Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World: Essays, by Barry Lopez

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Review by Peter Reason

The late Barry Lopez is regarded by many as the doyen of travel and nature writers – although he and many others dislike these terms, preferring to be known simply as ‘writers’. In response to news of his death, Robert Macfarlane tweeted, ‘His work – graceful, meticulous, ethical, compassionate, from Arctic Dreams to Common Ground to Horizon & far beyond – shaped & will go on to shape countless lives, hearts & landscapes…’ Lopez’ life was an extraordinary one, marked by travel amongst many different landscapes and peoples to which he brought qualities which stand out in this collection of essays: attention, patience, love, and a poetic quality of writing.

The quality of his love is brought out in a fine introduction by Rebecca Solnit:

The love of place can sustain a life, and we usually talk as though it’s an unreciprocated love, a one-way street. These essays show why that is wrong. The places love us back in how they steady and sustain us, teach us, shelter us, guide us, feed us… So, in a sense, in learning to love the Earth and particular places in it, we are learning to love back what loved us all along (my emphasis).

This quality of reciprocity with land seems very close to that of Indigenous peoples across the world.[i]

For Lopez, this kind of love is both spontaneous and cultured: throughout these essays the reader is privileged to glimpse moments of experience which hold a wider teaching. In Love in a Time of Terror, he explains his purpose in walking out into the desert in Australia’s Northern Territory, having confirmed with his hosts, the Warlpiri people, that it was culturally appropriate for him to do so.

My goal that day was intimacy – the tactile, olfactory, visual, and sonic details of what, to most people in my culture, would appear to be a wasteland. This simple technique of awareness had long been my way to open a conversation with any unfamiliar landscape. Who are you? I would ask. How do I say your name? May I sit down? Should I go now?… I wanted to open myself up as fully as I could to the possibility of loving this place, in some way; but to approach that goal I had first to come to know it.

In Our Frail Planet in a Cold, Clear View, he takes us to the Antarctic plain, just a short distance from the Pole itself, drawing us both close up and metaphysical:

… its cold and silence, the abiotic stillness, the infrangible hollowness of the sky, the supreme indifference and intractability of the snow plain, with its wild raisin-scatter of meteorites within, rests at the threshold of space.

These wild spaces are ‘permeated by silence… tensioned by silence’, an observation that caught precisely my experience of the silence in the Outer Hebrides, where I heard each individual sound ‘contained within an underlying silence so profound that each sound seemed to hold a physical, three-dimensional presence’.[ii]

How can we learn this quality of attention? In The Invitation, Lopez revisits a story of his lessons in the company of Indigenous people in the High Arctic (mentioned also in his autobiographical Horizon). First of all, don’t talk, don’t immediately turn experience into language; to do so limits attention to the categories and syntactical framework of your own culture. Then, focus widely. He tells of how when he and his Indigenous companions came across a grizzly bear feeding on a caribou carcass, his initial focus was on the bear. But, he wonders, how come his companions’ observations seem so much more voluminous, nuanced and detailed? Lopez explains that he learned, over the years, to enter each event not as singular but as an unfolding over time, in the context of details seen maybe half an hour ago. His companions understood that by staying in a state of suspended mental analysis for longer, their attention was not just wider and more detailed, it was not confined by a premature closure. This is a lesson for so many of us, whose appreciation of the more-than-human world is all too often pre-defined by our cultural expectations (and by tourist brochures).

Solnit remarks on Lopez’s writing as ‘unhurried… an act of resistance to our hurried, harried, distracted era’. I was drawn to a closer study this quality in Lopez’s writing toward the end of the first essay, Six Thousand Lessons. He is reflecting on the way certain cultures ‘maintained the integrity of the community while at the same time granting autonomy to its individuals’. He notes that this quality is what makes a society ‘beautiful’. That word, ‘beautiful’, jumped out at me.  Lopez doesn’t say ‘stable’ or ‘productive’ or ‘creative’ or ‘sustainable’; he doesn’t say it increases the Gross National Product or any of a hundred possible clichéd words. He says ‘beautiful’, and I am sure this word is carefully chosen. A few essays later, he reminds us that the aim of Navajo art is ‘the creation, maintenance, and a restoration of hózó’, a word which we might translate as ‘beauty’. For the Navajo, ‘beauty is not about perception, is not in the eye of the beholder, but is the outcome of the artist’s relationship to the world.’ Maybe we can take from this that beautiful cultures are in themselves collective works of art.

