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Write of Passage : Naturalist-Turned-Fabulist? Barry Lopez Pulls Off Switch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like many young men, Crow and Weasel crave adventure and thirst for an opportunity to prove themselves, preferably by exploring new territory “farther north than their people’s stories went.”

They are told it is “a crazy idea, a boy’s idea,” but they are determined to pursue it. “I am not afraid of what is out there, my friend,” Weasel tells Crow, bolstering their collective courage. “I am eager to see it.”

In a literary sense, celebrated nature writer Barry Lopez embarked on an adventure of his own when he created these protagonists, two characters from a mythical time when people and animals were not differentiated. In “Crow and Weasel” (North Point Press, $16.95), Lopez turns from the lyrical naturalist’s musings of his nonfiction books, including “Of Wolves and Men” and “Arctic Dreams,” to an illustrated fable that is accessible to children as well as adults.

“Crow and Weasel” has been in creation for 12 years. “I had to find another language to work with,” Lopez said over lunch in a cafe in San Francisco’s bohemian North Beach quarter. “I didn’t want to crowd the drawings. I intentionally created a cooler language, a much less descriptive language than I would ordinarily use.”

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Gone are the poetic observations and richly woven fabric of detail that have made him perhaps the best-known and most-honored writer in a school called the New Naturalists. In their place is a tightly written narrative that follows Crow and Weasel into unknown territory, where hardships teach them the value of friendship and compassion and where, through the discovery of another culture, they learn about their own place in the world.

Accompanying the novella-length fable is a series of remarkable watercolor illustrations by Michigan artist Tom Pohrt.

Privately, Lopez, who spent his formative years in the urban environments of the San Fernando Valley and New York City, longs to coax civilization to accept the limits of nature. But this book, he said, is not an attempt to bring that message to younger readers. It is a surprise, he said, that the large-format book has drawn interest from children at all.

“When you look at it, you may say it’s a children’s book,” Lopez said. “But when you read it, you say to yourself that it’s not a children’s book. It doesn’t have those kinds of boundaries.

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“I never thought, ‘This is an adult book, exclusively,’ ” he said. “I just thought, ‘This is a story I’m writing, period.’ And it turns out there is both an interest and a response from young people.”

The story, in which the thoughtful Crow and skillful Weasel cross the River of Floating Ashes and meet a host of fellow travelers in a nearly impenetrable forest before coming upon an Eskimo village, is Lopez’s own. Although the tale echoes a common American Indian theme of self-discovery through physical trial, and the characters dress like northern Plains Indians, “it doesn’t come out of any tradition that I know of,” Lopez said. “It just comes out of my belief, I guess, of how people should act.

“A lot of the story turns on the issue of respect,” he added. “What (Crow and Weasel) learn is that instead of trying to control, define or possess the other, they just show an elementary respect and wait to see what they might learn.

“Here’s a story that doesn’t come out of Western culture in the sense that there are these two men, and one isn’t the sidekick of the other; when they meet the ‘dragon,’ they don’t kill it; and when they get home, no one marries the daughter of the king.

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“Their deep desire at the end of their trip is to work their way back into the fabric of society, then tell their stories, not celebrate themselves apart from society.”

Is “Crow and Weasel” an allegory for current environmental battles? Perhaps the bitter struggle for control of the ancient Pacific Northwest forests surrounding Lopez’s home in tiny Finn Rock, Ore.?

Not by design, Lopez said. He is bothered by logging industry efforts to weaken federal environmental laws so it can continue to clear-cut national forests--efforts he characterized as “the last ragged screams of the robber barons.” But he added quickly, “I’m not an activist, not an environmentalist. I’m a writer, a storyteller.”

For “Crow and Weasel” he also became something of an art director. Lopez and Pohrt embarked on their project after meeting 12 years ago in an Ann Arbor, Mich., bookstore owned by Pohrt’s brother, Karl, who also co-owns the small, independent publishing house Bear Claw Press.

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Lopez had seen a Bear Claw calendar with pen-and-ink drawings by Tom Pohrt, who also illustrates children’s books. A casual dinner conversation led to an exchange of letters that produced a seven-page outline by Lopez and a decision to expand it into an illustrated book.

