sense of its vulnerability receded and it became an anchor for something else. I remembered that history, a history like this one, which ran deeper than Mexico, deeper than the Spanish, was a kind of medicine. It permitted the great breadth of human expression to reverberate, and it did not urge you to locate its apotheosis in the present.”

As I knelt in the leaves in that ancestral ruin, I felt that sense of anchor, like I’d come to the heart of a story, something fragile yet persistent and necessary that would help heal the destruction of the junkyard, the loneliness of those cemeteries, the confusion of our lineages as settlers.

Sharon S: On September 26, 2019 I had a dream.  I’m in a very large, Catholic complex, an old monastery in Europe. Nuns, Carmelites perhaps, were the religious order occupying the monastery and keeping this structure up. Barry Lopez enters the monastery through a large, old, heavy wooden door. I’m in the foyer. Lopez arranged this visit and the location. We sit at a round table sometimes, and at other times in stuffed chairs in a parlor-type setting. I tell him that his new book, Horizon, could be used as an augury and perhaps should be used that way at this time. When I say this, Barry changes: he remains the physical presence before me, but Stephen Karcher (translator of the I Ching) is the invisible presence in Barry’s body…. two distinct presences in one body. Both deeply involved in the conversation taking place.

There is a literary magazine I’m holding. We discuss the message of a particular article. The magazine is quite large, with block-type art inside and on the cover as well. I don’t recall now who the author of the article was …but the message was aligned with Barry Lopez’ views. We talk about literature of this nature. Barry is animated and seems to have come to have such a conversation. He seems to need a bolstering of spirit.

After a long time visiting and talking, we get up and walk a bit inside this very large monastery with curving arches made of warm wood and high ceilings. The nuns are coming and going in the wide hallways. They are aware of our presence and our purpose…important conversation. At one point I say to Barry:, “If I were rich, I would like to buy this monastery and make it into a place where deep and important literary conversations and readings could be hosted.” His roots and mine in this religious tradition (Catholic) are obvious, but we have left, both of us, the ties to it and any official practice of Catholicism. However, the sacred is clearly central.

At one point, Barry Lopez is bent over a table we are seated around. He is resting on his elbows, face down in semi-prostration. I come around him and lay my head on his back/shoulder…trying to provide comfort that I believe his aching spirit is seeking. I feel a pull to meet his suffering with a physical gesture.  

Throughout the dream I am aware of Stephen Karcher as present, but not visible. I keep trying to decide who it is I am in conversation and connection with in this place, Barry or Stephen or both? I make a note again that Horizon can be used as an augury text.  

Sharon E.: This extraordinary dream speaks to me of a new sacred-literary tradition. What have been kept separate—the European monastic tradition, the Eastern divinatory tradition, and the secular literary tradition—are merging into one. Karcher is a translator and practitioner of the I Ching who, after studying the original texts for ten years, brought a brilliant revision of that tradition to the West. (Total I Ching: Myths for Change, 2003). He and Lopez are overlaid into one individual: a writer who has roots in ancient traditions (Catholicism, I Ching), who practices the ancient divinatory means of receiving guidance from Spirit. In the overlay, Lopez’ own writing takes on a divinatory aspect: it can be used as an augury text. Sacred and secular writing have merged.

The urgency behind this merging comes from need at the soul level. The monastic space is now a joint meeting place (i.e., gender and religious views no longer matter), a site for the discussion of this new literature rooted in ancient practices and wisdom. In the dream, Sharon S. sees others converging on this space for ‘deep and important’ conversations in the future. She embraces Barry/Stephen, sensing the need for a loving feminine presence in the light of his deep suffering because what is needed in the world has not yet come to pass.

On January 5, 2021, not long after my encounter with the ancestral ruins in Waterdown, I wanted to consult the I Ching about the coming year but didn’t yet have the question to ask the Oracle. Knowing our shared connection to Lopez, Sharon S. sought out an augury in Horizon that morning, in anticipation of our meeting. Since her monastery dream, this was only the second time she’d felt compelled and confident enough to approach the book that way. When she read it (the augury that begins this essay), I knew my question for the I Ching:  What is needed to help me enter the ‘unprecedented level of imagination’ required to serve these times?  

