Reviewed by Peter Reason
Barry Lopez is one of the greats of ‘nature writing’ (although he dislikes the term, as it seems do most ‘nature writers’!). He is most widely known for Arctic Dreams: Imagination and desire in a northern landscape, which is widely regarded as a classic. His non-fiction includes Of Wolves and Men, which is my personal favourite, and collections of essays Crossing Open Ground and About this Life. He has also published ten fiction books I am not personally familiar with, except The Crow and the Weasel, a children’s fable exploring our spiritual relationship to the land, which I have given as a present to young friends. His books draw on extensive travels and close contact with indigenous and other local people. Running through all Lopez’s writing is the question, who we humans are in relation to the land we inhabit and its community of life; land which supports us and from which we take much meaning.
He reflects on his approach to writing with William Tydeman in Conversations with Barry Lopez. ‘I would say as a writer I’m looking for divinity in the ordinary. And I don’t mean solely what might be called the “presence of God”. I feel a desire to identify and celebrate a numinous dimension of ordinary life, which… is not ordinary for me.’ In the same conversations he speaks of about ‘intimate knowing’, giving as an example finding a dead beetle lying on its back on the sidewalk and squatting down to ‘initiate some kind of relationship with what was left of the beetle is, for me, a kind of practice, and effort to stay in touch with the world.’
It was with some excitement, then, that writers and followers of this genre anticipated Lopez’s new book after two decades of waiting. Horizon is huge, 512 pages plus notes and references, ‘an autobiographical reflection on many years for travel and research’, drawing on experiences throughout his career as a writer. Lopez starts in the present, as he affectionately watches his grandson, who ‘can’t get enough swimming’, while reflecting back on his life and upbringing. My marginal notes remind me that I felt a ‘strong sense of the old man’ making sense of being an elder. I have underlined his reflections on his grandson, ‘It will be many years before he understands this continuous search for meaning is most everyone’s calling’; he then tells us his own response to this question, ‘It has long seemed to me that what most of us are looking for is the opportunity to express… our capacity to love’.
Horizon is built on six sections based on travel and exploration at a particular place: camping alone at Cape Foulweather on the coast of Oregon; with archaeologists on Skraeling Island in Arctic Canada; exploring the Galápagos; with palaeontologists in Equatorial Africa; travels to Tasmania, Botany Bay and Aboriginal lands; and searching for meteorites with scientists in Antarctica. In each section he writes of his own direct experience and riffs off into historical, scientific or moral reflection.
Camping on Cape Foulweather, he pays close attention the huge extent of the Pacific Ocean while anticipating the arrival of a major storm; then diverting to reflect on James Cook’s explorations – Foulweather was where Cook first saw the northwestern coast of the North American continent. In this section he also takes in the Alsean and Tillamook people who flourished at the time of Cook; on the clearcutting of forests; on the Sixth Extinction, and so on.
This pattern – intensely focused attention on immediate phenomena interspaced with broader reflection – is repeated throughout this long book. The result is at times patchy: at times I was deeply absorbed, underlining and making marginal notes (this is definitely a book to read with a nice soft pencil to hand!); at others I was wondering, ‘How did we get here and where are we going?’; even on occasion feeling Lopez was sounding off about issues he knows little about. I did at times wonder if a publisher would allow a less renowned writer the leeway to write such a meandering book. And yet, as Robert Macfarlane notes in his review in the Guardian, with careful and leisurely reading one notes themes that arise and are revisited. Lopez’s writing is slow and reflective, and yet one cannot mistake his moral vision and sense of urgency at the planetary emergency. I believe that we can learn much about the nature, and the possibilities, of human life on Earth from the qualities of his attention.
Two themes in particular fascinated me. The first concerns the nature of close observation, which is of course the foundation of his craft. He studies the horizon with a telescope from Cape Fairweather: ‘To thoroughly inspect this simple declarative line took me not a few hours but from dawn to dusk’. Lopez tells how, as a young man travelling with indigenous people, he noticed how they observed more than he did. They often travel in silence, and so don’t immediately translate what they see into words, allowing their observation to stay open – words and thinking get in the way and categorize experience too soon. Lopez also realized that when they encountered something dramatic – a grizzly bear feeding on a caribou carcass – while he would focus entirely on the bear, his companions would attend to the wider context. Further, indigenous people place an event in its temporal context, attending not just to the event, but to how it unfolded: ‘while I was cataloging in my mind as “encounter with a tundra grizzly”, they were experiencing an immersion in a current of a river’. Indigenous people, he tells us, pay more attention to patterns than to isolated objects.
He returns to the theme of observation throughout the book: tracing the patterns left by ancient peoples in the high Arctic; spotting the fossil bones of hominids in eastern equatorial Africa. And in contrast, the evil and injustice in the west’s imperial past (and present) which we consistently fail to see because we won’t look – the wicked tragedies of slavery and penal exportation; the unthinking destruction of Aboriginal culture in Australia; and the current predicament of life on Earth.
Another theme that maybe pervades the whole book is the cultivation of wisdom and elderhood. Lopez starts with his reflections as a grandfather. He sees the life of Cook as reflecting both the light and dark aspect of the Enlightenment. On archaeological exploration of the culture of the Thule people in the Arctic he writes of the isumataq, a storyteller, as ‘a person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself’. Searching for fossil bones with palaeontologists in Africa he reflects that we must understand homo sapiens as exceptional, asserting that the key question is ‘Where his exceptionalism will take him’. (As I wonder how to comment on this unnecessarily gendered language, I note that nearly all the many people he meets and converses with in this book are men.)
In particular, our present critical circumstance requires ‘resituating man in an ecological reality’ and the need for a fearless and honest worldwide conversation. This leads him to reflect on the place of elders in traditional societies, chosen by the people as ‘individuals who embody that culture’s sense of competence’ who have the capacity to empathize and reflect others’ points of view, the ability to ‘organize chaos into meaning’. Of course, we must accept that some elders will indulge their own egos too much or be seduced or corrupted. But true elders, he suggests, take life seriously; they are more often listeners than speakers; they know they are fallible, that there are no guarantees in life, but they are chosen because they have the best minds. ‘I’ve been told that no one really seeks the position… because the responsibility is so great.’ And Lopez asks us to consider, ‘What have modern cultures done with these people?’
This is an intensely moral book; Lopez is free with his opinions and doesn’t always like what he sees. ‘Lives without restraint are eventually ruinous to those individuals and to the world around them’, he asserts, going on to liken the hedge fund manager who makes money ruining others’ lives to a suicide bomber. Throughout, he returns to his disappointment, even rage, at the state of the world: ‘With the horsemen of a coming apocalypse so obviously milling on the horizon, riding highly strung horses, why is there so little effort to bring other ways of knowing – fresh metaphors – to the table?’
This is not a straightforward book to review. At times it fascinated me, and other other times irritated. But I know this. A few weeks ago, I took Arctic Dreams from my shelf and re-read it, as I did so rediscovering passages I loved on first reading and finding associations with more recent concerns. I shall do the same with Horizon: this book will not sit on my shelves ignored.
Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. His book In Search of Grace: An Ecological Pilgrimage was published in 2017 by Earth Books. His previous book Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea is published by Jessica Kingsley. Find Peter at www.peterreason.eu, and on Twitter @peterreason
Barry Lopez, Horizon (Bodley Head, 2019). 978-1847925770, 592 pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via affiliate link.