Pohrt concedes he was surprised that the writer agreed so readily to the collaboration.

“That was all pen-and-ink work that I had done in the past,” he recalled. “I was just beginning to teach myself how to work with watercolors. So, in a way, it was a great leap of faith on Barry’s part to see beyond what I was doing at the time and what was possible.”

Communicating in person, by telephone and via illustrated letters over the next decade, Lopez and Pohrt selected scenes for the watercolors, then slowly worked out the details, from composition to anatomy to the unseen contents of saddlebags.

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“One reason it took so long is that we exchanged so much information about the drawings,” Lopez said. “Both of us wanted to be very accurate with the drawings, so there was quite a bit of correspondence about the details of those drawings--the kinds of decorations there would be on the robes and exactly the kind of clothing they would wear.”

Easy access to the Chandler-Pohrt collection of American Indian artifacts, begun by Pohrt’s father, eased the research. For example, a decorated buffalo-hide cloak worn by a character named Grizzly Bear in one illustration mirrors a cloak in the collection, parts of which are on view at the Detroit Institute of Art and the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyo.

“I had grown up with this material around me all the time,” Pohrt said.

A quest for perfection--particularly in a medium, watercolor, that was new to both men--held up progress on the project, as did Lopez’s work on other books.

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“Tom would do the whole set of drawings and then tell me he’d learned a lot in the last couple of drawings about how to layer colors,” Lopez recalled. “So he wanted to start all over again. And he did. He did all the drawings all over again.

“I didn’t write the (full) story until the very end, after all the drawings were set,” Lopez said. “So I had finished artwork that I couldn’t contradict. I asked (Pohrt) for a list of everything Crow and Weasel carried, for example, even if it’s not something that showed up (in the drawings).

“What is in that bag sitting on the ground there?” he continued, pointing to an illustration of Crow and Weasel sitting on the open tundra, disoriented, lost and a little disheartened after negotiating a maze of lakes. “If I need to use something, a tool or something, then I’d like to know that I can use it and still be consistent with the drawings.

“Even though it’s not a contradiction, the reader would notice,” he said, adding, “we would feel it. It would create a jagged edge of language.”

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After taking such meticulous care with their work, Lopez and Pohrt took pains to find the right publisher. Lopez, who had lost his own publisher, Scribner, in a corporate takeover (he has since signed with Alfred A. Knopf), settled on the small but prestigious North Point Press in Berkeley for “Crow and Weasel.”

North Point issued an initial printing of 50,000 copies in October. The book, now in its second printing, will appear on the New York Times bestseller list Sunday, said Lisa Conrad, a publicity assistant for the publisher.

Many booksellers are dividing their copies between the nature section, where Lopez’s books are usually found, and the children’s section.

“I can’t tell you how many books I’ve signed for unborn children, pregnant women,” said Lopez, 45, who is married and has no children. “People come up with 3- and 6-month-old children and say, ‘Would you sign this for this child who can’t (yet) read? Because this is how I want my child to grow up.’ ”

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Children have also sought him out to personalize their copies of the book, he said.

“This young girl came up to me in Chicago and she reached up with her book and said, ‘Would you sign this book for the Dumon family? I want my family to read this book together,’ ” he recalled. “It brings tears up in your eyes and you realize how serious this business of storytelling is.

“You must be very careful with a young person like that,” he added. “You must write something that in no way will harm the child but will provide an atmosphere for that child to grow up in.”

Lopez said he sees no irony in the fact that a critically honored nature writer sprang from a childhood split between Reseda and Manhattan.

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“The San Fernando Valley was a totally different place when I was growing up. We lived near horses and haying operations,” recalled Lopez, who wrangled horses in Wyoming during his summers off from studies at Notre Dame. “My friends and I spent days and days and days--all our summer vacations--up in the Santa Monica Mountains. I was affected very deeply by the landscape in Southern California.”

But he seeks inspiration--and answers--elsewhere. In his next book, Lopez will travel to the Arctic, the Galapagos, Kenya, Australia and, finally, to Antarctica to write about “space and time and land and how we think about them.”

That book, he said, will be illustrated in the medium of his previous books: words.


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