This early noticing led me to mark phrases that grasped my attention as I read through the book. From the Antarctic Lopez draws us into walking with him on the ice, ‘beneath a vault of starlight so intense you could read your shadow in the snow’. Sailing across Drake’s Passage in a violent storm, he goes on deck wanting ‘a knowledge of this storm in my tissues’ and watches the ship ‘burst, career, and shudder through the Scotia Sea’. Again in the Antarctic he notices the ‘line where sky met snow, a thin bead of molten silver trembling under the pressure of light, was so vivid it seemed the edge of creation’. This considered – but by no means overworked – writing draws the reader alongside Lopez into deep immersion into the places and peoples he visits.

Solnit notes – tellingly, I think – that there is a ‘priestly’ quality to Lopez work: ‘That state of paying attention is both the prayer and the communion that is the prayer’s answer’:

He made contact with these rare and vanishing and remote phenomena, like a priest reaching toward the divine, and then sought to share this communion as a writer, to turn it into a communion for us and with us.

Surely, the ability to experience the Earth and its beings as in some sense sacred, as having value and meaning for itself, rather than simply as a resource for human use, is a fundamental requirement for us to live sustainably on the planet.

But how can you live sustainably if you don’t know where you are? In On Location – one of the four pieces in this book not previously published – he explores what is involved in getting to know places and peoples, a practice he has developed over his time as a travelling writer. Drawing on travels with Yukip people hunting walrus the Bering Strait, he shows that it is dangerous to rely on your own way of knowing the world, especially when you’re far from home: ‘The more you’re convinced… that you know precisely where you are, the more likely it is that you’ll be in danger, because of what you don’t know’.

This lesson applies to our current collective predicament. Collectively, we no longer know where we are now:  

Once, we assumed we’d be able to pass on to the next generation the skill of staying poised in worrying times. To survive what’s headed our way… and to endure, we will have to stretch our imaginations. We will need to trust each other, because today, it’s as if every safe place has melted into the sameness of water. We are searching for the boats we forgot to build.

The later essays in the book are gentle autobiographical reflections on growing older, but they include Sliver of Sky, Lopez’ account of being raped when a small boy by a serial paedophile – a man who befriended the family for that purpose. The abuse itself continued over four years, but as one might imagine, the repercussions continued over many decades. The essay is written in Lopez’ inimitable style, unflinching but not over-hyped, allowing the narrative to speak for itself. I originally read this account shortly after it was first published in 2013; reading again, I experience an even greater sense of horror; the story touches my heart.

And yet, we must notice that this narrative is one among many, and I suspect Lopez would want us to be deeply moved, outraged, but not to dwell on it. These experiences of abuse have touched Lopez to the core and shaped his entire life, including his approach to writing. He gives this story its rightful space, and so it provides a counterpoint to the bigger work. This allows the reader to hold this terrible abuse of a human child alongside the wider abuses of our time – ‘violent prejudice, global climate change, venal greed, fear of the Other’ – and alongside that ‘trembling under the pressure of light’, that ‘beautiful’ society, all the other wonders and horrors his writing takes us to.

Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World has captivated me. And at the same time, I am curious about my enthusiasm. I was disappointed in  Horizon, Lopez’ autobiographical reflection on his life as a writer. I found it too long, too rambling, although including wonderful passages I drew on for my review. What I like so much about the present collection is that they show us how Lopez, through his attentive journeying, has touched another world, a world that can only be known through mutual love and attention, and has allowed us a glimpse of how we might be different, even beautiful.

At the end of Love in a Time of Terror, first published in 2020, he writes:

In this trembling moment, with light armor under several flags rolling across northern Syria, with civilians beaten to death on the streets of Occupied Palestine, with fires roaring across the vineyards of California and forests being felled to ensure more space of the development, with student loans from profiteers breaking the backs of the young, and with Niagaras of water falling into the oceans from every sector of Greenland, in this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness and say to the physical Earth, and all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?

[i] Wooltorton, S., Poelina, A., Collard, L., Horwitz, P., Harben, S., & Palmer, D. (2020). Becoming Family with Place’. Resurgence & Ecologist, 322.

[ii] Reason, P. (2017). In Search of Grace: An ecological pilgrimage. Winchester, UK: Earth Books, p.154.

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Peter Reason is currently engaged in a series of experiential co-operative inquiries exploring living cosmos panpsychism: How does Land and the community of life speak to us? How do we learn to listen?  His most recent publications include The Teachings of Mistle Thrush and KingfisherOn Presence, and On Sentience(all with artist Sarah Gillespie). His online presence is at peterreason.net, Twitter @peterreason, and peterreason.substack.com

Barry Lopez, Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World: Essays (Notting Hill Editions, 2023) 978-1912559558, 328pp., paperback original.

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