Bows of Respect: A guest post by Shannon Polson

Shannon Huffman Polson is a native Alaskan who, along with her husband and son, splits her time between a cabin just outside Denali National Park and a home in Seattle. She manages the website The Ultima Thule () while working on nonfiction, a manuscript about a 2006 trip to the Arctic and essays about Alaska, the wilderness, family and faith.

All good writers know that reading is at least as much about reading as it is about writing. It is also, as I discovered on April 7 listening to Barry Lopez speak, about learning from great writers.

“When I go to a place, I attempt to be silent,” he said. “To listen to what the land is trying to say.” This comes as no surprise for anyone who has happened to soak in the language of Barry Lopez, speaking at the Benaroya recital hall as part of the Seattle Arts and Lectures series.

My husband Peter and I swapped Barry Lopez’s masterpiece Arctic Dreams back and forth while we base camped toward the headwaters of the Nigu last summer, and brought it with us backpacking from the Jago to the Aichilik and over to the Leffenwell Fork. Lopez’s sensitivity to the land, its creatures and its people in Arctic Dreams– and in his essays and other books- stole our breath as surely as the wild land over which we walked and kayaked.

“What I tell writers,” he said, “is that if you are going to write you must do two bows of respect- the first toward the material, and the second toward the reader…the reader relies on you to get it right, and to make it memorable.” At the reception following his talk, he continued: “I think of myself as a writer not as leading the reader, but rather walking behind her, showing her things to see. By the end of a good book, she will have completely forgotten me. I haven’t told her what to think, but have convinced her to ask questions, to draw her own conclusions.” In all of our efforts as writers, he exhorted us in the audience not to look for people to blame in the problems we see in the world, but to find a way to tell the stories, to help people see.

Lopez read from other people’s writing, including Alaskan writer Eva Saulitus, with a grace and humility that saturated his every word and suggestion. Lopez’s only reference to his own work was his recently published Home Ground, Language for an American Landscape, which he edited with his wife. “A writer must search for the right word in the context of the sentence and the paragraph, in the context of the work as a whole,” he said of language. Lopez expressed concern that the words of the land are disappearing, and there must be a place where they are written down and will be remembered, and perhaps relearned, and hopefully used. In the introduction to Home Ground, he writers: “If we could speak more accurately, more evocatively, more familiarly about the physical places we occupy, perhaps we could speak more penetratingly, more insightfully, more compassionately about the flaws in those various systems which, we regularly assert, we wish to address and make better.”

Fitting sentiments for Alaskan writers and all those who write about the land.

1 thought on “Bows of Respect: A guest post by Shannon Polson”

  1. Thanks for this, very useful advice and well-written. I love that Lopez reads from others' work as well as his own, and from Eva Saulitas, no less, who I think is one of Alaska's very best.

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