The response from the I Ching was #19 (Nearing/Releasing the Spirit). Hexagram 19 concerns the creation and maintenance of an ancestor. This relationship with the deceased doesn’t just happen; like all relationships, it must be initiated and nourished by the living. The hexagram evoked for me my father’s passing, my powerful new interest in Ancestors, and the astonishing experience I’d had just days before—all suggesting that in order to survive as a species, for Earth and all her creatures to survive, we must enter that new level of imagination required by initiating and nourishing vital relationships with Ancestors, both human and nonhuman. 

Sharon S:  Prie-dieu

I wrote a story for Dark Matter about a great, great, great Grandfather Oak in a French forest (Issue 13, The Summoning.”). News had just leaked out around the world that up to 1,500 ancient Oaks (each between 150 and 200 years old) were to be slaughtered in forests in France and other forests in Europe to replace the beams that held up the spire of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, which had burned in a fire in 2019. After hearing the news, I experienced being summoned by an ancient Grandfather Oak. I was to visit him by journeying each 5 a.m. for thirty days, until the execution of the ancient Oaks was completed. 

There was a part of the story I did not mention in that article. Standing before the Grandfather Oak, the first morning visit, I saw an unusual structure. It seemed out of place, its presence startling and confusing. It was a kneeling bench one might find in a Catholic monastery—in a monk’s room or before a chapel altar. A one-person kneeler. When I saw the kneeler before the Grandfather Oak, now a beloved Ancestor, I said to Him: “I have seen this kneeler somewhere…it has a name, I don’t recall the name of this piece or why it would be here in this forest before you, Grandfather Oak.” Because it seemed required, or right, I knelt on this structure and prayed though I didn’t know any words to say.  A different kind of praying for me took place—my heart, body, spirit were a living prayer. There were no words. I remained still, though awkward, kneeling before this ancient being whose relatives were on “death row,” as he had stated to me. 

Returning to myself from this visit to Grandfather Oak, now fully in my living room, I knew I must find the name of that kneeler. After many hours, the name came to me: prie-dieu. Then I remembered. It was in one of Barry Lopez’ stories that I learned of the prie-dieu. I combed the many stories in books I have read over and over by this beloved guide. I found the prie-dieu in the story “Teal Creek. And so, I re-read the story and asked myself what was the connection between that story and the prie-dieu standing before the Grandfather Oak? 

Fred Bahnson interviewed Barry Lopez for the Sun magazine in 2019, a year before his death, for a piece titled: “The World We Still Have: On Restoring our Lost Intimacy with Nature.” In the first paragraph, Bahnson describes arriving at Barry’s home on the McKenzie River in Oregon. What Bahnson first notes, on the deck among the Douglas firs, is a prie-dieu. What he makes of this is that Lopez’ writing “has a feeling of invocation or incantation, a reverence that elevates the mundane.” Reading this returned me to the prie-dieu standing before the Grandfather Oak in the French forest, where I felt compelled to kneel, without words, before this ancient ancestor. It also returned me to Lopez’ short story “Teal Creek.” 

The narrator of “Teal Creek” is a married man with a child. He recalls how as a teen, he became curious about a man named James Teal who lived “up on the Bennett River” who was different, perhaps a hermit. The young man’s curiosity grew intensely. He wanted to talk with Teal but lacked courage to do so, so he spied on him, trying to get answers: ”What could he believe in?  Did he kneel and crouch in the moonlight?” One night, he spied from the woods near Teal’s cabin. He wanted to talk with him but couldn’t bring himself to knock on the door. When he went home he felt afraid he might have hurt Teal in spying on him: “I knew right then what it means to trespass.” 

The character does not lose his curiosity, even though he feels guilty and learns what to trespass means—a violation of soul, Teal’s and his own. He still wants to talk with Teal—his curiosity and desire so strong still. He has in mind an incident conveyed to him by a rowdy young man, who some years earlier had also spied on Teal and observed him. This rowdy fellow derided Teal, telling the narrator: “I found where Teal walked barefoot in the snow and saw where he knelt down for a long time by a little waterfall, then lay out full naked.” 

