Light Action in the Caribbean by Barry Lopez

Barry Lopez, born January 6, 1945, is an American author of fiction and nonfiction. He has published nine works of fiction and seven nonfiction including Of Wolves and Men, a National Book Award finalist. The San Francisco Chronicle has described him as “the nation’s premiere nature writer.” His fiction draws heavily upon his knowledge and love of natural spaces for description and depth, though he focuses on human interaction, themes of intimacy and identity and regard for the individual in society. Mr. Lopez was raised in Southern California and lives in the Pacific Northwest. Light Action in the Caribbean is a collection of short stories.

Though Mr. Lopez has a great talent for describing the natural surroundings in his stories with a marvelous sensitivity to the light and life he is relating, naming each plant and animal precisely, I found his interest in human interactions most engaging. These stories revolve around the hope to be found in spite of prejudices and bigotry, surprising acts of cruelty, misunderstandings and ignorance underlying poor choices and leading to terrible consequences. He has an erotic sensuality to his work, it is intimate but universal.

In the stories of this collection he carefully illustrates his points by juxtaposing a more enlightened viewpoint, thus showing a natural balance presumably learned from his reverence for the ecology and interconnectedness of all things plant, geological and animal.

A case in point is Thomas Lowdermilk’s Generosity, in which he portrays a gardener who is at his most basic level, more tuned in to plants than people. This is evidenced by in this passage, “Most of his clients had employed Thomas Lowdermilk for more than twenty years. They regarded him with affection, though he returned little of this. He was more self-contained than aloof, however, concentrating more on his work than him employers’ emotions.” Lopez goes on to describe his methodical work habits: “He rose each morning at four thirty, worked every day but Sunday…” Lopez establishes the character as a private man dedicated to doing the best work, saying that “The oldest stories were about how he could make salt pan bloom or about his genius for breeding roses, or how he brought a diseased tree back to life.”

He was accustomed to hiring young people for summer help, and always gave them a monetary bonus at the end of the year. His privacy and generosity led to rumors about his relationships with his help. He was aware of the rumors, but did not feel obligated to justify his behavior to strangers. But for the first time in 1978 when Thomas Lowdermilk hired a woman, the attitudes of his clients began, subtly at first, to change. Over years, these stories told to one another, regardless of the evidence that he was a master gardener and had obvious high ethics, slowly cast doubts on his honesty and intentions. Early on the author foreshadows with “some of the things that went wrong seemed to date from that summer.”

Barry Lopez’s prose in this fable-like story is serviceable and clear. His descriptions of Thomas Lowdermilk paint the portrait of a man dedicated to life and honor. He shows a vision of this man unclouded by innuendo, gossip, over sexualized attitudes, greed or envy.

As a mechanism, the author uses many of Lowdermilk’s customers to illustrate attempts to destroy his reputation and ruin his life. It is unjust and frustrating to read. As the story progresses, Thomas, now in his late fifties, marries one of his summer helpers, Luisa, after she returns from college. She is twenty-two. The gossip and pressure reach a boiling point when he and Luisa have a child.

Lopez is demonstrating the direct effects of fear and prejudice, and at this, the lowest point in the story, Thomas becomes disillusioned, it has been years in the making and he can no longer ignore that these attitudes and biases are effecting his business. In this response to his wife, we learn the crux of the matter – he has allowed his balance to be upset: “Luisa, this is not funny, I can’t sleep. These people have pulled me out of my life, the way I pull up a weed. My work is not peaceful anymore. I am always waiting, expecting to hear something stupid or ignorant.”

The triumph of this piece is that, Lowdermilk makes a subtle change in his viewpoint which defuses the power of the gossip and prejudice. It is a simple shift, but it shows that the virtuous man need not be concerned with the opinions of others. Lowdermilk, through a slightly convoluted action of attempting to reduce his more far distant customers, he acquires a position which turns out to be more lucrative with one client than his old way with several.

Lopez is showing, that right livelihood is its own reward, but that you must be true to yourself. I found this story to be unique in that, the wagging tongues ultimately had no effect until they were accepted by Thomas. Yet even so, he could not remain oblivious. Life required a response to the situation for him to be able to step into a greater world. These are not themes I find in most modern fiction, and Lopez illustrates them with natural grace and balance the way wind bending a willow illustrates flexibility.

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