Rediscovery of North America
by Barry Lopez
New York: Random House, 1990


Beginning as narration, unfolding as a meditation, and ending in prayer, The Rediscovery of America charts a course of recovery for impoverished souls and a dying hemisphere. As Lopez graphically illustrates in the story of the discovery of the new world that opens his reflection, the infirmity that afflicts the human and the whole reflects a destiny set in motion by an appetite whetted by avarice and surfeited in destruction. While pillage set “a tone in the Americas” (9) which “is not isolated in the past” (10), Lopez calls his readers to renounce fate-“this violent corruption needn't define us” (11)-and to recover hope through our intent “to mean something else in the world” (11). This brief work is thus, at once, a manifesto and a mandate that carries both the intensity of prophecy and the humility of service.
While unnumbered chapters distinguish sections of the text, Lopez's meditation is, in the main, recursive. The anticipation that gripped Columbus and his crew as they “lay close-hauled five miles off shore awaiting the rise of the sun” (3) recurs in our day as “we too feel ourselves on the verge of something vague but extraordinary” (55). At book's end, we, like they, “face a crisis of character” (57). The hope that animates the text is that, this time, we will choose well and choose wisely; the conviction that drives the telling is that, to choose well and wisely, we must rehearse the transgressions of our ancestors and endure the agony of the land and peoples who absorbed them.
Lopez prepares us for the reckoning to which we must attend by leading us, like Dante's Virgil or a Lakota shaman, through a spiraling ordeal aimed at deepening our awareness and hardening our resolve. The ordeal evolves in three stages: a narration of the Columbian discovery and its analysis (pages 3-29), a brief recitation of techniques and practices that allow us to come to know a place (pages 31-37), and the marshalling of la querencia-“the spot in a bullring where a wounded bull goes to gather himself”-as an image that sounds a call to action (pages 39-58). Unlike the bull's wound, ours is self-inflicted; we have put ourselves on the spot. But like the bull's agony, ours has driven us to the spot where we can gather ourselves and recover our senses.
Hope abounds in this image: we may have put ourselves on the spot relative to the land and the peoples of the Americas, but if we can come to regard this spot as our la querencia, we will find there the resources that will allow us to act fittingly. Thus, the wound can heal, both literally and reflexively. It will literally repair itself insofar as the remnant is capable, if we will repudiate the disposition that has caused its disrepair; furthermore, in repudiating our history of abuse as we attend to the wound, we will reflexively recover our proper place in the land and among its inhabitants. The project implicit in la querencia is simultaneously an ecological and an ethical agenda. In la querencia, the wound occasions an awareness that begets obligation; in la querencia, knowledge carries the force of moral purpose.
For all the freight The Rediscovery of America conveys, its prose is spare, its cadence measured. Moreover, Lopez often punctuates his prose with striking turns of phrase when, for example, he speaks of the landscape as alternately “strange and comprehensible, familiar and unfathomable” (29) or he avers that “[w]e will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language” (37). In short, Lopez's prose is captivating. And while the book can be read in an hour, its impression lingers for days, and its import commands the work of a lifetime.
Its brevity and punch make The Rediscovery of America an ideal text for focused classroom discussions, and its extraordinary range, with its language accessible even to middle school students and its message provocative equally to admirers and detractors, commends its use throughout the curriculum. As an added benefit, the structure of the text and the agenda outlined by Lopez in the development of his argument provide a cogent and coherent frame for exploring a wide variety of topics and themes: reckon with the past, attend to what lies at hand, and act fittingly to the place we call home. Indeed, if we heed one of Lopez's most pointed admonitions, the courses that we teach would draw their vitality from the very places where we teach them.
Lopez regards the fundamental transgression of our forebears as one of having forsaken the land-they had “wanted no communion with America, [for] America was not to be a home [for them].” If, as Lopez argues, we are “not to find true wealth in America until [we discover] the America they had missed,” then education worthy of the name must begin with “the cultivation and achievement of local knowledge” (22-23). In other words, any discovery in America is perforce a rediscovery of America. The techniques and practices that Lopez enumerates counsel intimacy with the places where we reside: “to memorize and remember the land, walk it, eat from its soils and from the animals that ate its plants & to know its winds, inhale its airs, observe the sequence of its flowers in the spring and the range of its birds” (33-34). Learn humility, say the sages whom Lopez cites, and “pay attention” (36).
To those of us who might rejoin that we have not the time, Lopez would remind us that the “Spaniards had no time” (21) and what they left is a legacy of incursion and appropriation (5). A class that heeds Lopez will dwell-give place its time, give time its place-on the subject(s) that matter(s), “stay[ing] in one place, to make of that one, long observation a fully dilated experience” (36-37). Care must be taken here not, as Lopez observes, to indict the Spanish, but to document a widely shared manner of being in the world that eventuates in “the physical destruction of a local landscape to increase the wealth of people who don't live there, or to supply materials to buyers in distant places who will never know the destruction that process leaves behind” (41). If we attend to the full implication of this dynamic, we will be mindful that what we offer in our courses can all too easily lapse into commodities, with its consumers, like intellectual conquistadors, “growing opulent in a short time & arriv[ing] at once at such degrees and dignities as were in no ways consistent with their persons” (Lopez, citing Bartolomé de las Casas, 15).
Barry Lopez's The Rediscovery of America provides us with a resounding shot across the bow. The environmental crisis is no isolated event, no unfortunate miscalculation of the extent of human intervention in the ecosphere, but a cataclysm symptomatic of our disposition to plunder. That Columbus looms emblematic of “the imperial framework in North America” (41) needs to be approached with perspicacity. Lopez does takes liberty with the historical record, conflating characters for dramatic purpose and oversimplifying Columbus' motivation-liberties that can be nicely balanced by attention to the historical record of Las Casas and contemporary accounts like William Least Heat-Moon's Columbus in the Americas-but his diagnosis is as sound as his prognosis profound. “Something big is in the wind, and we feel it” (55). “We must turn to each other, and sense that this [rediscovery of America] is possible” (58).


review ©2003 by William L. Johnson and RSiSS
Palmer Trinity School
Miami, Florida