The narrator, now an adult, gets up his nerve to visit Teal. It’s pouring rain. Teal is standing before his garden, his white shirt plastered to his back. His arms at his sides, his head and body bent forward in adoration. He is barefoot. 

“I did not move all the while I stood there, fifteen or twenty minutes. In that time, I saw what I had wanted to see all those years in James Teal—a complete stillness, a silence as I had never heard out of another living thing, an unbroken grace. He was wound up in the world, neat as a camas bulb in the ground, and spread out over it like three days of weather. The wind beat down on James Teal. Beyond him clouds snagged in the fir trees. The short growth in his garden between us was fresh and bright. When I turned to leave, the cabin looked lean, compact as a hunting heron.”

In the story, the narrator returns to Teal’s cabin two years later: “I again felt compelled to visit him as though he had called to me from a dream. I found him slumped in a chair at an outside table, the remains of his lunch before him. Sparrows flew up from crumbs on the white porcelain plate. He had been dead only a few hours, I guessed.” He lays Teal on his porch, crosses his arms on his chest and goes indoors to find a blanket to cover him. Before one of the windows inside he sees “a sort of kneeler which I later learned was called a prie-dieu… That evening, I imagined animals filling up the world.” 


Sharon E: I’ve learned the urgency of removing the barriers between ourselves and the ancestors. These walls maintain an illusion of separation, keep us in the loop of destructive isolation and despair over the crises we face. Yet we are not alone. When we kneel in devotion, the land, the Ancestors, the nonhumans will offer guidance. If we move through the world so that our actions and words are connected to this guidance, we can create the culture of kinship needed to survive. Our imaginations can take us to this point of possibility, where animals again fill up the world. 

Sharon S: It would be at great peril to the planet and all beings if we were to see messages from the Ancestors such as we have described here as mere synchronicities or fantastical experiences.

When a great, great, great Grandfather Oak shows me a way to live in the midst of a massacre occurring right then in the forests— “Just kneel here before me. Be silent before beauty before you”—I heed him.

Likewise, when Ancestors gather at the base of a ruin and say they want to speak to us through the cracks in the foundation, I must ask “What foundations?  What cracks? Where are they?  What is mine to uncover and address?” Sharon E. followed signs, scraps of paper and old photos to former family land, now a junkyard, and sank to her knees when she encountered that soil of her ancestors.  What and where are the signs and omens we are overlooking?

And when a newly dead ancestor, Barry Lopez, says what is needed now to have any hope of a future is an unprecedented level of imagination, I yield to this wisdom. Perhaps one place to begin is by kneeling—on a prie-dieu, or on the earth Herself—and in the stillness, opening to what or who arises.

About the Authors

Sharon Simone.  I am a Diviner, Seer, Healer and a believer in magic.  In former times, I was a hospital chemist, biologist, and co-founder of a Master’s in Social Justice program in Detroit.  As a faculty member in that program for ten years, my efforts were focused on my students and myself coming to terms with the colonizing mind. 

I acknowledge the Great Mystery that has held me here on this Earth until such time as I can offer back to the Mother what I have been given—including magic, healing, divination and seeing.  My attention is now focused on the endangered planet—my lifeforce in Her service.
For a more “usual” bio see:

Sharon English is the author of the newly released novel Night in the World, which interweaves personal with ecological crisis, as well as two short story collections, Uncomfortably Numb and Zero Gravity. Zero Gravity was longlisted for the Giller Prize and ReLit Award, included in the Globe & Mail‘s Top 100 titles for the year, and recently translated into Serbian. Sharon’s writing has appeared in previous issues of Dark Matter, as well as Best Canadian Stories, Canadian Notes & Queries, and Dark Mountain in Britain. Originally from London, ON, she lived in Toronto for over 25 years, where she still teaches creative writing at U of T. In 2021 she and her husband moved to an old farm in rural Nova Scotia. .

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